Michael Bierut | Essays

Alan Fletcher: Living by Design

Portrait of Alan Fletcher by Peter Harrison, Leeds Castle, Maidstone, Kent, England, 1980

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.

Posted in: Graphic Design, History

Comments [31]

Creative Review's tribute to Alan has elicited many memories from designers who were touched by him.
Michael Bierut

Very sad news, indeed.
His monumental "Art of looking sideways" here is always near at hand, an unending source of inspiration and wonder.
May he rest in peace.
Joan M.Mas

Ten years ago my boss at the studio where I worked then, handed me Alan Fletcher's business card --he had just met him at some event and I was struggling over a particularly stubborn identity project--. Its effect was immediate, I made a photocopy of it and have carried it with me ever since, switching it from notebook to notebook. That small piece of design, with its intelligent simplicity --"stylish, refined and precise"-- has made more for my design education than many a classic book.

Thanks, Alan.
Jesus de Francisco

I'm really devastated — Alan Fletcher was one of the few designers I usually urge my students to look up to not only as an inspiration but as a role model.
I wrote to him once, after reading The Art of Looking Sideways, about something he had included in the book about French people and the metric system (I'm french myself). He sent me the kindest of replies and I remember standing breathless in front of my mailbox looking in shock at the oh-so-recognizable handwriting on the envelope — My God ! A LETTER FROM ALAN FLETCHER !
I will miss him very much.

I had just recently gotten into Alan Fletcher's work within the past month. I ordered my copy of "Art of Looking Sideways" and literally received it a few moments after I heard he had passed last week. Flipping through it that evening and for the rest of the weekend was the best eulogy that could have ever been given to the man.

A true designer, he will be missed--even by someone who just leanred his work.

As touched upon in this article and stated in Mr. Fletcher's book:

There is an art to seeming artless

(On a side note, Mr. de Franciso, would it be possible to post an image of the business card? I would love to see it.)
Matthew DeCoste

It comes as a great blow to hear one of design's demigods has passed. Having began a head-first dive into graphic design two years ago, the first graphic book I bought was The Art of Looking Sideways--I haven't put it down since. He will be missed.
Colin Parks

I can't even imagine the amount of impact Mr. Fletcher has had in our profession. Just think, no Alan fletcher, no FFG, no Pentagram = inspired generations of designers who might not have become designers.

Although I'm just 23, I'm pretty sure I've ended up where I am as a designer today because of this tiny chain reaction.

Thank you Mr. Fletcher.

"I don't divide my life between labour and pleasure," is probably the best sentence I've read all week. I think I'll go order a copy of The Art of Looking Sideways.

R.I.P. Mr. Fletcher
Jeremy Brown


Joe Moran

He truly was the personification of a Gentleman and a Scholar and will be sorley missed. Thankfully, his work will live on and continue to inspire generations of us to do our very best. He had the uncanny ability to draw one into a 1,000+ page non-fiction tome about celebrating life and cause them devour every word with the fervor of a zealot. For that, and the lessons bestowed, I thank you Mr. Fletcher.
James D. Nesbitt

I'm terribly sad to learn of Alan fletcher's death. He has always been my 'design hero': I first became aware of him as a student in the late 60s when I won a prize for a college project I had completed; the prize was a copy of "Graphic Design: Visual Comparisons" by Fletcher Forbes and Gill (pre-Pentagram).

I don't know how or where to begin to express the massive contribution he has made to the profession we all love so much, so I won't; I'll leave it people who are better equipped.

I never met him, but I will sorely miss him
Tim Masters

One quiet afternoon in the studio, the phone rang. I answered an extremely gruff man. No introductions, no niceties. "Are you James Souttar?" "Er, yes... why?" "I'm producing a book and it contains something you wrote. I want to know how you describe yourself." I have no idea who I am talking to, nobody has told me anything about any of this and this man - who actually sounds quite menacing - isn't even asking my permission. He's telling me he's just going to go ahead and do this! Quite a lot to handle, for an opening remark!

"Do you mind if I ask what it's about?" I ask, by now deeply suspicious. "Design" he replies tersely, in a tone that makes it quite clear that this is all he is prepared to say about the matter. "So what kind of book is it?" "Just a collection of things that I've picked up over the years..." This man has called up to interrogate me, and when I ask him some questions in reply he becomes suddenly very elusive and vague. Whatever he is going to publish must be truly terrible, but I don't suppose I can stop him. I can just imagine, though: "That irritating brat James Souttar wrote this facile piffle..." Well, I have written some piffle in my time, so no doubt I can expect it to come back to haunt me.

"What do you call yourself, then?" he inquires, with a deliberate stress on the call, as if whatever I answer must be some kind of fraudulent claim. "...A designer?" Tentative. Now I'm asking him... what's going on here? "Mmmm", he murmurs darkly, as if I've just confirmed his worst suspicions.

"Can I ask what the piece is?" I say in a squeaky, timid voice, feeling I have to wrestle the inititative back. "Uhhh!!! I couldn't possibly tell you - I've got hundreds of the things all over the place!", implying somehow that it is totally preposterous of me to ask. "I see..." not actually seeing anything. "Do you mind me asking who you are?" "Fletcher..." he answers, in a voice that sounds like a gangland boss from a Guy Ritchie movie. "Alan Fletcher"

Rest in peace, Mr Fletcher.
james souttar

Just a week ago I naively thought Alan was only my hero, nobody else's. I had no idea that
so many others were touched the same way by his work/life, and thinking. Very inspiring. You will be missed, Mr. Fletcher.
Sal Sen

I had the good fortune of meeting Alan Fletcher. I shared some of my reflections here.

