KUALA LUMPUR, April 6 — If a picture speaks a thousand words, then good design can talk your ears off. At any rate, multi-award winning graphic designer Phil Cleaver could. After 35 years in the design industry, the garrulous Englishman — perhaps most famous for his redesign of the VISA brand -- has written a new book aimed at fresh design graduates. (As a professor in the Creative Industries at Middlesex University’s School of Art and Design, he knows a thing or two.)
Titled What They Didn’t Teach You in Design School, the book distils Cleaver’s design philosophy and hard-won lessons. With his early typographical work archived in St Bride’s Printing Library and his book design in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s National Art Library, the man is a living legend.
Cleaver’s early years were far from a bed of roses though due to dyslexia. He recalls, “Those days, people didn’t know about this condition yet so you were considered thick or stupid. I learned to read by learning the shape of every word. That’s right; I had to memorise every word in the English language just to be functional. It took me a long time! It would have been easier to have been born Chinese; I’d have less to remember!”
However, Cleaver’s tenacity paid off and today he is proud of his achievement. In fact, what was initially a challenge turned out to be a blessing. He explains, “With dyslexia, it’s like when you’re blind, so your sense of hearing increases. Since I don’t really process sounds from letter forms, my visual sense had to become more enhanced.”
As a result, the Londoner showed an aptitude for the arts when young. When Cleaver left school at age 16 with an A Level in Art & Pottery, his future path seemed clear. He says, “I was only any good at art or cooking. And at that day and age, you had to speak French to get a job in cooking. I could hardly speak English much less French, so”
After art school, Cleaver rapidly discovered how his tough, no-nonsense personality would set him apart from the rest of the young designers.
He says, “I looked for a job at this design firm. The guy there told me it wouldn’t work so I set out to prove him wrong. I came back to show him my work, what I thought was right, and then he said, ‘Now I’ll teach you.’ That guy turned out to be a world-famous design guru, Anthony Froshaug, and I became his protégé. That early victory opened doors for me in the design world.”
In 1977, Cleaver worked for Alan Fletcher of Pentagram, one of the top design studios of that period in England. He recalls, “Back then, everyone smoked.
Alan would walk around and help himself to his assistants’ cigarettes without a word. And me, I was only a junior junior. That meant I was the junior to Alan’s junior assistant — you couldn’t get any lower than that!
“Well, one day his hand came down to take one of my cigarettes, and I couldn’t stop myself. I said, ‘Oi, either pay me more money so I can buy you more fags or F– off and buy your own.’ He went, ‘Oh, okay’ and he just smiled at me. And from then on, we got along really well. He turned out to be the most kind-hearted designer I ever met and our friendship continued for 30-odd years until he died.”
Over the years, Cleaver has learned that his greatest strength is his ability to see things differently from others. He shares, “Once I was asked to do a job for a modern art gallery in Edinburgh and they wanted a symbol for their logo. Most art galleries don’t have symbols because it affects the way you perceive their artwork, so this wasn’t an easy brief.”
Instead of looking at modern artwork for inspiration, Cleaver poured over a city map of Edinburgh. He observed that the main roads of the city resembled the shape of a dog. He then used the shape of the roads as the gallery’s logo.
“Sometimes you have to think outside the box. Of course, if everyone is thinking outside the box, then you’ve got to think inside the box. Either way, you can’t solve a problem if you don’t define the problem,” he says.
Cleaver believes in applying plenty of common sense in his designs, with a generous dose of humour. He is always on the lookout for talent — hence his new book — if these young designers would only help themselves.
He says, “Once during an interview in the 80s, I had someone pass off my own work as part of his portfolio. Now, we had more work in those days than we had designers to do it. I started asking him questions about the work, such as the typeface used. If he could have bluffed it, I would have hired him. (I thought his taste was very good, naturally.) But he hadn’t done his homework, and when the other interviewer told him who I was, he turned pale and left immediately!”
Lesson learned: if you’re going to plagiarise someone else’s work, at least figure out why you would have designed that piece. (Better yet: create something original.) Or as Cleaver puts it, “Use your brains. A lot of what I do is common sense. But it’s amazing how uncommon common sense is.”
Designers fresh out of art school often make the same mistakes over and over, especially when they are looking for their first job. Cleaver notes that most would put all their design work on the web so by the time they get an interview, they’ve got nothing left in their portfolio to talk or showcase.
He adds, “There are a lot of what I call Mac monkeys — people who have learned how to use all the software but somehow have forgotten that you can do design without a computer. A good idea is a good idea. If you can’t articulate the idea, you can’t actually design it. As a designer you’ve got to get out of the way; it’s not about you but about you having the skill sets to help others.”
Malaysia’s diverse melting pot of cultures fascinates Cleaver. He explains, “If you go to China, it’s still very Chinese. India, Thailand the culture you get is very singular. But when you come to Malaysia, you have this merging of different Asian cultures. For example, the food is amazing! By contrast, I think Singapore has just sanitised Asia. It’s more like a Disney theme park; the whole thing feels man-made.”
As such Cleaver suggests that, instead of copying the West, Malaysian graphic designers ought to take the best of what they have learned from Western design but use our rich mix of cultures to create a uniquely Malaysian design sensibility. He says, “The thing is, nowadays you go around the world, and suddenly Shanghai looks like New York. They all look the same.”
The challenge, then, is for local designers to avoid this pitfall and offer something fresh. Malaysian design boleh, anyone?
What They Didn’t Teach You in Design School by Phil Cleaver. Find out more at http://whattheydidntteachyouindesign