Colin Forbes, who passed away just a little more than a week ago, was a key part of the design community, the AIGA, Pentagram, and my life.
He was a founding member of Pentagram and the architect of a unique approach to design. Among many of his leadership roles and accolades, Colin served as AIGA’s president for several years in the 1980s and received the AIGA Medal for his lasting impact on design and its culture. But this is not about that public story; these are a few insights about the man I knew and deeply respected.
I first met Colin in 1984. I was living in Boulder, Colorado working for an emerging design firm called Communication Arts, run by two veterans of the Charles and Ray Eames Office. I’d moved from a very small rural town in the Midwest to the foothills of the Rockies, designing and skiing there for a few years, but I longed to be in New York. To me, New York City was the design capital of the world — where everything and anything was possible.
So, my wife and I visited the city (she is a designer too) to meet our heroes and hopefully land a job. But, for me, there was only one that mattered — Colin Forbes — the elegant Englishman with the aviator glasses who had recently brought Pentagram, the idea-driven design firm whose work crossed dimensions, to America.
I met him on the 17th floor of Pentagram’s offices, then at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street. The office was bright and modern with big cadmium yellow air conditioning ducts running down the entire loft. Its vintage copper window frames overlooked a very ornate early 19th Century Gothic building with curious gargoyles peering at desks filled with design work — this was New York! I was immediately awe-struck, inspired, and humbled. He looked a bit like Michael Caine or Daniel Craig playing a designer who was a secret foreign agent. I knew Colin’s work and his partners. He was smart, articulate, intuitive, and had a broad knowledge of design history. He freely collaborated with others, was worldly and kind — and brilliantly European.
Anyone who knew Colin knows that he wore glasses with extremely thick lens that dramatically magnified the size of his eyes and amplified his very focused gaze. He was a great listener. After I nervously rambled on about my portfolio in a room filled with his and Alan Fletcher’s perfect posters, he silently paused for what seemed like forever and a day. He then slowly blinked and replied with a razor-sharp and insightful question. It was pretty intimidating and inspiring. Many years later, he told me that as a young boy, he stuttered because his teacher tried to change him from a left-hander to a right-hander. He’d successfully learned to overcome it by thinking through what he’d say, before saying it. He overcame the stutter in childhood but kept a thoughtful pause that became his signature poise.
My wife Suzanne and I moved east shortly after, and I joined the office. Peter Harrison, a fellow Englishman, was Colin’s only partner in Manhattan at the time. (Suzanne landed a great position as a designer with Milton Glaser).
Pentagram had an ‘open’ plan long before it was popular, and unbelievably, the partners desks were the same size as mine (and the interns). There were no private offices. As a space, it was truly an egalitarian studio. Colin had brought to New York the London office’s tradition of having a full-time chef who prepared lunch for everyone. For him, and us still today, community and sharing meals are a central part of Pentagram’s culture with our teams, clients, and friends.
I remember our first big project together was an identity for a luxury hotel in Japan. We were scheduled to fly to Osaka for the final presentation, and the client sent a first-class ticket for Colin and a coach one for me. He called the CEO to let him know that both of us would need to be sitting together, either in the front or the back of the plane for us to go. They sent first-class tickets for both of us the next day.
Colin always had far-reaching ambitions and interest in the smallest and largest issues for Pentagram. We’d spend hours on airplanes, in cars and trains, and in the corners of rooms talking about what inspires, motivates, and bonds a group of idiosyncratic and ego-driven partners. He’d share insightful stories, doodle designs, map out plans, and sketch organizational diagrams on whatever was at hand — napkins, plane tickets, backs of envelopes, and scraps of paper. I was an avid listener, and the more I listened, the more he shared. Because of it, I learned to value the issues and mechanics of what enables good design and makes Pentagram work, and the difficult commitments it requires to ensure it is enduring.
For years, Colin and his wife Wendy have had a wonderful horse farm in the rolling hills of North Carolina, and he retired there. It’s become a sanctuary for retired thoroughbreds, and it was his place to escape, but he was intent on not resting there. He built barns, mended fences, planned future trails, kept track of who and what was where, and made sure it all stayed healthy — just like he had for all the years before for Pentagram.