Producing work throughout (and beyond) the massive technological and cultural shifts of the late 20th century, Alexander Stitt was a graphic designer working at the dawn of television, and the creator of Australia's best loved public health campaigns 'Life. Be In It' and 'Slip Slop Slap'. His career is an example of the level of genuine influence and widespread reach graphic design can possess, with his work encompassing film posters and titles, television ads and announcements, print and publishing, including children's books, illustration and toys for the Jigsaw Factory in Richmond, which he founded with Bruce Wetherhead in 1970.
Until recently, his career's work - a sizable portion of the last 50 years of Australias graphic design history - was in storage. It was after the Black Saturday fires of 2009 that Alex, and his wife Paddy, collated this vulnerable material into 'Stitt Autobiographics', a publication that simultaneously acts as a cultural and historical study, as well as a private retrospective.
I certainly broke some new ground in the early days of television. Just as people are trying to find out how best to design for the Internet now, I had the opportunity to find out how to make television commercials, and later community service announcements (particularly spots for the Christian Television Association) from the start. Television began in Australia in 1956, the year I finished college at RMIT. There were few existing models to refine, develop or even react to, so every day was a new day. I really didn't get much feedback, but from very early on I won awards for print and film material - so I knew I was doing OK according to my peers. My first print award was for a cover for the World Record Club in about 1958, and the first TV award was a prize in Venice in around 1960. Awards aren't the same thing as feedback from the general public, though the Christian Television Association gave me some of that too - some positive, some negative.
Within small areas of any of those larger fields - design, animation and illustration -there are many considerations, some subtle, some not so, which apply to any assignment. It's up to the individual designer what role he wants to play and in which media. Often it comes down to good luck as to which assignments you get hold of. I classify myself as a designer ahead of the others, because design is where it all starts for me. There are examples of other graphic designers who have bridged media. Saul Bass' film work is as important and as well respected as his print work. Milton Glaser designs logos and entire restaurants.
There's a piece in the book about finding an Australian voice, which means just that - the way the characters sound, and the form of expression they use. 'Voice' is to do with local idiom. But my visual material was never really inspired by the Australian way of life. My work was always based on universal modernism, for instance, John Hubley's 'Gerald McBoing Boing' in animation and Paul Rand and Saul Bass in graphic design.
I never did follow the style of cartoons uniquely associated with Australia, like Stan Cross' 'The Potts' and 'Wally and the Major' or Jim Bancks with 'Ginger Meggs'. Early on, Australia had developed its own style in words and pictures through publications like 'The Bulletin' and 'Smith's Weekly', but it had petered out by the time I started work in the 1950s.
The process of graphic design is to distil an idea that is going to be meaningful to its audience, which has little or nothing to do with prevailing attitudes or forms. For example, the Children's Television Foundation logo that you mentioned is an idea: the idea of a little kid looking into television, which is an expression of what the CTA was about. The way the idea is rendered is my choice, and my choice is always to keep things clear and simple. The one modification that would have to be considered now in regard to that symbol is that the TV screen clearly represents a CTR so to that degree, the logo draws upon the culture of its time.
Designing for film or television is always a bit different in that two things collide: pure design and character/storytelling. It becomes necessary to give characters a life which includes regional, occupation and cultural idiosyncrasies. Norm, of the 'Life. Be in it' campaign, had all of them by the bucketload.
We live in a global world and have done for a long time. American and European concepts and attitudes have been with us ever since the advent of television in Australia. It's up to the individual designer to make judgments about which of these influence he/she wants to explore.
The visual culture of the entire world changed with the advent of the personal computer. The technology changed every tool that we use. Individuals now have their hands on the buzzer rather than large organisations and the chaotic visual results apparent in social media look like spreading like the plague.
I thought I was mature at the age of four. I don't see the business of being a graphic designer as being one where you simply mature as the work goes on. Every job is a new challenge; I hope that every solution will be different and new. David Hockney, one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, brought about wholesale change in unlikely areas like photography and film. He was at the cutting edge of using iPhone, iPad and Wacom Cintiq technology. In the last few years he has chosen to go back and re-explore landscape painting which he is doing with remarkable success and exciting results.
