NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 45

Face to Face

There’s No Boundary; Face To Face With Neville Brody

Mitra Shahsavand

You’ve been the Dean of the School of Communication at the RCA for the past seven years, and our talk is taking place at a time you are stepping down. How did you come to the conclusion to make this decision? How did you find the overall experience?
When I came to the college there were no schools, there were only clusters of Programmes. The School system was formed about six months after I joined. At the time of joining, I was just Head of Programme for the Visual Communication MA. They created six schools, and then advertised the dean position, so I applied and I got the job without having had much experience in education. They had begun working on this Schools plan before I arrived – what I did was to come up with a new structure for the system, and then develop a completely new pathway and structure. The School of Communication is largely focused on a base that is created out of research, and that drives all other things. We now have four MAs: Animation, Visual Communication, Information Experience Design and Digital Direction, alongside the MRes and PhD research degrees.

The idea is that the student applies to a pathway on their application, then they start their journey in the centre of the school and over two years work out towards the edge and graduation. In the beginning, they focus on School-wide projects, and then they focus more on the specific MA, like Visual Communication. Then as they are moving into their second year, they develop independent projects within their specific specialism pathway. As they move towards the edge they’ll be experiencing more visiting lecturers from their specialist area, so it keeps the subject relevant and vital. 
Since I hadn’t really been in education before, I didn’t completely know what I was doing. What I did right at the start was to put a manifesto together that captured my vision in a way that can be shared, and is what we’ve been developing for the past seven years.

Where did you start? 
There was a mix of vision and intent with a huge fear because I’d never done it before. I just dived in. It was one of the steepest and most difficult learning curves of my life – I learnt a whole new career in a very short time, one that would normally take years and years – it was really difficult. Because I was Dean and really didn’t know what I was doing, people would expect me to make decisions, people who’d been there for a long time. They weren’t always nice about it. It was a real challenge. and especially the fact that there were quite conventional ways of doing things and thinking about things which I didn’t know about – it was probably an advantage that I didn’t know!

Are you pleased with the outcome?
I think there’s a lot more that can be done. A lot more that can be changed. A lot more that can be evolved. It’s very difficult in an institution – there’s a lot of forces you have to deal with. People often want short-term results so they’re not always interested in things that might take three or four years. But when you’re changing the whole education system, it does take a long while. There was a bit of a clash of expectation and timeline, but the final graduation exhibition this year was really showing how much has changed, the main shift being from when I arrived there. When I started, people were just making beautiful one-off, hand-bound, embossed books or a beautiful object in a beautiful frame. My policy was to say that the object itself is just a tool to help develop the mind, so the object itself wasn’t the important thing, developing the mind was the important thing. My ambition for people graduating from the RCA was to become … I use the term —a creative term: “Skilled, dangerous minds”.

I was about to ask you about that. How do you define it?
Yes: “Skilled Dangerous Minds” means that people who graduate are able to lead and change the societies and industries that they’re going to be in.

 … and how would they do that? I mean, how do you train them for this task?
Well, we are working with what I call “post discipline”. Before, people were ‘mono-discipline’ : a ‘Graphic Designer’ or ‘Type Designer’ or an ‘Animator’ or ‘Film Maker’ or ‘Interactive Programmer’ or an ‘Illustrator’ … and these all are very independent streams. That came out from the way American advertising worked in the sixties – you had a ‘Copywriter’ or ‘Creative Director’ or ‘Illustrator’. It became a manufacturing process and each person was part of that manufacturing process. Historically, though, you had the idea of the ‘Commercial Artist’, a wide concept. You had people like Cassandre, or even before that, Toulouse-Lautrec and Abram Games and Rodchenko … All these people would do every part of the process. Rodchenko designed furniture and uniforms and buildings, and he was an abstract painter and a typographer and a graphic designer and a photographer and he wouldn’t be described as any of those. He was described as a ‘Constructivist’. ‘Constructivist’ meant assembling what you need, from wherever you needed for whatever you needed to do.
So my principle at the college was to say that you choose your means according to the best way to deliver your message. That means a graphic designer might do something with a piece of architecture or spatial design or it might be a performance using movement or sound.

