Grafik (Issue 193) - My Design Hero: George Hardie

A request from Grafik to muse upon my personal graphic design hero had me stumped. I’ve had the odd hero, of course - I guess we all have. But mostly only as kids. Heroes are supposed to be larger than life – I once wanted to be Spiderman (early comic version – long before the Spiderman movies), I’ve wanted to be Steve McQueen (in a Great Escape on a motorcycle or racing fast cars kind of way) and I quite fancied being Joe Strummer and Andy Warhol at various point too, if the truth be known. But a graphic design hero? Really, is it even possible to have a graphic design hero?

Graphic design is graphic design. As those on the inside, we may like to believe it is vital, critical and changes lives, and the very best is and does, but somehow graphic design doesn’t seem nearly sexy or dangerous or violent enough to have real heroes (and heroines too, of course). Rebel-rousing and living life large come with the territory for genuine heroes but aren’t exactly key prerequisites for graphic communicators. Paul Rand, Seymour Chwast, Jamie Reid, Barney Bubbles, Peter Saville and Shepard Fairey; I’ve admired many designers for sure, but as heroes…? Not really. Wouldn’t want to be them.

And then it dawned on me – I once did have my very own graphic design hero. Ok, so no counterculture / what are you rebelling against? – what’ve you got? / too fast to live, too young to die, sort of hero. But still, a true graphic design hero. George Hardie – a gentleman who has brilliantly straddled both commercial design and design education, and not just the odd commission here and there kind of designer, nor simply a day-per-week part-time lecturer. George balances both design practice and design education with finesse. Believe me, this is no easy balancing act but George makes it look effortless, and has done so for many decades. Equally challenging is the no-man’s land between graphic design and illustration that George resides comfortably within. Imagine a single Venn diagram where design industry meets design education and where graphic design and illustration overlap and at the very centre of these interconnecting circles sits George. Never happier than when he breaks across borders and defies territorial demarcation – George Hardie is a quiet rebel.

I first met George at the University of Brighton in the late 1990s. George was a member of an interview panel for the post I had applied for - Course Director of the BA (Hons) Graphic Design course. I’d seen George speak at numerous design events and was in awe of his ability to lecture on a subject with clarity, with wit, with flair and with extreme expertise effortlessly delivered. To say I was nervous in the interview was an understatement. I got the job and got to work alongside George for over 12 years and throughout this time he constantly and consistently surprised me with astute observations, ponderings and well-constructed theories on design and design education. And as well as all this – he could draw. Boy, could George draw but more of that in a moment.

Born in the UK in 1944 Professor George Hardie studied at St Martins and Royal College of Art, and despite being best known for designing legendary record covers for rock musicians and bands that included Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin working with Hipgnosis, his work and influences go far deeper and wider than just to an audience of music fans. Stamps for Royal Mail, numerous corporate commissions and a library of editorial illustrations have ensured that the public have never waited too long for another George Hardie commission to arrive. He has quietly been working away, crafting timeless graphic illustrations since the late 1960s.

And then there is the teaching. ‘I started out teaching for money,’ George explains of his first teaching slot at East Ham in 1968, ‘and soon began to realise I wanted something else from teaching.’ What was that? ‘Well, firstly I simply had to get out of the studio for argument and debate – I had cabin fever,’ he explains, ‘and later I realised teaching and research made me look at my own practice in a new light.’ Joining the dots between practice and research and lecturing on ideas and creativity as Professor of Graphic Design at University of Brighton since 1990, George has inspired generations of illustrators and designers. Despite working within a faculty of art and design, for George it has always been about design – ‘I’m a bit wary of artists,’ he admits, ‘my work is always about graphics, sometimes without clients, but I’m always speaking graphics – it is a fantastic language and the web of constraints on us are fantastic too.’ It is perhaps these constraints that have helped George construct his own visual language, a language that remains essentially timeless.

George is a meticulous draftsman, crafting a visual aesthetic that perfectly articulates his ideas. The bottom line at all times with a George Hardie pictorial solution – there is never an image without an idea and a perfectly executed idea at that. I may flatter myself here, but George Hardie is the thinking-man’s illustrator and the route into George’s thinking is through his drawing. A picture-perfect marriage of line and colour, George’s drawings quite simply work – ‘If I draw a table,’ he tells me, ‘it would stand up. Although there are one or two things I can’t draw,’ he adds, ‘lifeboats are tricky and with cars sometimes it is easier to draw from the Dinky Toy rather than the real thing.’ Quite.

And George’s drawing process? - ‘I can’t draw without a pretty good understanding of how the back of something looks and I love drawing that proves the impossible’, he states, ‘and I tell all students to keep a sketchbook. I don’t of course’. On show for a second is that rebel nature once again. ‘I’ve always hated life-drawing. At St Martins we were made to do it twice a week. To me life-drawing just seemed like practicing and I just wanted to get on with the real job’.

George, by his own admission, after a lifetime as a ‘jobbing illustrator’ is coming to a twilight moment in his academic career – ‘I’m riding into the sunset. I do enjoy the fact that I don’t have to attend meetings any longer, it has almost gone full circle as when I first started at East Ham I wasn’t invited to attend meetings.’ But don’t assume that George will go quietly – in demand as a practitioner and educator, George wears many hats - International Secretary of Alliance Graphique Internationale for one, and is likely to be lecturing globally on design and practicing design across the planet for years to come.

They say one should never meet one’s heroes. I did. And very glad too.