John Warwicker: Graphic Design, Creative Freedom and Alchemy

Published:  August 30, 2013

Before his departure, exiting editor Heath Killen interviewed John Warwicker — Professor of Design at Monash University, co-founder of the multi-disciplinary studio Tomato and long term member and collaborator of the band, Underworld.

His extensive experience and belief in the alchemic power of graphic design have made him a fountain of knowledge at MADA – Monash University’s art, design and architecture course. Here, Heath and John discuss the potentials of design education, the needs of the student and his own motivations.

What’s changed in art and design education since you graduated? What are some of the key issues that have lead to those changes?

I went to art school in London in the mid 70s, so any comparison between then and now is impossible; however, there are a few telling differences.

First of all you didn’t have to pay for graduate education — all you really needed to get in was a passion and ability to draw. Secondly, at the time there was an ongoing dynamic dialogue between music and all aspects of culture. The third difference was there was no concept of ‘industry’ and vocational training was the prime context and reason for going to art school. Lastly there were no computers!

Art school was shaped by the student’s own desires, rather than the students attending classes to learn what to do to ‘get a job’. Students then went to art school to test themselves and to find out who they are and how best to express themselves. This proactive stance was further fuelled by the cultural dynamic of London, since the early 60s, when music, fashion, art and design all collided in a supernova of cultural forms and expressions that were centred around issues of tribalism and identity. Since then, the physics of society and culture have changed significantly.

One of the effects that our electronically enabled world has done is make everything available all the time. William Gibson has described it as “consensual hallucinogenics”. In the 1970s there was a space ahead to move into, to discover. Today the saturation of screen-based images fill our every moment. Computers have instigated this change by creating and feeding the polymorphous instant. A good question to ask current students is “What do you believe in (in terms of typo/graphic expression) and why?” I believe that if you asked students in the 1970s you’d get a quantifiably different answer, one based on a commitment to a certain philosophy and form of expression and activity. In addition to that the active engagement with social issues and politics were greater then, the protests against the ‘establishment’ that were such a feature of the late 60s continued well into the 70s. This manifested itself during my art school days as ‘Punk’.

Then, in the years of Thatcher, everything changed. To be legitimate in Thatcher’s Britain every aspect of creativity and education had to legitimise itself within the terms of the new political landscape. The trouble is, and still remains, that this is at odds with the physics of each of these activities. What we do as musicians, designers, artists and educators is not science — it’s alchemy. I think it’s the reintroduction of the mad belief in alchemy is what art and design urgently needs. Education is not only there to address contemporary vocational needs, but to initiate a way of thinking that will play out in the years to come.

One of the biggest challenges for art and design education is the balance and conversation between each individual discipline and the space where all these disciplines blur and fuse as one. It is the challenge that is now starting to be incorporated in our educative programme at MADA and so far the results are starting to look very promising indeed.

What do you believe that the objectives of design education should be today?

The same as it ever was… to help build confidence in each and every student, to be relevant and to totally invest in the experimental, relative to the desires and potential of each individual student. Supporting this with all the basic technical knowledge (technical knowledge includes a deep understanding of the history of the chosen subject and good understanding of the broader historical and philosophical roots of the cultural contemporary context) and to expose each and every student to all forms of creative expressions across all cultures and all historical periods.

How do we begin to break down the silos in design education?

I completely understand the need for ‘silos’, as there is everything to be said for focussed craft. To be honest I’m baffled about the difficulty that many colleges/art schools face in trying to come to terms with the multi-, trans-, anti-disciplinary, apart from the fact that it is hard to ‘program’ and define the formless. Part of the problem is giving it a name such as ‘multidisciplinary’ or ‘transdisciplinary’. In the world beyond academia these terms lost their function 50 years ago. Tomato started in 1991 and the natural and true course was ‘Thought into Form’, it wasn’t even a decision; especially as we knew the electronically-enabled world would start to blur the conventional disciplines and we intuitively felt that this was the context within which we should work. The straight answer to your question is — you get on and do it.

What is the underpinning philosophy behind MADA and Thought Into Form?

Thought into Form’ simply states our process and what we do, irrespective of discipline. I think it states our commitment to thinking and to the formgiving which then generates more thoughts and more forms. We believe in the educative power of the studio and the discussions and the show & tell that are central to the dynamics of the studio.

You still describe yourself as a student – what inspires and motivates you today?

If you actually mean “today” — here’s a list of what I’ve been looking at, reading, listening to and talking about today…. listening to Steve Reich ‘Music for Eighteen Musicians’ and talking about the minute dynamic tonal rhythms in terms of typography; a conversation with other students about what a graphic user interface could be; talking with Professor Jon McCormack (creative computing) about the potential of new narrative structures, in regards to different forms new media; a conversation and show & tell that I have once a week with Karl Hyde (from Underworld) and our friend Toru Yoshikawa in Tokyo — we’ve been exploring black and white photography together for several years and it’s now coming to the point where we are prepared to exhibit. Then of course there are the opportunities that come out of the blue that unexpectedly motivate you — there’s a large, interesting music and design symposium happening in Brisbane in early/mid September and they have asked me to take part. So I’m having to dust off a lot of work I did in from the 1980s onwards.

That’s some of what I’ve done. I have an Indesign document with all of these files, in alphabetical order, then randomly access a page (there are over 5000) and juxtapose it with another one or two, which generates questions that I use as my ‘brief’.

Because the day one stops being a student is the day that its over. This doesn’t always mean finding out the new, sometimes its about rediscovering or rereading the familiar.The great thing about teaching is it forces you to articulate and examine your thoughts and work – sometimes what you thought was good seems rather hollow and poor when you try and present it to the students. This is a good thing.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting interview… thank you very much for sharing :)

  2. I do believe that people are born to be designers or artists instead of them being molded to know how to draw. Despite the skills they have though, I still think they need proper education with their passion so that they their imagination will widen and creativity be developed.

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