Photograph: Martin Dunkerton
Text: Emily King

Synthesising the graphic traditions of Europe and North America to develop a spirited, witty and very personal visual style, Alan Fletcher is among the most influential figures in British graphic design as a founder of Fletcher/Forbes/Gill in the 1960s and Pentagram in the 1970s.

Designed to be opened at random, The Art of Looking Sideways, Alan Fletcher’s 2001 book, is an unfailing source of wit, elegance and inspiration. At over a thousand pages, it is a spectacular treatise on visual thinking, one that illustrates the designer’s sense of play and his broad frame of reference. 

While designers and design students rifle through its pages for ideas, others enjoy its gently provocative mind-teasers. Assembling the most ambitious of settings for his work, against a background encompassing art, design and literature from pre-history to the present day, Fletcher constructs a convincing argument for graphic design’s role in the course of civilisation.

Alan Fletcher is one of the most influential figures in post-war British graphic design. The fusion of the cerebral European tradition with North America’s emerging pop culture in the formulation of his distinct approach made him a pioneer of independent graphic design in Britain during the late 1950s and 1960s. As a founding partner of Pentagram in the 1970s, Fletcher helped to establish a model of combining commercial partnership with creative independence. He also developed some of the most memorable graphic schemes of the era, notably the identities of Reuters and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and made his mark on book design as creative director of Phaidon.

Born to a British family in Kenya 1931, Fletcher came to Britain as a five year-old after his father became terminally ill to be bought up by his mother and grandparents in West London. During World War II he attended Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school in Horsham, where he wore a uniform that he later described as “a second-hand medieval costume”. Along with his classmates, Fletcher was destined for a career in the army, the church or banking. Being totally unsuited to any of these, Fletcher opted out of the rigid grooves of post-war British middle class life and took up a place at Hammersmith School of Art.

During the 1950s he attended four different art schools, each one more forward looking and cosmopolitan than the last. Leaving Hammersmith for the livelier environment of the Central School, he found himself in class with his future partners Colin Forbes and Theo Crosby as well as such other future luminaries as Derek Birdsall and Ken Garland. After graduating from the Central School, he spent a year teaching English in Barcelona and then won a place at the Royal College of Art, where his contemporaries included the artists Peter Blake and Joe Tilson.

Towards the end of Fletcher’s three-year stint at the RCA, the head of design Richard Guyatt exchanged places with Alvin Eisenman, his opposite number at Yale University. Fletcher suggested to Guyatt that, if professors were able to swap places, students should have the same privilege. The result was a travel scholarship awarded to Fletcher on graduation on the condition that he attend classes at Yale.

Before arriving in the United States, Fletcher’s vision of life there was informed by the movies: all Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and bright lights. Intending never to return to the 40-watt gloom of London, he married his Italian girlfriend Paola, acquired emigration papers as part of the white Kenyan quota and entered the US across the Canadian border in 1956. Over the next two years Fletcher absorbed as much of US graphic design as he could.

He was taught at Yale by the eminent US graphic designer, Paul Rand, and the artist Josef Albers. Fletcher also arranged visits to prominent graphic designers such as Robert Brownjohn, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar in New York. He even won a commission to design a cover for Leo Lionni, art director of Fortune magazine, then a showcase for modern design and a client at the top of every aspiring graphic designer’s wish-list. After graduating from Yale, Fletcher set off for Latin America but stopped off in Los Angeles, hoping to earn money to finance the trip. He phoned the designer Saul Bass from the bus station and worked as his assistant for a few weeks.

Fletcher loved the US and would happily have stayed there, but his wife, Paola, was pining for Europe. After a brief, slightly disastrous detour to Venezuela – their arrival coincided with a revolution – the Fletchers returned to London via Milan. During their short stay in Italy, he had worked at the Pirelli design studio thereby enabling Fletcher to return with Pirelli as a client. In Fletcher’s eyes, London appeared as gloomy in 1959 as it had been on his departure. Fighting the urge to get the first boat back to New York, he settled in a corner of his friend Colin Forbes’s studio for a £4 weekly rent. Forbes had become head of graphic design at Central and Fletcher combined working for clients such as Time and Life magazine and Pirelli with teaching there for one day a week.

Two years later Fletcher and Forbes decided to formalise their working relationship and, with the US graphic designer Bob Gill, who had settled in London, they established Fletcher/Forbes/Gill. They pooled their clients, rented a studio in a mews house off Baker Street and became the most fashionable designers in town. The Fletcher/Forbes/Gill style is typified by an advertisement for Pirelli illustrating the grip of a tyre with elegantly swerving type. The idea is direct, the graphic elements are restrained and the composition is skilful. The fusion of type and image was unprecedented in British graphic design. Praised within London’s fledgling design community, Fletcher, Forbes and Gill were among the first graphic designers to make their mark outside it – notably being featured in Vogue magazine – and admiring clients clamoured for their services.

