Colin Forbes

1991 AIGA Medal
1928, London

It may be a violation of confidentiality to say so, but when Colin Forbes was proposed for the AIGA Medal there was very little discussion among the jurors. That did not seem curious until afterward, when I discovered that I could not think of my favorite Colin Forbes designs. Other medalists have been strongly associated with particular works—Milton Glaser with his Dylan poster or New York Magazine; Paul Rand with his logos for IBM and Westinghouse; Bill Golden with the CBS eye. Forbes's portfolio contains no counterparts to those icons. Other medalists, such as Lester Beall, Gene Federico and Allen Hurlburt, have each been described as a “designer's designer,” whatever that means. But whatever it means, I doubt that Colin Forbes has been called that very often.

He has been called something else though. In introducing him to a meeting of Art Center College of Design's faculty and trustees, president David Brown said, “Colin Forbes is unique as a designer of things that are not normally thought of as being designed.” That, I think, is the heart of the matter. Throughout most of a long a spectacularly successful career in graphic design, Forbes has concentrated his splendid energies on nothing less than designing the practice of design itself. That makes him a designer's designer in quite a special sense.

When the brilliant film designer Anton Furst committed suicide last year, his son offered an insight into the cause: “He always told me the tools of his trade were a 6B pencil and a store of putty. He was in control with his pencil; but suddenly he was dealing with unknown things. He worried about the fact that he wasn't producing anything. He needed to be drawing.”

Colin Forbes does not need to be drawing. Graphic designers once used an archaic commercial art term, “on the board,” to describe what was misleadingly thought of as “actual designing.” Even more misleading, time on the board was sometimes equated with billable time. When I asked Colin how much time he spent on the board, he responded instantly: “None.” (But he does a lot of cutting-and-pasting, which is done on desk, table or floor for that matter.)

In Forbes's case, drawing has been superceded by, and subordinate to, running a large, scattered and complex organization. That in itself is not an unusual phenomenon, but the way Forbes approaches it is. One of the common ironies of design is that the more successful an office gets, the less time the principals responsible for its success have to design. Instead, they spend their time sustaining relationships and happy ships—getting new business and keeping old, making presentations, going to meetings, directing the work of other people. Forbes does all of those things, but he does them without resentment or even resignation. He does not see it as compromise; he sees it as design, and he likes it.

“There are different ways of designing,” he explains. “Alan Fletcher might doodle with a logo first, but designing the system, which might be where I'd start, is no different.”

Most successful designers handle the pressures of business management in one of three ways. They succumb to it as a necessary evil, becoming front men for themselves, or for what once was themselves. Or they develop the rare skill of designing through other people's minds and hands and talents. Or they resist growth, and work pretty much by themselves, with perhaps an assistant or two to do mechanicals, thereby limiting the scale and logistical complexity of the assignments they can undertake. Forbes took, or rather cared, another route. He became the chief designer of an alternative choice called Pentagram, to which he is inextricably bound both by accident and design.

Born in London in 1928, Forbes studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. “Art school was for misfits,” he says with some satisfaction. Thrown in with the other misfits, he discovered generally what he wanted to do, and specifically how far he was from being able to do it competitively. “I could draw better than anyone else in the senior class in middle school,” he recalls; but in art school the ante was raised: “suddenly I was surrounded by people who all drew better than anyone in the senior class. And better than I did.”

Forbes gleefully describes Central School as “an organizational disaster,” a circumstance he credits with leaving students free to learn. It also left students free not to learn, a freedom Forbes came perilously close to enjoying fully. One of his treasured teachers was a wood engraver named John Farleigh, who said to him one day, “Colin, I can't teach you anything because you haven't read anything.” Farleigh gave him a list of a dozen books to read, most of which Forbes can no longer name, although he remembers that it included Huxley's Brave New World and Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and that others were by Dos Passos, Waugh and Dostoyevski. Although none of the books were about art or design, he regards the reading list as intrinsic to his learning to be a designer.

