In the vast, ever-expanding canon of graphic design publishing, one title stands in a league of its own.
Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design—Including the Ones in This Book is essentially a sparsely worded how-to design book. Published in 1981, the unpretentious message on the jacket announces the author’s unequivocal declaration of intent. Its core tenet proclaims how redefining a design problem to make a unique statement leads to a unique solution.
The author, Bob Gill, was a lifelong evangelist of this approach, who tirelessly advocated that the most powerful and effective method of visual communication was through straightforward reasoning and objectivity.
His design credo was essentially the creative—and ultimately lucid—use of reality.
No more, no less.
The extensive career of Gill—who died in November at the age of 90—spanned seven decades, two continents and a multitude of other creative activities.
Born in Brooklyn in 1931 and having trained at Philadelphia Museum School of Art and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, he freelanced as a designer/illustrator in New York City before and after being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1952.
In 1960, he emigrated on a whim to London. Initially working as an art director for advertising agency Charles Hobson Ltd., opportunity would lead him to partner with fellow future luminaries Alan Fletcher and Colin Forbes to launch Fletcher/Forbes/Gill on April Fools Day, 1962. Disenchanted with agency work and identifying them as like-minded designers, Gill proposed an alliance.
Established at the advent of the emerging cultural revolution in London of music, youth culture, fashion, photography, and design (the era of The Beatles, Mary Quant, David Bailey, etc.), they would rapidly develop an enviable reputation for their innovative work.
In parallel to their contemporaries, the now-legendary British football “holy trinity” of George Best, Denis Law, and Bobby Charlton, Fletcher/Forbes/Gill became the equivalent holy trinity of ’60s British graphic design. Emerging at the forefront of a new Postwar generation of young designers, the combination of Fletcher and Forbes’ exacting Swiss typography and Gill’s American-ideas–driven directness made for a formidable and intuitive collaboration.
Concise and precise, often allied with a flourish of incisive wit or surprise, Gill’s was the purest of ideologies.
To him, the idea (the solution) was design, and always first and foremost the king.
Those ideas (solutions) were then delivered with a deadpan execution, the result of which, with beguiling sophistication, would often defy reproach.
On occasion, foregoing pictorial considerations, Gill intuitively would also pursue ideas inherent within words themselves, where letterforms would double as image to convey meaning.
Style, technique, and any vagaries of aesthetic considerations were merely a distraction, or simply irrelevant. His primary goal was always total clarity of communication.
Ruthlessly seeking out the inherent truth within any problem, this stripped-down methodology would result in solutions that are often startling in their simplicity. Ultimately timeless, Gill’s work from one decade cannot be differentiated from that of another.
For Gill, the defining test of any solution was the ability to explain the idea over the phone to the client without them even seeing it. This modus operandi was the antithesis of the ubiquitous fashion-business approach to design, where the latest trends have dominated the profession over the past decades.
Similarly, the accompanying Pirelli shop counter displays by Gill form a micro-exhibition in their combination of 3D, graphics, and the product, all propelled in context by the inventiveness of the solution, eclipsing any design trends.
“Gill’s work showed me there are two kinds of designer,” says James Beveridge, co-founder of Made By Giants and founding partner of The Partners. “Those who design according to an aesthetic, or how they think a design should ‘look,’ and those designers who want to make you stop and think because of the originality of their visual ideas.”
Ultimately, the formation of F/F/G led to two hugely significant factors in the development of the design profession at large. This triumvirate of talent would evolve into the forerunner of Pentagram, the independent multidisciplinary design studio that would come to bestride the planet. Fletcher, Forbes, and Gill would also be the pioneering founders of British Design & Art Direction (latterly D&AD) in 1962. Rivaling the existing Society of Industrial Artists, this new organization sought to both champion its peers and to elevate standards across the graphic design and advertising industries. As with Pentagram, D&AD would rise to international prominence.
Gill inadvertently came to also influence the development of rock music in advising his young aspiring studio assistant, Charlie Watts—who would go on to Rolling Stones fame—that he was a far better drummer than designer.
Reluctant to continue with the increasing expansion of the F/F/G studio, in 1967 Gill decided to venture back to working independently as a freelance designer and illustrator. The following years included periods of teaching, notably at Central School of Art and The Royal College of Art, in addition to filmmaking. Similar to Paul Rand, Marcello Minale, Ivan Chermayeff, and Seymour Chwast, he also applied his illustrative skills to publications for children.
The kids’ activity pack Parade for Curwen Prints Ltd., in collaboration with writer Keith Botsford, comprises an interchangeable set of nine large sheets (62 x 33 cm) that encourage imaginative play. Once sold in Habitat, the design-led British homeware store, it possesses an enduring timeless quality and appeal that defies the near-60 years since its conception.
Returning to New York in 1975, Gill pursued various diverse projects, including multimedia work such as the Broadway musical Beatlemania, books, and lecturing at the School of Visual Arts.
And he retained a uniquely influential standing among his peers.
“His work always delighted and surprised me because, at that time, American designers were not known for the kind of English wit that was Bob’s forte,” says Aziz Cami, designer and co-founder of The Partners. “His book title says everything you needed to know about him!”
Moreover, British product designer and erstwhile D&AD President Richard Seymour—a former student of Gill’s—recalls:
Bob Gill changed my life.
I remember sitting in the cafeteria in Central School of Art, as it used to be called, waiting to step into the afternoon’s studies, when a dazzling student strode in to address us poor first years. He was Chinese, with black hair down to his arse and sporting canary yellow loon pants (this was 1971, after all).
“You guys are going to get Bob Gill tomorrow!” … I asked “Who’s Bob Gill?” The mystified student pivoted towards me with the malevolent grace of a gun turret.
“Bob Gill?!” he barked “He’s fucking SUPERMAN!”
And he was.
I studied under him at Central and, subsequently, the Royal College of Art. He turned a rudderless wimp into a battle-hardened design commando. He was the single, biggest influence on my entire career.
Irascible and tenaciously forthright in his views on design, Gill was single-minded regarding his profession throughout his career.
As former Minale Tattersfield designer Alex Maranzano put it, “The best way to describe Bob was ‘the designer’s designer.’ His solutions never needed selling or explaining. Much like his name, his creative solutions were short, succinct and clear. As a young art student, you learned so much from being in his presence and just listening to him talk to any designer on any subject. With somewhat ruthless evaluations of how the problems were solved, he spared no punches and was never one for small talk.”
In his unfailing aversion to design trends and the influence of contemporary mass culture—which he viewed as an obstacle to original thinking—Gill was a rebellious and uncompromising design revolutionist. To him, the merely decorative “Emperor’s New Clothes” school of design thinking was not even thinking.
As a practitioner, educator, and pioneer for the recognition of the professional and cultural status of design and advertising, his influence has continued to resonate profoundly across the decades, and he remains one of the most inspirational figures in the modern era.
Applied to his bespoke form of design, Le Corbusier’s quote that “good design is intelligence made visible” seems most aptly suitable for him.
I liaised with Gill for a BBC radio interview in 2014, and his polite yet strictly precise manner mirrored a highly tuned objective mind that had not diminished at all in his senior years. Decades later, it was clear he remained as resolute as ever in his advocacy of his singular vision of design.