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Tonight British graphic designer, Angus Hyland spoke with Gert Staal as part of Premsela's Pioneers of Industrial Culture lecture series in Amsterdam.  Topics ranged from the business model of design firm Pentagram to his personal views on the power of graphic design.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 15-09-2011

The Independent on Sunday listed him as one of the UK’s top 10 graphic designers, but Angus Hyland is as humble and self-deprecating as you’d expect any self-respecting Brit to be.

Hyland opted for a Master’s at the Royal College of Art in London because it was in a leafy suburb, offered an “arty alternative” to the rigours of his undergraduate degree in information graphics, and because he was dyslexic.

“You get a lot of good thinking time when you do your Master’s,” he told an audience at Amstelkerk in Amsterdam this evening.  “I didn’t do much, but I remember it so well.”

It is hard to get Hyland to talk about his early work. “I think if you look back and are not embarrassed by it, then you can say it was good,” he said, but remembering it is apparently often not worth the effort.  “I don’t spend a lot of time gazing at my own portfolio,” he added wryly.

It’s not even easy to get him talking about his current work at Pentagram, an independent, multidisciplinary firm with one of the best reputations in the industry.  It’s lucky that he ended up working there at all. “Even when I was an undergrad, it was a seminal studio,” he explained.  “But it wasn’t on top of my list of desired places to work.   It was too much a part of the establishment, which back then I wanted to avoid.”

And it took some getting used to.  “I couldn't get used to the scale of it,” he said.  “I was used to a row boat and this was a full-on tanker.”

Pentagram has a very flat operation with everyone working and acting as partners and directors.  “We have a chairman who manages us, but that is a rotating position that changes every two years,” he said.

Things don't change much because the system is hardwired into the fabric of the studio.  “It’s like a multi-celled organism that sort of flips around a bit.  New bits are added and it evolves, but nothing drastic can ever happen.  It just couldn’t.”

And Hyland agreed with interviewer Staal that the system probably works to the studio’s advantage.

When Staal probed Hyland on the broader goals and accomplishments of graphic design he was characteristically skeptical and prickly.  He agreed that a group of designers more than any individual designer is more likely to have the collective strength to improve upon the quality of industrial life, but doubted whether Pentagram had the necessary muscle.  At least any more.

“Design today is a bit of a lifestyle business,” he said.  “You can’t make a huge profit, but what you can do is determine the people you are surrounded by.”

“But can you make an impact?” challenged Staal.

“I don’t know,” said Hyland.  “We are a practical, pragmatic, commercial organization and we do what we can do.”

Hyland sees design as a different industry to what it once was.  When he was studying there was one book on the subject, now hundreds of new titles come out every year, and the general public is bombarded with so much more.  “That all improves their faculties and perceptions,” he said, “but it also makes graphic design a different ball game.  It has a more developed culture, but at the same time it does not have the same significance.”

Pentagram is atypical.  It is not a small boutique agency, nor is it a big branding firm.  “And we aren’t even somewhere in the middle,” he said, “maybe we are on the periphery of both.”

Hyland talked a bit about how clients are more prone to marketing, but he does not let that influence the way he fundamentally works.  “Look, sometimes you have to work in that vernacular in terms of communicating to the client what you have done.  And besides, all design is strategic somewhere along the line so in terms of brand strategy, we need to know the building blocks of that strategy so we can respond creatively.  That is fine, it is just that a lot of the stuff that surrounds it all is pseudo-science and one needs to cut trough all the noise.

“Sometimes you just have to talk the talk,” he continued, “mostly because the clients indulge in that sort of talk themselves.  But at the end of the day we all need a practical solution so it doesn’t really matter what you say.  It matters what you do.”

As for technology, Hyland is ambivalent about its impact other than that it leads to so much more design.  “But there are only so many colours in the rainbow,” he said, “ and only so many ways to draw up a lower case G.”

As to his dyslexia, Hyland sees a connection between it and his chosen profession.  “None of my year could spell and if you can't sit an academic exam, but happen to be good at art, then it narrows down your options. … I think it has a lot to do with sequencing.  I need non-linear brain patterns.  I like to make horizontal leaps, and more intuitive leaps than people with a more structured process.”

Staal decided to end his interview on the topic of London’s very difficult summer of discontent.

“We are all guilty,” Hyland said.  “It is about consumerism.”

“But is there anything design can do to bridge the gap between those that have access to wealth and those that don’t?” asked Staal.

“It comes back to the dichotomy of design,” replied Hyland. “Design can be utilized for commercial gain but there is also a social side.    It can benefit society by better communicating and educating.  I think the balance should be more evenly distributed, but moving the money from one side to the other is quite difficult.”

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