Ken Garland in his studio. Courtesy Unit Editions.

Ken Garland, who died in May at the grand age of 92, was an enigmatic figure in the graphic design world. Though he will likely be best remembered for  his influential and ever-relevant First Things First manifesto of 1964, he also left behind a massive body of  incredible creative work – which was playful and rigorous in equal measure – and an influential career as a  teacher and writer. When encountered in person, Ken was a straight talker with a distinctive presence, especially due to his memorable approach to lectures, his natty dress sense, his intense gaze, and not least, his penchant for distinctive headwear. Although he was part of an influential and widely-lauded generation of British designers who rose to prominence in sixties London, it is safe to say that Ken was one of a kind. 

I was lucky enough to interview Ken Garland in 2016, portions of which are published here for the first time, at his home office, which was still the same Camden studio from the memorable photo from 1982 which was reproduced on the cover of Unit Editions’ excellent 2012 monograph on Garland (which is now available for free as a PDF). The same colorful wall of pinned up pieces, stacks of books and old files were still there, and Ken was, of course, wearing one of his trademark hats. Like the no doubt hundreds of designers who had sought out meetings with Ken before and after me, I found him to be an engaging subject and incredibly kind with his time and attention. I had wanted to mainly ask Garland about his influential book Graphics Handbook, a small practical primer on the subject, and the state of art and design publishing at the time. But as often happens, our conversation ended up being very wide-ranging. 

Garland’s studio wall. Photo by Theo Inglis.

Garland was born in 1929 in the English port town of Southampton. After studying “Commercial Design” for two years in Bristol he did two years of National Service in the parachute regiment, before gravitating to London as the fifties began. He eventually enrolled at the Central School of Art and Crafts, where tutors included the most modernist-minded designers in Britain, such as Edward Wright, Anthony Froshaug and Herbert Spencer, as well as the photographer Nigel Henderson, who Garland sought out on his own initiative due to his interest in the use of photography in graphic design. (Henderson’s evening classes at the Central School provided Garland with an excellent foundation in photography which would become a lifelong pursuit for both work and pleasure.)

Garland remembers that in addition to his tutors, he learned as much from his fellow students, which included Alan Fletcher, Derek Birdsall, Colin Forbes and Ken Briggs, all of whom would go on to have stellar careers. “We talked amongst ourselves, which was always stimulating,” he told me. “I remember long conversations at lunchtime or the evening in the canteen over certain aspects of design. We were all really serious!” Like Garland, these students had mostly gravitated towards the Central in search of progressive design education in a post-war Britain that was still overwhelmingly traditionalist and inward-looking. Ken felt embarrassed that “work that had been done in the 20s and 30s in Germany and Switzerland had gone well ahead of what we were up to in the 50s.” “We felt that we were still locked in a dreamland of typographic design which hadn’t gone forward,” he told me. “We could see that there was work going on that we needed to catch up with. In some ways, what we did was an emulation of what we thought was the best of Europe and the US.”

While Ken, like the majority of young designers at the time, didn’t have any time for the traditional, conservative graphic design practiced by the English establishment—“it was played out,” he told me. “We thought it was flogging a dead horse”—his interest in Modernism wasn’t all-consuming. He noted that he “wasn’t entirely imbued at that time by wanting to be the exact equivalent of a Swiss graphic designer” adding that “many of my colleagues who had studied with me at the Central wanted everything to be sans-serif, Helvetica preferably, and they had an absolutist tendency that I didn’t share. I was already tempering that idea of a single-minded approach to graphic design.”

“Many of my colleagues who had studied with me at the Central wanted everything to be sans-serif, Helvetica preferably, and they had an absolutist tendency that I didn’t share. I was already tempering that idea of a single-minded approach to graphic design.”

This viewpoint, combined with his interest in photography, proved helpful for Garland once he graduated and found his first job as Art Editor of Furnishing, a trade magazine for interior designers. The job was found for Ken by Jesse Collins, the head of graphic design at the Central and one of his key early influences. Garland admitted to me that at the time he was about to start in this first job, he didn’t even know what an Art Editor was, but that “as soon as I got there I realized it was exactly what I wanted to do.” 

