Memoir to a missed colleague

I first met Alan Fletcher in the mid-eighties when, as part of a Wolff Olins team we had to show our ‘˜logical’ solution to Fletcher, the client’s main design consultant. It was probably my first experience of two schools of design meeting head-on – one that said ‘˜here’s the logical solution’, the other that said ‘˜but it looks awful’. Up until then it hadn’t occurred to me that one could simply say ‘˜it looks awful’ and get away with it. But somehow he could. (And he was right, it did).

We met again years later when he interviewed me for a job as his assistant. Both he and I knew I was entirely wrong for it – I think he may have remembered our previous meeting and that wouldn’t have helped much. Then I interviewed him for an article when ‘˜Beware of wet paint’ came out and we seemed to have turned a corner (by that I mean that he’d started to remember my name).

By the turn of the century we had the chance to work together on two real projects, both my own book and the Rewind project. For the first he was encouraging right from the start, for the second he helped us out of a couple of jams when the project had seemingly irrevocably stalled. And all the time he demonstrated that brusque charm that we all remember, and loved. He amazed me by agreeing to write a foreword for a little book on johnson banks that a French publisher had proposed – as ever the offer of ‘˜a case of nice red’ from me was all that was required, even though by his own admission he found writing a chore.

It goes without saying that his body of work is second to none. I’m sure many will hail him as one of the godfathers of British graphic design and I’d agree. In terms of visual legacy, it may get distilled to the remarkable sleight-of-hand of the V&A logo, or the publishing phenomenon that is ‘˜The Art of Looking Sideways’. For me it was a remarkable poster series for IBM that preceded the purchase of art for the office walls – his art-inspired posters were probably more interesting than the ‘˜real’ art that replaced them.

The thing that always amazed me about Alan was that he always seemed to have time for people – he became a living legend without acquiring any airs and graces. Perhaps as a suitable postscript I should share this picture he did for my birthday once – egged on by my design team (and of course a ‘˜nice case of red’) he produced my own typographic error, for me. I’ve always treasured it, it’s always made me smile. Just like its author, really.

By Michael Johnson, remembering Alan Fletcher

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