Remembering Ken Garland (1929-2021): the original British artivist designer
Graphic designer and activist, known for his work with Galt Toys, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and his manifesto First Things First, Ken Garland passed away on the 20th of May of cancer. He was 92 years old.
A very political, therefore immensely influential graphic designer, writer, and teacher Garland was an avid socialist and fighter for good.
Garland learned his professional craft and first made his mark as art editor (1956-62) of Design magazine – the official journal of the state-funded Council of Industrial Design (from 1972, the Design Council) notes The Guardian. "The magazine advocated the social benefits of good design, and today Ken’s incisive modernist cover designs enjoy star status on graphic design Instagram feeds."
Believing in the power of the few, his studio, Ken Garland & Associates produced a body of work that combined the clean lines of Swiss typography with the verve of mid-century American graphic expression for a very British take on visual language. He was calling it a "fusion."
Working with small to medium-sized clients -he avoided a meeting with IBM UK amongst others-, and the Labour party, Garland, and his team pathed the way to activist design.
His manifesto First Things First which he delivered at a meeting in 1963 of the Society of Industrial Artists (SIA) is radical and humane.
In it, Garland questioned the role of designers as practitioners in serving a culture rooted in consumerism.
"We are proposing a reversal of priorities in favor of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication. We hope that our society will tire of gimmick merchants, status salesmen, and hidden persuaders and that the prior call on our skills will be for worthwhile purposes" he writes.
The Guardian reprinted his manifesto, and eventually "found its way in a couple of magazines towards the end of the century, and a group of writers and designers produced an updated First Things First Manifesto 2000 for publication in several journals for the start of the new one. Art school students were drawn to its polemical and questioning tone, and Ken enjoyed a newfound status as a star turn in colleges and lecture theatres around the world. His lectures were irreverent and provocative."
"Politics was integral to Garland’s life, most notably through his design work for CND, but also through his humanist and compassionate attitude evident in his many writings and teachings. At the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at Reading, where he taught for 28 years from 1971, he was a hugely valued tutor (as well as ‘the life and soul of the end of year party,’ and ‘an enthusiastic dancer’, as two former students recalled). ‘Ken would breeze into the prefab typography department in Reading, wearing his trademark embroidered hat and shake us up with his playful one-day exercises,’ says the designer John Morgan, ‘To those that didn’t know Ken, you might think the author of ‘First Things First’ would be of an earnest or sober disposition. Ken was just as committed to delight and joy in design and life. With a twinkle in those eyes, full of curiosity and intelligence, he reminded us that sometimes it is better to dance first and think later.’" writes Wallpaper.
"Garland’s evolving thoughts and opinions were collected in a book of essays, ‘A Word in Your Eye,’ published in 1996 and still one of the most readable works on visual culture during this period of rapid change. He also wrote the definitive study of Harry Beck’s original work on the London Underground map in the 1930s, a 1994 monograph that predated the enthusiasm for the stoic, no-nonsense authority of British transportation design, now spilling over into all manner of ephemeral products."
"Ken Garland’s legacy is one of quiet confidence, as well as unstinting support and encouragement for individual creativity. He loved the ad-hoc and the ephemeral, especially when they were very personal statements, like graffiti, but decried the visual chaos of unnecessary choice and complexity, especially when it came from large corporations. His legacy lives in a particular form of British design and typography, one that values content and consistency, modesty and restraint, but which is unafraid to let itself go when the time is right."
Kenneth John Garland, graphic designer, teacher, and writer was born on the 19th of February 1929.