Bear with me while I take a trip down memory lane

A little over twenty years ago, I graduated from the Sheffield College HND Design Communications course. The people I met, lessons I learnt and experiences I had in those two years stoked a burning passion to become a designer.

Michael Bierut’s second essay, Why Designers Can’t Think, from his 2007 collection of Design Observer articles Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, neatly categorises American design programmes into two camps: process schools and portfolio schools. He goes on to describe these two categories thus:

“Process schools [“Swiss” schools] favor a form-driven problem-solving approach… one way or another, the process schools trace their lineage back to the advanced program of the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel… the portfolio school [“slick” school] has a completely different, admittedly more mercenary, aim: to provide students with polished “books” that will get them good jobs upon graduation.”

Reading this prompted me to reminisce about my own path through graphic design education. I recognised some of Bierut’s description of a “Swiss” school in the HND Design Communication programme I followed at Sheffield College back in 2001.

The photocopied spreads from Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Muller Brockmann, weeks spent using Copic markers to faithfully recreate the reflections on the back of a spoon for an advertisement visualisation, Mike Holmes, our ‘logo design’ tutor, constantly drumming into us Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s maxim that “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. (An old classmate of mine told me that Mike had recently been in the local papers after he blew his fingers off in a garden shed incident involving gunpowder… I guess there’s always something left to take away).

But, the course at Sheffield also had its eccentricities. My form tutor, and tutor for Creative Thinking class was an entrepreneur who’d recently revolutionised the sex toy industry (this fact, combined with her name, Julia Gash, was like a red-rag to a room full of hormone-filled, 18 year-old boys).

The course leader, Chris Halliwell was an artist and musician who I later found out had a five-album deal from Warner Bros. His lessons often consisted of us sitting on desks discussing the merits of the new Levis ‘twisted’ seam jeans, or watching Vincent Gallo movies.

The donor of those photocopied Swiss grid layouts was Paul Clarkson, a pioneering magazine designer at the 80s mould-breaking music, fashion and culture magazine The Face. Paul firmly implanted a love of Swiss design and editorial layout in my heart. He probably meant it as an insult, but the day he told me he could see me becoming the Creative Director of Erik Spiekermann’s MetaDesign – a process-driven, German brand and design agency that, at that time, evangelised the grid system – was a proud moment!

Alwyn Timms, a man who looked like the lovechild of Santa Claus and Grizzly Adams, was the Faculty Head and my Print Theory tutor. Alwyn was passionate about design, he’d been a designer long before the macintosh had been invented, possibly even before phototypesetting. He made lampshades and wall-art from defunct wooden movable type and he literally frothed at the mouth when he talked about offset and the Pantone colour matching system.

He’d probably be very surprised to know that I remembered his name. I don’t think I turned up for one of his 9am, Monday morning lectures. He drove this fact home, violently, the day I walked into college to sit the Print Theory exam. Alwyn passed me in the corridor. He stopped and called after me, I turned and I remember the spite in his voice when he told me he was going to enjoy watching me fail his class.

A couple of weeks later we met again, in the same corridor, and he was humble enough to apologise, and congratulate me on achieving a 100% pass grade in the exam. I was humble too and I apologised for missing his class. It was never a reflection on him or a disrespect for what he loved, I love design just as much as he did. A night owl with a tendency to stay awake all night working on my assignments and then sleep until midday, I’d asked my classmates to collect all the handouts from his class, I’d gone to the library to read books about printing, I’d taken trips to printing presses all over the country and frustrated them with endless questions, I’d scoured what existed then of a very slow and limited World Wide Web.

Back then the HND Design Communication programme at Sheffield College was revered in the same way the Kingston University programme is today. I remember a Bahraini design agency flying it’s creative director to Sheffield to scout for talent (possibly sowing the seeds for my later decision to move to Dubai), and those that didn’t end up in Bahrain almost all went on to work in design-related positions, something quite rare at the time.

Maybe a collection of tutors like this will never exist again, or maybe it exists, in some way, in every design school around the world. Design has a habit of picking out the misfits, tumbling them around and spitting them back out in places you don’t expect to find them.