Ingrid van der Griend speaks to the veteran graphic designer Donald Fish upon his inauguration into the Design Institute of Australia’s Hall of Fame.
“I don’t like sunsets because they depress me. It’s like something dying. I like the morning,” Fish lamented as our conversation came to a close. His ability to meander through the murals of his mind with such lucidity was surprising considering the length of his illustrious career.
The concept of design had always beguiled Fish. His career as a graphic designer, illustrator, writer and cartoonist spanned sixty years, coming to a close in 2005. He designed murals, posters, logos, product packaging and television commercials; accumulating numerous awards. Fish’s designs were characterised by their fanciful figures, bold, flat colours and simplicity of line and layout.
The early twentieth century designers Herbert Leupin and Raymond Savignac were his greatest influences, particularly in terms of their wit and humour, which Fish claims is lacking in much work being done today. Fish believes graphic design has become sterile: “It’s all so goddamn serious!” he exclaimed, on the edge of tears.
Fish began his career at 15, working with the advertising agency Lintas in Sydney. In 1951 he moved to London where he worked for the London Press Exchange. Occasionally he would sign his designs “ D. Poisson”, the French version of his name. The pseudonym came about when he was forced to take on extra work to supplement his low income of £11 a week.
When Fish returned to Sydney in 1954 he met and shared a studio with the sculptor Robert Klippel. Klippel had established an industrial design group to which Fish contributed as their “graphic man”. At this time industrial design was almost non-existent in Australia. Although the group suggested design concepts to a number of different companies, none recognised a need for industrial design.
One of Fish’s fondest memories was working for the celebrity agent Harry M. Miller in 1974. He recalled the drama that occurred when the theatre production of The Rocky Horror Show moved to Melbourne from Sydney. Although the same promotional poster had been used for the two cities, Melbourne was not inclined. “I said, ‘Harry what you need is not horror horror, but fun horror. ‘ ” Fish reminisced. He created a poster which was printed in red and green and placed with both colours juxtaposed on walls around Melbourne. The simple duplication succeeded and Miller was thrilled. “We went from empty theatres to packed houses!”
His innovative design of a chocolate box for Nestle in the late 1950s was another memorable experience. The company wanted to modernise; previous designs consisted of vases of flowers and kittens; all fairly ingenuous. Fish created several boxes. One he pulled out to show me consisted of a mosaic pattern with an abstract, almost jagged, bird on the top, like a colour-by-numbers sheet. Fish revealed that the managing director had not wanted to approve it. Fish replied: “If we all had that attitude, we would all still be driving around in T-Model Fords.” Surrounded by a group of directors, he did not want to appear backwards and immediately endorsed the design.
Fish’s creative habit was to articulate his ideas through product interaction. A Johnson & Johnson commission saw him create an illustration after sprinkling talcum powder over a bright blue background. He drew a little pram, a mother and a baby. The agency was enthralled. Yet the following day there were concerns that this blue was not “our blue,” a shade of darker Prussian blue that was unusable with the subtlety of the design. As the company had used that particular blue throughout its eighty year history, Fish understood their concern and suggested an alternative: “Think of it as your blue, but it’s under a spotlight.” Negotiation and lateral thinking played a significant role in the acceptance and production of designs he created.
Fish held a number of different roles during his career. In 1970, when he was Creative Director of the Australian office of US advertising agency Compton International, he and writer John Flanagan won the advertising industry’s most important international award, a Bronze Lion at the Venice Film Festival, for a British Airways campaign. The same year, the campaign won a silver Logie at the Chicago Film Institute.
In 1974 he became a partner of the advertising agency Fountain Huie Fish. During this period he created a campaign for TIME magazine based on designs with strong visual impact and innovative branding techniques. Initially restricted to Australia, they were picked up by the magazine’s American headquarters. Among them were whimsical amalgamations of the TIME logo and everyday objects. One saw the logo transformed into an upright piano with “Time Entertains” on its front. Another, entitled “Time Reveals”, had the company logo affixed on a sardine can. When the can was wound back it revealed pages of magazine editorial.
In 2010 Fish’s work was included in an exhibition staged by Shapiro Gallery in Sydney entitled Australian Design Museum Exhibition which focused on limited edition and prototype design work. Both the Powerhouse Museum and State Library of NSW hold the majority of his work.