Alan Fletcher: Graphic designer of rigour and founder partner of Pentagram
The Independent
26 September 2006
Text: Emily King

Alan Gerard Fletcher, designer: born Nairobi 27 September 1931; partner, Fletcher Forbes Gill 1962-65; partner, Crosby Fletcher Forbes 1965-72; RDI 1972; founding partner, Pentagram Design 1972-92; President, Designers and Art Directors Association 1973; International President, Alliance Graphique Internationale 1982-85; married 1956 Paola Biagi (one daughter); died East Sussex 21 September 2006.

Alan Fletcher was the father figure of British graphic design. Through his companies Fletcher Forbes Gill, Crosby Fletcher Forbes and later Pentagram, he revolutionised the practice and the business of visual communication, introducing Britain to punchy, ideas-based graphics and helping transform design from a decorative extra into a key element of corporate and public life.

As far as Fletcher was concerned the starting point of a piece of work was not how it should be done, but why. His professional approach was characterised by a rigour and perfectionism that went uncompromised over his 50-year career.

Richard Schlagman, the owner of Phaidon Press, the art publisher where Fletcher had been Consultant Art Director since 1993, remembers his initial surprise when a simple request to rethink a book jacket would be met with an inquisition as to the reasons for the book's very existence. In answering these questions, Schlagman was able to generate the strongest line of art books in the business.

Forty years ago, in the late 1960s, Fletcher posed related queries to the CEO of Reuters, Gerald Long. First approaching Fletcher's then partner the architect Theo Crosby for a redesign of a boardroom interior, Long was persuaded to spend several years working with Crosby Fletcher Forbes on an entirely new company identity. The centrepiece was a Fletcher-designed dot-matrix logo that survived for nearly 30 years. Complimenting the day's technologies in both a practical and an emotional sense, the motif played a key role in determining the company's position in the nascent digital world.

In Fletcher's scheme of things nothing could be taken for granted. He found the commonplace inability to look beyond the mind-numbingly obvious a constant source of frustration. His visual curiosity spilled over from his corporate work into numerous other projects. His studio contained plan-chests full of collages, typographic games, drawings and watercolours, and his shelves heaved with sketchbooks in which meticulous notes or deftly drawn layouts are interspersed with deft, lightning-quick drawings of the world around.

Taking part in a meeting, sitting on a beach or at dinner with friends, he was never without pen and paper. The culmination of Fletcher's extra- corporate activities is The Art of Looking Sideways, a 1,000-page, densely packed graphic tour de force. Published in 2001, the book has visual games, arresting images, curiosities, bon mots and anecdotes from every decade of Fletcher's career. Visual continuities, such as his constant return to the image of the labyrinth or the pointing hand, are the most obvious expression of an unbroken stream of thought.

Fletcher was born in 1931 in Kenya, but grew up with his grandparents in Shepherd's Bush. He found the gloom of suburban London in the Second World War and the immediate post-war years "indescribably dreary", and in 1956, as a student at the Royal College of Art, he negotiated a scholarship to Yale School of Art and Design in New Haven, Connecticut. Where London was all about rationing and 40-watt gloom, America promised cinematic lighting and Audrey Hepburn. At Yale he was taught by the aristocracy of art and design, including Paul Rand and Josef Albers, and later in Los Angeles and New York he worked for some of the period's most skilful art directors, including the film-title designer Saul Bass and the magazine maestro Leo Lionni.

Returning to London in 1959, Fletcher took a space in the studio of his former classmate Colin Forbes and in 1962 the pair teamed up with the American designer Bob Gill to create Fletcher Forbes Gill. As a team they had an ability to combine the formal restraint of Swiss modernism with the wit of the Madison Avenue advertising industry that set them apart from other British design firms. Fletcher's iconic work from the period, such as the bus-side advertisement for Pirelli slippers in which the passengers become the wearers of the slippers, has lost none of its spark.

Enjoying, as they did, fast-growing commercial success, their creative ambitions grew to match. In the mid- Sixties they decided that the best way to communicate the identity of Shell Petroleum was to reconfigure the furniture of the garage forecourt into the letters SHELL. Although this extraordinary project never came into being, it prompted a new partnership with Theo Crosby and transformed them into London's leading multidisciplinary design firm. Crosby Fletcher Forbes evolved into Pentagram in 1972. The company's highly innovative structure in which every partner acts as an independent profit centre while each is paid the same has allowed it to grow from a five-partner (hence the name), London-based firm to a, currently, 18-way firm with offices in five cities.

The scale and complexity of Fletcher's commissions increased in line with Pentagram's expansion, but he never lost his lightness of touch or sense of play. Describing his work, he avoided the pedestrian problem/solution formulation that dominates discussions of graphic design, choosing instead to entertain with tales of mishaps or happenstance. The gold-spotted dominoes for the Commercial Bank of Kuwait that lost their 24-carat digits in transit, for example, or the collage of images from the National Portrait Gallery that took on an uncanny likeness to Prince Charles. I deeply regret never having seen him present to a client. Apparently his perfectly timed, understated theatricality was a thing to behold.

After 20 years at Pentagram, Fletcher left to work independently in a studio adjoining his mews house in Notting Hill. Scaling down his team to a single assistant, the move enabled him to avoid the corporate-design donkey-work that he found increasingly uninteresting.

Alongside Phaidon, recent clients included the Swiss pharmaceuticals company Novartis, for whom he was art-directing a large research and development campus in Basle. Designing three-dimensional structures, such as the Wonder Wall, a massive protective steel fence laced with graphic icons, allowed his talents to develop in a new direction. The list of jobs that he was engaged on last week was longer and more varied than that of most designers half his age.

Fletcher's studio was connected to his house by a large sliding door. The set-up could be read as a metaphor for the intermingling of work and life that was his guiding principle. Never foregoing his horror of suburbia, he was perplexed by designers who could leave their work in the office and travel home on the train to their semis. Fletcher and his Italian wife Paola had a vast circle of friends from the international graphics community and he lived his life in and through design on the broadest possible stage.

He was a minimalist by temperament, and his surroundings were honed to perfection. But, far from the cliché of the empty white room, his restraint expressed itself in a series of perfectly chosen objects. Enter his studio and turn to the left and there was a shelf packed with toys, models and fetishes, each one with a specific purpose or a meaning. Go through the door and into the house and there were rooms of beautiful modern furniture, rainbow-arranged shelves of Penguin Classics and a kitchen stocked with the ingredients for Paola's delicious cooking. His standards were terrifyingly high, but his warmth and charm were boundless.

Curating his retrospective that will open at the Design Museum in November, I shall profoundly miss the precision of his advice and criticism. Talking to him a couple of weeks ago, I had to confess my fear that the exhibition would fail him, that it wouldn't represent the breadth of his talents. 'I'm very nervous,' I wailed self-indulgently. His retort was a single word: 'Good.'