Ken Garland, 1929–2021

Ken Garland opens TYPO Berlin 2013 “Touch”: The main hall was in total silence for this legen­dary figure of design, as the audi­ence hung onto every word (Foto: kass­ner­foto)

London-based desi­gner, writer, lecturer, editor and publisher Adrian Shaughnessy (Unit Editions) took to Twitter yesterday to inform the inter­na­tional design commu­nity: “Sad news. Ken Garland has died. He died peacefully surrounded by family, friends and his wife Wanda. The world of graphic design is poorer without him.“ 

I first met Ken Garland at TYPO Berlin 2002 “Information”, where he was invited by Erik Spiekermann to talk about “70 Years of Urban Transit Diagrams: A Progress (?) Report“ (TYPO 2002 program sheet). The very title of his talk reflects two key traits of this pionee­ring design thinker: his humor and his relent­less fight for a more progres­sive world through design.

Ken Garland was born in Southampton, and he grew up in Barnstaple, north Devon, next door to a farm, which he loved explo­ring as a child. He studied design at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts, gradua­ting in 1954. His class­mates included Derek Birdsall, Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes, Peter Wildbur and Philip Thompson. Ken’s first job from 1956 to 1962 was Art Editor of Design maga­zine, the trade journal of the Society of Industrial Arts. It was during this time that the spirit for Ken’s future work deve­loped – human-centred, elegantly simple and rigo­rously conceived. In 1962 he left the maga­zine to form his own studio, Ken Garland & Associates, a small rota­ting group of desi­gners who shaped British design for nearly 50 years. The studio’s clients included Galt Toys, Race Furniture, the Butterley Group, Dancer & Hearne, Barbour Index, the Labour Party and Paramount Pictures.

Ken’s entire career was marked by poli­tical acti­vity. It began in 1962 with his work for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). He produced mate­rial for CND from until 1968. During this time he redrew the world famous peace symbol ☮ into the clean-lined graphic fami­liar around the world today. 

In 1963 Ken Garland wrote and proclaimed the The First Things First mani­festo “in favour of more useful and more lasting forms of commu­ni­ca­tion“ and demanded “Reversal of prio­ri­ties in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of commu­ni­ca­tion.” Ken claims for a ”society that will tire of gimmick merchants, status salesman and hidden persua­ders”. The mani­festo was backed by over 400 desi­gners and artists and also received the backing of Tony Benn, radical left-wing MP and acti­vist, who published it in its enti­rety in The Guardian. It was later updated and repu­blished with a new group of signa­to­ries as the First Things First 2000 mani­festo.

10 years after his appearance in Berlin, I had the great plea­sure of meeting Ken again at TYPO London “Social”. Here you can find the video of his talk Word and Image … but beware, it’s on a veeeery slow server. In this talk, Ken is dealing with the original conjunc­tion of spoken word and image: First come the spoken word; then the image; later, the written word; even later, the printed word.

One year later, Ken Garland opened TYPO Berlin 2013 “Touch”. Six years after the launch of the iPhone, which comple­tely rede­fined visual commu­ni­ca­tion, the term “touch” came to repre­sent a whole new way of grasp infor­ma­tion. But Ken kicked off the confe­rence with an enti­rely diffe­rent perspec­tive on “touch”. He approa­ched the subject with a visual explo­ra­tion of what this word actually means to us. Is touch best visua­lised as a scene from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam fresco on the Sistine chapel? Or, a picture of a a lion mother and cub. Or a picture of the touch of a loving parent holding the foot of a child? Or, a more poignant inter­pre­ta­tion, the hand of a star­ving African hand, in the hand of a Westerner? Ken brought the audi­ence through these, and a range of other images, in a capti­vating and genui­nely moving talk that seemed all too short.

Our TYPO blog editor at the time, Paul Woods, now CEO & CCO of Edenspiekermann Los Angeles and acclaimed book author, captured the moment this way: “The main hall was in total silence for this legen­dary figure of design, as the audi­ence hung onto every word. And, except for one slide showing an image of an infant touching an iPad, the presen­ta­tion was free of any refe­rence to tech­no­logy or design, which made for a refres­hing start to TYPO, given the theme.“

In September 2020, Ken Garland was awarded the London Design Festival’s Medal for Lifetime Achievement at a virtual ceremony. In doing so, the orga­ni­zers reco­gnized his influence and impact over 7 decades of tire­lessly teaching, writing, spea­king, photo­gra­phing, and crea­ting some of the most powerful and playful designs of the era. Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian reviewed Ken’s life on the occa­sion of the award ceremony … an article worth reading.

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