“Farleigh was one of a series of wonderful mentors I had,” Forbes says. Many designers have important mentors, but in Forbes's case their guidance had to do as much with management as with design. In the mid-Sixties Ian Hay-Davidson, of Arthur Andersen, instructed him in issues of partnership. Another mentor was a printer's representative who “gave me tips about running a business and introduced me to such simple commercial realities as the need for cash flow.” Another was Bernard Scott (later Sir Bernard Scott), chairman of Lucas Industries, who recommended that Forbes read J.P. Sloan's My Years at General Motors, to learn something about the diversification of profit centers. He did, and also learned “the importance of distinguishing between operational decisions and policy decisions.”

While studying at Central, Forbes worked as assistant to Herbert Spencer, and upon graduating began doing freelance assignments. At the same time, he held a lecturing post at Central, which he left to work as art director with a small advertising agency. Within the year he returned to the Central School as Head of Graphic Design. He was 28.

In 1960, largely on the basis of having been retained as design consultant to Pirelli in England, he left teaching to begin his own practice. During a visit to the United States, armed with a letter of introduction to Aaron Burns, he called on Burns and on a number of designers he admired, including Will Burtin, Gene Federico and Paul Rand. Among the younger American designers he met, Forbes was particularly impressed by Robert Brownjohn, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar, who, as the fledgling firm of Brownjohn, Chermayeff and Geismar, struck him as “three young guys doing interesting things.” Back in London in 1962 he joined Alan Fletcher and Bob Gill, an American living in London, to form Fletcher, Forbes and Gill. They too were three young guys (all in their early thirties) and at least two of the first things they did were interesting, if only because in England they were so unusual: they invested more money than they could afford in the design of their own offices, and they undertook a program of self-promotion.

That may really have been the beginning of Forbes's development into the very special kind of designer he has become. “I had abilities that complemented theirs,” he says. “I was the one who planned. This was partly by default—no one else was doing it—and partly because I was good at it. Actually I'm shy and introverted, but I do have good people skills and good diplomatic skills. In any case, I gained more from Fletcher, Forbes and Gill then either Fletcher or Gill did.”

England was ablaze with creative activity in the early Sixties. Before our very eyes and ears The Beatles were transmogrified from a funky Liverpool group into an international musical life force. The satiric revue “Beyond the Fringe” launched Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook as comics and social critics. Mary Quant was influencing the way women designed themselves.

Graphic design was part of the cultural explosion, and Fletcher, Forbes and Gill belonged to it. But although they were soon doing well, they were doing well in a way they had not prepared for and were unable to control.

“About half of our business,” Forbes says, “was trouble-shooting for advertising agencies. When an agency was out to get a new account or to save one they thought was at risk, they would give us a job on Friday that they wanted by Monday. We felt that we were being used as a 'hot shop' to build someone else's business, and we didn't want to continue doing that. We took a hard took at the situation and decided there were two choices: to become an advertising agency ourselves or to move into the design mainstream. The first wasn't really a choice. We didn't have any interest in becoming an agency and didn't have the competence either. So we chose mainstream.”

One mainstream project for Fletcher, Forbes and Gill was the graphics program for the 1965 Triennale in Milan, which they were doing in collaboration with the architect Theo Crosby. That experience led the architect and the three graphic designers to join forces. “Whoever needed a letterhead or a brochure,” Forbes says, “probably had an office, shop or showroom. Whoever wanted new offices probably needed mailing pieces.”

It was at this point that the cluster of freelancers began to be an Organization. At the time he joined them in 1965, Theo Crosby was working on a town center complex. According to an article by Michael McNay in Design, “Gill asked him when the first buildings would go up. 'About 1973,' Crosby said. 'That's a long time to have to wait for a proof,' Gill said, and shortly after departed.”

Fletcher, Forbes and Crosby had become a team in order to take on large-scale, multidisciplinary projects. But when they got such projects to work on, they found that they still did not have the requisite disciplines in-house. Designing British Petroleum service stations, for example, brought the firm face to face with the problem of gas pumps. Just as they had previously worked with Crosby on the Triennale, they now collaborated with the young but already established product designer Kenneth Grange. And just as the relationship with Crosby had led to his joining them as a partner, the collaboration with Grange led to his joining them as a partner. The team, which had by that time strengthened their graphics capacity with the addition of Mervyn Kurlansky, had suddenly become five partners in search of a name. Alan Fletcher, the designer most likely to be caught reading a book about witchcraft, came across the word “Pentagram” in a book on the subject. If the rest is design history, it is history that Colin Forbes, as the founding partner who chaired the partner's policy meetings for 20 years, had a great deal to do with making and planning.