Does it mean there are no boundaries?
There’s no boundary! There was an elective which was called “Design without labels”, I took it over and got rid of the word ‘labels’ because I thought that was too much labeling. So it’s now called “Design Without”. “Without” means design without boundaries, without labels, without restriction, without disciplines. Without also means outside. “Within”, “Without”. It’s about being an outsider designer. You’re stepping outside of convention.
The way the course runs is that each week, someone comes in from a different profession or background. They will give a small presentation and then set a brief, which isn’t a brief. It’s a provocation or a catalyst. It might be a single word, or it might be a sentence or a tune or a phrase, and then the students have to decide what that means to them — what their relation to that thing is, and in what context. What do they want to achieve through responding to that catalyst?
They then decide what their intent is – what do they want to change? They then have one week to decide on a response, make the outcome, and calculate the best way to share it – presentation completely affects the way any message is understood. Apart from the group, the guest tutor they’ll present it to is another practitioner entirely. They’re not presenting it to the person who set the catalyst, they’re presenting it to someone they’ve never met, who is from a completely different background or specialism, who then will set the project for the next week, which will then be assessed by someone else and so on.
It’s a boot camp! And it has this agile, rapid form. I joined the Royal College because we were starting to build a concept around “de-programming” workshops. We introduced pop-up schools around this intent, and it was all about helping expose people to their pre-concepts and props as a way of opening their minds and capability to new sources and directions. “Design Without” is an extension of all of that. In this week of having to respond, you rapidly begin to understand who you are, know who you are in relation to the brief and then what you want do with it and how to present it. All your familiar responses get exposed and broken down and you cannot luxuriate, you can’t rely on (we don’t let people rely on) the fall back and formulas. You can’t. You are so exposed in that space, and people find it very challenging and disturbing because this is quite confusing to begin with.

Breaking the habits …
Yes, and exposing the habits. Gradually people let go of their pre-conceptions, and then by the end of the course (which is two semesters – two terms), they become really strong in self-direction. They become very empowered and are able to select the right tools for the right outcome, because they’ve had to respond really fast, and in ways which have to be engaged with the rest of the group. To understand the process of engagement is also part of the output, and the way you understand intent of a message is something that is completely changed by how you share it and present it. They become so finely tuned to every step that it’s very destabilizing. but then in the second year we find that most of the initiatives are led by students who’d been through this programme. That’s what I wanted to put at the heart of the school — the process of breaking down pre-conceptions in order to allow new possibilities to happen. And then to build the confidence in the students so they can do that, they’ve given themselves permission. A couple of years ago, we had one student who came in as a graphic designer doing screen-printing and he graduated as a sound designer. It allows people to break down the pre-conceptions and try new different things and learn. I think as you have seen from the show that principle is spreading through the whole school now.

… and who are the mentors of these students?
Well they sort of become very self-reflective. They see what’s going on, and there are about two or three electives that really allow people to break down the boundaries. There’s another one I don’t run, called RDP (Research, Design, Publish) and that’s a longer-term process, it is not a short, sharp term. There they select a particular issue, political or otherwise, something they feel very motivated and passionate about. They start off with that passion and then they do research, ultimately looking at what is the best way to SHARE this. Is it published on screen? Is it making a film? Is it doing a performance? In the end it’s what I call “post-disciplinary” as I said. The students will choose the appropriate means, methods and tools for what their intent is. It’s all intent driven. You don’t start with “I’m gonna make a poster” you start with “here’s what I want people to be aware of”, or be affected by or changed by or this is what I want to reveal. What’s the best way to do that? Is it a sound piece? Is it a coach journey to Scotland? And this is called “the communication”, so we’ve moved beyond conventional notions of what the subject is and what the disciplines are. Does that make sense?

