A handful of excepts from an interview with designer Peter Saville conducted by Debbie Millman in 2007:
“I believe that communication design is for others and to others. This is an important thing tor younger or would-be graphic designers to recognize. There is a great misconception in this era of graphic design that it is a medium of self-expression. …Partly because of work by people such as myself.”
“There are a vast number of people who tell me they became graphic designers because of my record slips. I have to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I apologize. I usually say, ‘I’m sorry about that,’ and they smile knowingly. Because it’s not like that anymore. You do not do what you want to do. And yet, this notion is rather prevalent. It’s prevalent in design education at the moment.
There are a lot of self-initiated briefs going on in design education. And this is helpful to the individual who wants to look deep and ask questions about where they want to be. But that discovery has to be structured within the context of business. It’s not art. We should really call it communications design, because graphic design doesn’t really mean anything. What is the job? The job is communications design, and that is conveying somebody else’s message to a prescribed audience. Who you are and what you think about it doesn’t necessarily come into play. The job is to articulate the message from A to B.”
“I had a channel that allowed me to do what I wanted to do, which did broker enormous influence. As soon as I made the step out of the music industry – then I was confronted with the reality of communications design. […] By 1985, I had three D&AD Silver awards, but I couldn’t do a letterhead. As much as I was flattered by the request to do a letterhead and identity for a gallery, I realized that I may be successful as a record cover designer – and people may pay us lots of money for that – but for this, I would have to go back to the beginning. I had to start from nothing and learn from the ground up.”
“I believe that good design is fundamentally oriented around truth, and once it loses its truth, you’ve lost it completely. The semiotics of good design imply that if we’ve redesigned a magazine, it is now better; that new problems have been solved; that new challenges have been addressed. In contemporary projects, we’re often not making things better, we’re just making things different. ‘It’s just different because we’d like you to buy more.’ It’s just decoration. Design is losing its essential values because it’s being used for the wrong purposes. It’s being used to sell stuff. It’s being used as advertising.
I was proud and happy to do fashion in the ‘80s when I felt that fashion was something still being disseminated to people. But now it’s like a drug. Now it’s like an addiction. You do not need a new handbag every season. You just don’t. And they’re all rubbish. You don’t need them.
The big problem for communications designers is they have to earn a living. And this is the new job. We do the handwriting for these people. I likened it recently to pop culture: It’s gone from being like acid to being like crack. Pop culture is like crack. It doesn’t give you anything. It just wants to take your money, and when you’ve run out, you can fuck off. And unfortunately, the graphic design community has become the lecherous boys of this business. It’s a big problem.”
“There’s lots of beautiful work going on, but what is it for? What is it for? You’ve got this new problem, and it’s something that can be dealt with, but not with a frigging 5,000 more graphic designers every year. I believe you must question whether or not you identify with the need you are articulating. You should ask yourself, ‘Am I doing something that is embarrassing?’
If you go around feeling embarrassed, it’s a very good signal. And you know when it feels right, and when it feels embarrassing. And this is a big, big problem for graphic designers. Because we are being asked to legitimize commerce.
The very essence of what I am trying to say is this: We must be communicators of the world. We help other people see things. This is at the heart of what we do. And of course, where you do that and how you do that must stay apace with your own life and evolution. I mean, I’m 51 years of age now! People still phone and ask me if I want to design album covers. They tell me I can do whatever I want, but it’s very difficult for me to explain that the rack of a record store is not where I wish to express myself. Go ask a 20-year-old.
For me, it’s really important to stay within the terms of your own relevance – which means don’t be permanently 18. Shift your point of engagement to that which is relative to you. Try to find work that has meaning. You have to help invest meaning into the work. And it is very difficult to invest meaning in something that doesn’t have meaning to you. And that really is the key: you’ve got to like what you’re doing, and then you do it well. You’ve got to like what you’re doing, and you have to put meaning into it for others.”