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5 Lessons in Design From Abram Games

16 Aug 2019 / Studio

“If ideas don’t work an inch high, they are never going to work”

This summer, an exhibition of Abram Games’ work at the National Army Museum challenges us as designers to keep it simple, persuasive and fearless.

In the world of design, it’s very easy to get caught up in concept. But one person who cut through the noise was wartime graphic designer Abram Games. A pioneer of his time, Games built his career on a stark, impactful style captured within a series of iconic World War II propaganda posters. 

He was also born and brought up in Hackney, making him a one-time neighbour of us at All Creative. So, when a major retrospective of his work opened at the National Army Museum this spring, we felt the call of a team outing.

We wanted to see how we could apply Games’ approach to our own design projects. We considered how he communicated ideas and tackled complex social issues with a simple, striking combination of images and typography. Here are five lessons we learnt from a communications master:

It's Good to be a Specialist

In an age where we wear multitasking as a badge of honour, Games reminds us that there’s power in being a specialist. “As the designer you wind the spring, and it is released in the mind of the viewer," he once said. 

Games knew how to measure that intrigue precisely, because he knew his audience: whether army, civilian or a combination of both. Each time, he spoke directly to the consumer via the use of sparse, forceful design. 

Games knew his own strengths and weaknesses equally well, which enabled him to stay focused. Beyond his role in the war, he took on commercial work for a wide array of companies, from Guinness to The Royal Shakespeare Company and Shell. But he only offered his clients one version of a brief: no alternatives would be tolerated. He harnessed his strengths to draw the spectator into his work, and follow his line of thought.

Persuasion is Vital Tool

As one of the 20th Century’s most influential designers, Games left a legacy in persuasion. He used visual communication to recruit, educate and sway opinion amid generations of viewers. Often, the messages he needed to convey were multi-layered, and controversial. 

During the war, his signature style was applied to topics such as saving lives and the importance of not gossiping. He condensed layers of an idea into one compelling image that persuades the viewer, on both conscious and subconscious levels, in a matter of seconds. 

This direct approach encourages a return to basics. Is the work we produce really speaking to our audience, and getting them to do what we want them to? Are we fulfilling our own All Creative values to entice, enthuse and engage our target audience?

There's Great Power in Simplicity

Games worked by the adage “maximum meaning, minimum means”. He was an expert at whittling down abstract ideas and causes into one central concept. His original posters draw from a minimal fusion of image and text that belies the complexity of the messages behind them. 

Everything you need to know is right there, condensed in the artwork: there’s no call for that modern-day refrain to “see more online”. This reductive handling was in part driven by Games’ attitude to his work: he saw himself not as a visionary artist, but instead as a graphic thinker. Everything, from his choice of symbolism to the copy he used, was clear and concise in fulfillment of a brief. But he was also bold, directive and unafraid to shock when the situation called for it. 

In an age of information overload, we can learn a lot from Games’ arresting simplicity. Free from embellishment, his posters carried only essential information – and were all the more powerful for it. 

Everything starts with a Sketch

Games occupied a golden age of design, in which individuals, not agencies, had end-to-end freedom with creative briefs. His artwork features hand-rendered typography, hand-painted images and a game-changing approach to airbrushing. And with all subject matters that he approached, no matter how nebulous, he began by drawing and playing with negative space.

Games’ skill lay in capturing the eye and making people look twice: and that impulse centred around his ability to physically sketch out an idea. “It is only necessary to have with one a sketch-book and pencil or pen in order to capture the very spirit of today’s life while it is being lived,” he explained. 

This artistry made us consider: should we approach all jobs by getting ideas on a page first? What new ideas could we reap by sketching – and then going digital? And more importantly, what is being lost in not doing that? 

For Standout Design, you need to be fearless

Games may have implied that he was “there to do a job”, but his work made an immediate and lasting impact. His vivid, dynamic posters created an impression not only amid the monochromatic designs of the time, but also for years to come. Hailed as one of the design world’s foremost innovators, his aesthetic is as relevant and iconic today as it ever was. 

While staying true to his minimal principles, Games drew inspiration from the Bauhaus movement and Russian constructivism, with its geometric directness. He combined this with elements of surrealism, experimenting with the mutation of images and ideas used by artists such as Salvador Dalí. This fearless ability to mix worlds gave his work the edge, ensuring a style of communication that was direct and minimal, but also conspicuous. 

Our challenge now is, how do we stand out in a similar way? How can we distinguish our campaigns in the way that Games once did? How would he have dealt with a market saturated in multi-media marketing messages? From now on,we at the All Creative design studio will always ask: “How would Abram Games approach this brief?

The art of persuasion: wartime posters by Abram Games is on at the National Army Museum, London, until 24 November

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