I don’t know, I don’t really understand the design profession any more — an interview with Hamish Muir

Originally written for Less Common More Sense #8 (the student magazine of the University of the Arts London), January 2007

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Lurking at the back of the Information Design studio with the photographer, Ann, I start to feel a bit guilty about us being here. The art director wants a shot of Hamish with his back to the camera and he’s consciously moved to a position where we can work without getting in his way too much whilst he teaches. The class has been asked if anyone looked at a piece of A1 before starting work on the latest project. No hands go up, but someone quips that they looked at a piece of A2.

“Why only A2? Why not look at A1?”

The student answers that she already had an A2 poster on the wall so just imagined what it looks like from that. The class seems distracted — which might, or might not, have something to do with the photographer crouching down behind Hamish. He glances backwards as Ann moves to her left to try another shot before turning toward the class again. Ann finishes the roll of film and we decide that perhaps we should leave him to it, quietly slipping out of the studio with our things.

An hour or so earlier and we’re standing in the Information Design studio having just been told that Hamish Muir has gone to a meeting and won’t be back until two. Just as I’m wondering whether it is actually Thursday or whether perhaps he’s had a change of heart I spot him unlocking his office door. “I’m glad you found me,” he says after I’ve explained who we are. “I was just about to look at my diary to see where I was supposed to be.”

Hamish is known for his involvement with 8vo, a studio that produced typographically-led work from the early 1980s to its close in 2001. During that time they were responsible for some groundbreaking design work — billing systems for Thames Water and Powergen; posters and records for Factory; Octavo, the international journal of typography — although if asked about it the members of 8vo would perhaps not be too happy with this prefix.

Along with Mark Holt (another member of the 8vo studio) he recently authored and designed 8vo — On the Outside, a “deliberately unassuming book” that documents the process of 8vo throughout its 17-year existence. Whilst reading it I began to get the impression that Hamish wasn’t too keen to spend so much time writing and talking about 8vo, and he seems slightly relieved when I mention that I don’t want to spend too much time talking about his work with the studio.

“It would be nice to leave it behind in a way, but it’s a bit of a ball and chain in some ways.”

But do you find that it is the work of 8vo that you are mostly known for?

“Well yes, because it’s what I did. The work I’ve done since then… well I haven’t done a great deal of work because I’ve spent more time teaching than doing. At the moment I’m doing full-time teaching but my intention was not to teach full-time. I’m more interested in working with students than attending committee meetings and writing course documents so I’ll be quite relieved when I go back to being a point 5. But I think there’s an interesting balance between teaching and work really, and I’m happy to do both. I think I’d like to do more design work than I do but I’m quite busy I suppose.”

What about the apparent lack of output from the members of 8vo — was it a deliberate decision or something that just happened as they moved onto other things?

“It’s probably something to do with age. Design is a young person’s game really. It seems that people — either individuals or small design groups — have shorter and shorter lifespans. 8vo lasted for 17 or 18 years, but I think the life expectancy of your average design company is probably more like two or three before the next generation of people come along who can do things better and cheaper. I don’t know, I don’t really understand the design profession any more.”

If you look at graphic design magazines it would certainly suggest that the lifespan of a studio is shortening. A studio or an individual might have work featured in an issue in November and six months later, flicking through that issue — by now quite old in terms of turnover of design culture — you wonder about what happened to them. Clients are always looking for the ‘next big thing’, whatever that might be.

“It’s interesting that you mentioned clients because I think clients are the problem in a way. There are no clients any more, there are just people with shopping lists and they just want the latest thing for the best price.”

So perhaps that might explain the trend towards more illustrative work, towards…

“Curlywurly graphics?”


I explain about Si Scott and the BBC programme The Art of Drawing and the opening sequence of him hand-lettering the title on a glass table, and how since then it seems to have gone slightly out of control.

“I really don’t understand the curlywurly graphics. It’s incredibly flat and boring in a way. The notion of texture and pattern were an anathema to me, personally, as a designer — I was always into structure and form. It’s probably just a ‘thing’ that we’re going through; a phase. If you look back at the surface say of the sixties it was very bubbly and frothy and psychedelic, but there were still people doing serious, structured design work. So maybe this curlywurly stuff is the froth of now.”

