Daily Features

AGI Open 2013, Report from London

By Zara Arshad October 17, 2013

This year’s AGI Open—easily graphic design’s most high-profile annual international conference—took place in London at the end of  September.  Zara Arshad was on hand to capture the spirit and also had a few questions for organizer Adrian Shaughnessy.

A record-breaking 2,000 attendees filed into the Barbican in London on September 26 and 27 to attend the self-professed “world cup of graphic design,” AGI Open 2013. AGI Open claims to be “the foremost design and education conference on the international calendar . .  .  featuring over 40 of the world’s leading graphic designers, illustrators, and creative thinkers—all members of the Alliance Graphique International (AGI).” The two-day conference, organized by Tony Brook (Spin, Unit Editions) and Adrian Shaughnessy (Unit Editions), along with Angus Hyland (Pentagram, London) and the AGI UK board, boasted an impressive speaker line-up including appearances by Stefan Sagmeister, Margaret Calvert, Ian Anderson, and Kenya Hara.

Stefan Sagmeister “on happiness” at AGI Open, September 27, 2013

From panel discussions about “no client” self-initiated projects, to questioning ideas surrounding “collaboration,” paired with open discussions with more experienced designers, such as Pierre Bernard and Peter Saville, the conference offered engaging dialogue and inspirational stories that provoked emotion, moving the audience from tears (Christoph Niemann’s poignant video tribute to Maurice Sendak especially comes to mind), to rolling in stitches with laughter. The event did, however, threaten to convey “Old Boys’ Club,” but through honest accounts of personal journeys and flashes of humility from otherwise big personalities possessing even bigger reputations in the world of graphic design, one could not help but feel invigorated and energized after each session.

Adrian Shaughnessy interviewing Pierre Bernard, AGI Open, London, September 26, 2013 
Tony Brook interviewing Paul Scher at AGI Open, September 26, 2013 
Rick Poynor interviewing Peter Saville, AGI Open, September 26, 2013 
AGI Open 2013, book sale 

Highlights included book-jacket designer Chip Kidd’s entertaining narrative on his childhood obsession with Batman (which has now evolved into a professional project that concentrates on translating and publishing virtually unknown Japanese renditions of the comic) and Paula Scher’s wonderfully intricate hand-painted maps that intersect both art and design, while prompting onlookers to question the wider implications of cartographic practice. “Information is inaccurate” Scher says. “People will believe what you put down, if you do it in an organized way . . . all maps are essentially distortions.”

Tony Brook and Paula Scher discuss Scher’s hand-painted maps at AGI Open, September 26, 2013

Zara Arshad: How are conferences like AGI Open relevant to design in a contemporary context?
Adrian Shaughnessy: Conferences offer an opportunity to discuss, analyze and share viewpoints and refections on design (both theory and practice) in a live, non-digital setting. Outside of design studios and design schools, most reflection takes place digitally or in books. This is fine—it allows a vast audience to have access to this discourse. But sometimes we need human contact. Sometimes we just need to be able to look into people’s eyes and see what it is they are really telling us. In conferences, we also gain from the communal feedback loop that builds up when so many designers are in one place at one time. In other words, non-virtual contact is necessary to maintain an active discourse around design.

This was our aim with AGI Open. To share! To make the speakers available and to allow debate and discussion to flourish. One of the ways we did this was by breaking away from the rigid formula of one-hour-lecture-followed-by-one-hour-lecture. We had interviews, panel discussions, and short 10/20 minute presentations. This encouraged a more fluid interchange of ideas.

ZA: Can books play a larger role in design conferences like these? If so, how?
AS: I think books currently hold center stage in the design discourse, and conferences offer an occasional and welcome change from the solitary act of reading—and writing! Conferences also drive book sales. All the speakers who had books for sale in the bookshop saw a welcome spike in sales. We also had a charity auction and jumble sale of books by AGI members and this raised a lot of money for a major UK eye hospital.

