We all have our favourite designers – people whose attitudes and approach to their work inspires us as much as the excellence of the work they produce.
Whether you’re starting out on your designer journey, or you’re a hardened trooper, you still need to have that spark of inspiration re-ignited from time to time.
Design heroes are the people your contemporaries will talk about, and quote, and whose work they will reference. Well, you need to be able to join in, firstly by recognising some of the names they mention, but also by being able to throw a few new names into the mix. Names like…
You may not know the name Jim Steranko but, if you’ve ever seen a superhero movie, you’ve seen work that he influenced.
His comic book art of the late 60s and 70s stretched to breaking point what could be done with ink and paper, when he was unleashed on the comic Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics. Although he began his run emulating Jack Kirby (the artist who co-created many of Marvel’s billion-dollar characters) he soon folded his own contemporary influences into the mix.
The master of the splash page (a full page image), Steranko brought a narrative drive and design sense to his layouts quite unlike anyone before (although many, since, have emulated his innovations). Steranko has never been scared to leave white space on his pages, and often integrates text into the design and the narrative.
His designs take no prisoners; on one occasion, he created an image which ran over four pages which was impossible to see in one go, unless you bought two copies of the comic.
Moving into designing book covers and, ultimately, into the movie industry, Steranko worked on the marketing of Raiders of the Lost Ark and has developed quite a body of work in the noir genre. But it is those early genre-busting, medium-expanding comic books that he is still most closely associated.
Back in 2013, The Guardian dubbed Saville as the UK’s most famous graphic designer. He’s certainly Manchester’s most famous designer – having masterminded the design work for Factory Records.
The legendary sleeve to the Joy Division release, Blue Monday, reflected the synth music contained therein, by being designed to resemble a computer floppy disk (the big 5¼ inch ones that actually were floppy). It was the die-cutting of the holes which cost the money, leading to the single losing Factory Records 5p on every copy sold. They never expected it to sell very much, so weren’t worried by this. It went on to sell £1.2 million copies.
Since deciding that the album sleeve is a dead art form, Saville moved more into fashion design, working with the likes of Jil Sander, John Galliano, Christian Dior, Stella McCartney, Raf Simons, Kate Moss and Burberry. Curious choice since, as he told The Guardian that he considers the fashion industry to be an exercise in “mass mind control and triviality that enslaves people to consumption”. In 2010, he re-designed the England football home kit.
When Lacoste invited him to design for them, the only restriction they gave him was that he couldn’t touch their crocodile logo. So, like a petulant child, that’s precisely what he did – he shattered their logo.
What’s most refreshing about Saville, is his typically Mancunian sense of humour, and his disdain for pretension. Seek out the various interviews you’ll find online, and you’ll see a refreshing honesty and refusal to over-romanticise the role of design in business.
Like Saville, Storm Thorgerson was best known for his album sleeves. Y’know when people put together those ‘classic album’ lists – well, you can guarantee that Thorgerson and his studio (initially ‘Hipgnosis’ and, latterly, ‘Stormstudios’) did the artwork for some if not most of those albums. He quickly realised that an album sleeve, like a book cover, is the thing that customers use to judge the contents. It, therefore, needs to reflect the music, not just the face of the singer. Thinking like this elevated the gatefold sleeve to a genuine art form, telling stories and creating meta-narratives within the imagery, whilst never being obvious.
You wanted a picture of your band leaning on a brick wall? Thorgerson was definitely not your man! If you wanted something colourful and abstract, probably with no words on it – you gave Storm a call.
Just writing the words ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ creates that archetypal image of the triangular prism and the light ray being split into its rainbow of colours. We don’t have to reproduce the image for you, it’s already in your head. But, that is not typical of Thorgerson’s work, he was far more likely to be taking photographs than creating graphic art like that.
As he explained in his book, Mind Over Matter: The Images of Pink Floyd: “I like photography because it is a reality medium, unlike drawing which is unreal. I like to mess with reality, to bend reality. Some of my works beg the question of is it real or not?”
The word ‘iconic’ gets massively over-used, but it applies to Thorgerson’s masterpieces. The word ‘surreal’ gets bandied about far-too liberally, as well, but – once again – it is accurately applied to Thorgerson’s work, which mashes ingredients together to create images which make sense, but also don’t.
Their use of photography to create abstract shapes in landscapes, is unmistakable. There was no falling-back on Photoshop, Thorgerson preferred to create the effects live and in camera.
As a film director, Thorgerson made the 1993 documentary The Art of Tripping, in which Bernard Hill guided us through a history of the creative arts, and pointed out the role that narcotics had played in the lives of the nation’s favourite poets, playwrights and painters.
Thorgerson’s hand-picked team are still hard at work, creating designs which they describe as “normal, but not”, you can find them at their official Stormstudios website.
Davidson is known, in the biz, as ‘The Logo Lady’ or ‘The Mother of the Swoosh’. That word ‘swoosh’ should tell you, immediately, what Davidson’s chief achievement was – designing the ubiquitous Nike logo.
Famously, she designed it for the company in 1971 (when ‘Nike’ was still called ‘Blue Ribbon Sports’). She was a student at Portland State University and Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, was daylighting as a teacher there. The two got together and, for the princely sum of $35, Davidson drew the first Nike Swoosh.
Davidson continued to work for Knight, and Nike, for years to come, until the business grew too large for one person to cope. The company went public in 1980 and, in 1983, Knight recognised the importance of Davidson’s work by gifting her 500 shares (which are now worth approximately $1 million).
For her part, Davidson, whilst grateful, said the gesture wasn’t necessary, she’d presented Knight with an invoice and he’d paid it; to her mind, the matter was closed. Unsurprisingly, Davidson is now retired and dedicates her time to charitable work.
This story is inspiring because it speaks to the purity of Davidson’s motives – design was just her job, not a vocation, not an art form. The story also shows that, to the business-people who benefit from our work, good design is so much more than just a job. It’s gratifying to see that Knight acknowledged Davidson’s valuable contribution, publicly. Sometimes the recognition is just as important to designer, as the payment. Not a substitute for the payment, please note, no-one likes to work for free!
Saul and Elaine Bass
If you want to judge the quality of a designer’s work, look at who employs them. Saul Bass designed movie posters and directed movie title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, to name but four. There isn’t much better company than that, if you want to be in the movie biz.
A restlessly creative soul, Bass also created corporate logos for companies like AT&T and United Airlines, Minolta and Kleenex.
All of this is well-known. What is less well-known, unfortunately, is how closely Bass worked with his wife, Elaine; who was a graphic designer in her own right before she started working with Bass and, ultimately, married him. It was the nature of the movie business, back in the 50s and 60s, that Bass gets sole credit in the films, but he and Elaine worked together for 40 years. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1989 that she was granted a screen credit.
Bass, famously, worked with Hitchcock during his golden age, on films like Vertigo, Psycho and North by Northwest; while he and Elaine went on to share directorial duties on the title sequences for films like Spartacus and West Side Story, and continued so to do into the 1990s, with their final great collaboration, with Martin Scorsese, on Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of innocence and Casino.
Typically, they were given total directorial control over their titles sequence, which were delivered to the director as a finished piece, ready to be edited into the film. This is an extraordinary level of autonomy, and demonstrates a great client-designer relationship.
Here, by way of conclusion, is the Oscar-winning short film that Saul and Elaine directed – which explores in a whimsical way, Why Man Creates (by which it, presumably, means Why Man and Woman Creates!)
Over to you
So, which wildly imaginative designers light a fire under your creative practice? Whether they’re a fresh talent working today or a hall of fame name from long ago – come and find us on Facebook or Twitter and tell us who you love, and why!