‘Beginning at the end’. A 26 event with designer Harry Pearce at Pentagram
What happens when you gather together a design heavyweight and a group of 26ers? In case you missed our event last month, Fiona Thompson shares her highlights.
On a rainy January evening, assorted
copywriters and designers gathered at Pentagram’s Portobello HQ, where we
embarked on a voyage through words and images with stellar designer, Harry
The event was exclusively for 26
members, organised by Elise Valmorbida, a 26 board member who has known and
worked with Harry for years.
We’re told that 60% of the human body is water, but perhaps the percentage is higher for Harry. He led us through his life and work with stories of Swiss lakes, images of drops of his own blood in water, eggs floating in a bucket.
The evening started with Harry standing in front of a screen as words ebbed and flowed behind him, as if through inky water. Eventually, this phrase emerged:
“I can see now time moves in all directions
These were the last words
that Harry’s father spoke before he died, and they provided the inspiration for
the title of this talk, ‘Beginning at the end’.
In this moving, personal
talk, Harry told us about the clues to his career that were hidden in his
journey, many of which he only recognises now, in retrospect. As T S Eliot
wrote in ‘Little Gidding’:
“We shall not cease from
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Harry showed us one of
his old schoolbooks, where the words to the nursery rhyme ‘Jack and Jill’
sloped down the page, an early example of his use of design to emphasise the
meaning of words.
Later, at art school in
Canterbury, during a project involving eggs floating in a bucket, a teacher
told him he was a designer, rather than an artist. That memory still rankles,
and now inspires him to explore “all pathways” open to him.
He’s dyslexic but sees
this as an advantage. “I find names impossible to read. If I think of a name, I
can see it running off to the horizon. So I started seeing words as pictures
and then my life started becoming making pictures out of words.”
He added: “Typography is now
the spine of every project. I try to pull meaning out of visual language
Harry talked about the
importance of absence in design: the effect of a niche in Havana that was
missing its angel sculpture. Chance is another element that comes into play in
Harry’s work. Copying Marcel Duchamp’s technique, he dropped the letterforms
that make up the word ‘Utopia’ from a height of a metre, 55 times. The results
were captured in a poster that appeared as part of an exhibition on The Art of
Dipping into the watery
unconscious for inspiration was a recurring theme. Harry described himself as a
fanatical writer-down-of-dreams, which he says is best done in the dark,
“I’ve dreamed whole
pieces of work,” he said. “Although I don’t really tell clients that. Dreams
are this whole other stream of gold dust that you can choose to engage with.”
He writes his dream books
from back to front, beginning at the end, and says: “When I get a dream I can
hold onto, I’m so happy.” Once he lost the whole of a dream apart from the
phrase ‘Until the last butterfly’, and enjoyed the synchronicity when a
guitarist friend told him soon afterwards that he was trying to “emulate the
fluttering of a butterfly” with his playing.
Another time, his unconscious
thoughts overlapped with real life during a visit to Switzerland. He dreamed he
was walking in mid-air over a lake where a whale was swimming. The next day he
found himself by chance at Lake Walensee. ‘Walensee’ means ‘Whale Lake’.
In a section of the talk
that left one or two people feeling queasy, we saw how Harry experimented with
dropping his own blood into water. This was for a project commemorating 70
years since the twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The result was a
poster showing a drop of Harry’s blood hitting the water’s surface, with the
photo inverted so it resembled a mushroom cloud.
For those not blocking
their ears, it was fascinating to hear how difficult it is to get a doctor to
take your blood for a non-medical reason. And, should you ever want to try this
at home, Harry told us: “If the water is too warm, the blood dissipates; if
it’s too cold, the blood drops to the bottom in a thin line.”
Still on a watery theme,
Harry described a scene in a Korean film ‘Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and
Spring’. A Buddhist monk who lives on a floating temple teaches a young boy the
art of ‘dishu’, a Chinese style of calligraphy that uses water to create
writing that disappears as the water evaporates.
“The lesson is that what
designers do is so transitory. It doesn’t matter what you create. What matters
is the love you put into making it.”
Harry also shared some
advice on writing. Or, perhaps more accurately, on rewriting. He was struggling
to write a three-page end piece for his latest book, “Eating with the Eyes”. He
showed the first draft to Peter Gabriel who said, “Don’t publish this. Sit down
and imagine you’re telling that story to a group of 12 year old kids.”
Although desperate to
avoid the task, on a trans-Atlantic flight back to London, Harry forced himself
to write and rewrite the story with that instruction in mind. “I popped the
next version through Peter’s letterbox,” he recalls, “and received a message
saying, ‘Harry’s back!’”
Finally, Harry told us
what makes him cross. “People not taking what they do seriously. Designers who
don’t put their heart into it shouldn’t be doing it.”
That goes for writers,
too. Thank you so much, Harry, for a fascinating evening that dipped into
dreams, inspiration and the importance of experimenting throughout our working
lives. Not everyone will want to have their blood drawn for the sake of their
art, but we can all be inspired to push our own boundaries.
PS: If you’re a writer who wants to learn more about the mysteries of typography, sign up for our next 26 Trade Secrets session on 27 February. In Making words visible – the art of typography, designer Mark Noad will be your guide. By the end, you’ll know your serifs from your sans, your kerning from your leading, and your x-height from your point size.
– Fiona Thompson
Fiona Thompson is a freelance creative writer who runs her own writing consultancy, Wordspring. She’s currently working on a project linked with the Royal College of Music, running blog-writing workshops for businesses, and writing fundraising materials for a brilliant small charity, the Environmental Investigation Agency.