Tutor News: Farewell and thanks to Peter Lester
MA and BA (Hons) Programme, Barry Hurd talks to Peter Lester on a long and distinguished career in Graphic Design
After almost five years with OCA Graphic design Department, and many more in design education, notably Nottingham Trent University, as head of Masters Studies in Visual Communications, Peter Lester is to retire.
Peter left school way back in the 60’s without any qualifications, and for many years worked as an unskilled labourer in a lot of different industries. Before too long Peter was encouraged, by a friend who was a teacher, to go to ‘night school’ to get some GCEs. Next came A Levels, Art Foundation Studies and Art College.
“Eventually, my dream of a professional career in the creative industries and Higher Education came true. It took a lot of time and dedication, but it was well worth it. Education changed my life for the better”.
Peter’s professional creative background is broad; employed as a graphic designer, a photographer, a publication designer, a magazine editor and for many years as a publishing consultant with the Polaroid Corporation.
Barry Hurd: Like myself, you came to art education later in life. Was there a single ‘lightbulb’ moment or influential piece of design that prompted this change?
Peter Lester: It was a slow realisation over several years that working in boring and repetitive jobs wasn’t a good plan. Having said that, I was told at school that I wasn’t suitable for any other kind of employment. However, the 60’s was a time of great social change, and of many diverse people coming together from many different backgrounds and classes. I began to meet people with common interest in counter culture, and emerging alternative life styles; with whom I could actually discuss books, music, films and art without being thought of as a ‘big head’. I met people who had travelled a bit further than Skegness, who lived in big, scruffy, shared houses and were happy to welcome anyone in who wanted to hang out, talk, listen and most of all, learn.
When I left school, I thought of education as something that was ‘done to you’. Through meeting these new people, I realised that education could be a power for change, and a doorway to new opportunities. I was helped to understand what was open to me – if I only asked. My girlfriend at that time, who was a student history-teacher, supported me through all these changes, and this new found interest in learning eventually led me to Art College in Exeter and then, The Central School of Art for my MA in Graphic Design. From that point my professional career took many turns; design, photography, journalism and publishing, and finally education. It has been a fantastic and challenging journey from a pretty dismal start, all thanks to education, and that’s why I am such a passionate believer in the power of learning.
BH: Graphic Design as a subject is constantly evolving, but is there a single constant, or skillset, that current students need to have?
PL: During my combined A-Levels and foundation studies, I decided to explore the graphic design route more than the fine art. Frankly, I found the art briefs far too inward looking and self-indulgent. I liked the problem-solving aspects of a design brief, and how you learned a lot about popular culture and the way which design interacts with social trends and evolving knowledge and attitudes.
So, I would say that what graphic designers need first and foremost is curiosity. Styles come and go, techniques do too, but every brief offers the designer an opportunity to find out something new. I also think it’s really important for practitioners to view design as an ever- evolving visual language, and shifting influences within political, economic and cultural contexts. So, a designer isn’t just someone who can ‘colour things in, without going over the lines’, as painter friend of mine once described me, all the great designers are observers of the human experience in all its forms.
All the best design ideas come from thinkers who are in-tune with contemporary society.
They understand how to create visual material which appeals to audiences, or consumers, through their insights into people’s perceptions of what ‘things’ mean to them in visual terms. Designers must be able to understand and predict, the end-users response to the visual nature of the world around them. Visual messages are constructed from commonly understood symbols which represent not only the tangible, but also the more abstract aspects of life such as peace, harmony, fear or discord. That ability, to synthesise the visual in order to create meaning in an interesting way, is the thing that gives designers their individuality by putting a fresh spin onto the everyday cliché. These attributes are proven to be at the core of all effective visual communications, and they will continue to lead all future facing design strategies.
BH: Throughout your long career in education; can you identify the key changes or approaches to teaching in that time?
PL: I think that design related education has now evolved to become a learning model which leads the way in higher and further education. Lecture based university courses offer a very poor experience by comparison. As in secondary education, many traditional university subjects are moving towards a more holistic curriculum, which enables the more personalised, and creative, experience which has become the standard in art and design.
One of the main changes is the growing emphasis on making life-long learning an explicit part of the student experience. Learn how to learn, be adaptable and let your creativity lead the way.
As a design student in the mid-seventies, I was encouraged to master studio and professional skills, with little thought about the possibility of those skills becoming redundant in the future. In fact, the future was probably thought of, by most of my tutors, as being exactly the same as the past. Those tweed suited, pipe smoking typographers with molten lead in their veins instead of blood, insisted that we all learned hand type setting with 6pt metal type upside down and back to front on a stick. However, a sound knowledge of hot-metal letterpress techniques did not teach me that you have to be prepared to deal with change, and I think that’s one of the major changes in design education, the need to always look to the future and to have a personal skill set that will allow you to deal with it, whatever form it takes.
