Being There: Reflections on Australian design in the ’90s

Published:  April 26, 2013
Chris Bowden
Being There: Reflections on Australian design in the ’90s

I’m sure that I’m not alone in wanting to forget many aspects of my experience of the 1990s… especially some haircut choices. But as far as what was happening around me in graphic design goes, the decade felt like one of the most exciting and transformative periods in its history. Only a few years earlier the Apple Macintosh had been introduced, freeing designers from a dependence on typesetters, bromide cameras and paste-up, however the desktop publishing revolution wasn’t simply a mechanical one, it was also philosophical. The computer presented seemingly limitless opportunity for visual communication and, for better or worse, the very ways in which we think about our work.

Reflecting on what was happening in Australia at the time and comparing it to what I was seeing in the US and Europe turns up some interesting revelations on how the industry was being transformed, not only in terms of production, but in a clear attempt to carve out a uniquely Australian vernacular. My first steps into discovering this wider vernacular began in 1991, when I attended my first AGIdeas conference in Melbourne. The event had been established a year earlier by designer Ken Cato as a forum for students to interact with international and local designers. The year I attended, the keynote speaker was Massimo Vignelli who mostly discussed his modernist design ideals and vociferously denounced the postmodernist experimentation of (type foundry and publisher) Emigre as garbage, lacking depth, refinement, elegance or a sense of history. For all I knew, they may have run over his kitten at some point, based on such a passionate and single-minded distaste for this new breed. I had never heard of Emigre at that point, but it certainly got me interested in what they were doing that got him so fired up and, judging by the long line-up in the foyer for copies of Emigre magazine, it appeared that I wasn’t alone. I often think Vignelli did more to raise the profile of his hated ‘postmodernism’ than any of the 90s practitioners ever did. I can also recall that at the same conference, Hong Kong designer Alan Chan spoke at length about a young upstart by the name of Stefan Sagmeister, who had upset many members of his creative community with a controversial design for the Art Directors call for entries poster (bare arses, in case you’re wondering). It was a lot to take in over three days, but after it was over my design horizons had been expanded significantly.

I became almost completely obsessed with keeping up-to-date with the changes happening across the industry, partly due to the excitement of it, and due to fear of being left behind. I remember being fascinated by a feature in Step By Step magazine about the design of a surfing publication called Beach Culture. I pored over the techniques used to put the layout together. Enlarged, grungy photocopies. Typewriter fonts. Hand drawn type. Odd picture placement and rule-breaking photographic techniques. It was a revelation to see design work that was so self-indulgent and demolished all the boundaries that my education had built up around me. Over time I started seeing similar magazine layouts in the usual design periodicals, and soon enough the name David Carson was everywhere. With the publication of Ray Gun magazine, he was suddenly such a public figure that even non-designer friends were asking me if I had heard of him.

It was easy to see the attraction. As the most high profile of the so-called ‘anti-modernists’, he produced work that was brash and expressive, as close to rock ‘n’ roll as design had come. Most importantly, there were no concessions to the established rules that were being drilled into us at university. After years of being taught the rational and aesthetic invisibility of modernism, what student at the time wouldn’t be drawn to such work? Unfortunately, what worked for popular culture magazines and music clips didn’t translate so well to, for example, annual reports and business cards. Take a look at some mid-90s design compendiums for the embarrassing results. At the very least though, magazines like Ray Gun and Tibor Kalman’s hugely influential Colors magazine did seem to get people thinking in new directions. There were countless imitators internationally, and eventually it started to filter down into what was happening locally, firstly in some established magazines, and then leading on to the creation of two important new publications.

Illustration by Rohan Newman

(Not Only) Black + White magazine was first published in 1992 and from the outset was incorporating the look and feel of these postmodern-design magazines that had started appearing overseas. The magazine was effectively a forum for beautiful images of often (tastefully) nude celebrities and athletes, and it was unlike anything else on the Australian newsstands at the time. Lavishly printed, its typography and layout were of the utmost quality and it was designed with immaculate consideration for its content. Early issues reflect the obvious typographic influence of trailblazing late 80s magazines like The Face and Arena, both designed by Neville Brody. By the time the magazine had entered its ‘teens’, the influence of the likes of Emigre and Ray Gun seemed more apparent as the type became increasingly deconstructed and experimental. I also wonder if there was any influence from photographer Albert Watson’s monograph Cyclops, another major publication designed by David Carson, which was ground-breaking for its audacious typography, taking equal billing with Watson’s stunning portraiture. Black + White magazine seemed to be the first local magazine to dip its toe into the pool of postmodernist design experiments and I was glad to have it, especially as Emigre and Ray Gun were often hard to get a hold of.

