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Alexander Stitt

Producing work throughout (and beyond) the technological and cultural shifts of the late 20th century, Alexander Stitt was a graphic designer working at the dawn of Australian television and the creator of our best loved public health campaigns 'Life. Be In It' and 'Slip Slop Slap'. His career is testament to the genuine influence and widespread reach graphic design can possess, with his work encompassing film posters and titles, illustration, television ads and announcements, print and publishing, including children's books and toys for the Jigsaw Factory in Richmond, which he founded with Bruce Wetherhead in 1970.

Until recently, his career's work, which makes up a sizable portion of the last 50 years of Australia's graphic design history, was in storage. It was after the Black Saturday fires of 2009 that Alex, with his wife Paddy, collated this vulnerable material into 'Stitt Autobiographics', a personal retrospective as well as a cultural and historical study.

For children of the 80s, many pieces of your work are powerfully evocative of childhood. The logo for the Children's Television Foundation rouses such a strong nostalgia in me! A lot of what you were doing was a first for Australia. Were you aware of the impact you were making at the time?

I certainly broke some new ground in the early days of television. Just as people are trying to find out how best to design for the internet now, I had the opportunity to find out how to make television commercials, and later community service announcements, particularly spots for the Christian Television Association, from the start. Television began in Australia in 1956, the year I finished college at RMIT. There were few existing models to refine, develop or even react to, so every day was a new day. I really didn't get much feedback, but from very early on I won awards for print and film material - so I knew I was doing OK according to my peers. My first print award was for a cover for the World Record Club in about 1958, and the first TV award was a prize in Venice in around 1960. Awards aren't the same thing as feedback from the general public, though the Christian Television Association gave me some of that too - some positive, some negative.

What about working concurrently in graphic design, animation and illustration? You describe yourself as primarily a graphic designer.

Within small areas of any of those larger fields - design, animation and illustration - there are many considerations, some subtle, some not so, which apply to any assignment. It's up to the individual designer what role he wants to play and in which media. Often it comes down to good luck as to which assignments you get hold of. I classify myself as a designer ahead of the others, because design is where it all starts for me. There are examples of other graphic designers who have bridged various media. Saul Bass' film work is as important and as well respected as his print work. Milton Glaser designs logos and entire restaurants.

Your past work is entrenched within Australian 1960s-80s culture. Did you aim to capture a particularly Australian voice?

There's a piece in the book about finding an Australian voice, which means just that - the way the characters sound, and the form of expression they use. 'Voice' is to do with local idiom. But my visual material was never really inspired by the Australian way of life. My work was always based on universal modernism, for instance, John HubleyĆ­s Gerald McBoing Boing in animation and Paul Rand and Saul Bass in graphic design.

I never did follow the style of cartoons uniquely associated with Australia, like Stan Cross's The Potts and Wally and the Major or Jim Bancks with Ginger Meggs. Early on, Australia had developed its own style in words and pictures through publications like The Bulletin and Smith's Weekly, but it had petered out by the time I started work in the 1950s.

The process of graphic design is to distil an idea that is going to be meaningful to its audience, which has little or nothing to do with prevailing attitudes or forms. For example, the Children's Television Foundation logo that you mentioned is an idea: the idea of a little kid looking into television, which is an expression of what the CTA was about. The way the idea is rendered is my choice and my choice is to always keep things clear and simple. The one modification that would have to be considered now, in regard to that symbol, is that the TV screen clearly represents a CTR. To that degree, the logo draws upon the culture of its time. Designing for film or television is always a bit different in that two things collide: pure design and character/storytelling. It becomes necessary to give characters a life that includes regional, occupation and cultural idiosyncrasies. Norm, of the 'Life. Be in it' campaign, had all of them by the bucket load.

Were there any surprises going back over your career while preparing 'Autobiographics'? Or have you always felt in touch with your maturing process?

I thought I was mature at the age of four. I don't see the business of being a graphic designer as being one where you simply mature as the work goes on. Every job is a new challenge; I hope that every solution will be different and new. David Hockney, one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, brought about wholesale change in unlikely areas like photography and film. He was at the cutting edge of using iPhone, iPad and Wacom Cintiq technology. In the last few years he has chosen to go back and re-explore landscape painting which he is doing with exciting results and remarkable success.

Has there been a similar cycle in the way you work now?

You get to be known if you are involved in regular paid work that is in the public space, like John Spooner appearing in The Age. I got to be known through 'Life. Be in it' which was on TV for 15 years, likewise with 'Slip! Slop! Slap'. But for a decade through the 90s I was responsible for designing a children's literacy program which, while it is published and sold in most English speaking markets around the world, would really only be known by teachers, young children and their parents. It is one of the biggest tasks I have ever taken on and hardly anyone else knows about it. Something similar applies to Education Quarterly, a magazine that we produced for 15 years. The seismological shifts were not intellectual, but technological. I still tackle all my work the same way as I always did.

You have previously described the Black Saturday fires as being the catalyst to the publication of your book - were you affected directly, or was it the idea of loss that prompted this retrospective?

When we arrived in Red Hill after our official retirement we had countless boxes of stuff that had been carted around, largely unsorted, through ten studio moves. The realisation that we had moved to a bush fire prone area and could lose everything we owned was a motivating factor in starting to sort through and scan the work. The book evolved from that. Our area was not affected by the fires, but members of our family were.

'Autobiographics' talks about the transference you made from analogue to digital image production...

Just as the digital process has offered greater freedoms in print material, the ability to try out different typographic approaches and to rewrite, redraw and rework without penalties (financial or otherwise) - it offers benefits that carry over to animation production, and indeed to personal creative projects. Our book Autobiographics would have been technically and financially impossible for us to produce when Paddy and I began to work together twenty-odd years ago. The switch from drawing boards to computer and from shooting animation on film to preparing drawings on a screen meant liberation for us. Before that, we needed enough studio space to house a rostrum camera, a flatbed editor, a dark room and storage for countless film reels. It also meant the end of traced and painted cells and, regrettably, the people we employed to produce them.

What equipment do you work with now?

I have a big iMac on the desk, a MacBook Pro that travels, a back-up iMac, the latest, very large Wacom Cintiq, an A2 Epson colour printer, and an Epson scanner which gets very little use since all of the drawings I produce are now drawn directly on the screen. I work in Photoshop and QuarkXPress 9, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro and Acrobat.

What do you find appealing within current design? Or do you feel that something is fundamentally lacking?

I find it interesting that half a century after he designed them, Charles Eames chairs and other pieces of furniture are currently the hot items. The grand Eames armchair and footstool are still advertised weekly in Matt Blatt's ads and others. This of course is partly due to the fact that the original works are now out of copyright and copies with greater or lesser fidelity to the originals are being produced for a fraction of their original retail price. The essential message to me is that we don't have another Charles Eames. Most of the great designers have dropped off the twig: Paul Rand, Saul Bass, animator John Hubley, experimental film maker Norman McLaren, type designer Herb Lubalin. Milton Glaser is the last of the Mohicans. Now legends, these were the designers who were practicing and changing the graphic design landscape when I got going. For whatever reason, they haven't been replaced.