Apr 11, 2010
Zelda Harrison

Harry Pearce’s Schizophrenic Road

Musings from Harry Pearce, Pentagram

Over the next few weeks, AIGA XCD recounts escapades in Cape Town, South Africa at Design Indaba with interviews of speakers who generously shared their thoughts and experiences designing across cultures.

We start with Harry Pearce, Partner at Pentagram, UK.

AIGA XCD: Since early childhood, you’ve been intrigued by the play between type and words. Could you share your experiences and some examples of the wordplay that would eventually grow into the Conundrum Project**? More specifically, what inspired “Conundrums”?

HP: I grew up loving the crazy world of Spike Milligan and Peter Cook. I remember wonderful lines such as:

“In less enlightened times, suicide was punishable by hanging.” – Peter Cook

I always loved playing games with type, language and image. These began with doodles years ago – I made them into a poster on delicate tissue, they thread the thinnest line between stupidity and grace.
Saks ran the conundrums through their Christmas catalogue and this led to Harper Collins publishing the book.

AIGA XCD: This passion has translated into your work: “…the interaction between words and type “has been a common thread in all (your) work”. How would you account for this? Could you share some of your most successful instances of “resolving the conundrum”?

When my partners at Pentagram gave me the job of designing their holiday card I gave the whole thing a twist and expanded them into typographic codes to be solved.  The booklet itself has hidden codes.  These games have drifted onto many other items.

I once took a pack of playing cards and decided it was long overdue a new attitude.  I swapped the suits for type – four faces for the four suits.  On the back, after contacting a leading card shark, I placed 52 different cheats that your opponent could read and either use or watch out for and therefore neutralizing each other.

In a more straightforward manner, I use type to capture more than one thought at a time – Macbeth, Doll’s House, East of the sun. (click on the images for larger thumbnails)

AIGA XCD: “How beautiful buildings could be if Type and Architecture” were better integrated…” How did you arrive at this conclusion and what have been your attempts to realise this wish? How do you feel about the results? How have you been able to convince your clients to buy off on this unique perspective?

HP: The question of how graphic communication relates to architecture is important because the result of a seamless integration can be awe inspiring. For an example of where it goes wrong, take a look at the average high street. They’re a visual affront. And this is a direct result of a clash between the two disciplines. Graphic design can actually become part of the structure of the building – its very surface. When this is achieved, e.g with the Dana Centre at London’s Science Museum, it can have wonderful implications for the space in which people live, not just some of the objects within it.

The Dana Centre was built as a headquarters for the Dana foundation, that researches into the human brain. It is also a bar, restaurant and debating centre.

Intended to make science fun and engaging it’s a cool funky challenging arena where largely controversial scientific subjects are debated, and in this instance performed.

I’ve always believed that typography and buildings have a very similar nature. An architect recently said to me, that what matters most and is often overlooked, is the space between buildings.. the space where most people inhabit… you could say the same for type, often it’s the space between forms that hold the key to it’s beauty.

So here is a love affair between a building and some typography, they feed off each other…
The actual debating centre is encapsulated within the frame of a bigger building, and I based the logotype on this relationship…

As the logo came from the building, I felt duty bound to give something back, so I cut up the logo and fed it into the concrete of the main sections running right through the building.

And so the mark became an actual part of the structure.

This then lead to the idea, that the mark could actually become architectural, so I pushed and pulled it in different directions, it then became a wall which you can see through and walk around.

And finally in it’s complete destruction, I made a pattern by cutting the logotype into a myriad of slices and these became a lining for the interior walls.

So what goes on in this space is conversation, debate. And in the spirit of that I made the way- finding a conversation too. Instead of the usual list  of places within the building – it’s a written instruction on how to find where you want to go….

This is a place of science.

There is a reception area where if you’ve come for a meeting you can wait.

I wanted this to be full of questions, questions you could never answer.

In a completely irreverent gesture I filled the seating area with rhetorical questions, hundreds of them…yet this is a place where you are supposed to get the answers…
So no matter how any times you visit this place you will never be able to find the answer…

On the tables in the restaurant/café area I played the another game – this time slightly more surreal. Covering the table surfaces with invented scientific thoughts…philosophies of the future…

And finally the great glass wall.

You know when a conversation takes place, when it’s done its done – you have the memories you have the effect of people’s words on you.

I imagine the place/space where this takes place has a memory of it too.
If these walls could talk…
And in the spirit of that idea I made this great wall out of conversations…

This time, real conversations. These are hundreds of snippets of conversation from web chat rooms, running inside and out of the glass. To be able to decipher them you have to move inside and out.
Again you can visit this place and never see or hear it all…

It’s just ghost of conversations gone before…if these walls could talk and I hope they do!

AIGA XCD: What role has synchronicity played in your design? Perhaps “synchronicity” could be also defined as a highly developed intuition? Has your response to your dreams and subconscious been a process for fine-tuning your intuition? Is any of this inspired by Dadaism or the Surrealists?

HP: One can turn intuition into knowledge, but one cannot produce intuition out of knowledge.  Often great design is born from pure intuition and regardless of how many facts you are given and how deep you delve it takes that intuitive spark to make it happen.

For me the best example of synchronicity occurred when I had a dream which left me with a beautiful line of poetry: ‘until the last butterfly’ at the same time as my friend Steve Hackett was composing a piece of classical music for guitar, trying the emulate the rhythm of butterflies flight. My dream gave him the title for the piece.

