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PETER GRUNDY

:
THE CRAFTSMAN WHO COULDN’T DRAW
by JOHN O’REILLY

Information graphics are often dry and uninviting.
But by adopting an illustrative approach, Peter Grundy –
first as one half of design duo Grundy and Northedge,
and latterly as Grundini – revolutionised the way
information is presented. No more PowerPoint pie charts
or dreary graphs. In Grundy’s visionary reworking of
statistics, the facts come to life as if animated.

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tactile and sensual. is dispelled as Grundy makes coffee and then roots around in a black bin bag on the floor for some milk.’ says Grundy. Reading The Guardian on the train to his Brentford work/living space there’s a spread of his recent work for Shell. In the world of information design the tradition is that everyone is a Roundhead. and the incomplete are physical experiences that occur in the act of drawing. I was more into design that was about explaining things. and in a sense for Shell 6 themselves. information designer language for a genre whose cardinal sin is self-expression. part of a big 5 campaign that looks like an ongoing re-positioning of the oil company for consumers. and we sent that out. ALMOST A CRAFT 10 8 Peter Grundy 3/6 Though Grundy’s work remains utterly contemporary his journey as an illustrator and graphic designer begins in an age when graphic design was viewed differently. But their idea of being able to come with the idea and farm out the work to an illustrator hit the buffers of a £160 budget. information design is often used as a sweetener – a little bit of sugar that helps us digest the information that we know is really good for us but which we can’t always be bothered with. ‘The first job we ever did was a cover for Design magazine. and Peter Grundy and Tilly Northedge’s info-iconic work over the past two decades. Yet ‘explaining things’ doesn’t really explain the visual scale of Grundy and Northedge.’ PHYSICAL. ‘the tactile. people realised you could make a lot of money from it. That was the period when design suddenly became a business. Tilly Northedge has gone off to pursue passions beyond datacrunching and visualizing. as climate change or not. almost a craft. TANGIBLE WORK In LSE Professor Richard Sennett’s work The Craftsman. . and hang some humanity on them. If we didn’t know how to do the drawing we invented ways of drawing. ‘I mean the 1980s hadn’t arrived. explains Grundy: ‘once you had acquired enough information for a particular project you would use that to produce some design. Great information design leaves no room for messy thinking. they were up in Jay Mews next to the main building in the Royal College. our typography. because tying one is a skill. and did it in a way that enhances the integrity of the information. the relational. such as the way of writing and rewriting. and place them by the row of shoes by the door. economy and accuracy. oil is running out and we need a new energy source quickly. He assures me it’s fine. a style that blurred the boundaries between visual and verbal imagination. Yet great information designers take information.’ says Grundy. ‘We produced a book based on a black and white booklet we’d done at the Royal College of our work. We would still have ideas to solve the problem but we would use our drawing. a sophisticated defence of the economic and aesthetic value of craft that is not anti-machine. was that the studio developed it’s own visual signature because of budget necessity.INTEGRITY OF THE INFORMATION. Grundy says don’t bother. data and raw numbers. just how tightly edited these ads are. As much as their work is informative it communicates by being solid. Sennett writes. it was still. where Grundy was doing graphic design and Northedge was one of the first students on a new information design course run by Herbert Spencer. obsessively spick and span. Grundy calls it ‘illustration journalism’. ‘I think the nature of design in the late 1970s was different to what students have now. like back-to-front instructions you stuck on your front. mine were pictographic because before I went to the Royal College I had been taught to be a Swiss typographer at Bath.’ ‘Explaining things’ is modest. or of playing music to explore again and again the puzzling qualities of a particular chord. But to cut a long story short the whole direction of Grundy and Northedge over the next 25 years. It’s why we got talking because what interested me about her course was that it wasn’t about selling things. ‘We thought we’d do the drawings ourselves. ‘show’ and flash.’ says Grundy. They invented an iconic language. But the idea that information designers need to be a little bit anal. apologising that he meant to go out and get some.’ In information design. It is. gathering information on shelving systems and then working out the various ways in which a shelving system could be assembled. Whereas on my course we were down in the V&A doing advertising briefs. wasteful and lacking in logic. It’s easy to forget as you are drawn in by their warmth. Alexander Isley’s info-satire for Spy Magazine in the 1980s. to make these ideas come alive. There was one project – how to tie a bow-tie. showing various ways in which you could tie one using creative instructions. ‘Though trumpeted as “intellectually coherent” their diagrams are cumbersome. ‘We both had drawing skills. Art Director of Design magazine. driven by an idea that talks to your intelligence and tickles your emotions. the Cavaliers can go to hell. 9 For newspaper editors and advertisers. thou shalt not waste. A critic of their work quoted in Graphis magazine would later say. and most of all because it is a tactile experience. It was a piece on the evolution of London. so she kind of looked towards my course. engagement and vitality. because we had done some projects together. but it’s more of a nod to the work than the man. and they came up with a Thomas the Tank Engine scenario. Drawing stands for a larger range of experiences.’ Sennett’s account of the physicality of drawing expresses the tangible quality of Grundy and Northedge’s work. It’s why when I go into his studio I take off my shoes. something that is remarkably seamless even in the transition to digital design at the beginning of the 1990s with their diagram for Deyan Sudjic at Blueprint magazine. I think Tilly felt the course didn’t really address creativity. and I was quite good at doing those things. that taking off dirty shoes seems tonally correct. We found ways of drawing. Tibor Kalman’s info-polemics for Colors in the 1990s.’ Grundy and Northedge had met in the Royal College of Art in 1976. The ads have the Grundy signature of bold shape and colour. but Peter Grundy is still putting pictures on data. The course was analytic and research-intense. And they did it on the page and on the computer. Keith Ablett saw it and commissioned them to do a diagram for the cover.’ The choice of a bow-tie is inspired because it is an iconic object.

