Graphic design

Colin Forbes obituary | Graphic design

Colin Forbes, who died at the age of 94, was the creator of elegant and sometimes humorous graphic design, and co-founder in 1972 of Pentagram, one of the world’s best known and most admired design groups .

He was one of the practitioners who helped radicalize British mid-century graphic design, transforming it from a cottage industry populated mainly by freelancers wielding airbrushes and pencils, and putting it on a level playing field. with the best work from Europe and the United States.

His work combines modernist rigor with witty graphic tropes, as in his poster for the campaign against museum admission fees. Conceived in 1970, it took the form of a petition with the pictorial signatures of famous artists – Van Gogh and Rembrandt among them – rather than members of the public. The word-in-word idea of ​​his George Nelson on Design book cover, with its overlapping “on”, has been much imitated, and his D&AD logo, seemingly compressing three dimensions into two, is still in use today.

D&AD logo by Colin Forbes, 1963. Photography: Pentagram

Forbes was particularly proud of the clean, technically accomplished covers he produced for ICI Plastics Today magazine. Designed in the 60s, some of the covers look like they were designed yesterday by a hip young design studio. Corporate identity was still in its infancy in post-war Britain, and he created enduring and sophisticated visual identities for leading companies including Lucas Industries, British Petroleum and Pirelli.

He possessed an ability, rare among graphic designers past and present, to inspire the trust and respect of the leaders of large corporations. At the time, graphic design did not have the status it has today in the business world: he was proud to have contributed to making it a profession. In the case of his own business, the equal sharing of income, decision-making and ownership among partners ensured a structure that could survive the departure of its founders.

Born in London, Colin was the son of Kathleen (née Ames) and John Forbes, public relations manager for ICI. While Colin’s first ambition had been to design aeroplanes, after leaving school in Brentwood, Essex, aged 17, he started a course in book illustration at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. from London. For ambitious design students of the time, Central was the place to be. Other students included Terence Conran and graphic designers Derek Birdsall, Ken Garland and Alan Fletcher, one of his future Pentagram partners.

National service (1945-1948), where he was stationed part of the time in Palestine, interrupted his studies. After demobilization, he returned to Central to study typography. At the end of his studies, he obtained a position as a lecturer at the school and, after a brief stint in an advertising agency, he was invited, at the age of 28, to return to Central as a graphics manager. Among his students was Mervyn Kurlansky, another of the five eventual founders of Pentagram.

Colin Forbes Plastics Today magazine
The covers of Colin Forbes’ Plastics Today magazine look like they were designed yesterday by a hip young design studio. Photography: Pentagram

As his independent pursuits grew, Forbes was forced to give up teaching. Together with Fletcher, a rising star on the British design scene, and New Yorker Bob Gill, a purveyor of impactful, idea-based graphics and illustrations, he formed Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, one of the first supergroups of design. Although the three men dressed soberly (Forbes had the appearance of the young Michael Caine), a publicity photograph of the trio, taken by Robert Freeman, known for his many photographs of the Beatles, gives them an air of Beatles of Graphic design of the 1960s.

After Gill’s departure, the remaining members were joined by architect Theo Crosby. When Kurlansky and industrial designer Kenneth Grange joined, the trio became a quintet and changed their name to Pentagram.

Colin Forbes George Nelson book 1978
The cover of Colin Forbes’ George Nelson on Design book, with its overlapping “on”, has been much imitated. Photography: Pentagram

The founding of the company, with its distinctive multidisciplinary philosophy – graphic designers, architects and industrial designers all under one roof – marked a major achievement on the part of Forbes, as did the founding of a Pentagram office in New York a few years ago. later.

No foreign design firm had succeeded in doing so, and at first the New York design community viewed the new venture as merely an outpost of a British design studio. But, thanks to the charm and energy of Forbes, and the judicious appointment as partners of prominent figures in the American design scene, including Woody Pirtle, Michael Bierut, Paula Scher, Michael Gericke and the architect Jim Biber, Pentagram has become more than a colonial enterprise. outpost of the London company. Satellite offices in San Francisco and Austin, Texas have helped transform the group into one of the leading companies on the international design scene.

Forbes’ time at Pentagram ended in 1993 and he retired to his horse farm in North Carolina. In an interview published after his retirement, he said he felt he received insufficient credit for establishing Pentagram in London, which prompted him to write his essay Transition, a lucid exposition of his conception of the structure. commercial of the band which was first published in the November 1992 edition of Communication Arts magazine. His secret was that he never forgot that he was building a design business, a business owned and run by designers, not businessmen.

In 1950, Forbes married Elizabeth Hopkins. After the couple divorced in 1961, he married Wendy Maria Schneider. She survives him, as well as their children, Aaron and Jessica, his daughter, Christine, from his first marriage, and three grandchildren, Giulia, Jamie and Gemma.

Colin Ames Forbes, designer, born March 6, 1928; died on May 22, 2022