Lofty Ambitions and Humdrum

Published:  April 19, 2013
Veronica Grow
Lofty Ambitions and Humdrum

Veronica Grow, founder of Old School the New School for Design & Typography reports back from the recent Responsive Projects conference in Brisbane. The event explored the theme of identity, and featured guest speakers Ken Garland, Mark Gowing, Michaela Webb, Rob Giampietro, and Peter Hall.

This is my main summation of the Responsive Projects 2013 forum, which dealt with subject of identity: Why? While I could happily talk about the notions of identity explored by any of the speakers on the day (who were all fabulous) this particular question, best explored by Ken Garland, seemed to me to be the most important.

In contrast to the other speakers at Responsive Projects 2013, instead of showcasing a slick array of highly designed artifacts, Garland shared an unfurling array of images including humble signage, devices, placards, posters and tents of the Occupy Movement which he fondly described as a “rabble of indiscriminate work”. He also showed images of the vernacular imagery of his home place Camden Town in London, which he said, is “made better” by what most contemporary designers would describe as ugly. One image was of an artfully deployed massive Three Dimensional Chinese monster that literally covers a two story Edwardian street front.

Ken Garland — Photo by Responsive Projects

It is incredible to think that Garland in his prime went off to listen to talks by the Giant of modernism Frank Lloyd Wright who Garland says often talked about where design was taking us on “Spaceship Earth”. This was the pre-global era when we still believed design was the Holy Grail that would move us forward. “But Frank, aren’t you getting carried away?” thought Garland to himself. He even wrote a limerick to reflect his thoughts:

The architect Frankie Lloyd Wright
Designed every object in sight
But one day he sat down in the loo
And cried agasp at the shape of his shite!

Ken then quipped – “Some things you can’t control.”

I wondered what Garland must be thinking when he observed the work and ideas of Michaela Webb from Studio Round, Rob Giampietro from Project Projects, and Mark Gowing from Mark Gowing Design. Their work was visually stunning, conceptually brilliant, sophisticated. and from a global perspective, pitched toward a tiny elite sliver of the population. (Please note I think their work is brilliant).

This is because Garland as says, “Identity equals diversity”. He also states “I have a thing for Monsters, we need more of them, we don’t need more graphic designers” Maybe this was Garland’s polite non-confrontational English way of saying that the humdrum of the ordinary folk is more important to our destiny than the lofty ambitions and egos of us designers? “Remember that your real clients are the public.” he says.

He went on to ask us all to reflect on the following: “You are unique, what can you bring?” and “You may never know what results come of your actions but if you do nothing there will be no result”. I liked this. In particular it resonated with my personal ethos and those of Old School.

Ken Garland — Photo by Responsive Projects

His final parting question to all of us was: “How are you going to meet the onslaught of the new amateur graphic design?” In an era when our industry along with many others such as the IT industry is going through massive shifts, Australian designers must now compete with designers from other countries who can work for a pittance.

This question challenges the notion of our professional identities and lives as communication designers, and I for one would love to hear what others in the industry think about such a statement.

On a separate note it was excellent to discover there is a Mrs Wanda Garland! As a skilled artist who exhibits regularly Wanda has a curiously unpublicized presence.

As an event, Responsive Projects feels like a more authentic alternative to large conferences and I find it’s warm and human dimension to be both refreshing and engaging. The forum’s intimate nature makes it a more inclusive event and encourages audience participation and debate. Responsive Projects is part of the new way forward.

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