On a superficial level, being an art student simply meant you were handier with coloured pencils than you were with log tables, and probably had a good record collection. It also meant that you really believed that there wasn't too much to learn, but that it would be amusing to be subsidised by the state while you experimented with various techniques. And it offered the opportunity to meet girls and joking partners while you all jumped through the ideological hoops.
Not that art schools were full of blazing revolutionaries. It was just that they attracted people who sensed the cultural erosion of that era, and knew in their bones that pop culture would one day eat the world and regurgitate the computer-generated, rainbow-coloured mush that surrounds us today. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, just pick up a tabloid, turn on your TV, look up at that billboard or Tube poster, walk down the high street. Think how many new bands, video games, TV programmes, magazines and other youth-related artefacts are produced in any one year.)
The problem was how to articulate this knowledge, because this was a time before society became self-reflexive about its pop culture. Most young people simply had no access to, nor were they represented by, any form of print or televisual media. Culture was a monolithic edifice, erected by Oxbridge pundits, maintained by their literary attendants. People such as Kenneth Clark made TV programmes called Civilisation, while people like Billy Cotton made Saturday Night at the London Palladium. In between there was an enormous void, which polite society refused to acknowledge, let alone bridge.
A few art-school students intuitively saw this void as a field of possibility, sparkling with potential. But they had no way to access the huge amounts of encoded information out there in the big wide world, even though they just knew that it all linked up somewhere, at some none-too-distant convergence of images, sounds and words. Basically, they were trying to foresee that state of ironic self- reference which would one day lead to Mike Flowers Pops performing an easy-listening version of the Oasis hit "Wonderwall" in a retro-styled pop video on a children's cable-TV programme. No wonder they were confused, the poor darlings. In the absence of any Grand Unifying Theory, they were obliged to make it up. They learnt how to bullshit in the most elegant way possible, and as long as intuition produced exciting images, no problem.
So it was that when Terry Jones left college in 1966 (with some nice Mod gear and no qualifications) he could take advantage of the vogue for smartly dressed young lads on the up and soon be art- directing Vanity Fair and other upmarket glossies. With his sharp eye for fashion, original design ideas and quiet determination (a good combination for career development), he might have settled into luxurious obscurity - had not a senior editor wrecked Jones's cherished cover for Vogue's 1976 Diamond Jubilee celebration issue. He wanted to use a close-up photo of the magazine title etched into glass. His superior wanted a red cover, believing the industry hokum that says these sell better than any other kind. A thwarted Jones, who had also tried in vain to get Vogue to report on the nascent punk movement, vowed to leave and start his own magazine.
This he did in 1980 with i-D, a landscape-format fashion-and-dance-music fanzine which, along with Nick Logan's Face, documented and defined the pop-culture boom of the 1980s, and begat a new publishing genre - the style press. Out of this in turn emerged a new generation of media creatives: stylists, designers, video and film-makers, photographers, journalists, advertising and PR people who understood pop culture instinctively, and knew how to represent it for the now style-conscious mainstream. This coincided with the advent of, among other things, broadcast-quality home video, desktop publishing, home computing, mobile phones and cable TV.
All of which might suggest that Jones hatched and executed some masterplan in his clinically efficient design studio. In fact, i-D was initially produced from his creaking, overcrowded attic, with a hand-picked band of penniless art sudents working late into the night, eating with his young family, and occasionally being thrown out with the cab fare at 3am when Trish, his long-suffering wife, finally put her foot down. i-D's brief was to explore the way people constructed their social identities without getting all anthropological about it, and to celebrate the astonishing energy and creativity of British youth culture which, we were all convinced, was the world's greatest untapped resource. The i-D wink, still featured in every cover shot and incorporated into the logo, set the tone: aware, collusive, but ironic and amused.
As well as coaxing the best from his team, Jones's skills involved top- rate draughtsmanship; low-tech montage; an ability to redefine "sexiness" without resort to voyeurism or cliche; the deliberately crude use of computer- generated type and distorting techniques; and a childish delight in serendipity, especially if it involved a silly visual pun. He hated "perfection" and, to general annoyance, was always willing to try another way, even if it didn't make sense. Long after all other magazines were designed with computers, i-D was still losing text and photos which had fallen off its paper layouts.
Now of course, our poor art students sit staring blankly into their 300Mhz Apple Power PCs, wondering how they will ever cut through the relentless information overload and produce an image, just one, that will actually leap off the screen, or page, or billboard site. Like the rest of us, subject to a daily bombardment of junk noise and dancing eye-candy, their attention spans have dwindled to a matter of milliseconds. In an age where images and information overwhelm us, the art student's role is inverted. With no huge spaces left between pop culture and the communications media, graphics work is more about filtering and redefining the constant flow, or making bigger patterns in the flow itself.
But the options are limited. These days there is no such thing as a radical haircut, because sometime around 1994 we realised that even England footballers were wearing peroxide crops, a hairstyle once regarded as the epitome of queer nightclub style. Now, the same goes for graphics. How are you going to produce a fresh, arresting image when basic versions of your working tools come bundled as free software on all but the cheapest of today's family PCs? Outside of your imagination, which itself is shaped by the same image-saturated environment as everyone else, what have you got to experiment with? What can you offer?
Catching the Moment, a coffee-table book of Jones's finest work, might give you a few ideas. As with early issues of i-D, there is a delightfully perverse and subtle logic waiting to be discovered: text and images which seem initially to be unrelated fit together in surprising patterns. As well as documenting Jones's irreverent graphic adventures over the last 20 years, this book also details his working methods and underlying principles, with quotes and anecdotes from the people who worked with, and learnt from him. The imagery is rich and varied, ranging from avant-garde editorial spreads to his ground-breaking documentary punk book, and advertising work for cosmetics and fashion. Yet fashion is never treated as something precious. Jones's strength is that he always uses images in a very offhand way, no matter who or what they represent. This has enraged photographers who believe their work to be "art", because, as Jones says in his text: "i-D doesn't exist simply to indulge photographers
Lastly, it would be dishonest, and rude, not to mention that Terry Jones gave me my break in journalism. But rather than thank him, it would be better to quote another i-D alumnus, art director Neil Edwards, whose testimonial sums up Jones's influence: "After leaving the Royal College of Art, I learnt more in an afternoon with Terry than in five years of art school. He is always challenging and questioning, as he comes from the make-it-up-as-you-go-along school. He could be a pain in the arse, but it was certainly an experience."
'Catching the Moment' (Booth-Clibborn, pounds 32) is published tomorrow.Reuse content