‘A lot of illustration sits very awkwardly alongside the contemporary digital typography scene. It can look naive, almost folksy’
Dan Fern was born in Eastbourne, England in 1945. He studied for diploma in graphic design from 1964-67, then took an MA in illustration at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1970. From 1970-73, he lived and worked in Amsterdam, where he encountered work by Zwart, Werkman and the De Stijl typographers that was to have a lasting influence on his own aesthetic concerns. Returning to London, he began a freelance career as an illustrator for Nova, The Sunday Times Magazine and other publications. In 1974, he was invited to teach in the illustration department at the RCA and his increasing involvement led, in 1986, to his appointment as full-time professor of illustration. IN 1994, the RCA was restructured into eight schools and Fern became head of the School of Communication Design, with responsibility for graphic design, illustration and interactive multimedia. IN parallel with his educational commitments, he has continued to work as a freelance illustrator and image-maker in a variety of contexts. His clients include many British design groups and the advertising agencies Doyle Dane Bernach, J. Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam. Publishing and music business clients include Penguin, Faber & Faber, A&M Virgin, Decca, Building, New Scientist, design and Radio Times. He has exhibited in many one-man shows and group exhibitions in Europe, the US and Japan and. in 1988, was the curator of 'Breakthrough', a retrospective exhibition of RCA illustration. Recently, he has turned to the moving image, with commissions from London's South Bank Centre and Goethe Institute to create non-narrative films to accompany live performances of works by the contemporary composers Detlev Glanert and Harrison Birtwistle.
Rick Poynor: Has there been any inclination from the Royal College of Art's incoming rector Christopher Frayling of what his policy towards the School of Communication will be?
Dan Fern: There's nothing specific yet. I've been involved for the past three or four years in a number of different areas where we've been talking about the future direction of the college. The college's first academic plan was put into operation three years ago with the formation of the schools instead of the old Faculty Boards. We're talking about part two of that plan at the moment and Chris, as chairman of the heads of schools committee, is leading those discussions.
Communication design is an area that we haven't come to specifically yet, but if we had to look for signs of what he thinks about it, and about the relationship between graphics and illustration, I suppose the fact that he was largely instrumental in appointing me two years ago to run graphic design shows that he thinks my general approach to illustration could also be applied to graphics - and thereby the whole of the School of Communication Design.
RP: What was the purpose of restructuring and forming the new schools?
DF: It was partly a way to regroup courses that have philosophical similarities and links in a professional sense, and to make them more autonomous than they have been in the past. It was part of a gradual devolution of the administrative processes out from the centre of the college and into the schools. The heads of schools have a considerable amount of control over the areas they administer - over staffing, budget allocation, research policy, proposals for the future developments and so on. Obviously, it's very much guided by parameters established elsewhere, in the Academic Standards Committee and the Academic Boards and so on.
The restructuring was a way of giving clusters of disciplines a greater sense of identity. There was a danger that we'd start to lose the collegiate sense of being part of a unique multi-disciplinary polytechnic. But that hasn't happened. It's working very well.
RP: How would you define the purpose of studying communication design at MA level?
DF: Well, I think it enables the very best people, who come to us from the undergraduate sector, to develop their talents in an experimental and, I hope, encouraging environment - to be a sort of hothouse, if you like. The school is geared towards individual progress; there isn't a set programme. The accent is on the development of an individual's talents and interests and obsessions to encourage a very strong personal aesthetic, which then hopefully carries them into which ever area of commercial or professional life they choose to follow. But to do that from a position of strength, knowing what their work is about and what their roots are and what their precedents are. So it's very much to do with developing that sort of atmosphere. But also, since we're a university, we must work within an intellectual framework as well.
That's what the situation has been and until comparatively recently it was enough. The RCA could be a goal for people in the undergraduate sector because we were literally the only place of this type. Now we're starting to have competition - nationally and internationally - and it will increase, which frees us to move on to different things altogether. At the moment we are working on part two of the academic plan, which is what the function of a place like the RCA should be over the next ten years, and how its role in the future might be different from its role in the past. All sorts of models are starting to emerge from that: I have my own ideas about it and so do other people here and we're in the process of debating all of that at the moment.
RP: What are the key differences between what the RCA aims to offer communications designers and what some of those rival institutions now offer? How would you position the college?
DF: There are some very physical things. We're the only post-graduate polytechnic of art and design, and the scope and range of work that happens within these few hundred square metres is fantastic. I know of no other place that has such a wide range of postgraduate courses or where the inter-relationship between those courses is as great as it is here.
As far as communication design itself goes, it's difficult to put a finger on exactly what makes us different from other institutions. My own feeling is that one thing characterises us is a relationship between the fine arts and the applied arts. In my own teaching and personal work, that's very important. I am as likely, in a tutorial with a graphic design student, to talk about Richard Serra or Donald Judd or Robert Racine or Barbara Kruger as I am to talk about another designer. I find the wider cultural knowledge of a lot of designers rather - so much of graphics is self-referential and inward-looking. we need to encourage designers to look beyond what other designers are doing, to film and music and the fine arts . . .