War Games

22 / 05 / 2017

I first shared the same room with the great graphic designer, Abram Games at an art college lecture in 1987. He was an old man, but still full of mischief and drive and was able to captivate an entire audience of kids that were over 50 years his junior. Immediately, I was hooked on this genius of 20th Century graphic design. Only a year later, I had the pleasure of seeing him again at St. Martin’s College and even got to meet him later to thank him for the inspiration I had drawn from his career.

Abram Games was a designer of posters and other graphics and one of the greatest of 20th-century Britain. Games did his share of advertising design, for Guinness, Shell and the Times, but those who remember him say he was never comfortable with commercial work. His most powerful works, the ones about which he cared most, were for good causes. In the war, he designed recruitment posters and compelling images urging people not to waste food or speak carelessly in ways that could help the enemy and in 1960, he created the Freedom from Hunger poster for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

His productions were the result of fighting with himself and they would typically resolve complex issues into a concise image, whose confident simplicity would belie the mental struggles that went into its conception. Once achieved, no alternative would be contemplated. Clients were offered only one version, which they could either take or leave. He could be arrogant and austere – and as  consequence, relatively poor.

He told me that the quest to devise the perfect concept and then to put it successfully onto paper was paramount. Another thing he mentioned was that he felt anyone can come up with a great idea – but successful realising it was where the true genius is applied. All these years on, I completely agree.

Games only had two terms of formal art training and made his way by hawking his portfolio around advertising agencies and artists’ agents, one of whom told him that his work was 10 years ahead of the public.

The force of his design comes partly from the Bauhaus and from constructivism, with its geometric directness and insistence on, as Games put it, “maximum meaning, minimum means”. But he also learned from a completely different strand of modern art, surrealism, when he fused incongruous objects. A black bomb echoes a white milk bottle in a poster supporting aid for victims of the Spanish civil war. A spade becomes a ship, a tongue becomes a bayonet. He made type rhyme with image and with itself.

As well as his incredible portfolio during the time spent at the Public Relations Department of the War Office, he went on to be commissioned for many more memorable designs, including the logos for the 1954 Festival of Britain and the 1965 Queen’s Award to industry. He was even responsible for the first moving on-screen symbol of BBC Television.

Games died in 1996, but at times he sounds like someone from longer ago. There are designers with consciences and serious intentions today, but to find someone who cared so much about principle and social purpose and so little about the commercial value of his work: this is rare. He was exceptionally talented, to boot.

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