mouth2mouth | exclusive interview
grundini | graphic information supremo
Peter Grundy was a founding partner, with Tilly Northedge, of successful UK-based informational graphics design practice, Grundy & Northedge (1980-2006). Soon after he set up on his own. Releasing himself from the thankless task of producing beautiful informational booklets that no-one saw, and making a miraculous transformation into his alter-ego, Grundini, his work has gone global. As Taschen publish their latest design tome: Information Graphics, The Blog posts the first of an occasional series of interviews with prominent figures in the worlds of art, architecture, design, gardens, photography, etc.
Referencing Mies van der Rohe’s famous – and so very often repeated – remark, in terms of information graphics: is it enough for form to follow function?
Much of information design teaching follows the notion that designers should not infect the message with their own ideas. When Tilly Northedge and I started working together in 1980 we went against this theory, believing instead that the designer should function as a journalist and have an opinion on the messages they are asked to convey.
If the subject matter isn’t particularly interesting, is it enough to make your visual interpretation of whatever it is, attractive?
The most important part of any of my solutions is a good idea; that’s the bit most [information graphic] designers miss because they see things in terms of their own style. A good idea can bring uninteresting data to life, style probably not.
Is your preference for creating informational diagrams or poster images?
No preference. The Shell billboard posters I did are, as far as I’m concerned, information pieces, whereas Bodyparts – originally a diagram for Esquire – worked well as a poster.
How much input from an art director is comfortable for you?
They can contribute as little or as much as they like, but ultimately I’ll give them my take. I did a job recently for someone who was very prescriptive; I gave them my idea, they came back saying you didn’t put in what I asked for; you left off this and that, etc. I told them to find someone else.
How difficult is it to get the information you need from clients?
It varies. Mostly I get too much and have to edit it which, after 30 years, I’m quite good at.
In what form do you prefer to receive data from clients?
Simple, short messages. The Guardian’s G2 section were very good; they just provided the info they wanted to be included in the 30 spreads they asked me to produce – just as well, since one spread was required every week.
Albert Einstein said; ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ Agree? Disagree?
Simple messages are sometimes communicated by complicated visuals.
What method do you use to extrapolate the information given to you by a client?
What I seek is an overview idea, instantly communicating the message that will take the audience into the piece and invite them to explore. The two main tools I use for this are humour and entertainment.
Milton Glaser has said that computers are to design as microwaves are to cooking – the inference being that aside from using one for defrosting frozen ingredients, the best cooks wouldn’t touch a microwave with a barge-pole. Is this an outmoded remark?
I don’t think MG or anyone else for that matter could have seen in the 1980s, or even the 90s, how new technology would change the world of communication. He was talking about early, crude computer tools failing the requirement of those designers who had made things by hand. Today the internet has created new media environments and design challenges that need to be addressed by evolving design technologies. Having said that creative intelligence prevails now as it did 50 years ago.
When did you start using a computer for design?
How did the change effect your way of working?
Not at all, other than Adobe Illustrator replaced my set of Kern drawing instruments. The way my work looked didn’t change at all. What did change was the way I communicated with clients. When I started business was done by talking to people either in meetings or on the phone – today it’s by email or Skype. Sometimes that’s a shame, but the advantage is that one has a global rather than a local market.
How do you start to develop a visual idea – pencil scribbles or do you go direct to your computer?
I think and scribble in a small book then I do a finished piece on a computer that I show to the client. I don’t show the client a rough anymore – they don’t get it. This is something that surprises people who say to me: ‘That’s a lot of work to have rejected if they don’t like it’. My answer is that the idea is the difficult bit – building the image is often quite quick, and if I’m confident in the solution I can often convince.
Do you ever produce work without the aid of a computer?
What computer programmes do you use?
Adobe Illustrator is my tool box.
For an RCA project you produced an alphabet based on sections of the London Underground map, originally designed by Harry Beck in 1931. How important was the tube map to the development of your ideas about graphic communication?
Well, it is one of the seminal influences on any designer. It’s a good idea, it’s a simple expression of a complicated thing and it’s elegant.
At art college, were you any good at life drawing?
Rubbish at drawing! And because of this, I had to develop an achievable way of communicating visually – and fast. So I turned to a set of drawing instruments and developed a way of representing things simply using simple shapes. If anything my drawing borrows more from typography than the life drawing class.
I sometimes think I detect influences from the great art deco poster designer, Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, in your simplistic style of drawing and the graduation techniques you use, say, in the image for the international section on your website. Is he an influence and from who else do you draw inspiration?
We all benefited greatly from the art history education we received in the 70s.
Some of your bold, simplistic stuff – I’m thinking of the hand image on your 2004 Action Aid International poster and the 2007 Men’s Health magazine, as well as the figure in your Price on your head double-spread diagram for Esquire, is reminiscent of the primitive art of modern-day Central America. Is this accidental or have you studied the art from that region?
Yes, that’s true, my attraction to these ancient ways of drawing is its achievability. But this is the style thing, style is not enough to communicate and, as previously mentioned, the main ingredient is the idea.
You’ve been enormously prolific since the Grundy & Northedge company closed up shop and you became Grundini. Do you miss working within a company or do you prefer to work alone?
When Tilly Northedge retired I had two choices: carry on the company or do something different. I choose the latter. My aim was to get away from projects which were 25% creative and 75% management and to concentrate on work that was all about the creative. I achieved that, the problem was I was working on my own which can get boring. So now I work on my own but within a creative studio, in Holborn, London, where I’m amongst the creative cut and thrust every designer and illustrator need.s
Is the work you do now more, or less, lucrative than that which you did at Grundy & Northedge?
More lucrative. In the days of G&N we used to spend weeks and months producing beautiful informational books that no one saw, with next to no budget. Nowadays I concentrate on just the imagery and I sell these not only to information clients, but to a whole spectrum [of clients], though I doubt I could have achieved this position without my previous experience of working with Tilly Northedge as Grundy & Northedge.
Images from top
Death spread, Men’s Health magazine, 2007
Tree of skills diagram, The Guardian Educational Supplement, 2007
Price on your head diagram, Esquire magazine, 2006
The Age of energy illustration, The Telegraph newspaper, 2011
The Transform Awards imagery, The art of the impossible, 2012
All images ©Grundini
Information Graphics by Sandra Rendgen & Julius Wiedemann with 200 projects and over 400 examples of contemporary information graphics from all over the world – ranging from journalism to art, government, education and business, includes four essays about the development of information graphics since its beginnings, an exclusive poster by Nigel Holmes – who during his 20 years as graphics director for Time revolutionized the way the magazine used information graphics – is published by Taschen
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