Yes it does. Especially because I’ve been to the show, I know what you’re talking about.
If you didn’t see the labels you wouldn’t know what programme they’ve been on. Apart from maybe animation, everyone else’s work could be …

… anything
Could be anything! I bet you some of the installations were done by typographers and some of the type design was done by installation designers. It’s sophisticated, and the way they delivered has been driven by what their intent is.

What do you anticipate for the next year? if you are not going to be there everything is going to carry on the way it was before?
No, it won’t go back. But I hope it maintains its commitments to making and engaging. There is always a danger in academia that discussion and too much talking about doing will sideline things. Art these days is so much debate and discussion, but I think it should be all action. My only concern is it becomes purely academic again, for me that would be the death of it; we need people to change the world, not talk about ways of changing the world.
I have recently started to get involved in working with some people at high school level, secondary school. I have been thinking about the international baccalaureate, since their goal is the same as the one we have brought to the RCA. An international baccalaureate student could be put anywhere in the world and prosper and survive. Postgraduate programmes are all about transforming people that have already been formed, but high school is all about getting involved in the formation point. That’s exciting for me, not trying to fix and repair.

Even before high school maybe

Do you train your tutors? Is there any special programme for them?
Yes – in the UK there is a course called FHEA, which is Fellow of the Higher Education Association, and there is also an Academic award called a PGcert, which is a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. Basically, there are training programmes for the teachers, but so far I haven’t done any of them.

The reason I was asking this question was that what you are doing is so revolutionary and new that I wonder how you trust other people to go and teach it correctly.
Possibly not all of them can, especially some of the more entrenched faculty. It’s all a challenging learning curve. Hopefully, the college will maintain and grow this. But yes trust is a difficult thing and I’ve been very clear about the vision.

But at the same time you do all your meetings and briefings then
Absolutely! We’ve had workshops around this and then we use this in the school as a model to explain to the outside world our structure and its possibilities.

I think teachers whether they are teaching at Universities or colleges or schools somehow need to be connected and communicate on what messages they are transmitting to students because somehow I think we are responsible for the future of our students and the future of the world.
We are not! We are responsible to help these children to find what their future is. What is our law? Is it to teach, or is it to encourage learning? There is a difference and the old model is: “I am the guardian of knowledge! I will give it to you”. This is finished as a model because all these kids are now getting all the information they want on the Internet. So what’s our role? I don’t know everything! These kids know more than me. They know more than us and they can find it out quicker. Our role is to help them understand how to use information and help them be self-directing, self-curating and to help them figure out who they are and what they are doing. That’s it. 
We’re always pushing and never allow. That’s the tricky thing in teaching. It’s how to find the right touch-points so that someone will find their own means to change. Some people don’t want to change. Some people just want to know what the new font should be! I’ve had that before. I’ve had that in a lecture, it was a while ago but there was a guy who said: “yeah, yeah, I understand all your experimental stuff but what font should I be using now?” I said: “You choose! what font do you want to use?” He said: “No! You’re the master you have to tell me.” People end up looking at styles obsessively, this is meaningless. Every choice has to be made from a strategic position. When we’re doing big branding projects, everything we are doing has a strategic reason, all these mechanisms are there to allow someone to be able to speak. So what font we choose, how it works when enlarged and their colour systems are all flexible, it’s all DNA.

What would be your advice for the person who’s taking over your position at RCA?
Start with a manifesto, prioritize the students, look at the impact that college can have on the world. Because at the end of the day we have to be there saying that whatever we do is to help create a better world, and it will also means vigilance, it means constant awareness, constant consciousness, constant asking questions. It’s not like you’ve asked all the questions and then you can relax. Later you have to question the questions you were asking so it’s a constant process of consciousness and awareness. That’s more or less what I want our graduates to be, and know the tools to respond appropriately in any situation, and to also try and change things for the better. I don’t care how they do it. I wouldn’t mind if all of our graduates become car mechanics as long as it’s relevant to an intention that will affect people for the better.

