Interview: David Lancashire

Published:  April 10, 2013
Heath Killen
Interview: David Lancashire

Since setting up his practice in 1976, David Lancashire has gone on to have one of the most distinguished careers in Australian graphic design history. Originally from the United Kingdom, Lancashire has spent most of his life in Australia, where he has immersed himself deeply in the local culture. In fact he uses regional vernacular and draws inspiration from the natural environment in his work more than most native designers. David is also a refugee from the world of advertising – which may go some way to explaining why he has such a strong commitment to social causes and a sense of responsibility that is evident in all of his work.

Lancashire’s work for commercial and non-profit clients alike has lead to numerous accolades, as well as a two year position on the board of Icograda – the International Council of Graphic Design Association. He shows no sign of slowing down today either, continuing to build on his foundational fine art skills, his fascination with local flora and fauna, and a passion for addressing the political, social and cultural issues that challenge Australia and the world at large.

"Big A Roo" from the Box of Roos series.

Your career began, effectively, at 11 years of age. Could you talk me through those formative years, and describe how they led you on a path to commercial design work?
I started studying art at the Circle Studio in Stockport in the north of England when I was eleven. I was lucky, my Aunty knew I liked drawing and suggested the studio to my mum, who worked hard to pay the four shillings for each lesson.

The studio was started by John Henshall, who wanted to help working class kids like myself. He informed my early years and taught me watercolour and oil painting, lettering, heraldry, and black and white illustration for what was then known as commercial art.

I was taught to brush rule with Indian ink, and to draw with pencils. For one year, I was allowed to use only black, white and grey. This process helped my understanding of colour, and I have him to thank for what I think is one of my strengths. In fact I love colour, it’s connection to fine art, and everything we come into contact with. Mr Henshall also set us the task of making our own folio. I still have it. Black on the outside; brown paper on the inside, and so we learnt how to book bind.

At my first job in Manchester, I drew ellipses freehand on Bristol Board for four weeks, then lost my job in a recession. I found another one a week later – hard times, but good ones.

I find it difficult to separate fine art from graphic design, and although colour plays a big part in my life, I still love to work in black and white with Indian ink. Our world is so full of CMYK and RGB. I like the term ‘Art and Design’ – there are a lot of fancy names to describe what we do these days.

Who were your early design heroes?
I have very eclectic tastes – moving in and out of design, art, architecture, sculpture; studying pottery, silversmithing, as well as painting. The list is long but includes: Fletcher Forbes Gill, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Picasso, David Hockney, Frank Lloyd Wright, Terence Conran, Trickett & Webb, Robert Brownjohn, Milton Glaser, Cartier-Bresson, and Armin Hofmann.

Assorted political posters.

Meanjin1 (cover illustration) Meanjin, founded in 1940 is a literary magazine which reflects the breadth of contemporary thinking on literature, art or broader issues of the times. The cover image represents a passion for knowledge, symbolising bureaucratic management cutting at and through the heart of learning.

How has your understanding of design changed over the years, and what has influenced those changes?
Without wanting to sound old, I’d say the computer and marketing have brought about big changes in design; the iPad, iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, Kindle, and so on. If I may quote Massimo Vignelli, there is ‘before computer and after computer’ – BC and AC.

The internet has opened up the world – it’s fast and 24/7. There’s a lot of information out there, and it’s not all good. In design, there’s more bad stuff – wallpaper – but on the other hand, there’s also more good stuff. I think the trouble is, there’s just too much stuff! But good ideas in design will always exist and are timeless. Personally, I’d like to see the return of more hand/eye illustration.

As someone who has worked across multiple decades, and before the advent of the digital revolution, I’d love to know more about the role that technology plays in your practice.
The luddite question! It’s a fast world we are in. Actual design time is getting less and less because technology can deliver outcomes within minutes that look finished. When I started, we did everything by hand – wet letraset with a silkscreen, dry letraset rubdown, photographic bromides, cow gum, rapidographs – old tools!

The rapid explosion of technology has changed the face of the design industry forever. I try to stand on the edge of the digital vortex, the black hole of information design. I think it would be better if design slowed down like the ‘slow food ‘movement. Bring in the ‘slow design’ movement.

