How did you first become aware of this problem regarding the scarcity of published graphic design material?
I went to the AGDA awards a few years ago - I have been a member of AGDA forever and they announced The Hall of Fame winners. I remember thinking, I don't know anything about these people! You know what it means to be part of a Hall of Fame in a musical or cinematic context - it's a pretty substantial honour, but with these graphic designers, I didn't know who they were and I felt a bit embarrassed. So I tried to look them up but there were no resources available at all, even with the internet - and the opportunity it represents to facilitate research and provide information, there was nothing! I guess that's what started the idea and I suppose by then I had been working for 20 years and I had reached a reflective period. Graphic design in this country is so ephemeral and commercial: projects like Re:collection are a way to leave a shadow that will be beneficial. I didn't think it was ever going to change the world. It's a project I can put hours into after work, it's very simple and now I realise it can be much more than what I thought initially. At the beginning of this year I started thinking about making it better and broader but the really nice thing about it - and something I didn't expect - is that I have met so many amazing people. People are interested in what you are doing and a lot of the old timers are really incredible.
So these aren't images you have found looking around the internet - you have sourced the physical copies?
Some of them are from the internet but it just shows how limited the internet still is. Most of them are from books, found pieces, second hand stores... You begin to be able to recognise who's work it is`
How is the material, with its focus on the 1960s to the 1980s, reflective of Australia during those years?
It's a really difficult question. It may be because of a more localised community in those times, designers lived in this smaller, isolated environment. And in the 60s, when people came in from the outside, they had a huge impact - for example, when Les Mason came from America, he created a huge shock wave and you can trace that impact through the people that worked with him and then went out to do their own thing. There was definitely a spirit... with the Swiss you can define things typographically, it's quite easy to classify, but with Australia it was more of an energy or vitality to the design. Mason definitely encapsulated that. But now it's very hard to define what holds Australian graphic design together.
Within the free access of international material we have now?
I don't think we know how to filter things. There is just so much stuff and you see it with students - they can't edit, they just take it all on. It's the positive and negative of the internet - it offers you this amazing resource but we don't have the skills to see through it all. When I would talk to some of the old guys about what was influencing them, what they were reading and what they were watching, a lot of it was art and film - there wasn't this overload of graphic design material that they could just pick up - there were a few magazines, maybe - but generally the few pieces they saw had a big effect on them. I don't know that I can answer if there was ever an Australian identity to the work, but certainly the work was fresher and more alive...
You mentioned you were able to recognise the work of particular 1960/80s designers when you saw it - was there at least an Australian element in that?
Maybe - but it was still a combination of different influences. A bit of Swiss, the British had a big influence obviously, so there was a real conservatism to the work until Mason came. The work from overseas at that time was possibly more consistent, it would look like it was all from the same place, whereas Australian design will always feel like it's from a multitude of places.
Like the Australian people
Exactly. The work that comes from New Zealand, for example, looks like work that comes from New Zealand. There's an influence from Maori culture, in a way that doesn't happen here.
What has happened between the 1980s and now that has contributed to that?
I don't know. The question of Australian identity in design is a question that I get tired of asking - and I think when we stop asking it, we know we're there. But I think we are always, now, going to be open to influences from other places. David Lancashire has said that we are guilty of looking outward, when there is so much here that can be really influential, and inspirational. I have another side project called Retrospect which I curate for Desktop magazine where significant industry figures discuss their most important work. We have had really positive feedback from designers of all ages who have found it revelatory.
How about Re:collection as an educational tool?
Warren Taylor, at Monash University, has told me that students are using the site, that if they are studying design history they can access work that is local. The issue is, there isn't much depth. Re:collection doesn't offer anything more than pretty pictures and I can't really refer people on to anything else. There was one substantial publication on the history of Australian graphic design done in the early 80s but not much since. In recent years, we have begun to see exhibitions of designers of that period and I know from when I have had young people in the studio, that they are interested, which is great. There appears to be enough people around who want to know more.
Where Re:collection comes in...
Yes - but I don't want to overplay it, it's just a start, a prompt.
When I first found it, I was delighted!
And it's had great feedback, but I wish it was much more. Of course you always do` I have been referred to as a 'design historian' on a blog somewhere. I think Re:collection had been up for 5 minutes and I thought: Wow, that really shows how little there is out there, if people think I have that much knowledge! But some of these old timers are in their 80s, and tragically when they go, their work is lost. It's these physical objects that we need to get hold of, but there isn't anywhere, perhaps apart from the Powerhouse in Sydney, where we can put them.
It was one of Warren Taylor's ambitions to get a proper archive started...
And I have huge admiration for Warren, he seems able to do almost anything. The Narrows is an absolute jewel.
So considering Australia's multiculturalism, design blogs, design education, Google images - where do you think Australian graphic design is headed?
While everything is influencing design, there just isn't much depth to it. The internet can be such a great tool, and books too - but it just makes the work artificial. Last year I received an email that our work had been featured on a blog called The Trend List, where images of graphic design are collected and saved under tags reflecting trends, like 'centred', 'slash', 'asymmetrical' - I think that website is an indication of where we are at. I guess my fear is that a student can go to that website and pick how they want something to look, and it's been laid out for them perfectly, but they don't follow or understand the thread. Where it comes from and the similar work done 40 years beforehand. But for the future of design, the most interesting designers I have met recently seem to be coming from an art background, not from graphic design courses. Graphic design courses meet the needs of the industry, but people who are coming from other backgrounds see things differently and their work reflects that.
Photography by Dominic Hofstede and Double Days.