London was changing rapidly and the arrival of ambitious US designers such as Gill, Robert Brownjohn, Lou Klein and Bob Brooks was transforming the design scene. In 1963 Fletcher and several of his peers set up the Design and Art Directors’ Association – known as D&AD – as London’s answer to the New York Art Directors’ Club. They worked overnight to hang their first exhibition, a selection of the best of the year’s art and design, on the walls of a rented space in the Hilton Hotel. The clients who came to see the show were impressed and the participating designers and art directors were able to increase their fees by a considerable margin. It proved to be an important step in raising the profile of design among British industry.

In 1965 Fletcher/Forbes/Gill became Crosby/Fletcher/Forbes, when Bob Gill left and the architect Theo Crosby arrived. The impetus for Crosby’s arrival was a design project for Shell, which Fletcher and Forbes hoped to extend from corporate identity into the structure of garage forecourt. Another multidisciplinary commission was a comprehensive design programme for Reuters, the news agency, which ranged from its corporate logo to computer monitors. Inspired by the tickertape machines which were then used to transmit news internationally, Fletcher crafted an identity from the word ‘Reuters’ rendered in a basic grid of eighty-four dots to evoke the company’s trade. Simple and evocative, this logo survived until 1996 when it was ‘retired’ because the dots were barely visible on computer screens.

Other important clients in the mid-1960s included Penguin, where the art director Germano Facetti was introducing colour, illustration and photographic imagery to the covers of the books. Creating a house-style for each series, Facetti farmed out the design of individual covers to young graphic designers. Their collective aim was to design the most direct response to the contents of the text. Among Fletcher’s contributions to Penguin is a book about early 19th century printed communication dressed to look like a playbill from the period. Facetti’s great achievement was to allow the formerly sober Penguin list to compete with other paperbacks without losing its typographic integrity.

Crosby/Fletcher/Forbes continued to expand as the partners took on more ambitious, often multidisciplinary projects. Mervyn Kurlansky joined as a senior designer in the late 1960s and in the early 1970s, while working on the design of a petrol pump for BP, they enlisted the help of the product designer Kenneth Grange. Realising that they could not continue to add surnames to the company’s name ad infinitum, in 1971 they cast around for a collective title to reflect their structure. Fletcher hit upon the idea of a Pentagram, meaning a five-pointed star, one for each partner, after reading a book on witchcraft. Despite feeling slightly uneasy about the term’s associations with witchcraft, the partners went with it. Significantly it loosened the relationship between the company and the individuals, a strategy that has enabled Pentagram’s long-term survival.

Fletcher spent the next two decades at Pentagram, a period over which the firm grew from five to eleven partners and opened offices in New York and San Francisco. In the face of this expansion, he maintained the most economic of teams, usually employing between two and five people. This allowed him to combine large-scale identity projects, such as that for the Commercial Bank of Kuwait, with small-scale commissions that offered greater scope for his graphic wit and idiosyncrasy. Fletcher’s portfolio from these years – published in the monograph Beware Wet Paint – is a combination of carefully crafted logos and spontaneous graphic epiphanies. Nothing is heavy handed, and the sketches and doodles demonstrate his ingenuity and charm.

Much of Fletcher’s work from the Pentagram period survives. His logotype for London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, for example, has proved itself fit for its purpose and has thus transcended its era. Crafted from the classic typeface Bodoni, Fletcher’s design creates a single unit from the museum’s nickname – the V&A – by allowing the serif of the ampersand to stand in for the bridge of the A. Although Fletcher would not have used a traditional typeface such as Bodoni in this fashion in the early 1960s, the strength and singularity of the idea behind this design is consistent with his career-long approach. Similarly his logotype for the Institute of Directors, in which the initials of the title are scaled according their relative importance – a medium-sized ‘I’, small ‘O’ and big ‘D’ – appears more conservative than his earlier designs at first glance. Yet, in terms of rigour and restraint, it is utterly in keeping.

In 1991, Fletcher decided to leave Pentagram. Several of his important clients withdrew their business during the recession and trading at the Kuwaiti bank had come to a halt when Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. At the same time, Fletcher was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the schedule of corporate design. He felt caught in a cycle of taking on assistants to complete large projects and then needing to take on more of those same kinds of projects to feed these new employees. In his own words he 'closed my eyes and jumped', selling off his share of the company and establishing a studio in a mews house that abuts his home in Notting Hill.

Fletcher built up a rewarding range of freelance clients. Among them, Novartis Campus, a large compound of pharmaceutical research and development buildings near Basel in Switzerland. Assuming responsibility for the visual identity of the project, he designed both two-dimensional material and environmental graphic features. As consultant art director at Phaidon, he not only set high design standards for its art, architecture and design books, but worked with a generation of younger designers as well as to tell his design story by publishing his own books.