Lets travel back to when you were a student yourself. I read somewhere that your works were condemned at LCP as non-commercial …
When I did the exams for my graduation, almost all of the college tutors that had been teaching me for three years failed me, and they said that I didn’t answer the brief and I had no commercial potential. The reality is that I did a huge body of work – I worked so hard, and they just didn’t get it. That’s all. But the external examiners gave me a first. So I ended up as a two-two which is mediocre. The externals gave me first, internals failed me. Then I left and I spent four years in poverty, I was really broke. I was living in a squat when I was at college, which was amazing. It was difficult to survive. But then I started working, and then I went back to visit my college, they realised that they didn’t get it and they didn’t understand the changes in modern design. Surprisingly, for a period of time, they just wiped their hands up and stopped teaching, because they didn’t know what to teach!

Really?! Is that what happened? They stopped teaching?
Yes! This happened. I spoke to the students few years after I left, and they said the tutors didn’t tell them what to do, they just had to make it up themselves, because they’d lost confidence in what they had been teaching. They were really hypocritical, one said to me: “We knew if we gave you a hard time you’d do well.” They didn’t! They were trying to crush me, maybe out of fear of the new. Anyway, I think every new generation can be experienced as something threatening.

But what do you think? Do you think your works were really non-commercial?
I wasn’t considering commerciality

Could we not consider commerciality as Graphic designers?
It’s one aspect. Social responsibility is another aspect. Creative experimentation is another aspect. Ultimately Graphic design is an interesting space. Because we want to experiment, we want to make art, we want to change people’s heads but somehow we have to support ourselves financially. It’s that conflict in graphic design about “are you commercial or not”. Graphic design was a combination of a lot of things including signage, helping city structures, education, there are all of those things as well as boxing posters or opium drink branding. I’m just talking about origins. Graphic design was also shields and flags for armies. There was also hieroglyphs and there was also religious symbols .. that’s graphic design.

But even social responsibility could be commercial nowadays.
I think there is a confusion about commercialism. Is having a million followers on twitter commercial?

I think yes … It creates a brand that can create revenue
Money isn’t the end goal. If you are running a social enterprise, what you need is reach. How many people do you reach OR can you reach the right people to change the world? It might be twenty people, and then is that commercial or EFFECTIVE? Effective Graphic design is design that succeeds in its intention. Each piece of work has a different intent and it might be commercial and it might be mind changing. Effective graphic design is what will make it all good or bad. You have to understand the intent. Sometimes the intent of a piece of work is to challenge our ideas about graphic design, and how effective is it in doing that?

It’s always been a confusing subject for Graphic designers
I think we should be clear. For me, working at the Royal College of Art is pure Graphic design. We look at the diagram, the diagrammatic approach, and the way I think it’s all a design construction. Someone asked me what’s the best bit of design I’ve done, and I said my school at the college. So that’s effective design for me.
It’s not necessarily about a new font or a logo for a supermarket. But if it’s a good logo then it’s an effective logo, if it communicates what the client is looking for. There are so many brands these days, they’re not about logos and they’re not about icons, they’re about language, how to tell a story. It’s a font or it’s a way of speaking or it’s just an environmental space or it’s a way of thinking about imagery. All the brands these days are competing on story telling, and brand stories are sometimes desperate for content. Usually they are trying to create a big audience and then get their audience to create the content for them, and then they read a story of that and it’s just empty. What’s more interesting is not hijacking social culture, but using brands to contribute in social areas which means they benefit from the association and it reinforces the brand and at the same time there is a social benefit. Things are never clean cut. 

What do you think about design thinking?
It’s crap! It’s just a way of people in business. I don’t really know what it means, and there’s a lot of courses on it. It’s a buzz word.