This is certainly a loss for all who love design.
Ben Thoma

The art of looking sideways has entertained me, educated be, inspired me, and intimidated me more than any other one thing in my life!

I thanked Alan briefly while he signed it back in 2001 at his Typo Circle talk, but had no idea when I did how influential the book was going to be over the next few years.

So, thanks again Alan. Seriously.
Mathew Wilson

I live in Kuwait and just want to show everyone how they ruined the Commercial Bank of Kuwait Logo [designed by Alan Fletcher.] It's really sad.




I learned minutes ago about ALAN FLETCHER'S untimely Departure from Earth.

To Say ALAN FLETCHER was a Design GOD is an understatement.

ALAN FLETCHER, Personified what a DESIGNER IS,

I'll Fondly Remember Mr. Fletcher and his Partners as the Cottage European Design Firm, FLETCHER, FORBES, and GILL.

You had to put the and in for Bob Gill, he was, is and always will be a First Class CHARACTER.

FLETCHER FORBES and GILL grew into one of the Largest and Most Respected Powerhouse Design Consultancies in The World, PENTAGRAM.

They Simply Concurred The World.




With all due respect, Mr. Alan Fletcher would probably be the first person to say he was not a Design God, but a working designer. One hell of a designer, at that. Direct, intelligent and refined.
Anyone who has been influenced by his work, would do well to remember to look sideways and smile.
M. Andresen

36 years ago I had the opportunity to meet Alan Fletcher. I was working as an intern in London and Gordon Salchow, my professor at the University of Cincinnati, suggested I give Mr. Fletcher a call. It took me weeks to get the nerve to call him but he put me at ease and invited me over to their office.

He gave generously of his time, introduced me to several designers and invited me to join them for lunch in the office. I was grateful and have spent more time with every young designer I have interviewd as a result of his generosity.
Jerry Kuyper

Thanks, Michael. Here's to Alan and him looking sideways throughout his prolific life.

Chris Conley

Thanks Alan, for what you've done, for whom you were, and for what you given to all of us.

Enzo Finger

Without Alan Fletcher no designer on this planet would have ever been inspired to pursue that natural curiosity. The Art of Looking Sideways has always been the perfect antidote for us all. When I created my own website, the imagery generated and URL was inspired by a quote within his book. I continue to spread the word of this true 'Godfather of Graphic Design' to all of my own students each year; his book usually one of the very first things I recommend.

I think Alan Fletcher managed to communicate not just the essence of design, but also managed to communicate very strongly who he was through his methods. I never met him, but I clearly knew him.

May he continue to live on in all of us and through our work, this is the greatest respect we could ever pay.

Richard Johnson
Richard Johnson

When Alan walked in, the world suddenly looked finer, easier, funnier, more interesting.

With a single letter, a one word comment, a little gesture, a smile at the right time, Alan could change the atmosphere in the room, turn black into yellow, make an empty glass look full, transform a boring meeting into an interesting one, change a normal day into a day that I will always remember.

The way of looking at things and pointing at them from different angles is one of the most important wisdoms in life.

I miss Alan around so much, but also truly feel that he is bigger than life.

My deepest sympathies to Paola and Rafaela in this very sad time.

Julia Hasting
Design Director, Phaidon Press , New York
Julia Hasting

As a designer one can get lost in the world of problem solving and the business of design. Alan Fletcher was a light to help us see... an inspiration, full of insight - helping us all to look again, to look sideways and to find those twinkling ideas that are full of wit, bring a twinkle to the eye and a smile in the mind... Aah!
Noone did it quite like him.

Many many thanks to Alan Fletcher...

Kathryn Grace
Designer, Leeds

Kathryn Grace

A true master, I only wish my life will be as good as his for he didn't live two lives like most of us "blue collar workers of the art world" do but he brought his personal life and liesure time into his design.

Persistency! - This was a new English word I learned when I met Alan soon after I moved to London. At the time I didn't realise how often I would pull it from the draws of memory and hear him saying it to me, a disoriented and confused foreigner in the new world. I never managed to thank him for that - not for the word of course - but for the attitude.
Thanks Alan and hvala beskrajno!
Sasha Vidakovic

Mr Fletcher

You brought wit and style to the world of graphic design. Thank you for being my role model. The bar you set will always be the standard for generations to come. Design in Peace.

Glenn Sakamoto

When I started my graphic design career I was not sure of what a graphic designer really was. As soon as I saw some of his work I thought... Mmh! Now I know I want to be a graphic designer.

I knew him, although I never met him.

I smelled him working at Pentagram London for only 15 days (2004).

He's not dead, and we all know it. Every time we see his work, we learn.

Thank you Sir Alan Fletcher.
Germán Simone

There's a great summary of Alan Fletcher's exhibition at the Design Museum by Dan Hill here, with plenty of pictures.

Michael Bierut

"... that the designer should have no preconceived graphic style."

Thank you.
(I'll keep working hard to one day truly learn to graphic design, and then love it.)
andre felipe

why oh why? alan fletcher is/was&is the most vibrant
designer. haven't you heard the big sucking sound?
a big black hole has been created and now . . . maybe
we will a l l . . . . . .. be following auto-matically
or should be now
creating ourSELVES
. .

mark jaquette

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