Luminous Design/Arm Industries. Grundini – 2008 11 Diagram showing what was eaten in the court of Henry VIII for Hampton Court book. Grundini – 2008 4 (page 7) New energy futures. Grundini – 2008 5. Grundini – 2004 Grundini 3 (page 6) Diagram explaining facts from a typical race meeting. Grundini – 2007 VW Save fuel Letterform remastered for the Grundini book. Grundini – 2008 13 Money and football Diagram for Guardian newspaper’s G2 Graphic spread. 10 G2 Music Diagram for Guardian newspaper’s G2 section. Grundy & Northedge – 2006 14 The arms trade Diagram for Guardian newspaper’s G2 Graphic spread. Wolf Olins/Royal Parks and Palaces. Grundy & Northedge – 2006 12 Commuter Page divider for the Grundini book. remastered for the Grundini book with originally intended coloured backgrounds. 6 (page 7) Poster. remastered for the Grundini book with originally intended coloured backgrounds.13 11 12 14 Vodafone ad image. Red Bulletin magazine. 9 Everyday things containing chips (Micro processors) Page in AR. diagrams and icons for Shell International’s Scenarios division. Grundy & Northedge – 2006 15 G2 Rubbish Diagram for Guardian newspaper’s G2 section. Grundini – 2008 1 (page 7) 2 (page 7) 15 9 alan aldridge 4/6 . Grundy & Northedge – 2004/5 7 (page 7). Grundini – 2008 8 (page 7). global campaign (ongoing) for JWT.

