Nick Bell is a distinguished, London-based graphic designer. He is a member of AGI and a visiting professor of graphic design at the Royal College of Art.
You do a lot of exhibition design – seen any good ones recently?
The Gabriel Orozco show at Tate Modern earlier this year is the best thing I've seen in many years. Not so much to do with the exhibition design as the artist's work itself, which I think is genius. His work proves he is in control of his madness: he always knows when and how to go too far with his work yet at the same time leaves me tantalized with works that stop short of the kind of resolution that I might've expected. Orozco can make works that are everyday-ordinary and magical at the same time.
I went to see the Joan Miró show at Tate Modern not expecting to be wowed by something so familiar but was pleasantly surprised. It was particularly interesting to see how in his early career his graphic style emerged out of his figurative works. Miró is an inspiration as a creative figure who kept on producing work of relevance for so very long and was still finding ways in his eighties to twist his art to communicate his deeply held political views. Couldn't be more different from the youthful firmament that is graphic design where, with a few exceptions, stars rise swiftly, burn fiercely and fall quickly.
Does music mean much to you?
Not in itself. It never has for me very much. I can see what all the fuss is about but other stuff like design/art/photography (but mostly football!) has meant that I've not had much room left for it. I've had the occasional fling: 2-Tone Records – 1979, Lloyd Cole – 1984, The Durutti Column – 1987. I'm not a musical desert but my eclectic taste proves I'm not a real enthusiast and that I'm not at all discerning should already be plain. My yearly guide is the Mercury prize list.
More than listening to music or following it, I'll dance to it given even half a chance. For me, there's nothing much better for in-the-moment abandon than going ape-shit to Fools Gold – the best dance track ever. So, in that spirit my recommendation has to go to a 5Rhythms dance session. I got invited to one unwittingly whilst on holiday in New Zealand a few years ago. 5Rhythms is all over the world. This one was held in a tiny village hall facing the Pacific and the basic premise of it was to move about to music in whatever way you liked without any inhibition whatsoever. Ignore all the new age hippy claptrap about it. (There is some hilarious stuff about 5Rhythms on YouTube). But treated purely as physical expression, a chance to let go, it was an amazing experience that left me in a completely other place. Just relieved that only two people who know me saw me do it and thankfully they are in New Zealand! I'm like many designers I suspect who regularly need to let go in order to keep sane. Find your local branch now.
What books have caught your attention of late?
I've rediscovered an appetite for fiction. One I'd lost since the late 1980s. Rekindled to help me find something out about myself. There aren't many design books that have helped me do that. In Pulse, Julian Barnes has written a book of wonderfully perceptive and compassionate short stories about men, women and relationships. I enjoyed Ian McEwan's Solar which was hilarious and clever. Clever still though, in my mind, is one of the most intelligent people walking this planet: Zadie Smith. I'm reading On Beauty at present (not the one with the cover designed by A2/SW/HK unfortunately). She is such a fantastic writer! She has the ability to slow down time so you notice everything as richly as she does. So incredibly visual too – the way she takes you into a room by tracing shards of sunlight as they angle in from a window, and striking the floor, transfer your attention onto an apparently random object or onto another place. Brilliant. But then again I've not read anything like this in over 20 years. Someone else tell me if she is any good or not.
On the complete flipside of fiction is a book I came across early in 2010 by David Shields called Reality Hunger. It is a provocative book seeking out a new form of fiction writing and consists entirely of short quotes – many his own, many lifted. Shields is a man 'bored by the novel'. He likes things raw. This book was the spark that inspired a year long project called Real that was set for Communication Art & Design students at the Royal College of Art. The results of this project will be showing during London Design Festival week, 17-25 September, at Her House Gallery in Shoreditch.
Are you a newspaper reader?
Only at the weekends. If I read dailies I'd never get anything done. I used to be late for school reading the Eastern Daily Press over my cornflakes. What the hell was I reading? These days I only read the Saturday Guardian. First stop always the sport section then I flick through the other sections quickly picking out bits to read later that I never get round to. By Sunday my partner Jane has just about finished with the Review section and I take the rest of the week to read that bit-by-bit. I like to read all the book reviews as it gives me the illusion that I'm well read.
My preferred mode of newspaper reading is to spend hours with the paper, usually when my daughter has gone to bed. I spend ages scouring all sections for something that really pulls me in but often nothing ever does and I go to bed with a head full of bits of information none of which amounts to anything at all.
I'm now a newspaper snob. The Guardian is so well designed and I know where to find everything. So when I read another paper it really is an unpleasant experience, chaotic by comparison. I'd compare it to going from a Mac to a PC.
What about blogs?
I recently used a graphic design blog that is primarily for visual feasting, to select 10 graphic designers to commission on a poster design project for a client. Of the designers I chose to risk working with, eight of them I had never seen or even heard of before. This is remarkable and the wonder of the internet. So if anyone asks you who is doing great work out there, just say 'hang on a sec I'll just have a look'. Because every time you look it’s as if you see better stuff. That is how brimming with health, (talking now in only purely formal, virtuoso terms), graphic design is at present.
What has grabbed your attention in the design world lately?
There isn't anything in the design world quite as dramatic and fascinating as what has been going on in everybody else's world lately. The years following the economic crash of 2008 were supposed to furnish us with the ideal moment in which to question the way the world is run. I share the disappointment of many others when I lament that it seems that there have been no genuinely new ideas to emerge out of this crisis. Back in 2008 UK national broadsheet leader writers, of the kind I read, were barely concealing their excitement beneath questions like 'are we witnessing the end of capitalism as we have known it this last one hundred years?' Well, the answer to that one seems a resounding 'no'. So far.
I'm not now going to launch into some call-to-arms to designers since there is not much it seems we can do. We probably have more power as plain old citizens. What I am discomforted by however is the spaniel-like eagerness to please of the design industry in general, absent of any notable dissenters, as it rushes to help patch things up or batten hatches down or lavish spit and polish on the spurious PR campaign that claims all of us must pay for this mess. It’s at moments like this when you realise that the grand project called design has reached another milestone. Design really is embedded into the way the world is run and those executive spaniels really have succeeded in becoming part of the establishment. There are many more of us in the design industry who like to think of ourselves as a wee bit more radical than this.
Call us terriers? Trouble is I think we've lost our bite. We will have to bark a lot louder now than we used to in order to be heard over the deafening conservatism that is the design industry these days. Even if some of what we have seen in the distant past from designers at moments of crisis might merely have been posturing, just a little bit of that would be so much better than nothing. At least it will show we care.
Movies, TV, radio – can you recommend anything?
Isn't the BBC just fantastic? We are so lucky to have it, we really are. Where else would they hand over an hour of peak-view programming to an academic who only makes films using old archive footage no one else will touch. Yes, you guessed, it’s the brilliant Adam Curtis and his recent three-part series about how the computers are taking over called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. I only managed to see the first one and can't wait to see the others when they become available. Episode one shows how we placed computers in charge of global financial stability – oops!
The other film I can't wait to see is by another scholar. Robinson in Ruins by film essayist Patrick Keiller. In reviews, wouldn't you love to be called "a connoisseur of built dullardry"? My Guardian tells me that this film is about "the conundrum of the countryside".
Not counting my daughter's DVDs, the only things I watch on TV these days is Glastonbury (more proof of my lack of musical taste) and football – especially so this year since my beloved Norwich have made it back into the top tier.