At the other end of this spectrum, designer Stephen Banham was teaching typography in Melbourne and noticed that some of his students were copying designs straight from international design periodicals. He created the publication Qwerty as a means to examine and discuss a more regionally focused design and visual language. In many ways, Qwerty was the polar opposite of Black + White and its international counterparts. Cheaply produced and very hands-on, its primary remit was a discussion of typography in an Australian context. It was a reaction against what was seen as an artless early desktop publishing landscape, and it was influential in helping set the tone for future examinations of local graphic design culture. With a limited print run, it was also unfortunately very hard to obtain.

As this new era moved ahead, there were also ever-changing paradigms for what could constitute graphic design practice. The old business model of a senior director with a studio of design minions below them was giving way to the boutique studio, usually a very small team spearheaded by the vision of rising superstars such as Stefan Sagmeister, James Victore and Paul Sahre, or multidisciplinary ‘collectives’ where designers (and even non-designers) each held an equal share in the direction of the studio, notable examples of which are Tomato, Designers Republic and the very early adopters of this model, design powerhouse Pentagram. In Australia, many of today’s major players also established their design studios at this time, including Fabio Ongarato, Gollings Pidgeon, Cornwell, 3 Deep and Hoyne Design. But perhaps nothing signalled the ‘changing of the guard’, at least on the world stage, more than the death of Paul Rand in 1996, one of the most famous and respected of the US modernist designers. Significant also were major works from next generation giants such as Paula Scher and her extensive, innovative NYC Public Theater identity, and Kenya Hara’s identity design for the Nagano Winter Olympics.

Back in Australia, the whole practice of corporate identity design seemed to take on a renewed vibrancy, one of the most important examples of which was Ken Cato’s Commonwealth Bank logo mark. Controversial at the time for allegedly costing over $11 million to implement, this mark paved the way for other large local corporations to evolve their often decades-old branding into more progressive identity systems. Around the same time, a very different type of logo was introduced for Australian youth radio network Triple J. No less influential, the Triple J ‘drum’ logo was boisterous, impulsive and fun, where the Commonwealth bank logo was elegant, cool and minimalist – even if you did view it as a Sao biscuit dipped in Vegemite. Despite the different approaches, both designs were unified by their desire to explore new ideas and push design forward into the new millennium. Running parallel to these defining new projects were a growing number of industry events and communities. AGDA, the Australian Graphic Design Association (established only a couple of years prior to the start of the 90s, in 1988) helped galvanise the industry, and take it to that much needed next level of professionalism and public engagement. Conferences like AGIdeas were among the first of their kind, but of course today we have no shortage of similar programs at all levels and for all special interests.

The importance of the internet cannot be understated either. Despite still being a new technology at the time, and primitive compared to today’s standards, that growing network was instrumental in lifting the Australian industry off the sidelines and onto the world stage. In the decade’s closing years, Australian sites such as Design Is Kinky and Australian Infront emerged, taking advantage of the new online environment as a forum to discuss and examine the changing culture and practice of graphic design.

So how does this position us today? In many ways, I feel we have come full circle, returning to and re-examining those pre-90s modernist ideals of clarity and simplicity, but sometimes the only way to look forward is to take a look back. Styles may change, mutate, and return, but it’s our continued engagement in the work and issues around them that are of greatest importance. Perhaps the best thing that what we can take away from the 90s is its spirit – desire to push things forward and to challenge the status quo. As a young designer I watched from the fringes and saw this industry grow from one tentatively exploring big international ideas, to one that has begun to establish its own voice and presence in the world. If we can preserve that ambition, that nerve and fortitude – I think the decades ahead contain nothing but promise.

This interview was first published in Desktop #291 — Back to the ’90s

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