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Dec 14, 2009

Profiles at the Junction: an interview with Ronald Shakespear

“Dying is easy….Comedy is hard.” -Sir Donald Wolfit

Shakespear Design is a family owned design consultancy founded by Ronald Shakespear half a century ago.

When Ronald Shakespear initiated his studio, he felt there was little or no information at all about graphic design as a professional practice. Inspiration for Argentinian designers seemed to come from Europe more than anywhere else, and Ronald was no exception to this. Evolving relationships with Alan Fletcher, Forbes Gill, as well as the work of Jock Kinneir, and German designers like Otl Aicher, Muller Brockmann, Armin Hoffmann… and the American Milton Glaser, consolidated a vision but, above all, confirmed an intuition.

“Design solutions for Argentine problems” he used to say, drawing and writing his own conclusions based on what he saw. He made hypotheses about what he found and experimented with typography, photography, illustration, cinema and different materials to test his ideas. Enhancing the perception of design, he realized, required offering an absolutely clear visual structure that allows the viewer to have access to information.

AIGA XCD: Please comment on the latest design trends in Argentina? What is changing? Any interesting upcoming designers of note?

RS: When James Ivory entrusted Anthony Hopkins with the construction of that fantastic character, the servant in “The remains of the day”, Hopkins at a point had a problem of a conceptual nature and asked for help.

Ivory advised him to talk to an old Windsor butler, an expert on the subject.

Hopkins invited him to tea. They sat down and chatted for a while, but in fact, when the meeting came to an end, Hopkins had a feeling that this old servant had not told him anything.
He walked him to the door and as he was about to leave, determined to extract something from the character, he said: “Tell me, finally, WHAT is a servant?” The old man turned, thought about it for a second and said: ”A servant is someone who, when he WALKS into a room, makes it look EMPTIER than it was before.” I have tardily found that this is exactly the role of my work.

Actually it’s not for sure Argentina has a tone of voice ot its own nowadays. Nobody has. Globlalization has covered all the world. Buenos Aires became Unesco’s Design City in 2005 due to phenomenal design production after the 2001 crisis which turned the country down and we are learning now how to come from the back yard. This is something I cover in more detail in another interview with Icograda.

AIGA XCD:  How has Argentina’s history, economy and culture affected “Argentinian Design”

RS: Design has changed more over the last 20 years than it did over the previous 500 years. It has become an extremely dynamic discipline, primarily devoted to giving satisfactory answers to an increasingly dissatisfied audience. The search to make a profit is the fundamental reason behind every assignment. The existence of globalization naturally means that there is a “globalizer”.
“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.” as Chesterton would say. It has been said that there are no more technological frontiers, and while special effect simulations generate jumping dinosaurs in the screens of fascinated crowds, we annihilate forests and whales. An irrational, blind greed is destroying the planet, apart from thousands of honest people who work for the welfare of all, in the belief that design is an answer to a social need that originates it and makes its existence legitimate.

AIGA XCD:  Do you think European design philosophy and aesthetics has had a lot of influence on Design in Argentina or is there a distinct “Argentinian Flavor”?

RS: I first met Alan Fletcher in 1964 at Fletcher, Forbes and Gill in London. Our paths had never crossed before. Life sometimes surprises you that way. Every visit to London were intense days of a marvelous friendship that had just started under the influence of our common trade: design. I have happy memories of Paola and Alan during their visit to Buenos Aires in 1987, and the kitchen at his home in Notting Hill, dry Martinis… Some time after that, Alan decided to go. Evidently, the Great Designer had called His favorite artist to His side. He is somewhere out there now, drawing, designing, writing. As always. I sometimes talk to him. There was so much that was left unsaid.

Over dinner in London one night, he told me this beautiful story that he has heard from someone in Mexico.
In 53 BCE, Marco Casio invaded Parthia (currently Iraq) with an army of 40,000 and the goal of expanding the Roman Empire. The result was a disaster, mainly due to the design of the Parthian bow. The Parthian bow was a weapon built with a laminated spring, with a range and power that made Roman legions defenseless. 20,000 Romans died; 10,000 were taken prisoner. According to Alan, it’s important to note that the  Parthians did not prevail because they had a better General. They prevailed because they had a better designer. “Design is not necessary. It’s inevitable,” he used to say. Alan was a book lover. His books are pieces of jewelry, made with devotion. The Art of Looking Sideways is an exemplary piece of work.

