Being trained ‘old-school’, as Nigel Bailey was, may not make you a great graphic designer (although he is). It does, however, give you a great sense of perspective and history.

I recently bought a second-hand Canon A1 camera on eBay. A stunning piece of technology in its day, and well beyond my price range as a student in the 1970’s, it was, in some small way, the realisation of an ambition. Having cut my teeth on the Zenit B, itself a monument to no-nonsense, brutalist Soviet engineering, it might be said that I had learned photography the hard way, or perhaps the right way. With manual focus and aperture, and no built-in light meter it had the size, weight, and sophistication of a house brick. Hardly point and shoot, but capable of superb results when you knew what you were doing; a cruel mistress when you didn’t. The Canon, by comparison, was a work of art. With both manual and automatic options, aperture or shutter priority and the most perceptive light metering money could buy, it had the lot. But now you really needed to know what you were doing.

You also needed to be able to see into the future. While this may seem a curious analogy to introduce a discussion on the relevance of hand skills in creativity, consider this: Michel angelo could apparently see finished sculpture within rough blocks of marble; his stated task was to release them. Working only with hand and eye, and of course an exceptional creative intelligence, he did so with astounding effect. In our own comparatively humble manner, photographers attempted to anticipate a photograph through the manipulation of numeric values, controlling movement, light and depth of field; the outcome as much a technical accomplishment as a creative vision. The image was committed to film. We had no idea whether we had got the shot, but trusted to our understanding of the medium and the capability of our camera.

It’s simplistic to conflate some nostalgic vision of lost innocence, as we manipulate our digital images on the camera’s screen, or deploy Photoshop to iron out our wrinkles, but the distance between the user and the tool has become a chasm. Rather than work out the best configuration of the variables to achieve the best image, we simply keep shooting until we find one that we like.
It wasn’t like that in my day.

Is creativity being compromised, or is it just changing shape in alignment with the quantum leap that is underway

In 1974, I was enrolled at the University of Reading to study Typography & Graphic Communication. My mother thought this had something to do with geography, and I was only slightly the wiser. But life was blissful. The odd seminar from time to time; workshop training in photography, illustration, type design, printing, book-binding, inscriptional lettering and model making; tutorials with such luminaries as Ralph Beyer, Ken Garland, Bob Gavron, Ernest Hoch and James Mosley.

A fully-functional print room under the command of the terrifying Cliff Morris, with cases of metal, shelf upon shelf of wood display fonts, with some very well-restored Albion hand presses and a brace of Heidelbergs with which to print them. William Morris might have just left the building. We could cast-off and mark-up copy, render body text with a Rapidograph, paste-up from galleys, register overlays and cut ruby lith. We could compose in a setting stick, mix to Pantone specs, ink up, run the press and diss the formes. We could scan and expose litho plates.

We could develop and print in colour,and black and white, and we could draw. We became equally adept at slicing off the tips of our fingers, removing Cow Gum from our hair and burning ourselves on the Monotype machine.

We knew stuff.

Perhaps we had good reason to be complacent. Graphic design, in some shape or form, resides amongst the oldest of professions; indeed, in client relationships, it often resembles the oldest. Changes, when they occurred, did so at a glacial pace. Many traditional methods endured without serious inquiry as to their efficiency, or indeed their shelf-life. At this point in time we were masters of our craft, and if change was in the wind, we convinced ourselves that we would weather it. Image scanning, plate-making and photo-typesetting were computerised almost overnight. In distant California, Steve Jobs was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan. Before long, awkward, shadowy figures would begin to insinuate themselves into studios throughout the land. Whilst PageMaker and QuarkXPress would leave them quivering with excitement, we remained cautious yet ambivalent. Surely it was just a fad? It would all be over by Christmas. But as Woody Allen observed, while “the lion may lie down with the lamb, the lamb won’t get much sleep…”

