The Pentagram years

Text: Mike Dempsey

Alan was forever delving into books for pearls of wisdom and witty quotations. And the story goes he’d been reading a book on witchcraft and became intrigued by the name ‘Pentagram’: a five-pointed star. Although none of the others liked it much, the name stuck and so Pentagram was born. The five partners established a new business structure. Everyone would receive the same salary, regardless of individual workflow; everyone would be responsible for their own profit centres and everyone would contribute to a communal fund for rent, administration costs and special projects. This mechanism would serve the partnership well for many years to come.

By the late 1970s Pentagram was installed in a canal-side building overlooking Paddington Station, described by Alan as: “One of the best views of East Germany in London”. The studio had an air of calm professionalism with an endless array of strutting youthful assistants sporting denim flairs, Fair Isle jumpers and the bubble hairdos of the period. Lunchtime was a communal affair set out on long tables below a wall of enamelled Victorian advertising signs. Meanwhile Alan immersed himself in ever-larger projects. One project for the Commercial Bank of Kuwait involved him in every aspect of the bank’s visual manifestation: just what he’d always dreamed of. 
In 1978 Colin Forbes – still with the memory of his tour of Manhattan with the Fletchers back in ’58 – set off like Columbus to the Americas in order to set up Pentagram New York. And so began Pentagram’s tentative global reach.
The 1980s were a solid period for Alan, who built on his substantial experience in handling major identities and signing projects. He produced a sumptuous book and the signing programme for the then-shiny-new Lloyds of London HQ. Alan also enhanced the IBM Paris offices with new signage and a range of posters and produced the classic V&A identity, which is still going strong. By this time more partners were embedded in the Pentagram mix, among them graphic designers John McConnell and David Hillman, and a new office was opened in San Francisco. The rich mix of egos and the aromas from Montecristo cigars and Gauloises permeated the new HQ building in Notting Hill. By that time the design world was changing. A proliferation of new design consultancies appeared, many of whose personnel had passed through Pentagram. These were highly creative and well-organised consultancies and with them came the digital world, which was about to transform the industry. For the first time Pentagram found itself in competition with this new breed. And the haphazard economic climate of the time was a worrying factor for everyone. 
By this time Alan had been in the design business for almost four decades. He was bored with corporate clients and disillusioned with the daily complexities of Pentagram. He had begun taking on projects to just feed the crew. He wanted out. He wanted more time to play in the studio rather than worry about it. 
In 1992 he walked the half-mile journey from Pentagram to his home in Notting Hill Gate. He never went back, leaving behind 25 partners over his period there. But there was one partner he didn’t leave: his wife and life partner, Paola.