In 1975, I was on one of the very first design courses offering honours degree status, and looking back I have to admit that it bears no comparison with the type of progressive design curricula we see today. The understanding that practice is firmly linked with theory has emerged since then. Theory was rarely discussed in the seventies, unless you were at Masters level or higher, and in those early days, most design courses were HNC or HND; very practical, very technical not very ideas based at all. The notion that design could be studied at Honours Degree level, was controversial, and scoffed at by ‘real academics’, delivering ‘proper’ degree courses.
The rapid emergence of technology in the 80s, particularly through the introduction of affordable desk-top computers and design software has completely changed the way in which design is produced and distributed. I began to freelance in 1988, and through my previous knowledge of magazine production and printing processes, I was able to write, edit, design and produce digital files ready for press, for two monthly and one quarterly magazines; all by myself. Previously this would have required at least four different specialist services or suppliers. When I began teaching in 1991, none of the other academic staff had the experience to integrate new technologies into the curriculum, which was just as well, as the course didn’t have any!
The discourse around how to adjust to the era was interesting. Many tutors were saying things such as, ‘You won’t get me using one of those things, ‘It’s design by robot’, ‘It’s a passing fad’, and so on. Students disagreed, as did many practitioners. The industry went for the Mac and Quark Xpress big time. Sadly, many traditional jobs and practices were lost, but many people also retrained and survived.
Interactive media was the next major change, and I remember actually being the only member of staff in my first university position to volunteer to introduce it into the curriculum; even though we did not have the technology to actually produce it. For me it was simply another set of problems to solve, and I saw no reason why students couldn’t design an interactive artefact, even if they couldn’t make it.
I encountered the same kind of resistance when, only about 8 years ago, I proposed the concept of on-line learning. The traditionalist were outraged. The common response was, ‘You can’t teach art and design on line, face to face, around a studio desk, that’s where the magic happens”. Readers of this piece might have other opinions.
In my final few years teaching a truly international cohort of masters students, and mature students returning to education after completing a degree later in their careers, it became clear to me that many parts of the course could be delivered in alternative ways. Lectures could be recorded and accessed at times suitable for each student. Roars of outrage, from lecturers who trotted out the same talks that they had been doing for 20 years. ‘Facebook groups for peer-run learning groups?, Bah!, they’ll just waste time chatting about nothing’. And so on. We trust our students to have a commitment to studying and learning. Nobody is forcing them to be here, and they know that they ‘own’ their education. I wish I had seen such levels of dedication amongst more of my ‘traditional’ students, who frequently took the privilege of education for granted.
Can’t teach art and design on line? Tell that to the many, many, students that I have been lucky enough to supervise over the last five years. I have tutored numerous single parents, worked with the very young and the old, some of which have full-time jobs and want to improve their employment prospects, and several who, through physical difficulties would have found it very hard to manage to study in a bricks and mortar university. I admire them all for wanting to learn and to strive for change.
My interest in on-line learning also stems from my previous remarks about social mobility. I benefitted from that through free education. Evening classes helped me get a start while still working in a factory. I got the GCEs that helped me get onto a foundation course where I also took five A-levels. The Open University, and more recently OCA, have led the way in providing support for those who either cannot, or simply don’t want to go to a conventional university. My gratitude goes out to any institution which enables people to continue to learn, at their own pace, under sometimes difficult circumstances.
BH: Who are the creatives that have inspired you with their work or voice, and is there a contemporary graphic designer, students simply, must be aware of?
PL: To be honest, my interest in designers is a bit disloyal; I flit about. However, one guy has always been there as an inspiration over the many years of his career. I met Vince Frost, then a young partner at Pentagram in the late 80s. I worked with him, and some of his successors such as Nick Finney, a director of NB design, on the prestigious Polaroid International Photography Magazine. Vince and Pentagram in general impressed me very much. The company was very collegiate, and they took on, and developed, so much great design talent.
Pentagram is always my go-to agency if I’m asked to about influential work, and Vince has gone on to create so many fantastic design campaigns. He now directs the Frost Collective which has studios in Australia and the UK. Its work is characterised by an engagement with values and integrity, and in relating to the world through people oriented design. Also, Frosty produces simply the best typographic design you will see anywhere in the world. (IMHO)
BH: If you could give the 21-year-old Peter Lester a piece of advice, what would it be?
PL: Invest in Apple, Microsoft and Adobe. Try not to piss so many people off!
BH: A big question, but what do you think the main challenges that face graphic design students and professionals operating in the world today?
PL: Globalisation has resulted in normalisation. Designing for broader tastes and understandings has diluted design in general, to the point that we now have the graphics equivalence of flat-pack furniture. The look of the world is now owned by IKEA, sports brands and fast food cafes. Individuality doesn’t have a passport, and so we’ve arrived at Uniformity Junction, alight here for the same visual experience you get everywhere else. Daring to be different, and pushing against conventions is the only way forward.
Follow the designers anthem:
‘Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone,
Dare to have a purpose firm,
Dare to make it Known.’
Hymn, PB Bliss, 1873