The iconic work of the designer who helped to teach the world the art of looking sideways.
Today we mark the 10th anniversary of the passing of Alan Fletcher, one of the most celebrated British designers of the 20th Century.
With a career spanning more than 50 years, he was a profound inspiration to countless designers around the world including myself. Upon his death in 2006, obituaries appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world, with the Telegraph Magazine described him as “the most highly regarded graphic designer of his generation, and probably one of the most prolific”. This post is a celebration of his work, wit and his seemingly casual ability to blend art, culture and design. He remains a greatly missed iconic and influential figure in our industry to this day.
A person without imagination is like a teabag without water.
Alan Gerard Fletcher was born in 1931 in Nairobi, Kenya where his father was a civil servant. When his father became terminally ill, he returned to England at the age of five to live with his grandparents in Shepherd’s Bush, London. He studied design at the Hammersmith School of Art from 1949, then at the Central School of Art where he studied under noted typographer Anthony Froshaug. Here, he befriended (soon to become famous) designers Colin Forbes,Terence Conran, David Hicks, Peter Firmin, Theo Crosby, Derek Birdsall and Ken Garland.
After teaching English in Barcelona, he returned to London to study at the Royal College of Art between 1953 and 1956.
He then took up a scholarship at the Yale School of Art and Architecture under Alvin Eisenman, Norman Ives, Herbert Matter, Bradbury Thompson and famous designers Josef Albers and Paul Rand. During this period he visited Robert Brownjohn, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar in New York where he also became friends with the legendary designer Bob Gill.
The early work
There were two jobs every young designer wanted to do in America at that time,” said Fletcher recalling his time as a student. One was to design a front cover for Fortune magazine and the other was to design an institutional advertisement for the Container Corporation.
He never managed to persuade the Container Corporation to give him an advert to design, but in 1958 he was commissioned to do a Fortune magazine cover by pure chance. On a Friday afternoon he was in New York showing Leo Lionni his portfolio when news came through that the Russians had just launched Sputnik. Fortune had to change the cover quickly so Fletcher was asked on the spot to produce a design by Monday morning. According to Jeremy Myerson, in Fletchers book ‘Beware Wet Paint’ it was “the ﬁrst important commission of his professional career”.
Fletcher, Forbes, Gill
The early 1960s saw a number of influential American designers arrive in London. One of these was Bob Gill. In 1962 Fletcher, Gill and Forbes co-founded the design firm “Fletcher, Forbes, Gill” working out of a small studio near Baker Street.
Their fusion of type and image was unprecedented in Britain at the time. The quality of their work along with features written about the studio in magazines such as Vogue helped to propel them in to the public limelight and quickly make them the most fashionable design company in town. Gill would leave the partnership in 1965, being replaced by architect Theo Crosby.
Space is substance.
Crosby, Fletcher, Forbes continued throughout the 1960s until in the early 1970s, as the range of creative services shifted towards a multidisciplinary approach and with a growing number of partners, it became obvious a new name was required. It was Fletcher who proposed the name ‘Pentagram’ to the other partners who were; Theo Crosby, Kenneth Grange, Colin Forbes and Mervyn Kurlansky. The idea being that the five points of the star would represent each partner.
The company had a unique organisational structure devised by Forbes, which enabled the partners to work both independently and collaboratively. This innovative approach (unique even by today’s standards) has allowed the studio to flourish through successive generations of partners and a growing number of offices. Today Pentagram is considered to be the world’s largest independent design company.
Design is not a thing you do. It is a way of life.
Becoming increasingly disenchanted with the schedule of corporate design Fletcher left Pentagram in 1992 to work out of his Notting Hill home which he had occupied since the early 1960s. He was assisted by his daughter Raffaella Fletcher, Leah Klein and Sarah Copplestone, working for new clients, such as Novartis and the publisher Phaidon. For Fletcher, life and work were inseparable: “Design is not a thing you do. It’s a way of life”.
The V&A logo
One of Fletcher’s most enduring designs is his identity for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It is a logo which captures the heritage of the museum whilst simultaneously being modern and timeless. His work has served as an inspiration for the many designers and studios who continue to work with V&A as can be seen in the examples below.
