‘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 Pearce.

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 simultaneously.”

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 exploration
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 forever.”

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 Utopia.

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, without illumination.

“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.

Colour photo by John Simmons

Black/white photos by Elise Valmorbida

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