Most of us design for money — but how many of us can say they’ve had a chance to design money?
Originally asked to judge entrants to design the commemorative bicentennial $10 note, designer Harry Williamson asked instead to join the running. And as he now remembers, the experience was well worth it.
“The Reserve Bank was a very enlightened client,” he says, “Their attitude to evaluating the work was very good. They bought in specialists to check the integrity of your reference material, other people were concerned with the commercial appeal and technical requirements like how tellers wanted the denomination in the top right and how you had to attend to visually impaired people.
“The level of its evaluation was intelligently defined so the design was a response to those frameworks, and that’s the way I like to work — to identify what the objectives are and how best to visualise that.”
That philosophy seems a microcosm of Harry Williamson’s whole approach to design — not just as a job, but as an institution. Since graduating from a London art college in 1959 and seeing technologies and methods come and go Williamson seems to have learned a central truth about design; despite the revolutions, it’s a tool for communication.
After working with some of the biggest names in advertising from Gordon Andrews to McCann Erickson in the 60’s, Williamson has worked on a dizzying range of projects in Australia, Hawaii and Hong Kong. He’s designed for signage, architecture, books and publishing — even stamps.
An example of the breadth of his resume is his work with Lend Lease. “When I did reports and brochures for Australia Square I did a lot of the promotional work like the logotype,” he says, “that led to work from the buildings tenants like restaurants and shops. It broadens you. You can be working on a hoarding one day and a menu the next.”
And with clients including IBM, AMP, World Health Organisation, Australia Post, The Reserve Bank of Australia, the Australian National Gallery, The High Court, UTS, various local councils and government bodies, Mass Rapid Transport systems of Singapore and Island Heritage of Hawaii, the variety never stops.
Naturally, one of the first questions that springs to mind is how things have changed for a designer who came of age when the Rolling Stones were young upstarts.
As you’d expect, the answer is; enormously — though not just in the technology. “During the 60’s and 70’s it was difficult to get work accepted,” Williamson says, “We were all emulating what was happening in Europe and America but the level of acceptance here was a bit behind that — a lot of good work never came to light.
“Some of the larger groups bought together the clout that clients respond to, but lots of us worked in small groups or alone so clients didn’t have that same perception — they felt they knew what was required and our job was to attend to that.”
Because of what might be termed globalisation (more an increase in what he terms ‘ease of movement and transfer of information’ rather than just technology) Williamson feels the local scene is now more in line with the US and UK design powerhouses.
“There’s a greater understanding and appreciation of specialist advice,” he explains, “The larger organisations’ success depends upon them getting that advice and they know that. Australia now has to compete in larger markets, so we’ve had to bring our knowledge up to the same level of sophistication.’
And is all the white knuckle-paced technology pretty trippy after you learnt the ropes in the days before email, colour laser printers, even faxes? “You had different techniques for dealing with those things,” Williamson says, “There’s tremendous benefits in these new methods, but it’s also caused the expectation of one person to provide a variety of services that specialists like typesetters used to provide.
“A lot of experts on those areas who honed their craft over years are lost now. One thing we’re just getting over is the lack of good editors and proofreaders. New technologies are always on the horizon, it’s just a matter of making sure they get put to the best use.”
Apart from regular gigs from faithful clients he’s built relationships with over many years, Williamson is also an active design academic.
Remembering teachers at college fondly, his work lecturing at both UTS and Sydney College of the Arts is as much a desire to impart knowledge as a way of helping pay the bills. ‘I had some good teachers that stood me in good stead and I like to feel I’m doing the same.’
“University students are also very demanding and you’ve got to keep pace with things — you can’t afford to wing it,” he adds, “It makes you more articulate about your own intentions because you’re constantly put on the line about responding to someone else’s work.
“There’s a meeting of minds with similar interests in that environment, and best of all, you learn how to be critical in the best sense.”
So what excites this London-born ex-pat now living in a village not far from Byron Bay after such a full career?
“I’m really intrigued by book design,” Williamson says, “finding the typographic expression and the structure of a book — like a picture book — where you have an opportunity to orchestrate sequences.
“I also enjoy signature types and logotypes. I like the idea of trying to condense layers of information into a shorthand version of a clients personality. It’s more keeping with the idea of what graphic design and visual communication is about — articulating messages which portray someone’s voice and distribute their message for a lot of people to access or participate in.”