The rest of course is history. With the benefit of hindsight, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been a practicing designer throughout this period. Despite my rather whimsical take, I can hardly imagine our industry as it was, when stacked against the possibilities that we now have, literally at our fingertips. But – and there is inevitably one – we need to consider both the social and creative impact. Studios are no longer the invigorating, raucous places that they used to be. Up-lit rows of earnest young faces hunch behind screens with obligatory headphones. No one talks and very little beer or pizza is consumed. Design has become a solitary process and team-building an industry in its own right. Collaboration is linear and the power of the studio as a creative entity is weakened as a consequence. Although not attributable to the loss of hand skills directly, we have seen the demise of the specialist team, much as we have a range of tools that are now about as relevant as the Spinning Jenny. Pantone Markers, Letraset, Rotrings, Frisk Film, CS10, Process White and of course, Cow Gum have all passed into extinction.

Studios are no longer the invigorating, raucous places that they used to be

From initial brief to finished art, the process can be contained within one terminal and in the hands of a single designer. The power to create remains, but the power to articulate an idea conceptually, to visualize through drawing and from that to interpret an intention is, in my opinion, in danger of being lost.

Roger Sperry established beyond doubt that the left and right halves of the brain do work in different ways, and that all humans have a bias towards one or the other, be it creative or analytical. Designers and artists of every stripe have enhanced visio-spatial skills, which reside in an area of the brain that can be clearly located through observation of neural activity on fRMI. The hypothesis suggests that problem-solving techniques are developed heuristically; that we find solutions using familiar and efficient strategies; that we follow a process of discovery that draws upon and maximises our sensory expertise, through both hand and eye collaborating to build and extend our creative intelligence. Put simply, we work it out with a pencil.

Children encouraged to develop fine motor skills do appear to be better problem solvers, as do those who play with Lego. Retirees are encouraged to retain motor skill-based activities to prevent dementia and reality TV largely revolves around disparate groups of egoists abandoning the mod cons and returning to the wilderness. Barring the expletives, the most effective competitors are those that appraise the problem, visualise a solution and are able to explain it, or at least shout the others down.

So what is to be done? As a design teacher, I encourage my students to close their laptops whenever possible. Leaving aside the lure of Facebook, it creates an array of literal and psychological barriers that deprive them of the fundamentals of creative endeavour; social and intellectual interaction. I prefer to encourage hand-lettering, drawing and collage. Whilst initial responses are often mixed and following the predictable complaints that they cannot draw, students begin to engage and the enthusiasm becomes infectious. Regardless of their level of skills, it is as if the windows have been opened and the lights switched on.

So should we smash the Spinning Jenny and return to the land? Is creativity being compromised, or is it just changing shape in alignment with the quantum leap that is underway? I prefer to believe that this is the case, but I also believe that the responsibility does not begin and end within design education. The industry needs to play a part, as does every new designer that enters it. The opportunities are boundless, but we must retain our initial motivation and not lose sight of the innate human capacity that we have to solve problems through intellect rather than Adobe.

I return to my Zenit B, a bovine piece of machinery of which I was very fond. If you told it what to do, it would do exactly that, but the rest was down to you. Any designer of my vintage who has worked with an airbrush (yes a real one, not the Photoshop version) will agree - it is like riding a rodeo bronco. If something goes wrong, it does so very quickly. It’s all about maintaining a tight grip and establishing who’s the boss; just ask Michelangelo.

Who is Nigel Bailey?

I have enjoyed a long and diverse career in the design industry. For the majority of that time, I have run my own businesses. More through luck than judgment, I have found myself working in some very interesting environments; as a typographer, illustrator, photographer, publication designer, adman and web-developer, to name but a few. I have held creative directorships in agencies based in London, Luxembourg and Sydney, including the direction of Europe’s first online service, which probably makes me less of a guru and more of a dinosaur.

Not one to be deterred, I have, in my twilight years, poured what little I can remember into teaching design, in equally diverse environments; and both online and face-to-face. I am also a registered counselor and psychotherapist, although my wife is convinced I need one. We now live in Malaga, Spain, where my ambition is to do nothing.

Find this article in Ligature Journal Issue Three.