The artist designer
Fletcher rarely went anywhere without a pencil and a set of watercolours. He was constantly scribbling, painting on whatever materials came to hand; paper napkins, matchbooks, cardboard and making collage from found ephemera. As much an artist as he was a designer, he was always inventive and inspired by the act of creating for pleasure. This joy can be clearly seen throughout his work for clients.
A significant influence on Fletcher’s work was his love of travel. He once said, “I can’t be creative unless I’m in a foreign country” emphasising the importance of immersing oneself in new cultures and environments. His journeys took him to places as diverse as India, Japan and Mexico where he absorbed the local visual languages and incorporated them into his design vocabulary.
Much like Paul Rand, Alan Fletcher had very distinctive hand writing. He used it often within his work, particularly to illustrate his favourite quotations. His ‘made-by-hand’ approach to both typography and illustration gave his work an immediacy which was instantly endearing and recognisable. It was seemingly effortless, however (as can be seen from his sketch books) he spent a lifetime crafting his technique.
Alan was part of a group of designers, art directors and photographers who in 1962 came together to celebrate creative communication in Britain and raise the standards within their industry. Alongside Fletcher was fellow designer and friend Colin Forbes (who designed the original D&AD logo) and photographers and filmmakers David Bailey and Terence Donovan.
The association they formed was called British Design and Art Direction which would be shortened to the more familiar D&AD (Design and Art Direction). The idea was to promote excellence in design and advertising with an annual award ceremony at which the famous D&AD pencil would be given. D&AD has become one of the world’s most prestigious design and advertising awards with members representing all the creative, design and advertising communities.
The Art of Looking Sideways
If your mind is too open people can throw all kinds of rubbish into it.
The Art of Looking Sideways was one of Fletcher’s last great works, published in 2001, five years before his passing in 2006. It took Fletcher 18 years to produce and his ‘magnum opus’. It is a jaw-dropping achievement with over 1,000 pages packed with a lifetime of ephemera, observations, drawings, quotes and literature collected by Fletcher; from the small labels found on fruit to rubbish found in the street, he would see value in the everyday and find inventive ways to reuse and “bring it to life”.
An exhibition of Fletcher’s work was displayed at the Design Museum in London between 2006 and 2007, alongside with the posthumous publication of his final book, Picturing and Poeting. The exhibition went on tour between 2008 and 2009. It was installed at the Ginza Graphic Gallery in Tokyo and the Pitzhanger Manor Gallery.
He served as President of D&AD in 1973 and was the International President of the Alliance Graphique Internationale between 1982 and 1985. He became a senior fellow of the Royal College of Art in 1989 and an honorary fellow of the London Institute of Art in 2000.
We’re all capable of more, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Keep chasing those dreams, through hard work you’ll eventually catch them.
Throughout his career, Fletcher drew inspiration from a myriad of sources. His deep love for art, literature and music informed his design choices and fuelled his creative spirit. He believed that the best design emerges from a well-rounded understanding of the world and he continuously sought to expand his knowledge and experiences throughout his life.
Fletcher’s work was characterised by simplicity, wit and humanity. He was a master of visual storytelling, using typography, colour and form to distill complex ideas into visually striking compositions which could communicate powerful messages.
Alan Fletcher is one of most influential British designers of the 20th Century and his work had a profound impact on the work we do at Propella. We encourage you to explore his work in more detail. The following three books are written and designed by Fletcher and are essential reading for anyone interested in creativity:
“The Art of Looking Sideways” by Alan Fletcher
This extraordinary book should be on the bookshelves of everyone who consider themselves to be creative.
“Beware of Wet Paint” Designs by Alan Fletcher
This book contains 250 examples of Alan Fletcher’s work produced for major clients around the world, or just for his own amusement.
"Picturing and Poeting” by Alan Fletcher
This books turns words into pictures, finds poetry in rubbish and discovers the unlikely in the commonplace. Alan Fletcher stands ideas on their heads to present a kaleidoscope of sketches, images and doodles.
There are a variety of websites, articles and blogs which also explore the life and work of Alan Fletcher:
If you have any questions or would like more information please send us an email via the link below and let us know how we can help.