An illustrious CV, however, doesn’t mean you can be too picky. Williamson’s remedy is to apply the same standard to every job. “I try to make the most of the stuff that comes in,” he says, “Having been in the business this long I get known for a certain type of work so that’s the stuff that comes up more often. I keep in touch with a lot of my old clients whose work is recurring.”
Design as Culture
Williamson also seems to have a grip on the big picture — he believes that like radio waves polluting space in an ever-increasing sphere around the Earth, design is an institution that shapes part of our culture, and all the work out there comprises the whole.
With the ‘creative value’ debate hotting up again and so many (mostly established, high-paid) creatives up in arms about designers doing the field a disservice by undercutting and out-promising each other to win work, Williamson thinks the landscape of our culture is something to keep in mind.
“I guess it’s important standards are established and recognised, otherwise a client can get something purely because it costs less,” he thinks, “It doesn’t always do the job and it adds another undignified intrusion into the environment. Design has a culture aspect to it, and what we produce must be visually accessible to our times.
“It’s one of the downsides of the electronic revolution. A lot more people have access to facilitating designs so they can do it below what design really costs — for true designers it costs a lot to keep operating.
“Methodically responding to a communication problem is a specialist act not everybody can do as it’s really quite a laborious process — doing the research, designing the acceptable form of expression, making sure it communicates and is economic. To do all that in a way that’s acceptable to the environment and adds to the continuum of contemporary products or artefacts is important.”
Often what we don’t like or aren’t happy with defines us as much as the upsides, passions and positives about our industry.
Asked about personal regrets, Williamson reminds us that the client is ultimately in charge. “Sometimes a project hasn’t been resolved to its potential, or you can see the potential in something that wasn’t a priority for others. [The famous Australian designer, the late] Douglas Annand said to me that when he’s finished a job, it’s behind him and he doesn’t look back. You have to be a bit clinical sometimes.”
He’s also seen successive revolutions that claim to cut costs and time by laying waste entire industries firsthand. “Most people committed to design as a contemporary expression are a bit miffed by desktop publishing,” he explains, “Technology is usually badly used to begin with — not intentionally, just insensitively. Then when understanding of that technology settles down, things proceed in a way where the technology isn’t completely in control of the methods of visualisation.
“Socially it’s very questionable that we should put so much trust in a machine at the expense of a creative human being.”
Sooner or later, we all have to come up against the people who pay our invoices, and while they’re they not all ideal, Williamson knows which kind he likes. He thinks there’s a right and wrong way for a client to approach a project no differently than there is for a designer. And the time-honoured tradition of giving a brief, letting the designer go and assessing the results alone doesn’t work.
“When you get a commission, your client assesses it to see if it does the job,” Williamson says, “I like to make sure there’s an agreed methodology for that assessment — that we all have a good way of making the assessment — rather than it just become an arbitrary thing about whether they like the colour or not.
“It’s getting better though, because people can’t afford to waste their money and they’re realising that some communication problems are important. It’s a designers responsibility to establish the ground rules and say ‘this is what you’re trying to achieve and these should be the outcomes’.”
After such a long career, in an industry with so many Earth-shattering changes and with so many high profile and dedicated clients under his belt, Williamson must have a secret weapon.
When the tools of the trade today must have looked like something out of a sci-fi comic in his early days, how has he stayed relevant and fresh?
Although he doesn’t fully agree, it’s hard not to imagine Harry Williamson Design’s reputation preceding it wherever he goes. And client service is much more to that reputation than a soundbite of PR on a website or brochure — it’s a designer’s way of life.
“It’s more to do with longevity than anything else,” Williamson thinks, “The more you try to apply yourself to saving whatever communication problem people have, the more you end up in a position of trust with them.
“Once you have a client who knows you’re committed and knows you can deal with the issues you’re there for good. That’s the sort of relationship I’ve developed with most long-standing clients — you find your contribution is valid and accepted.”
Aside from that, the only trick seems to be keeping the basics in mind. It turns out that the fundamentals of design — regardless of whether you’re a commercial illustrator on a drafting board in 1972 or a Mac geek covered in body piercings in 2002 — are timeless.
“You need a sense of humanity,” Williamson says, “A sensitivity to different types of people so you can understand the different visual languages people can accommodate. That helps you get onto a level of communication with them, both clients and your audience.”
“You need to see making communication as a stimulating thing, and when you produce something people connect with so they respond in a suitable way, I think that’s really rewarding.”