"Make love not war." poster

Your work frequently explores very Australian qualities. It often describes a sense of place, connecting the land and culture with a sense of shared history. Do you believe that this is something Australian designers are missing or even trying to move away from?
I was a ‘ten quid white Pom’, but I’ve always had a strong interest in the natural world. As a kid I was a bird watcher, egg collector, and spent a fair bit of time in the woods. I was eighteen when I left England. It was a long process coming to understand a different colour palette, a different quality of light. As a cameraman form the UK once said, ‘Australia is three f/stops over’!

Working with Indigenous people gave me a precious insight into this country. It was life changing, and gave me a sense of place and an appreciation of country that helps me see Australia in ways that I don’t believe you can come to grips with in the city. I would encourage every young designer to go bush, roll your swag out, and soak it up. Reconnect regularly with the environment, then see what happens to your work.

What was it that initially sparked your strong connection to Australia and it’s people?
Camping in it and going bush. As a family, we camped at Croajingalong with friends for some twenty years. Since then, I’ve gone bush with some of Australia’s top architects – to the Kimberley, Central Desert APY Lands; sleeping in it, smelling it, seeing it, – it’s magic. As the old man from Kakadu said; ‘it’s about feeling’. This country is remarkable in every way. Let’s try not dig too much of it up.

Sleeping in dry creek beds and looking at the stars, is probably one of the best things that you can do in your life – it will change your life forever.

Burnt Sticks - personal artwork.

In 1997 you sold your practice in order to focus on work for indigenous communities. What motivated that decision, and can you talk me through how you went about setting up practice in remote Australia?
I’d worked with Indigenous communities before we sold the business (to an advertising agency, which didn’t work out well), although at the time we were working on a project in the Pilbara, in Karijini National Park, and on Bunjilaka at the Melbourne Museum.

Working in remote areas has its challenges but in the end I think we learnt how to make it work!. Di Lancashire, my wife, whose background was in social anthropology was a great asset. Also, Di had an arts and photographic background and came up with many concepts working with interior designer, Heidi Stoll. I think we had a great team. Much of the time, Di and Heidi worked with the women and I worked closely with the men. Spending a lot of time in the bush and with people on their land was important and
crucial to the success of any of these projects. Being in country was, and is, the only way you can work. It’s also about as rewarding as it gets – working with people over three to four years you become close.

I’d love to hear more about your experiences there: what did you learn during that period, particularly with regards to the people and their relationship with art & design?
A learning curve, yes, but a life changing experience that will live on in me forever. It changed the way in which I see the country – in a way that didn’t exist for me before.

Seeing rock art for the first time was very moving. It’s the first art and design of this great southland. In the early nineties in Kakadu I worked on an Indigenous calendar with an old man. We painted it together on the rock. He said – ‘you paint whitefella way and I’ll paint blackfella way’. This experience was something special. I painted all the type/words on the rock and learnt very fast that you have to paint away from you- not towards you. It remains a very special job for me.

In fact, these projects were very ‘hands-on’. All the painting in Kakadu, both at Bowali and Warradjan, was done by ourselves in collaboration with Indigenous people. Myself, Heidi, and a very old friend Tony Ward, worked together. And when you work that closely with people you come to realize that every design decision – colour, shape, floorplan –requires an awareness of place and cultural respect. Nothing is arbitrary.

On one interpretive element, I burnt the sign, then took the paint marks up the wall and put crushed charcoal into the rammed earth floor. We were trying to convey the importance of fire in Kakadu and how it’s such a big part of Indigenous life up there. Once, on the way back from Cobourg Peninsula with Bill Neidje, we stopped to light a bushfire that he wanted to go all the way down to Gunbalanya – he was cleaning up his country! Another big learning experience for me!

Poster from the 'Dig Im Up, Use Im Up' series.

Poster from the 'Dig Im Up, Use Im Up' series, showing glow in the dark ink.

The issue of outback uranium mining has been an important one for you. Why did that particular issue strike a chord, and what was your design response to it?
I remember talking to an old man about country who said; “you whitefellas dig ‘im up and use ‘im up”. This stuck in my head for some time and inspired an exhibition of a series of posters, and some A5 cards. They were designed to ‘glow in the dark’ and to show how we use and abuse this country. It was a comment on Maralinga and the attempted rehabilitation of the British nuclear testing site.

Is your approach to designing for a “cause” different to that of designing for a commercial client?
In design for a commercial client it’s difficult to get too political. But I always like to research subjects that can inform the design and I think contribute to the end result. I suppose I approach both with the same passion – personal or commercial – it’s the same really.

