Richard Hollis in 2006

A few excerpts from an interview with Richard Hollis conducted by Christopher Wilson in Eye Magazine:

Christopher Wilson: Was Ways of Seeing the first time you integrated images into the text column?

Richard Hollis: Yes. The influence was Chris Marker’s book Commentaires, which has stills set within the text. I was a fan of Marker’s films, independently of Germano [Facetti stars in Marker’s La Jetée]. As you read you knew exactly what was being talked about. It was a substitute for description: instead of talking about something, you show the objective visual evidence. That’s how I wanted to do Ways of Seeing, rather than have images by the side or text followed by a page of images. Only recently I noticed that this is exactly what John Heartfield did in Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles in 1929, although Ways of Seeing looks more like Marker.

CW: And this relates to the ‘supranational form-language’?

RH: Indirectly. It’s anti-authoritarian: ‘These are the facts; we’re not interpreting them.’ Obviously you can use facts in different ways, so it’s rather naive.

CW: Images are placed next to where they’re discussed – there’s no searching around. Is there never a value in forcing the reader to work a little?

RH: That’s like saying that you should get out and push your car, because then you’d realise the amount of energy expended on making it move.

CW: No, it’s more like getting out and walking for the sake of exercise.

RH: It is an argument. In working to find the answers, the reader might learn something else along the way.

CW: So you have never wanted to display an image huge because you felt like it, or because it worked but you couldn’t say why?

RH: The ideal situation is where you sit with the client and design with them. If anything is emphasised, it’s what they want to emphasise. So often you’re left with no guidance as to what to give prominence to. I much prefer collaborative effort to doing what I want to do. It’s diametrically opposite to being an artist. Artists are free to put things into any form they like, which may or may not be comprehensible in the way they hope. For me, working with the person whose message it is is the most comfortable.

CW: Designers who prefer more space might argue: ‘I’m the expert; why should I let someone who is quite possibly visually illiterate tell me how to do my job?’

RH: It’s more like a consultation with a doctor, who has the knowledge and expertise, and the patient, who explains what the symptoms are, and later says whether the prescribed treatment is working. The client certainly shouldn’t express any expertise in design – they should only express an understanding of what they want to get across. In conversation the designer can sometimes help them understand what they’re saying. It’s a mutual engagement to effect a response from anyone who looks at the material being produced. The more distant from the client you are, the worse it is. This is why client questionnaires are so good: ‘what are you trying to say?’

CW: In some cases, marketing teams are now determining how things should look before the designer is involved. And when the layout is done, the results are taken away and discussed without the designer present. What do you feel about that?

RH: This is where it’s gradually changed. Marketing people have an idée fixe about what they think is marketable, and that’s so often proved to be completely wrong. They don’t understand that other people have expertise. One really needs a long-term relationship with a client before they trust the designer. Competitive tendering is one thing which has destroyed the notion of a long-term relationship: people switch advertising agencies all the time.

CW: I’ve seen cases in in-house departments where marketing staff pull up a chair behind the designer and say: ‘Move that type a little to the left … now let’s see it in green …’

RH: I’d tell them to fuck off.

CW: But where is the borderline here? You advocate design as a social process, but with the current technology the client-designer relationship can devolve into a situation where the designer is merely required to move elements around.

RH: This is true, but it’s partly because designers have taken over many tasks which used to be the printer’s.

CW: You carry a lot of idiosyncrasies from one client to the next: big indents, multiple alignments on a single plane and the extracting of many colours out of few prints being just three examples. You can tell ‘It’s a Hollis’, can’t you?

RH: That’s bad. Hitchcock said ‘self-plagiarism is style’, but you can carry it a bit far. Because of typefaces you’re happy with, and certain ways of putting things together, it does become a sort of style. It’s not conscious. The atmosphere of the client influences the way you treat something.

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