After 18 months, he moved to a more prestigious job, as he took up a role as Art Editor at Design, a magazine published by the Council of Industrial Design, an organization set up by the British government during WW2 to help encourage British design in the hopes of aiding post-war economic recovery and exports. At Design, Garland’s work evolved further, applying a progressive modernist approach that suited the editorial stance, playing with the integration of text and image, and finding creative ways to utilize what were often fairly dry, industrial photographs (and sometimes his own photographs). 

The magazine’s broad, technocratic definition of design proved ideal for Garland who told me he was “fascinated by all aspects of design: product, interior, furniture…I was very interested to see that there were common principles across these disciplines.” This interest would come in handy once he left the magazine in 1962 to become an independent consultant and immediately found clients in the furniture industry, architecture and among manufacturers, particularly two toy companies; Abbatt and Galt, whose identities, packaging (and in the case of Galt even their products), gave Garland opportunities to have some colorful fun within a modernist purview.

While the “swinging sixties” was the era when many of London’s early design agencies began to expand rapidly, Garland always wanted to stay small and the name he chose—Ken Garland & Associates—reflected this. At its largest, KG&A had four associates, who were always credited equally on projects, in line with his egalitarian political views, and they never sought out large clients. The firm always worked out of an office in Ken’s house which helped keep the size small, and was mostly motivated, as Ken told me, by a desire to avoid a daily commute. Rather than acting as a symbolic figurehead, always in meetings or out schmoozing potential clients, Ken liked to “always be involved in design.” “Nobody did secretarial work. We were all designers doing design” he told me. “I think my generation enjoyed design so much that they wanted to carry on doing it. Sure, some clients require a big design group but it’s amazing what you can do as a small group.” The studio’s success, plus his treatment of younger designers as equals rather than assistants, gave Garland the chance to take a day off a week to dedicate to teaching, which he would do at the Central School, and later the RCA and Reading University. 

Because of this teaching, when he came to write his first book in 1966, the Graphics Handbook, Garland focused on practical advice. Although the cover featured his striking typography, the book wasn’t an excuse for Garland to put his work in front of people: “some books are exercises for designers to show and speak glowingly about their own work. I had in mind a book that was for working to.” But this doesn’t mean that Garland’s personality was absent: the introduction was printed in large text because “people usually skip the introductions in books of this kind” and with students’ budgets in mind, he included a key in the bibliography rating the listed books as either essential, important or merely useful. The Graphics Handbook—which Garland told me he would still be asked to sign when giving lectures by “quite elderly people waving their well-thumbed copies”— sold around 30,000 copies and gave valuable instruction and advice, not just on how to design, but the design process and the communication skills needed by designers, to a new generation who were educated in the late sixties and seventies. 

“I think my generation enjoyed design so much that they wanted to carry on doing it. Sure, some clients require a big design group but it’s amazing what you can do as a small group.”

Today, Garland is perhaps most associated with his political and ideological stance on graphic design. However, he told me that in the Graphics Handbook he wanted to be neutral: “It is a different aspect to my attitudes on design. One attitude is entirely factual, what are the requirements and how can we satisfy them. The other attitude is what are the ongoing social impulses that affect the use of graphic design and how may we change them to something more to our desire. That’s different.” 

How we would have liked to change graphic design to suit his desires and social impulses was expressed succinctly in the First Things First Manifesto, published in 1964, in which Garland, acting as a kind of moral compass for the burgeoning graphic design industry, proposed “a reversal of priorities in favor of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication”. Garland’s diatribe against rampant consumerism and the overheated world of advertising, which was co-signed by 21 other designers has proved ever more prescient as the decades have passed and remains a touchstone for many young designers today. In fact, the original manifesto has inspired repeats, such as the 2000 version first published by Adbusters, and a more climate-crisis focused edition from 2020. Garland, who also injected some politics into his work by designing for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Labour Party, never shied away from talking about his social views about the ills of our uneven society or criticisms of fellow designers, but was keen to stress that his aim with the manifesto was “to talk about the good things we could be doing rather than just being negative”. 

“Students are always critical,” Garland told me. “The thing is when students start working, do they abandon their critical faculty in the desperate desire to make a living or does it stay with them? It’s often lurking there and can be brought out fairly easily.” Few people have done more than Ken Garland to bring out a critical faculty among graphic design, and he deserves to be remembered for it.