Well, they say that they want to change the world through design thinking … what is the difference between what you teach in your schools and what they say?
There is a different statement, which is “everything is a design problem”. The challenge and the blockage is a political one, people’s weaknesses, it might be greed, or guilt, or fear, or aggression. But otherwise, any quality like distribution food, generic drugs, education, health access for all, these are design problems and we can fix them. The block is political, it’s personal. But if we could move that out of the way, everything is fixable, it’s all a mechanism. We can do anything. So the problem is the attitude. What the graphic designers are used to be working on is changing the attitude.

Would it be through Visual or Verbal communications? what would be more effective in the future?
It depends. As you just seen in the show, it depends on the situation.

 … and I guess you can’t even label it visual or verbal anymore
You can’t! All beings communicate. They have just discovered that trees communicate with each other, using mycorrhizal fungal networks, and they send message to each other. All living things communicate with each other. Trees don’t have graphic design – or do they? So communication is the basis of existence. I think the discussion of whether verbal or visual, graphic or virtual is irrelevant. It depends on what you want to say, who you want to say it to, what it’s about and where is it? That’s it. Our role as communication designers is to choose the best means to deliver the message of the intent. It might be yellow foam shoes and the inability to get water out of a water cooler. That’s making a very graphic point.
The word ‘Graphic’ means clear, precise. Graphic design means: design to achieve clarity. It’s what Graphic design is. But is it possible to communicate something imprecise clearly, as opposed to communicating something precise unclearly. It’s all down to the intent. The work my studio usually does, if it’s not really clear commercial work or with a difference kind of intent, is all about ambiguity and the lack of precision, but with enough for the viewer to complete the dialogue. It’s like poetry. I see a lot of work I’ve done and we do, as visual poetry. It’s deliberately ambiguous because so much media is trying to be precise and control your response. But we think that it’s more respectful and honest and humble to present something that’s ambiguous and unfixed and people can choose what it means, and continue the dialogue.

But if they can choose what it means … if there is a choice, would we be clear as you earlier explained about Graphic design?
In Japan there is a concept which is called “MA” – it describes the space between things. It’s always been on my mind, the gap between words, things you don’t have words for. It’s an absence. It’s nothing. But the nothing in itself is a strong element. 
Language is a contract. You and me have agreed that certain elements put in a certain order have a certain meaning, that’s a contract. If you just have a contract with yourself, I’m not going to understand any of it. So language is a contract, but at the same time it’s also a censorship or limitation, because for things that there are no words for, are very difficult to embrace as a part of your culture. I’ve always been interested in things that are non-objective, not fixed. There are millions of things we would like to express but there’s only forty thousand words in the English dictionary. So I’m quite interested in “Gaps”, that’s where possibilities happen.
Ambiguity for me is interesting. William Burroughs, the American novelist and experimental writer, and a painter called Brion Gysin, came up with a process called the “cut-up” technique. Burroughs and Gysin believed that you can’t just sit and think of something new. You need a mechanism to help. They defined a system, that if you slice of book in half down the middle of each page, and then put different pages together and then join up the words, new things would happen in the writing. I’d always been working in that way and when I came across it, it concretized it for me. It’s about putting disparate things together and finding new meanings and possibilities. I’ve always loved that, I’ve always loved surprising connections because that leads to new things. That’s what poetry often does. It allows you those thoughts that occur beyond daily language.

If one of your students comes over to you and asks what should I do to be successful, what would be your advice?
I would just say, how effective have you been in executing your intention? That’s it. That’s the only possible way you can assess or judge something.

and to find our intention?
You need to be engaged. Your intention might be to do with depression – then it has to be a therapeutic outcome. Just be clear about that and that’s your focus. Be graphic about your intention.

Mitra Shahsavand

Graduated from Tehran University -The College of Fine Arts- in Graphic Design and moved to London to study ‘Typographic Design & Graphic Communications’ at London College of Printing. Later, obtained a postgraduate degree in ‘Media & Communication’ from University of Leicester. In recent years has been lecturing at University of Tehran -The College of Fine Arts- and Vije School of Visual Communications. She is currently running her own Design Studio, specializing on Brand Design.

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