Now even baked bean tins have celebrity designers!
30/11/2011

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Imagine picking up a can of baked beans and finding a note on the tin from the label designer describing his creative rationale and artistic influences, together with a potted biography of his professional career.

Well, it hasn’t quite come to that yet, but judging by a paperback book I picked up this week, the day can’t be far away when graphic designers and blurb writers all demand a credit on product labels and book covers in the same way that wardrobe mistresses and camera grips get a credit in film titles.

The book in question was Len Deighton’s Only When I Larf, a reissue of a Sixties con man caper, in the foreword to which one Alexander Schwartzman OBE RDI waxes lyrical about the cover art he has created to adorn it.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for us professionals getting the recognition we deserve, which in this game means the recognition of our peers.  But to go beyond that strikes me as being immodest, and not a little ridiculous.

By way of contrast I give you the modest and self-effacing Raymond Hawkey, who died earlier this year, and perhaps the greatest graphic designer that no-one has ever heard of (except within the profession, where he is legendary).

Coincidentally, Hawkey made his mark in the book world with a cover for Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File. It was a radical departure from the lurid comic book style illustrations of the time: a black and white still life photo of a Smith & Wesson revolver, a chipped cup of cold tea and a stubbed out cigarette.

Hawkey is perhaps best known for his bold and stylish cover designs for the James Bond books, in which he pioneered a new marketing approach by persuading Pan paperbacks to make the words JAMES BOND twice the size of the book titles and the author’s – Ian Fleming – name.  Hawkey has been described as one of the most influential graphic designers of the second half of the 20th century, and was responsible to a large degree for the enshrinement of graphic design as a key marketing tool.

Sainsbury’s own label designs of this era reflect a similar ethos – bold, geometric, typographically led – pioneered by John Dixon, head of the firm’s in-house design department, and another unsung hero of the Sixties graphic revolution that has transformed our visual environment.  As a teenager, it was his work that inspired me to make my career in the industry.

But to say John Dixon and his team are unsung is not quite true: on November 28th the book Own Label, Sainsbury’s Design Studio by Jonny Trunk is due for release, which celebrates their ground breaking work.  Whilst we’re wallowing in nostalgia, let me also recommend to you Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005 by Phil Baines, and Faber and Faber: Eighty Years of Book Cover Design by Joseph Connolly.

As I say, in such matters self praise is no recommendation (is it the poisonous influence of reality TV shows that give every man and his dog a hankering after celebrity?), but the accolade of one’s peers.  To be a professional’s professional – that’s recognition that really counts for something.

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