RCA exhibition celebrates 50 years of incredible graphic design

Published:  October 20, 2014

The Royal College of Art is one of Europe’s — and the world’s — most prestigious (and the only) wholly postgrad art and design institutions. 2014 marks 65 years since the creation of the Graphic Design Course at the RCA, where the school reports they marked “a break with ‘commercial art’ and heralded a new era in design education.”

In 1963, the school hosted its first graphic design exhibition, and since then much has changed in the graphic design industry. In honour of this half-century of change, the RCA is pulling from its archives and hosting the exhibition GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years and Beyond, celebrating the work of its now well-renown and respected alumni.

This alumni represents some of the most renowned designers and studios in the UK (and the world) including Phil BainesDaniel Eatock and Jonathan BarnbrookAlan FletcherGraphic Thought FacilityFuel and A Practice For Everyday Life.

We spoke to Teal Triggs, professor of the school’s seminal graphic design program, about the upcoming exhibition (opening 5 November).

Moire Typeface, designed by Jack Gilbey, 2009

The Rolling Stones logo, 1971, by John Pasche

With a long and very consistent history of excellence, what sort of principles and teachings have been upheld by the RCA for the past 50 years?

First of all, it is worth noting that the RCA is a wholly postgraduate university where our students are enrolled in Masters or PhD level programs. This means that the profile of our students ranges from recent graduates of BA courses to students who have stepped out of working in design studios and related industries to come back into education as a way of ‘rethinking’ their practice.

As such, I would argue that we don’t ‘teach’ in the conventional sense, rather the RCA provides a space for ‘learning’. We are always talking about what ‘RCAness’ might mean. For me, it’s a non-hierarchical approach where tutors help facilitate and question whilst providing support and guidance in order for students to achieve their own aspirations and goals. In terms of a pedagogical position, this translates into encouraging students to move outside of their comfort zones; to be experimental, to be critical thinkers and practitioners; but also to work collaboratively and across disciplines where appropriate. Our students leave the RCA as creative leaders.

RCA Film Society Poster for Summer with Monica, 1964, by Brian Denyer

1990 Degree Show poster designed by Jeanne Verdoux

Posters for a Herbert Spencer talk

Can you guide us through some of the alumni that are featured and involved in the upcoming show?

The exhibition is the culmination of a substantial collaborative effort between alumni, current students and staff; this has been a process that in itself, reflects an embedded spirit of the RCA. The alumni network is key to this and is reflected in a digital showcase designed by one of our current PhD students, Kyuha Shim, where all participating alumni will be featured.

In terms of highlights, we are showing some of the more recognisable work by the likes of John Pasche, who designed the Rolling Stones ‘lips logo’ as an RCA student in 1971, and Jonathan Barnbrook whose politically motivated commentaries continue to feature in his typeface designs like ‘Bastard’ created while he was a student in the early 1990s. Other designers include Morag Myerscough, Daniel Eatock, Marina Willer, Astrid Stavro and James Goggin who move seamlessly across discipline boundaries. The exhibition will also acknowledge the importance of collaborative studios formed by students often while at the RCA, such as Fuel design group, Why Not Associates, Thomas. Matthews, and A Practice for Everyday Life.

The exhibition is not just about the famous; we are also including alumni who have been perhaps less in the public eye, but nonetheless have contributed significantly to the discipline, often as design educators. The exhibition also importantly reflects on key moments in graphic design where students have been at the forefront of critical debates, using new production methods and technologies, and informing a visual popular culture, more broadly.

Screen printed poster from 1991 by Jonathan Barnbrook featuring his black letter font ‘Bastard’.

RCA Football Club poster, Ray Gregory

With beginnings as a blog, what urged the RCA to host an exhibition?

Our blog site began as a means to communicate to alumni and other interested parties what we were doing in the area of graphic design at the RCA. We always had an exhibition in mind (emerging, in part, out of the previous year’s College–wide celebrations of 175 years) and that the series of events featured on the site should inform our thinking about it. We hope that the exhibition does three main things:

Firstly, it provides a forum to look back at a rich history of student achievements, but equally important has a view to understanding how the past may inform the future of the profession and education.

Secondly, the exhibition has united the GraphicsRCA community in ways we hadn’t predicted: alumni-led reunions, for example. It has secured life-long networks for current students and their predecessors.

And finally, I guess we really hope that through this exhibition, the general public will better understand the value and importance ‘graphic design’ has within their daily lives. It’s pretty awesome to think how much of the visual world around us has been ‘designed’ or influenced by RCA graduates.

Thelma Roscoe, Poster for GraphicsRCA: Fifteen Years exhibition, 1963

Malcolm Goldie, The Phonecard as an Art Form, silk screen poster for the Design Museum, 1992

GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years is at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London, from 5 November — 22 December 2014.

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