You get to be known if you are involved in regular paid work that is in the public space, like John Spooner appearing in 'The Age'. I got to be known through 'Life. Be in it' which was on TV for 15 years, likewise with 'Slip! Slop! Slap!'. But for a decade through the 90s I was responsible for designing a children's literacy program which, while it is published and sold in most English speaking markets around the world, would really only be known by teachers, young children and their parents. It is one of the biggest tasks I have ever taken on and hardly anyone knows about it. Something similar applies to 'Education Quarterly', a magazine that we produced for 15 years. The seismological shifts were not intellectual, but technological. I still tackle all my work the same way as I always did.
When we arrived in Red Hill after our official retirement we had countless boxes of stuff that had been carted around, largely unsorted, through ten studio moves. The realisation that we had moved to a bushfire prone area and could lose everything we owned was a motivating factor in starting to sort through and scan the work. The book evolved from that. Our area was not affected by the fires, but members of our family were.
Just as the digital process has offered greater freedoms in print material, for example, the ability to try out different typographic approaches and to rewrite, redraw and rework without penalties (financial or otherwise) - it offers benefits that carry over to animation production, and indeed to personal creative projects. Our book 'Autobiographics' would have been technically and financially impossible for us to produce when Paddy and I began to work together twenty-odd years ago. The switch from drawing boards to computer and from shooting animation on film to preparing drawings on a screen meant liberation. Before, we needed enough studio space to house a rostrum camera, a flatbed editor, a dark room and storage for countless film reels. It also meant the end of traced and painted cels and, regrettably, of the people we employed to produce them.
I have a big iMac on the desk, a MacBook Pro that travels, a back-up iMac, the latest, very large Wacom Cintiq, an A2 Epson colour printer, and an Epson scanner which gets very little use, since all of the drawings I produce are now drawn directly on the screen. I work in Photoshop and QuarkXPress 9, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro and Acrobat.
I find it interesting that half a century after he designed them, Charles Eames' chairs and other pieces of furniture are currently the hot items. The grand Eames armchair and footstool are still advertised weekly in Matt Blatt's ads and others. This of course is partly due to the fact that the original works are now out of copyright and copies with greater or lesser fidelity to the originals are being produced for a fraction of their original retail price. The essential message to me is that we don't have another Charles Eames. Most of the great designers have dropped off the twig: Paul Rand, Saul Bass, animator John Hubley, experimental film maker Norman McLaren, type designer Herb Lubalin. Milton Glaser is the last of the Mohicans. Now legends, these were the designers who were practicing and changing the graphic design landscape when I got going. For whatever reason, they haven't been replaced.
I'm working on being retired. Retired is supposed to mean freedom to work on projects of my own, of which 'Autobiographics' was the first cab off the rank. I'm working on an illustrated novel. We have a commission to decorate our accountant's new office suite with original prints I have produced in very limited downtime over many years. I'm still doing the odd job here and there, but please don't tell anybody.
You can see more of Alexander's work, and purchase his enormous book, at www.alexanderstitt.com
Images are property of Alexander Stitt. Photography of Alexander's workspace are courtesy of Paddy Stitt, with special thanks. Photography of Jigsaw Factory courtesy of Sonia Kretschmar and Doug MacLeod.
The referrals began with Leah Jackson who referred Stephanie Downey who referred Chris Hill who referred Jonathan Wallace who referred Dominic Hofstede, who referred Paul Fuog, who referred Ben Edwards and Juliet Moore, who referred Ryan Russel and Byron George, who referred Dianna Snape, who finished the stream with Jessica Brent. We also introduced Matt Hinkley who referred Warren Taylor who referred Yanni Florence, who referred Liv Barrett, who referred Fayen d'Evie, who referred Masato Takasaka, who referred Madeline Kidd, who referred Meredith Turnbull, who referred Nella Themelios.
In May 2012, we began a new Melbourne stream with Oslo Davis. He then referred Alexander Stitt, who referred Mimmo Cozzolino, who referred Fysh Rutherford, who referred Simon and Jenna Hipgrave.
In March 2012, we went to Austin for SXSW, where the daily referrals began with Sonnenzimmer who referred Landland and Hometapes who referred Zorch, who referred Brian Maclaskey, who referred Bobby Dixon, who referred Brian Phillips, who, through some auspicious coincidence, turned the SXSW referral interview project into a perfect circle, by referring us back to Sonnenzimmer. Then there was a giveaway to celebrate.