ZA: If it is true that you are what you read (as some say), what one book that you've read best describes you?
AS: I don't have a book that describes me, but if we are defined by our reading then it would have to be the works of James Joyce. I'm currently re-reading Ulysses. As an experiment, I’m simultaneously listening to an audio version of the text. I've never listened to an audio book before, but Joyce wrote with such musical flair that his prose seems made to be spoken as much as read. For me, when Joyce describes an emotion or gives a description, it nearly always hits me with a revelatory shock of recognition. By this I mean that he writes like a voice inside me. It’s this sense of sudden identification and recognition that makes him the greatest writer I've ever read. He makes the mundane seem transcendent. I also love the sheer beauty of his language.

ZA: Some AGI members that were present during the conference, like Lü Jingren (China), are well-known in the field of book design. Was this topic, which may be viewed as a very literal marriage of publishing and graphic design, considered as a presentation topic for AGI Open at all?
AS: Books and publishing were a frequent element and reference point in many discussions and presentations. Most AGI members have some sort of involvement in publishing books, either as authors or designers, and increasingly as publishers. A number of members made informal presentations of new books during the conference. If I have one small regret regarding AGI Open, it is that we didn’t cover the digital realm sufficiently well. Only Hamish Muir and Eddie Opara talked about their work in the digital sphere. Personally, I’d like to have seen more discussion of this. 

Tim Beard, Jon Jeffrey, and Mason Wells of Bibliothèque and Mark Adams of Vitsoe, interviewed by Patrick Burgoyne, AGI Open, September 27, 2013

Overheard at AGI Open 2013 

• “Whatever it is that you’re obsessed about, that’s fine. [Just] don’t be anybody else.” (Tony Brook)
• “You can’t be a graphic designer unless you have a problem to solve.” (Mike Dempsey)
• “Sometimes I wake up at night in a sweat dreaming that the client is saying he has an idea.” (Ian Anderson)
• “Someone comes in and asks you to do something, you don't say that you don't know how to do that—you start asking questions! They call it research now; I don’t like that.” (Margaret Calvert)
• “In 2 weeks I'll be 58. Why would I want to design a record cover? It’s inappropriate.” (Peter Saville)
• “Work comes by working, not by having meetings and talking in the abstract.” (Christoph Niemann)
• “My job was not to sell, but to approach the truth.” (Pierre Bernard)
• “To be a graphic designer, you have to believe in content.” (Pierre Bernard)
• “We define graphic design too much through the receiving of instructions from somebody else.” (Nick Bell)
• “Design now is a mixture of media and ideas.”(Marina Willer)
• “Every time we get the stage, we get asked about being ‘women in design.’ We need to talk about our work.” (Frith Kerr)
• “It’s important to collaborate with people who are much better than you are.” (Simon Esterson)
• “You’re no one without jazzy socks.” (Marian Bantjes)
• “I'm a great believer in self-education. Latch onto the thing that feeds you knowledge.” (Mike Dempsey)
• “Someone asked me what my favorite media was. It’s my head. We're experts in thinking.” (Frith Kerr)
• “Every generation succeeds by trashing its predecessors.” (Deyan Sudjic)
• “When I’m lazy, I like everything.” (Michael Bierut)
• “I hate meetings. I think I can smell an idea that came from a meeting a mile away.” (Christoph Niemann)
• “The Beatles didn't create songs by sitting in a meeting with a flip chart and a plate of danishes.” (Christoph Niemann)
• “I’m completely allergic to the whole commercial world.” (Nick Bell)
• “It is important to look back to see where we’re going, otherwise we lose track of where we are.” (Matias Corea)
• “What I have is a really weird, active relationship with things I collect.” (Tony Brook)
• “Nobody taught me how to do anything. Both Jock Kinnear and I were kind of self-taught.” (Margaret Calvert)
• “If you can draw, you can do anything you want – copy/steal anything you want.” (Roger Law)
• “Put part of yourself into your design.” (Pierre Bernard)


comments powered by Disqus