I visited the Abram Games exhibition at The Ruskin Gallery last week and have been in a state of some reflection since. I have always felt ambivalent about Games’ work; its familiarity negating its immediacy with every viewing. Any pictorial history of WWII, essay on propaganda or review of the medium of the poster is not complete without a Games’ image or two. As a student I felt uncomfortable at his self promotional maxim “Maximum message, minimum means”, worthy as it was, and as I continued my studies I tended to favour the the work of less well-known designers, the anonymous or forgotten producers of work that remain because of their intrinsic visual value and not because they were originated by a media-friendly designer figure.
At that point I believed that there was something rather noble about graphic designers; invisible people producing the worlds visible communications. I considered the signing of work was the privilege of the fine artists. Those who toil at their work for passion, politics or posterity. The names recorded in art were earned, much like those found on war memorials but for much less heroic deeds. It also seemed to me a very ‘un-British’ sort of thing.
When I was first introduced to the work of Games I was also learning about Frederic Goudy and Raymond Loewy as well as A.M. Cassandre and The Bauhaus. These Americans and Europeans were proper famous designers that I’d heard of before and were infinitely more exotic and flamboyant, more disposed to signing their work and being famous for doing it. This probably had a lot to do with growing up during the 1970’s and 80’s on a grim council estate in Sheffield, where life was pretty tough and anyone who wasn’t from England was exotic.
So I had dismissed Games as a self-promoting, devil worshipping (OK, maybe not, but I needed to see if you were still reading!) braggart and aspired to the Europeans for their regimented, scholarly approach – I can’t tell you how much I ached – a c h e d – to attend some sort of Bauhaus school (much like my kids want to go to Hogwarts!) but I also fell under the spell of the Yanks, particularly Herb Lubalin, Saul Bass and Paul Rand, largely for their playfulness and fluidity of execution.Games seemed to belong to a bygone age, continually helping a nation to recover during the post-war years, whilst his counterparts were designing cars with elaborate chrome and fins, expressive rebus logotypes and fancy packaging for expensive luxury goods and cigarettes.
As the eighties bled into the nineties, the Apple Mac changed the industry in its biggest shake-up since Gutenberg and a new clutch of designers (what is the collective name for a group of designers? A grid?) came to the fore to seduce us. Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett, David Carson and The Designers Republic pushed the work of Games further into the past. Even in the early days of the Mac, it was clear that the airbrush, ruling pen and french curves had their cards marked. (Check out this link – it’s like a studio graveyard!). What once took weeks or careful preparation, drawing, masking, spraying and re-masking can now be executed within the hour (or so our clients believe!) Our clients are not much more involved in the process as they once were, but they are certainly more prone to ‘put their mark’ on a project (just make the logo a bit bigger!)which can be accommodated with a few deft clicks of a mouse. Previously, a change like this would have entailed a time consuming and very costly reworking. So the technology develops and replaces its predecessor, so too do the designers.
Back to where I started. Looking at Games’ work now – actual prints from his own archive – I was immediately struck by the technical accomplishment in the execution of each piece. The accompanying sketches, refinements and rejected ideas put the human scale back into the work I’d become familiar with from books and college lectures. Like the majority of designers, he worked with a loose methodology and a fair bit of on the spot judgement based on experience. His ideas didn’t come into the world fully finished; like a child, the design needs nurturing and encouraging before it discovers itself.
The messages and styles were obviously dated – it is a fallacy to consider graphic design as timeless – but they certain lived up to his maxim; there was no decoration where it was not needed, and every element contributed to the greater communication of the piece. As a body of work, there was a coherent, but flexible style, as much evident during the seventies as it was during the war, but relating the the prevailing trends of the day. I was more impressed with the posters for the London Zoo than I expected, the scale and colour allowing them more opportunity to dazzle and seduce the eye than the reproductions in books.
I am smitten. I am ashamed to think of what I may have said to students about Abram Games over the years. It is at this point that I hope that nobody listened to me and make my apologies. I should go and look for some other designers who didn’t make the grade first time round.
If you can get to Cambridge, it’s worth the visit, but don’t worry if you can’t as the exhibition is touring and may find itself near you at some point. Do a google search for Games and you’ll have access to far more images and information than I had as a student. Maybe you’ll take to him quicker than I have. I hope so…