Trying to explain graphic design to a hall full of ten year olds

I once had to launch a book in Canada in front of 800 delegates knowing that the shipment of books hadn’t made it to the conference. Difficult. Recently I faced 1600 eager Indian designers whilst battling jet-lag, a crabby computer and stifling heat. Quite tricky.

But a couple of weeks ago I had to explain what graphic designers do to 300 ten-year old, low blood-sugar children. Definitely the trickiest yet. My standard response to nosy cabbies – that I design ‘˜logos, posters and stamps’ – simply wasn’t going to work. Try to talk about logos to kids for longer than 90 seconds and their attention waivers almost immediately.

My plan was to warm them up gently, by talking about the design that was all around them and all the different types of designers there are. So we talked about how the union jack ‘˜design’ had come about, and how computers had changed from towers of cogs to candy coloured plastic (with the help of galloping technology and some clever product designers).



They then got very animated talking about designing cars (and specifically James Bond’s car). I was going to talk about Hitler and the ‘˜people’s wagon’ but realised that the headmistress was there so I became careful about being too subversive.


Having given them the choice between designing flags, or cars and iPods, I realised I’d just converted 300 children to product, not graphic, design. That wasn’t the plan at all. I tried another tack -’˜Look’, I said, ‘˜a clever man called Harry Beck solved this messy riddle’¦


‘¦with this! It’s probably the most famous map in the world!’


Stony faces.

Their faces lit up much more when I showed them American trains before and after industrial designers got their hands on them.



Then they looked amazed to see Sant’Elia’s drawings from almost a hundred years ago, and how his ideas then affected buildings now. On a straw poll, nearly three-quarters of Clapham’s tweenagers would rather live in Corbusier’s Villa Savoie than a tedious suburban house (thank goodness).



But it was products that got them really talking again as they considered that someone somewhere had designed the zip, the wind-up radio, and realised that kettles could indeed be cordless.


The time had come to come clean about 2d design, so I showed them Olympic symbols, and we tried to guess who these belonged to. And yes, we did have a vote on that logo. 4-1, against. (Sorry).


But what really saved it for me, what really turned it, was that old stand-by, the FedEx logo. Lindon Leader’s canny use of white space really saved my bacon. The hall erupted with ooh’s and aaah’s as little fingers pointed out the arrow’¦

I had them. They had moved to the flat side.


From there it was easy. I admitted to them that as a teenager I’d toyed with architecture (probably because of Metropolis and Blade Runner) but scary old tv titles, cigarette ads in 70s supplements and old books on Cassandre turned me into what I am now.




Then I finally showed them some work. They seemed to like it. Some of it even got ooh’s and aah’s of its own.

We talked about saving the planet, and talked about fossilised nappies for a while (although some bright spark pointed out ‘˜that’s an ammonite actually sir’ after I’d mistakenly called it something completely different. Oops).


Knowing they’d ask, I decided to end with the bad and the good of being a designer. The bad? Well, it’s difficult to make that much money, it’s hard work and there’s quite a bit of competition.

The good? Well, most designers seem to love being paid to do their hobby, get to use up-to-date computers and can put their feet up saying ‘˜I’m just thinking’ (or play their guitar) whilst pretending to have ideas. Sometimes really famous designers get some recognition, but as a general rule it means no more exams, it’s not boring and you don’t have to wear a suit. (Quite a powerful case, I thought).


And when asked to vote, well over half of the hall voted to be a graphic designer. Not bad. (It would have been more if I hadn’t admitted the money’s not great, I reckon).

The most embarrassing bit? Forgetting that 10 year olds will titter at images of naked men and women (I was trying to explain how an art charity worked, with the help of The Rokeby Venus, Michaelangelo and The Three Graces). The best bit? When I put up some Cassandre posters, I half-heartedly asked if anyone knew who designed them.

A little hand went up. I gulped – a ten-year old with a penchant for Deco graphics? Unheard of! There’s a child star in our midst, I thought.

‘˜It’s designed by Lee Harvey sir’ said our prodigy.


I have to admit that I was momentarily lost for words. Lee Harvey? Who he? The I realised that my brave art history candidate had simply looked at the base of the poster and thought he had seen the name of the designer…

By Michael Johnson