’ says Grundy. ‘The style was driven by our capabilities. ‘Instead of answering briefs I’ll create my own briefs. anyone can draw a roundhead.’ As he talks me through his Grundini book. in 2005.’ HOMAGE TO INFORMATION Back in 1996 Hugh Aldersey Williams.’ PETER GRUNDY.com . Yet ironically. Guardian Creative Director Mark Porter knew Grundy and Northedge and recommended them to Ian Katz the G2 editor. after 26 years of being a designer and illustrator.’ He’s doing a lot of work for the 5 Scenarios department at Shell which is a kind of futurology unit: ‘They call them tools to allow people within 6 Shell to think about the future. since college and Peter was always doing things that were based on the fact that he couldn’t draw very well. ‘I’m planning to do another book. they began one of the most ambitious and exhaustive pieces of information design in UK culture. it takes real craft to draw a squarehead. ‘He felt they needed someone with more informational skills. In the end that simplification became the thing that people wanted. And some of that style is down to what Richard Sennett might call the ‘incomplete’. I make sure that what clients get is what they need to get. OUR TYPOGRAPHY. In 13 2005 The Guardian pushed the boat out with its new Berliner redesign. WE WOULD STILL HAVE IDEAS TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM BUT WE WOULD USE OUR DRAWING.’ I suggest to Grundy that they must have been burned-out by the volume of work and the tight deadlines. the self-promotional piece is not just a showcase but a chance to interrogate his own work. which forces the craftsman to think through the activity. and we would come up with an overall image and that image would be divided into coloured segments which would carry information. enhancing any physical quality. Part of the work I do and did. They didn’t touch it. a self-promotion piece he is putting together.16 17 ‘IF WE DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO DO THE DRAWING WE INVENTED WAYS OF DRAWING. and at the time they asked for it. and his sole job was to work with this and every week on a Monday he would send us a series of 5 or 6 topics. ‘Our job was really to come up with a way of doing them.’ The turnaround time was intense because it was illustration journalism. By the end of the 1990s Grundy believes that Northedge had begun to lose heart. yes. we’d kind of run out of ideas. who put it in the QuarkXPress document and printed it. it was as much logistical as creative. I’ll do pictures. Grundy and Northedge did alternate weeks for six months until a new editor arrived and the job ended.’ Given the scale of the task.” In a way I was simplifying things to make it possible for me to be able to draw them. TO MAKE THESE IDEAS COME ALIVE.’ The computer made life simpler. We were always quite disciplined about that.grundini. Her work is slightly different to mine. Their pictograms. he is making the most of this opportunity for self-reflection.grundynorthedge.” And we asked if this was over the period of a year or two years?’ Grundy delivers the punch line with a wry laugh: ‘He told us that we were going to do one every week.com www. Tilly can. Diagrams and Narratives. How many do you need? He said. such as those for United Distillers are models of the art of condensation. And the two are exactly the same. allowed for easier colour changes. the gap in our knowledge which stimulates understanding in the craftsman. their diagrams such as the spread for Creative Review on their carbon footprint turns information into knowledge. uu Further reading www. it went straight to the printer.’ says Grundy. They are signposts for me to work out where I am going. For the first 10 years we didn’t have a computer. There was no editing. We worked with Leo Hickman. and was looking to make a visual splash in 14 its G2 supplement with some infographics. though one that goes back to his Royal College days. 10 Peter Grundy 5/6 ‘We did it as a piece of painting and we did it in Adobe Illustrator just to see. ‘As George Hardie once said when I gave a talk at Brighton. says Grundy. But outside the work. matter-of-fact manner (no surprise for someone whose work is the matter of facts) he begs to differ. Northedge left to enjoy and follow her interests outside design. So the information he gave us was the actual information that got printed. By the end of the week we would have to send a print ready Illustrator file. but in his honest. not just decorating facts with pictures. “I’ve known Peter. the then Editor at Large of Graphis Magazine did a feature on Grundy Northedge and categorized their work into Pictograms. it was an exhibition of heads. keeping fresh began to become a challenge. ‘We didn’t want to do them to be honest.’ The assignment came to him via the late Alan Fletcher. ‘Ian Katz said. or escape into ‘Grundini’.’ notes Grundy. ‘It was an homage to information’. ‘We’d always been used to delivering. and do things that I will show and sell. I enjoyed doing that and with Grundini there will be more of that. ‘We had two months to come up with a concept because we didn’t know what we were going to do. On the way out he points up at a large series of posters by the staircase – The Squareheads. funnily enough they printed the painted one in the end. you realise that post break-up. the images we produced were done by drawing black lines on Kodatrace and then painting underneath and getting the printers to put the two together. a fresh name and perspective. especially with requests from clients who often didn’t seem interested in creative solutions. who retells the story with a kind of wonder that they actually took it on. One of the things I did before Grundy and Northedge finished was an 18 exhibition at my agent’s gallery Debut Arts. “We are going to do about 25. When you look at Grundy and Northedge you can‘t tell the two apart but people who know us know that there are differences. We weren’t quite confident it would work so we did both. They are not predictions they are a set of parameters that you can apply to incidents that happen. it’s always about delivering. We were drawing mechanically before we got Adobe Illustrator and really what Illustrator allows you to do is draw mechanically. like 9/11 or the current economic crisis. and 2 their narrative work such as the letterforms for the VW Save Fuel campaign. is a lesson in the aesthetic value of ‘the fresh’ in storytelling. It just did in a different way what we were already doing using our hands. and I did a set of posters which were 19 called Squareheads and they were there for sale and that was their only purpose. but it didn’t change the style.’ SQUAREHEADS In 2006. Why squareheads? Then you remember. I can’t draw figuratively. “Can you do them?” and we said. because the printer preferred it – printers hadn’t quite got to the point where they were happy with us sending digital files. Grundy decided to continue as Grundini. They liked the actual simplification.

Grundini – 2008 16 21 11 peter grundy 6/6 . Grundini – 2008 18 Headcase Limited edition Squareheads poster produced for an exhibition at Conningsby Gallery. Grundini – 2008 21 Sacred hand Image produced for the Grundini book. Grundini – 2003 20 Utopia Image produced for the Grundini book.18 19 20 Action Aid poster Grundini – 2004 17 Africa Image produced for the Grundini book. Grundini – 2003 19 Warhead Limited edition Squareheads poster produced for an exhibition at Conningsby Gallery.