There has long been debate within the design community about our social responsibilities, but it seems the discussion always boils down to the need to balance ethics and finances. How have you managed to resolve those two forces in your own practice?
I think staying true to your own beliefs is important for your own sanity! I know it’s easier said than done but I’ve tried to do that. That said, there was a time when I worked on cigarette packaging and did all Safeway house brand packaging. We’re also living in different times now. In the sixties, it was fun and optimistic. No world pollution, no melting ice caps; a smaller planet population, and so on. I guess it’s a question of balance. If you can make money in the commercial world, and put some back into causes that are important to you, and have a bit of fun on the way, well ….

Also, in recent years I’ve had the privilege of working on some projects that aim to bring about a greater public awareness of one issue or another. They’ve been great and inspiring projects for a designer to work on.

LEFT: McClelland Sculpture Survey & Award RIGHT: Aftermath: Landscape photographs by John Gollings from Black Saturday.

"A First Dictionary" This book and accompanying audio CD compiles the language and traditional knowledge of the three cultural language groups Erre, Mengerrdji and Urningangk from the East Alligator Rivers region of north-western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. It is the first time these languages have been compiled into a dictionary and makes an important contribution to the recognition and maintenance of Aboriginal languages. The colour scheme and graphic illustrations help give a unique look to this book. The inspiration came from the stone country of Arnhem Land where all three languages were spoken. The jacket flap carries illustrations of three stones, representing the three languages.

More recently you’ve been working with indigenous cultures around Asia with Icograda. What is that interests you about indigenous cultures in general, and what have you learnt from your experiences there so far, particularly around the “Rediscovery”conference in early 2012?
Three years ago, I was seconded to the board of ICOGRADA to work with the INDIGO Indigenous network. The ‘Mother Tongue’ project is an ongoing initiative of INDIGO.

Language is not only a product of human life it is a prerequisite that humans require to form relationships. As a fundamental form of expression, language binds us together. A language can be visual – made up of complex ideas of truth deeply rooted in symbols, custom and imagery. Mother Tongue is about the power of language – verbal and visual, formal and informal. First language. Native language. It honors languages that are at risk of being lost in our globalizing society and those that have survived the forces of colonization.

Mother Tongue is a healing process – stimulating creative dialogue between Indigenous and non-indigenous designers, students of design, poets and writers. Mother Tongue is a cross-cultural platform to open discussion around the role of contemporary Indigenous design and to encourage collaborative projects that deepen our understanding of people’s culture in our visual world of the 21 st century.

I think we need a culture shift. Can design reconcile differences? I believe it can. If it has the power to market products and services that make consumers consume, then I’m sure it can do this.

I was a speaker at the Rediscovery Conference in Kuching in September. It was a great success in creating a space for designers to celebrate Indigenous knowledge and how it fits into the global community.

Woodside Roundabout — David was commissioned to develop a large roundabout at the main entrance to the Woodside operated Karratha Gas Plant. The concept was based on the surrounding landscape of the Burrup Peninsula which features some prolific Aboriginal petroglyphs (rock engraving). Colours used are influenced by the landscape. All the designs were hand-drawn onto the concrete blocks and then sandblasted. Goanna sculptures were created by Joan & Charlie Smith, Smith Sculptors WA.

"Optimism" poster for Icograda — A group of designers were asked to design a poster for the Icograda World Design Congress 2009 in Beijing, responding to the Icograda Design Week Brisbane theme of ‘Optimism’. The response uses imagery of a Blue Whale and its calf as a metaphor for the fragility of the planet. The illustration, created from acrylic paint on board, is accompanied by a simple statement about the fact that although these are the largest mammals on earth, we still don’t know where they go to have their young! We found this very optimistic and we hope it provokes thinking for a changing world.

What troubles you most about the world today?
It’s certainly not whether I use Helvetica or Bodoni! The fact is we are stupid. How we treat our home, the planet, is bewildering. It’s simple – the planet will still be here in some form or another but will humans? More love!

What motivates and inspires you today?
E.O. Wilson, David Suzuki, and, of course, making marks on paper. And the fact that I’m still here! Inspiration can come from anywhere, and it usually does.

Where do you see your practice headed tomorrow?
To a different place than where it is right now! I’m at the crossroads again, and the future looks good! Perhaps more work with my hands … ?

This interview was first published in Desktop #290 — Activated

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