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Architecture + Design: On Graphic Design

In India, with the opening of the economy in the early 90s, graphic design in general and corporate identity in particular received a big boost as Indian industry braced itself for the international market. From posters to magazines and books to industry at large, graphic design has been an integral part of our modern lifestyle. Ever since American typographer William Addison Dwiggins first coined the term ‘graphic design’, it has been recognised as a specialised area of the broader field of design.

Organising signs and symbols, words and images as a medium of visual communication first came into spotlight in the early twentieth century when Peter Behrens was appointed artistic director of AEG, a major manufacturer of generators, cables, light bulbs, arc lamps and other goods for domestic and industrial use. It heralded the birth of corporate identity. He redesigned AEG’s trademark as a hexagonal motif, reminiscent of a honeycomb, which he then applied to the designs of new products such as electric kettles, fans and lamps. This led to visual consistency in all AEG goods. The classicism of Behren’s designs, with their striking use of symmetry, geometry and strong black and white contrasts, was praised for giving AEG a look which was artistic yet rational.

Rajesh Mishra converses with Anthony Lopez, an established graphic designer based in Delhi, on various aspects of graphic designing. He is one of the few Indian graphic designers who participated in the International Council of Graphic Design Association (ICOGRADA) Congress 2003, the prestigious world graphic design congress at Nagoya, Japan earlier this winter. Formed in 1963, ICOGRADA is the largest design organisation with 76 member associations from 44 countries.

RM: What was the aim of the ICOGRADA Congress held this year at Nagoya?

AL: It was the largest gathering of graphic designers, with some of the biggest names in the field such as Neville Brody of the UK, making presentations. The primary aim was to review the fundamental role of visual communication in the twenty first century from diverse perspectives and contrasting global environments.

One of the high points was the introduction of a novel approach to discourse and communication using technology called Visualogue. This new method of dialogue employed all available elements of design. In this, one topic was taken and a number of speakers spoke on it from a common platform while showing their respective work simultaneously, and then had an interactive dialogue with the audience.

To cite an example the Visualogue on ‘Japan’s Poster Design’ had Christopher Mount of the USA along with Kazumasa Nagai, Tadanori Yokoo and Masuteru Aoba of Japan. They reviewed some of the most influential poster designers in Japan from the godfather of the genre Yusaka Kamekura with his famous 1964 Tokyo Olympics posters. While Mount provided the outsider perspective, Nagai critiqued his own work speaking about the meaning behind some of his more abstract symbolism. Yokoo, on the other hand, declined to speak on his own work asking, instead, the other panelists and audience to feel and see his work.

RM: En route to Japan, you made a presentation in Kuala Lumpur I believe!

AL: They wanted to know what kind of work graphic designers in India were doing. I shared a common platform to discuss the course design is taking in the South-east Asian context. Malaysian designers are increasingly conscious about the social and the cultural influence of design. Like India and the rest of the region, they too have adopted the western visual idiom at the cost of the local cultural and social identity.

In fact, due to this reason Japan became critical to me. There’s a notion that Japan has done a great job in dexterously weaving modernity with tradition. But my personal view is that is not the absolute truth.

RM: Why do you say so?

AL: One of the main reasons is the huge influence of the West, be it in the form of Hollywood or designer labels or music. But having said that design, as a body, is extremely strong there and the dialogue between modernity and tradition is an ongoing process, they are constantly at it. It’s not uncommon to encounter beautiful traditional Shinto temples in the midst of highly modern structures. And l am told they keep rebuilding some temples once every 50 years so that the traditional way of building is never lost. A bit like our guru-shishya parampara where knowledge is passed to subsequent generations.

RM: What is the Japanese contribution to graphic design?

AL: Along with product design the Japanese have played a major role in graphic design. And Japanese graphic design has a very district character. They were also one of the pioneers of the poster. Today they make the world’s best posters. The other major contribution has been in the field of typography. The character of their letterforms and their calligraphy is renowned the world over. They as people, are very sensitive to composition, form and their whole approach is very well crafted.

Today in Japan, there are three distinct schools of graphic design. The old established order, then there is the new with its funky style, with only the typography being quintessentially Japanese, otherwise it could be any where in the world. And the last is Kitsch, which is there everywhere in the world. What you see in the highly developed societies is that the level of Kitsch reduces, where as you see more of it in less visually developed places like ours. In the name of design everything passes. People accept it as they do not know how to react to it. 

RM: Is the Japanese design sensibility more evolved than the rest of Asia?

AL: In Japan, I happened to travel on the bullet train that reaches speeds of over three hundred kilometers with all its technological marvels like no jerks and vibration. However the thing that impressed me was that at the last station where the train has to reverse back, all the seats turn-around automatically. I think, that is a beautiful design as it is so uncomfortable to travel facing backwards. The train at Kuala Lumpur came much after the one in Japan but they didn’t incorporate this feature.

They are the masters of detail. If you have a tree out there, there will be a nice mesh around it with breathing space at the same time, it ensures that dust doesn’t travel out. And also there will be an automatic sprinkler, which is taking care of the water.

This kind of transformation can’t happen over night. And it is not merely a design exercise. Mindsets have to change. Our politicians and industry have to be aware of design.

RM: What of India vis-à-vis graphic design?
AL: In the Indian context graphic design is still in its infancy. However, there were four speakers from India at the ICOGRADA. I would say the rest of the world is looking at India. The fact that we have history with us and how it has permeated into South-east Asia gives us an advantage. India is the source of much of the philosophy in these regions. We have to nurture that and bring it out in our work in today’s context.

RM: That is nicely put but can you elaborate more on the subject?

AL: I tell you how we plan to do that. Just waking up to it is not going to help. What will happen is you’ll do a cut and paste job, you’ll be taking your past and putting it in the future. What we plan long-term research on the various aspects of our history, festivals, culture, clours, traditions… first hand, second hand through books by talking to experts and traveling. For example – Diwali is perceived in different regions in different forms. And it is wonderfully complex and beautiful. But that beauty can’t come out in the modern context unless you imbibe it. Unless you feel that beauty. Each of us has to do that in order to make it a movement. There may be a lot of people (designers) doing it in pockets but that’s not going to create a cohesive impact. The good news is a body called INGRAPH (Indian graphic designer forum) has been formed in Mumbai. It should be a precursor to India’s membership with ICOGRADA.

RM: On the ground how can graphic designers make a difference?

AT: I’ll cite an example. In Japan you pick up a map and it is so well designed that even without knowing the language you can get to your destination. In India you’ll seldom come across a well designed map. Eicher is India’s first designer map. And even that is not very well designed.

Even in the social and health sector a lot can be done. A blind man can walk any where in Japan and the street will tell him where to stop and turn. Wherever you go whether its underground rail or public buildings its amazing how the Japanese have paved all their public areas. I believe designers have a special responsibility not just to the needs of their clients, but society at large. The phenomenal persuasive power of graphic design could be harnessed and directed in a way that it radically alters the way people think and live.

RM: If you were given an opportunity to work on a city like Delhi what would you pick on?

AL: First would be signages. To characterize Delhi as the capital city we can have a wonderful functional system symbolic of Delhi. Function has to be taken care of and then a distinct character infused into it.

All visual are designs of Anthony Lopez

Rajesh Mishra is a freelance writer and a photographer sensitized to design evolutions.

Architecture + Design, April 2004
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