Not directly but more by great minds like Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton, who were on the fringe of these movements. I fell in love not from a visual point of view but more from an intellectual standpoint.  I began to read Marcel Duchamp for whom the name of his pieces often had the most resonance.

AIGA XCD: Do you believe that the Technological evolution is making people sceptical about Humanity and Humanism?

HP: It all depends on how technology is used.  It can help to reveal humanity as well as exposing the more inhuman elements of our society. Technological advances have allowed Witness to highlight human rights atrocities – now that mobile phone cameras are easily available everyone can become a change-maker giving the silent a voice. Eventually there is a possibility of everyone being connected, an extraordinary moment for the human.

AIGA XCD: How do you achieve an equilibrium between commercial work and pro bono work? Are these two inherently in conflict? Any boundaries you’ve set up to mitigate potential conflict? Would you recommend the “Robin Hood” approach to other designers? Any assignments you would prefer to decline?

HP: In the early days of my first design partnership, Lippa Pearce, we made a commitment to providing pro-bono work for charities. While we had little money, we hoped we could make a positive contribution to causes through Design.  We saw a situation where big money often got the best design work, and causes without the same kind of financial resources couldn’t justify investing in the kind of design that would really help raise their profile.  We used the money we made from our commercial clients to support worthy but impoverished projects.

Designers should have a place of leadership and vision – it is not all about profit and loss.

I would not work for political/government regimes with dubious human rights records regardless of how much I was offered.

AIGA XCD: How much control do you have in working on concepts and producing work? How much control do you need?

HP: Great design can only happen if you have a great client.  It has to be a collaboration from the outset with an agreed set of aims and a clear understanding of each other’s role. I don’t like to think of this as control it should be more a matter of respect and trust.

AIGA XCD: Please share with us your contribution and commitment to Witness, the Human Rights organisation. What are some of the shifts in the political, social and technological landscape that have influenced Witness and potentially its impact to a global audience? In particular, how could Witness engage an audience who may not be familiar with the group?

HP: I met Peter Gabriel in 1981 at an African Art exhibition in Bath. When later he founded Witness I was inspired by the powerful idea behind Witness – “Little brother turning the camera on Big Brother” and the amateur footage of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1992 proved the point. I was determined that Witness’s graphic communications should accurately capture the significance of their work.  I am proud to have been associated with such a remarkable project for more than fifteen years.


One of the most extraordinary moments of my career occurred when I was watching news footage of the protests in support of the Burma uprising.  Across the world I saw images of my Burma poster being taken onto the streets as a symbol.  To have a piece of Graphic Design spontaneously used like this is the most meaningful thing that has ever happened to a piece of my work.

I would recommend anyone to visit the Hub – a multilingual online portal dedicated to human rights media and action.  The Hub provides the opportunity for individuals, organisations, networks and groups around the world to bring their human rights stories and campaigns to global attention – rather like a YouTube for human rights to my mind it is one of the most important human rights initiatives in recent history.

AIGA XCD: Much of your work is powerful and arresting! How you do consistently realise such visceral, emotive communication?

Click here for more details on the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime Review Poster

HP: I have spent my career on a relentless hunt to find the truth and to create as emotional an expression of that truth as I can.  For me the poster I have recently designed for the ‘Haiti poster project’ in aid of Doctors without Borders comes as close to reaching that point as I have ever been – it is like a silent tear.

AIGA XCD: A close friend described his desire to “Capture the Rhythms of the Fluttering of the Butterflies”. How would you define the essence of your work or even yourself?

HP: Peter Gabriel did it for me: ‘Working with Harry is a mixture of great design and good Kama’, humanity and emotional truth.

Art, music and even buildings frequently move their audiences but an emotional reaction is rare in graphic design. My hope is to create pieces of graphic design that have integrity and emotional clout.

I also seek balance both between my outer daily life and my inner world of the subconscious and between my commercial and humanitarian work.  For me Witness is my balance and my career has become a personal journey of self-discovery as I manage to fuse my inner world, my interest in Jung and dreams with my work.

AIGA XCD: What descriptions would best complete the HPearce Brand?
HP: Humility, the pursuit of wisdom, integrity, balance.

AIGA XCD: Does anything keep you up at night? What gets you through the day?
HP: I love lying in bed listening to the sound of heavy rain. I’d keep awake for that, ironically it’s also a wonderful way to induce sleep. Something beautifully primitive. As for the day, well, I’ve a life rich with, amongst many things, some wonderful friends and family. All of whom have brought smiles to even the darkest of days.

A slideshow of Harry Pearce’s work is also available on our Flickr page.

Harry Pearce joined Pentagram London as a partner in 2006. His diverse clients include: Boots, The Co-operative, Royal Academy, Phaidon Press, the Science Museum, Saks Fifth Avenue and Shakespeare’s Globe. To each he brings his own brand of intelligence, elegance and wit. Pearce is a member of the advisory board and lead designer for Witness, a human rights charity and also a member of  Alliance Graphique Internationale. Throughout his career he’s been concerned with using design to connect minds, enabling them to share a different, clearer vision.

**This past December, It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, published Harry Pearce’s Conundrums, a collection of elegant typographic puzzles that embody Harry’s love affair with typography and phrase.

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