Today would have been Alan Fletcher's 75th birthday.
Alan, one of the five founders of Pentagram and one of the world's greatest designers, died Thursday after an private 18-month struggle with cancer. Colin Forbes deserves the credit for inventing Pentagram's unique organizational structure, which has endured now for nearly 35 years and where I've worked as a partner for 16. But it was Alan Fletcher who showed by example, across three decades, how one could work, and live, within that structure. For him, design was not a profession or a craft, but a life. In an interview for his 1996 book Beware Wet Paint, he told Rick Poynor, "I'd sooner do the same on Monday or Wednesday as I do on a Saturday or Sunday. I don't divide my life between labour and pleasure." The title of another book from Pentagram could serve as a concise statement of his philosophy: Living by Design.
Alan Fletcher was born in 1931 in Nairobi and moved to London as a child. He studied art and design at four different schools — Hammersmith, the Central School, the Royal College of Art, and Yale — and worked in New York, Chicago, Barcelona and Milan before returning to London in 1959. Within three years, he had reunited with an old classmate from Central, Colin Forbes, and an American, Bob Gill, to establish a design firm that for many still embodies the excitement of London in those heady days, Fletcher Forbes Gill. In Graphic Design: Visual Comparisons, a book the studio published in 1963, Alan wrote, "Our thesis is that any one visual problem has an infinite number of solutions; that many are valid; that solutions ought to derive from subject matter; that the designer should have no preconceived graphic style." This idea-driven design approach ("Every job has to have an idea," he often said) brought success and growth. The addition of three more partners (and the departure of Bob Gill) led to the establishment of Pentagram in 1972. It was Alan that gave the firm its name. "Nobody liked it much but we settled on it anyway," he once said.
At Pentagram, his work — and client base — was remarkably diverse: identities and signage programs for Reuters, the Commercial Bank of Kuwait, Lloyds and IBM on one hand, and small personal projects on the other. "I'm a split personality," he once told Poynor in an interview for Eye. "I do quite large, complex corporate identity jobs. I enjoy that, but I also enjoy sitting round doing my own little things, which are invariably the ones that don't pay." Eventually, he gravitated to the latter, and in the autumn of 1992 he went off on his own to focus on his creative obsessions. These were eventually compiled in his 2001 masterpiece, The Art of Looking Sideways, an staggering tour de force of visual acrobatics that clocks in at over 1,000 pages.
Alan was intimidating — many of us thought he looked like Sean Connery in a darker mood — but as a person he was curious, enthusiastic, and endlessly passionate. Gathering up the courage to introduce themselves at parties, young designers often would be surprised to learn that Alan already knew their names and had been following their work. In fact, I was surprised at how many of my partners remembered their first meeting with Alan. He told Paula Scher, "So many people ask me if I've met you, I just lie and say yes." He told Jim Biber, "Colin said I'd like you. Why is that?" And he told me, "I hear you're supposed to be some kind of genius." He delivered that last one with more suspicion than admiration, to tell the truth.
His vast body of work, soon to be on view in a major retrospective at the Design Museum that opens November 11, managed to combine the reductive simplicity of modernism with a dedication to wit, joy and surprise that was intensely personal. "I like to reduce everything to its absolute essence," he once said, "because that is a way to avoid getting trapped in a style." Yet a Fletcher solution was always nothing if not stylish, refined and precise, with always a bit more than the problem required: "I treat clients as raw material to do what I want to do, though I would never tell them that." What Alan wanted to do was what we all wanted to do.
I find myself thinking back to my first dinner with Alan, shortly after I joined Pentagram. I was seated at a table with some of my new partners, and the meal was winding down. Alan made a bet that none of us could duplicate a trick he was about to do. It involved two wine corks — Alan enjoyed activites that required the consumption of good wine — that had to be exchanged from one hand to another. "Ready?" he said. "Okay, watch." He held the corks between his thumbs and forefingers, and then traded them in one quick gesture. It didn't look like magic. It looked easy, something anyone could do.
"Got it?" Alan asked. "Now you try." So we did try. And try. And try. And he leaned back in his chair, sipping his wine with a faint smile on his lips, watching all of us attempt, without success, to imitate the effortless simplicity of Alan Fletcher.