Best known for having created the First Things First manifesto, one of the earliest documents that outlined the existential problem of a graphic designer in the modern commercial world during the 1960s, Ken Garland is undoubtedly one of Britain’s most significant graphic design thinker.
But lesser known is Garland the graphic designer, which is what Shaughnessy attempts to address in Unit Editions’ recent book Ken Garland: Structure and Substance. This 323-page monograph showcases Garland’s work over the last five decades, from 1952, when he was a student at the Central School of Arts & Crafts till the year 2009, when his independent studio Ken Garland and Associates was over forty years old.
The bulk of the book is a visual compendium of Garland’s significant works, but it is also accompanied by his photo works as well as indexes of the designer’s extensive published writings and lectures. While many of these are also available in Garland’s personal website, what makes the monograph truly comprehensive is a 65-page biography of the man who wears many hats (literally, as Garland is never seen without one of his iconic embroidered hats).
Shaughnessy’s straightforward approach to the multi-faceted Garland is to separately present each of his roles — as a graphic designer, studio owner, ethical advocate, political activist, writer, teacher and photographer. Each section details the historical context, an introduction to Garland’s significant contributions in the field, the man’s retrospective recollections, as well as the opinions of peers and associates. Read together, the biography paints the picture of Garland as a “man of substance”, a designer who is much more than about the work he produced, but a human being whose values deserve respect.
The book does a good job of tracing Garland’s roots and early life, giving readers a glimpse of what shaped the man we know. From leading a sit-in at art school to fight for life drawing classes and his conscription into the Parachute Regiment as military service, one begins to understand why Garland has a strong sense of mission and militaristic character.
The highlight of the book comes in the sections about Garland’s graphic style and philosophy, as well as features of his early works for the British trade journal Design and the children’s toys company Galt Toys. Readers are introduced to Garland’s belief in integrating image and text in his covers for Design, and they can see the depth of thinking in his approach for Galt Toys, a two decades long association best exemplified by the logo he designed, which was unconstrained by the popular rigid rules defined by corporate design manuals in the 1960s.
Beyond these pages, however, the essay begins to suffer from the structure of Shaughnessy’s approach. In comparison to what has come before, the sections on Garland’s different roles are summary, often lacking in details and purpose, which either speaks about the author’s lack of interest in these areas or his interviewee’s lack of substance in them. By sticking too closely to the structure of examining Garland’s different roles, the opportunity is also a missed in exploring how the different roles informed one another. How did Garland as a photographer or writer inform his design approach? The connections are mentioned in brief, but it seems Garland was not questioned about these relationships.
Another missing point of interest in the biography would be Garland’s writings on design that were compiled in a word in your eye, a book published in conjunction with an earlier retrospective exhibition of his work put up by The University of Reading in 1996. How has Garland’s views on design changed over the years and why so?
As with many monographs, this book is of a celebratory nature and does not take on some of the more thorny topics of the subject. It is clear from the output compiled in this book that after two decades of being in business, the designer started to lose his relevance from the ‘80s. Shaughnessy does highlight this point as well, attributing it to the changing times and tastes. But what did the man think of his work in relation to that period? Why did he stick to his core principles instead of adapting his studio?
By asking Garland more of such critical and challenging questions, the designer would have the opportunity to hit back, and truly establish himself as someone of substance — even in contemporary times.
This review was originally written for a graduate programme application.