And the more interesting stuff is being tucked away?

“Or maybe it’s just not happening. It sounds a horribly old fashioned thing to say but when I left art school design was quite an interesting profession in that you could foresee a career but I just don’t know now whether the same is true. We seem to be educating so many people to do so many different things in both the visual and the liberal arts. Meanwhile our scientists and mathematicians are decreasing every year in terms of number of people going to university to do physics or mathematics. They’re even having trouble recruiting teachers who can teach to A-level standard in schools. It’s like the value of things has disappeared, that everything’s about… But then everybody always says that, older people always look back and say, ‘oh, it wasn’t like that in my day’, so I’m being as old-fogeyish as 50-year old people 30 years ago.”

There seems to be a certain slant towards making things look pretty on the surface with no real depth. I mention an email in which someone said something about not knowing much about design but of course liking things to look pretty. Hamish laughs.

“Yes, that’s a very good way of describing it. I think as well it’s almost like — who coined that phrase ‘pop will eat itself?’ — but that whole notion of graphic design is this self-consuming thing which is just about the surface.”

Perhaps part of the problem is to do with the way design is taught. Nick Bell brought this up at the Eye Burning Issues forum in late 2006, commenting that he thought the problem with teaching design was that it’s done in art colleges and — particularly in Britain — seems to revolve around Modernism and Post-Modernism. Perhaps teaching designers in art colleges isn’t the right way?

“I don’t really agree with that. Art colleges were very good for design. Studio groups of 30 would stay in the same place week upon week and learn from each other and they would wait for the tutors to come around. They would have a desk and a wall space to put their stuff up. I know we can’t do that any more. But art school was very competitive. It was really ruthless — there was no explanation, you just got chucked out if you were crap, so there was this notion that you had to be one, interested; two, have a modicum of talent; three, be willing to work.

Now we’re teaching a backpack generation. People turn up for a couple of hours a week with everything they own in terms of their work in a rucksack. They dump it on the table, talk to you for an hour, then they go away and you don’t see them again for another week. That’s the teaching method. But the results keep getting better so the system is proved to work and therefore the adage is less teaching, more learning. So cut the number of hours and the results will carry on getting better. Maybe it does work, I don’t know. But it seems very sad that we are not really engendering that kind of creative atmosphere.

I don’t think really that design teaching has moved on from when it used to be studio focused. We’re trying to deliver to a new group of people, to a new audience using an old model. But I think if you remodelled it and made it more general — about the things that really matter like approach, problem-solving, research methodology — and you almost took away the end result from it so it wasn’t about surface; it was about actually making graphic design. We’re still basing what we do on a very old idea of what graphic design is.”

So perhaps we need to redefine what we think graphic design is? Or rather, universities and art colleges need to think about what design teaching is. But what about other colleges around the world — have the Swiss schools or the American schools got a better grasp of what it is?

“I know a bit about the design education system in Switzerland. Until just few a years ago they still had the small group studio model — highly competitive, very difficult to get into the courses — and once you were there you really had to work, they didn’t carry anybody at all. But they’re moving now towards an American/British model because they need to increase their numbers to support the courses because the funding’s dried up.”

But surely the teaching would suffer? Swiss schools have such a reputation for the quality of their design education. Perhaps this is just a London phenomenon but I get the sense of a general apathy surrounding studying design. It’s almost as if you’re still in secondary school — the teacher sets the homework for the weekend, you do what’s required and then go out to play. Students have been studying for three, four years for a BA — why spend that much time looking at a subject you have no real enthusiasm for?

“Well yes, it’s the kind of subject that rewards passion, really. You have to care about it. I think if you want to be good at something, anything — it doesn’t matter whether it’s music or graphic design or writing or painting, whatever it is, even catching fish — you have to put your heart into it. Perhaps it’s the fault of the teachers or the system or the government or the students or everybody all together. Maybe we’re not creating an environment in which people can be anything other than apathetic. One of the things I’m struggling with at the moment is what people who enter the course think graphic design is. I want to know what they think graphic design is.”

