Illustration

Eleven: David Driver

I learned more about collaboration and commissioning in the three years that I worked for David Driver than at any other point in my career. It was about finding talented people and letting them bring their gifts to whatever project you were working on. It was about enjoying your work. It was about honing your skills.

in 2014 Simon Esterson and I went to David’s house to talk to him about his career, with some vague thoughts about the fact that he had never really been profiled. There was an excellent two-part post on Mike Dempsey’s wonderful Graphic Journey blog, and some pen pictures in various books about the Radio Times, but not much of significance. That was odd, as he had given many well-known designers and illustrators important breaks in their careers. I had talked to David when profiling his long-time colleague Peter Brookes for Eye, and Simon was certain that it would be valuable to at least start a conversation with David.

We had a riotously enjoyable meeting that lasted four hours and left with hilariously unrepeatable stories about working for the BBC, The Times and the radical press of the Sixties. It would take four years before it made it into print, bolstered by two more equally enjoyable meetings. The profile finally found a home in the second of two issues of Eye devoted to Magazines, which came out in November 2018.

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I talked to various designers and writers about David, and parts of what they emailed me were used in the profile. The great English designer Robert Priest, who has mostly worked and lived in New York wrote a very thoughtful and punchy piece about David’s influence, which I’ll run in full here. Priest worked with David Driver at Welcome Aboard and Radio Times.

“The role of the editorial art director in Britain changed in the 1970s. It was influenced by the work of Tom Wolsey at Town in the 60s but was more fully realized a decade later with the emergence of a new breed of art director who was not just a visual journalist but a bona fide journalist in all senses of the word. They were well educated and savvy and wanted more of an influence on their magazine’s content. Leading the charge were Michael Rand and David King at The Sunday Times Magazine, David Hillman at Nova and David Driver at Radio Times, the journal of the BBC. 

“As a young designer at the time I was tremendously excited by their work, and that of their American counterpart, George Lois at Esquire. I was fortunate enough to become a magazine art director (back when it was the top title in the art department) at the age of 23 at Conde Nast’s Wine & Food and did my best to learn on the job until I met David Driver a year or two later. David had created an in-flight magazine for BOAC for Cornmarket Press and was doing things I’d never seen before. He combined a big picture vision with an attention to detail that was incredible.

“I went to see him on Conduit Street and found him be a larger-than-life character. Tall, with long curly hair and extremely funny, he welcomed me into his world. David always kept a small coterie of lieutenants around him. People he trusted. Just as he did with artists and photographers, always a limited roster of contributors who understood his vision. I wanted to work for him, despite being a number one already, because I wanted to observe his process and to find out how he came up with such great ideas, but there were no jobs available at the time. Soon after, however, David joined Radio Times and recommended that I follow him as art Director of Welcome Aboard. He didn’t interfere from afar but I always felt his support and influence. 

“In 1975 I had my own design consultancy and David asked me to redesign the TV and radio listings in Radio Times. One thing led to another and I went to work for him at last. I became one of his lieutenants.

“David worked very closely with the editor, Geoffrey Cannon to fashion the content of the publication. It was a double act and they were a formidable couple. They demanded that stories be conceived both editorially and visually from day one. David would expect complete information from the other editors at the magazine when we started working on a feature. If it wasn’t delivered precisely David would crush the editor with frightening efficiency. In more than a few instances they were unable to respond at all, having not thought the idea through, and were forced to skulk out of David’s office, often in tears. Not pretty but extremely effective. 

“In 1977 David was offered the job of Art Director of Weekend Magazine in Toronto. After much thought, he decided to turn it down, but a mutual friend recommended me for the job and I was pleased to accept. I would try to put what I’d learned under David into practice. I’ve been trying ever since.”

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Interludes

Interlude: From The Coalface (1970s-2010s)

From Varoom! Magazine, Winter 2011-12

Late August last year saw a firestorm of debate on the merits of the Radio Times of today vs the Radio Times of the Golden Age of British Magazine Design (ironic italics mine). Mike Dempsey, graphic design grandee, had posted a critique of the current RT on his always thought-provoking blog Graphic Journey, and the magazine community fervently responded.

MIke’s point could be summed up as “Modern Magazines are rubbish—where are David Driver and Michael Rand when you need them?.” The response from those still at the coalface seemed to be: “Try doing a great magazine cover now with a bunch of marketing men breathing down your neck, a load of Celeb PRs playing up and a design team of one mac and a dog.”

As someone who straddles both periods I always have a problem with the “It was great back then” approach. It often cherry-picks to deliver its argument—there was some fantastically bad magazine design in the sixties and seventies. It usually doesn’t take into account the massive changes in the industry—way more pages now, allied to way less staff, and with a newsstand that no-one in the sixties could have imagined. And finally it always seems to subtly belittle the great work being done now.

I bow to no-one in my admiration for both David Driver and Michael Rand (especially as they taught me most of what I know). They presided over a period of fantastic illustration, beautifully rich and inventive photography and clever graphic concepts. The bold updating of illustrative styles from Eric Ravilious to Paul Slater and Ralph Steadman found a way to take a readership used to illustration to new places. But the world was different then. It was a world with four TV channels. There was no such thing as rolling news.

Look at rock music, for example, and tell me it’s as easy to be inventive now as it was in 1966. There’s always a ‘perfect storm’ time when the talent meets the market and the market says: Yes! Give me more. Give me more of that different, difficult and interesting stuff! It’s a heady time when mass taste coincides with aesthetic intent. That doesn’t mean that everything that follows is always inferior, but the shock of the new is always a powerful thing.

Photojournalism looked powerful and moving on a magazine front cover in 1968, when TV news was more circumspect (although my guess is that the designers of Life and Picture Post probably thought they’d been there and done that!). So it looks from here like bravery. But you can’t keep doing that forever. And you look to different places for that level of inventiveness. And it’s currently to be found at the fringes of this fractured industry, and mostly not in the mass market.

And the award-winning spreads and covers are never the whole story. Even the great magazines had mundane features behind the cracking Peter Brookes or Don McCullin cover. The sixties magazines technically weren’t a patch on, say, the Fortune magazine of the forties or fifties. Hot metal was dying, the craft was being lost, and no-one was sure what was coming. (What came, before the mac, was the much unloved phototypesetting.) So there were no computers, and all your precious typography was in the hands of a man in the bowels of Fleet Street or on an industrial estate at Park Royal who really didn’t care about your lovely attempts at better line breaks and interesting drop caps. I once asked for a cut-out of a man smoking a pipe in the days of hot metal, and when I dared to venture a suggestion that the blockmaker’s attempt fell a little short, and that it would be good if the pipe was attached to the man’s mouth rather than floating in thin air, being curtly asked, “Who d’you think I am? Fucking Rembrandt?”

It is true that the large mainstream magazines of today are commercially tuned and focus group driven, but if you look around even a mid-sized branch of WH Smith’s you’ll come across the inheritors of what’s possible in magazine design. It’s an understandable impulse to make the comparison of a single title then and now, but I’m not sure that it’s the right prism to view this subject through. Let’s just celebrate that great past, be glad that those people got to do that work. But accept that the challenges and the context are different today and celebrate what’s great now…  tell me that Andrew Diplock at Wired or Finnie Finn at I:Global Intellegence or Marissa Bourke at Elle aren’t doing terrific work, too.

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