But for all his emphasis on the planning aspect of design, Forbes believes no designer can stray very far from the craft of design. Even his analytical skills, he believes, were developed by his designing with type. The other craft that informs all his work is drawing, and he quotes approvingly a drawing teacher who told him, “Colin, the reason you don't draw correctly is that you don't see correctly.” “He was right,” Forbes says, “and if I hadn't been trying to learn how to draw, I might never have been forced to learn how to see, which is far more important for a designer.” How clearly he sees is evident in the work on these pages.

For “The Craftsman's Art,” a catalogue done 20 years ago for a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the lettering was incised in shale by hand, a process less expensive than phototypesetting and more germane to the subject. The “Connections” poster for Simpson is, like much of Forbes's work, simultaneously self-explanatory and intriguing. A brochure for a type house reverses the image of Laurel and Hardy to illustrate distortion. A poster explains the metric system (which was then about to become standard in Britain) in terms of the sizes of objects that are both familiar and—particularly in juxtaposition—graphically interesting. Sometimes there are startlingly simple solutions, like the advertisement signed by great artists and thinkers protesting museum admission fees.

These pieces seem almost to have an 18th century English sensibility (at least, stereotypically) in their wit, reason and clarity—qualities that are also characteristic of Pentagram . The firm has introduced a certain Age of Reason civility into design office management. Their celebrated in-house luncheon facilities are an example, of sorts, but Pentagram civility is probably best expressed in the firm's publications. These designers began publishing their own books almost as soon as they began practicing design! In 1963 Fletcher, Forbes and Gill produced Graphic Design: Visual Comparisons. In 1972 the five Pentagram partners published Pentagram: The Work of Five Designers, followed by Living By Design in 1978, and Ideas on Design in 1986. A new book, A Pentagram Compendium, will appear later this year.

In addition, there are the widely admired Pentagon Papers, which are not a series of documents stolen from the CIA by Daniel Ellsberg, but a series of small publications issued occasionally on whatever design-related subjects interest the partner-editors.

The success of Colin Forbes, and of Pentagram, can be described as coming close to the simple ideal of liking what you do. In 1978 Forbes established a New York office for Pentagram. It was a risky move, one no foreign design office had done successfully.

There were, to be sure, some reasons to justify the risk. Half of the Fortune 500 companies were concentrated in the eastern U.S. So many American companies were doing business in Europe that an American-based design office would be in a good position to get European work. And New York was the world's largest market for design services. Forbes saw that market as divided between two kinds of design firms: the traditional offices run by designers, and the offices that were organized—on the Lippincott and Margulies model—very much like advertising agencies, with design and designers subordinate to other disciplines. Pentagram belonged inescapably to the first category, but Forbes believed they could offer a managerial sophistication that few traditional offices even aspired to.

All of that made good sense, but it would have made no sense at all were it not for the real reason for opening an office in New York: Colin just plain wanted to live there. His experience in bringing Pentagram to the U.S. is typical, combining the passionately personal with the organizationally strategic. He established a beachhead in George Nelson's office. It was a curious match, and one that did not last long. Perhaps its most notable product is the dust jacket Forbes designed for the book Nelson on Design.

Designing an organization, like designing almost anything else, carries risks. Guy Laliberte, the former fire-eater who manages the Canadian circus called Cirque du Soleil, was asked in the Wall Street Journal whether it was tougher to make a living by eating fire or by running an organization. “You can get burned doing both,” Laliberte replied.

If Forbes has been burned, it has not kept him from bringing to the design community at large the kind of managerial fire-eating he practiced at Pentagram. From 1976 to 1979 he was president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

Wim Crouwel, who followed him into the AGI presidency, says Forbes's tenure there betokened a “combination of great designer, perfect organizer and brilliant manager.” Nancye Green, who succeeded Forbes as AIGA president, has a more specific observation: “Colin's contribution, both as a designer and as AIGA president, has been the translation of business practice into design practice.”

Professionally, Colin Forbes has gone beyond the complexities of a large practice to compile an extraordinary record of design statesmanship. But in design, as in politics, there can be no statesmanship without citizenship. This year's AIGA Medalist is an impeccable citizen of the design world.

Copyright 1992 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.