AIGA XCD: What are your thoughts about the future of Design in Argentina?

RS: Many changes can be founded in design practice in the last 50 years. From the Swiss School -which I love- to the present.

Trying to justify his crimes, Orson Welles tells Joseph Cotten in the Third Man,”… for thirty years in Italy, under the rule of the Borgias, there were wars, terror and killings, but Michelangelo, Leonardo and the Renaissance flourished. In Switzerland they’ve had five hundred years of brotherly love, democracy and peace, and what have they produced? The cuckoo clock.”

The cultural environment of the Swiss school however, trained designers with a strong ideology of how design should be. This allowed them to create a certain grammar that traveled the world. A number of us learnt from those teachers. There are many new design disciplines arising but the problem is always the same. Hearing people. Wayfinding systems seek to establish a clear and reliable visual grammar. In order to meet this requirement, urban signs systems should be based on three pillars: Sequence, Predictability and Structure. Predictability is a cultural act. When you know you will find the next sign in the right place -as expected- the social contract between sign and audience is acomplished.

Still, it seems not all people believe in signs.The charming old English lady arriving in, say, Heathrow’s Terminal Five, has a wayfinding system available that immediately shows her the way to go. Nevertheless, she expects – like everyone else – to be properly assisted. To her, there is nothing like a sweet English Bobby to hold her suitcase and her pet, tell her the way to the ladies room and immigration services, walk her to a taxi and tell the driver to drive safely. Signs? What signs ?

AIGA XCD: More thoughts about the future of Design in Argentina: is there a transition into a service economy like in the USA? Does this affect the Designer-Client relationship and ultimately the design process?

We don’t work for our clients. We work for our client’s clients. We always started – naturally – from intuition. The method, research, the process, comes later, in order to verify that intuition. We also have a certain way of “accessing information” as Saul Wurman would say. Darwin’s theory was known long before he was, but – obviously – with the conviction that a divine hand had done it all. I’ve been told that a number of people refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, because they did not want to see any ugly things up in the sky.
Who was Galileo after all? A heretic materialist, who tried to prove that the earth was round and also – horror of horrors! – that it moved. Einstein said that it is not possible to make an observation, unless the observer has a theory to apply to what he is looking at.

For a long time, I was friends with a Catholic priest named Father Duncan. He was Irish, and I think what brought us together was basically our afternoon gin-tonic, as we played cards in the backyard of his church.

One day he told me that the cross on the top of the church could not be seen by people, and he suggested that we put up a neon-light cross. I naturally told him that he was drunk. Christian grammar does not admit neon lights. The cross is a unique symbol, and has been built in hardwood, bronze, iron, gold, or marble, yet never in neon, a technology associated with show, nightlife or amusement. It appeared one day. A pink neon cross. We all thought it was a scandal. A few years later, as I flew back from the North, I ran into an old friend who was a pilot, and I asked him to allow me to join him in the plane’s cockpit for landing. As the plane reached a certain point, the pilot went straight for the local airfield – which was 14 kilometers away. I asked him how he knew that was precisely the place. He said: “I know because I can see the Sign of God over there”. And there it was indeed, Father Duncan’s pink neon cross. Father Duncan was right.

AIGA XCD: are there any projects in Argentina that Diseño Shakespear would like to participate in or feels strongly the Argentinian public/business community should consider addressing? In other words, what would be on your project “wish list”?

RS: Yes, we would like to do all our projects again.

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More Confessions from Don Ronaldo

I love internet but I miss the smell of ink.

We know more and more about less and less. And soon we’ll know a lot about nothing.

Richard Avedon’s lessons about image and life, fine emotional thinking: He wrote in his book: “This book tracks the path of three crucial illusions in my life. The first is about the illusion of laughter, and a young man’s discovery of the fine line between hilarity and panic. The second is about the illusion of power. The third is about the loss of all illusions. This book isn’t chronological. I haven’t lived chronologically. No one does.

I’ve had two typographic love affairs in my life. One is Giambattista Bodoni. The other is Max Miedinger. Helvetica –of course- which is in my head. And Bodoni -naturally- which is always in my heart. In any case, the problem is always the same, and it is about the positions we take in life. Committing yourself or getting involved. Eggs and bacon. The chicken is involved. The pig is committed. A truly thanks to my faithful pipe. She’s always warm. And she never talks.

“It is no tragedy to aim high and miss. The real tragedy is to aim low and hit.” -Michelangelo.

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