So maybe that’s where the fault lies? Maybe tutors and course leaders should be asking what students expect the course to be; what students hope to get out of the course.

“Or even what they want to do. Maybe this is where the curlywurly stuff actually comes from. If you ask somebody who’s just done A-levels and a Foundation course and day one, year one, of a BA in graphic design who their favourite graphic designer is they’re probably not going to say Josef Müller-Brockmann or Wolfgang Weingart. They might say David Carson — or actually, it’s quite interesting if you get them to name a graphic designer. A lot of them can’t. Which I don’t necessarily think is a problem. But if you go into a graphic design bookshop most of the books I don’t recognise as graphic design, they’re about other stuff — street art. But that’s really interesting when you start to look at it because the best stencil graphics are just like really inventive single-colour silkscreen printing. What can you do with something that you cut out of the material through which you can spray paint?

And so it’s all about inventiveness, it’s about the classic idea of ‘give me the freedom of a tight brief’ — was it David Ogilvy who said that? But we’re trying to teach what we think graphic design is. History in graphic design is important because really it’s very young, it’s a hundred years old — or less than, depending on what you say is the start as a discipline. It’s all to do with this lifespan thing; everything changes so quickly.

When I was a student I started my BA course in ’76. We were still referencing stuff from the fifties and sixties and it was still current — it wasn’t history, it was part of what were doing and involved with. But I suspect now that even work from three years ago is seen as history and graphic design is only the last year to students. Maybe that’s over-exaggerating.”

But Hamish may well be right about this. I mention an article I read a few weeks ago, quite possibly on one of the thousands of ever-updating design blogs. A designer was really impressed by the freshness of the work of someone who had contacted them to ask for a placement. He was asked to come in for a chat, and at some point was asked where he found his influences. He answered that he flipped through design magazines every month and saw what he liked and what was current, and that was what influenced him. The designer was rather disappointed because it was all down to surface and aesthetic.

“So graphic design is now — anything that was before is reference-able.”

Exactly. Even if it’s three weeks, a month, or even yesterday. Writing this now, five days after I spoke to Hamish, I wonder whether design has lost sight of itself. I remember a conversation I had last year with Zak Kyes where he commented that Britain seems to have only just discovered Post-Modernism; which might go some way to explaining the explosion in curlywurly graphics.^1 It’s probably not quite as simple as that though…

“If that was really the case you’d expect graphic design to be a lot more interesting in terms of the way it looks, perhaps. I don’t know. There’s this awful feeling of fogeyism, of getting old.’

He laughs.

“But you can’t escape from it. You start to do what your parents did, you say, ‘It weren’t like that in my day, standards are slipping.’ But it’s not true. Every year people get better at it.”

But although technically the work is superb, there doesn’t really appear to be anything ‘interesting’ happening (I say this, and realise immediately that I’m going to have to elaborate on what I mean by ‘interesting’). I don’t mean something that is necessarily visually interesting, but more under-the-surface interesting. Work that intelligently solves problems seems to be lacking at the moment — you flick through Grafik or Creative Review and it all looks rather nice but it’s a CD cover, or it’s a book cover but underneath there’s… not always much.

“It’s almost like pictures of graphic design. People are making graphics about graphics about graphics. They’re making graphics which references other graphic design that doesn’t necessarily reference the problem in hand or doesn’t come from an analysis of the problem at hand. It’s going back to your point about surface again — everything tends to froth up to the same kind of level for a particular period of time, in a particular way and there’s not really much differentiation any more between content, context, or audience. So people know what things will look like before they do them. They’re going to do a ‘one of those’ rather than saying, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do so I’m going to first of all find out what the problem is, then my interaction with that problem will lead to the starting point for something which will grow into a visual response to this communication problem.’”

So perhaps we, as designers, have a problem with communicating what it is exactly that design is.

I should have said that in the studio.

Inquisitive, analytical design.

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