Can graphic design save your life? The title of London’s latest Wellcome Collection exhibition poses an odd question, on the face of it. But give it a second thought, and you realise graphic design is instrumental and influential for us all.
“Good design can certainly increase the clarity with which information is consumed, so in the case of healthcare, medicine, and road signs, then yes, it could legitimately save your life,” explains Grahame Taylor, of duo Never Know Defeat that opened up shop on Stokes Croft in 2012.
“If, on the other hand, you’re talking about a poster for an obscure gig in East London that no one actually saw, then no… No it can’t.”
Rachel Brown lives in Southville but works in Bath for design agency Ignition. “I remember reading the book Creative Connections by David and Tom Kelley where they included an example of exactly this,” Rachel says.
“Designer Doug Dietz had worked on new MRI scanners but realised some kids were so terrified of them that they weren’t effective or easy to use, so he had a great idea to design these MRI scanners into exciting adventures making them look like pirate ships and creating a story to distract the children from the scariness of a sterile and noisy MRI machine. There was a massive improvement in the successfulness and efficiency of young patients being scanned.”
But it’s not only its ability to save someone’s life that people overlook about graphic design. One common designer gripe – albeit one that’s hardly specific to design – is how often clients fail to understand what it is they actually do.
“We find most confusion arises when people don’t understand just how much work is involved in the design process,” says Grahame. “A lot of it can be solved by helping clients understand exactly what we do, but you still get the occasional ‘make the logo bigger’ feedback.”
Rachel adds: “I think a lot of non-design people don’t understand the importance of design or the strategic knowledge and amount of work that actually goes on behind the scenes before the final end visual. It’s not all colouring in. Just sometimes!”
Ben Steers of Fiasco Design based behind Colston Street in the Colston Yard says that “any graphic designer worth his/her salt will invest a lot of energy and emotion into their design work, trying hundreds of ideas before landing on the one that works”.
Another element often overlooked is how graphic design and business goals dovetail and complement one another.
“We get very involved in the objectives and planning of our clients’ businesses,” says Adrian Barclay, one part of design duo Marles + Barclay in Spike Island. “It’s really saying, ‘What do you want to achieve as a business, and how can you use design and marketing to make that happen?’”
“People think graphic design is about, ‘Oh, I want it in green,’” says Gill Marles, the other half of the Marles + Barclay duo. “But it’s not, it’s real problem-solving. With a business in engineering, I have to learn about engineering, their business, how should they look to the outside world. You do loads of research about their competitors, to make informed, creative decisions.”
Grahame believes that “good design can help elevate a brand or business to the next level. Whether it’s by increasing its appeal to the target audience, standing out on store shelves, changing perceptions of a brand or just being plain desirable, a well-designed brand has an immediate head start on its competitors.”
It seems, however, that no matter the misunderstandings, in the digital age we are all becoming more sensitive to design, both good and bad. “The quality of design has shifted up – there’s been a massive increase in the awareness of the importance of design,” says Adrian. “People understand what they’re looking at.”
“They’re much more visually literate,” agrees Gill Marles. But luckily, the rise of digital doesn’t mean people are going off print. “We still do more print work than we do digital,” she continues. “It really seemed like print would die out, and it did for other people, but not for us graphic designers.”
Graphic design is arguably just one component of a brand’s overarching identity, which is why many smaller studios choose to stay nimble by keeping their teams small and bringing in creatives when necessary.
“In Bristol and particularly here in Spike Island, there are loads of people we can call on when we need their expertise – PR people, filmmakers, web developers, copywriters,” says Adrian.
“It’s very efficient if we work as a partnership and then just pull in expertise. I think there’s quite a lot of people in Bristol doing that small agency model, while working for big clients. They like the creativity we bring and the competitively of a small team, and it means we can punch above our weight.”
It’s with this model that they’ve worked with huge brands like Waitrose to smaller ones like mental health charity Second Step, for which they used drawings by people with mental health issues as inspiration.
They are also involved in the West of England Design Forum, a community which features regular talks at the Arnolfini from celeb designers and provides a network in which work is passed on to others who are more suited for it.
But the Design Forum’s events are far from the only ones on the design calendar. There’s also Thread, a creative community which runs similar events, which in partnership with Fiasco Design organised the Something Good festival in October.
These talks from successful creatives often serve as basis for inspiration, but what else inspires Bristol designers?
“We’ve both always been inspired by Scandinavian design, particularly mid-century furniture,” says Grahame. “In fact, our agency name, Never Know Defeat, came from a Swedish battleship. We often take inspiration from different disciplines like interior design, travel and fashion.”
“There’s a lot of great design magazines, books and websites out there that showcase the best of the design world which really helps to keep those creative juices flowing,” says Rachel.
“Seeing what other designers and businesses are creating and thinking to myself, ‘I wish I’d done that’ is also a massive drive.”
Paolo Grasso, who runs WD Graphics out of Hamilton House, takes inspiration from his home country of Italy, a country known for its excellent taste and iconic design, which breathes art and architecture.
Paolo comes from a fine art background, which means that his creative process involves sketching by hand, something of a novelty for graphic designers who typically train on computers.
He also, perhaps unusually, has a self-motivated interest in the theoretical side of design. “I’m a bit of a geek,” he admits, talking about the Modernists, who in a form of design socialism believed a more aesthetically pleasing world would be a better place for everyone.
“They thought that when everything is better looking, everyone is more happy!” he says. “It’s a bit naïve, maybe. But they also made rules based on the golden ratio from the Renaissance, and around the early 60’s it became really radical.”
For this reason, if you analyse the drawings of an artist, it often follows mathematical rules which lie behind why things appeal to the eye – without that person realising. For example, if two sizes of texts are used in the same design, one should be double the size of the other. Design is both mathematical and innate.
As for the Bristol design scene, everyone working within it acknowledges it’s crowded – but seemingly, for good reason.
“There’s an aesthetic to it. Bristol is a visually pleasing place to be compared to… Well I won’t name names,” laughs Adrian.
“There’s a lot less snobbery and competitiveness than in London so I think there’s definitely a place for everyone in Bristol to work together and alongside each other creatively,” says Rachel.
“Working in Bristol means a lot to us – it’s such a young, fresh and lively city which is constantly reflected in its creative scene,” says Grahame.
“There are so many exciting businesses popping up all the time from restaurants to tech companies. The city has a certain energy to it that feeds into our work. There aren’t many better places to run a design studio.”
Main image: Never Know Defeat team Grahame Taylor and David Heaton
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