Saturday 16 March 2002
Colin Banks, graphic designer: born Ruislip, Middlesex 16 January 1932; partner, Banks & Miles 1958-96; Production Editor (with John Miles), Consumers' Association magazines 1964-93; President, Society of Typographic Designers 1988-93, 2000-02; married 1961 Caroline Grigson (one son, and one daughter deceased); died London 9 March 2002.
The designer and typographer Colin Banks belonged to the literate and idealistic age of graphic design before the logo lout. One of Britain's leading typographers, Banks loved letterforms and chose to design books, brochures and identity programmes because he regarded the designer as important in maintaining standards of literacy and culture.
The quiet authority of his work reached its widest audience in the 1970s and early 1980s when, as one half of the well-known design partnership Banks & Miles, he was responsible for giving both British Telecom and the Royal Mail their distinctive and well-proportioned house styles. This was in the era directly before state privatisations, the glitzy designer boom and the havoc wreaked on typographic standards by the computer. The graphic designer back then was a decent, well-read chap in a cordoroy jacket with leather patches, a craftsman schooled in hot metal type, who upheld time-honoured principles about how things should look.
In this world, Colin Banks was a giant. If the design trends of the past 20 years eventually swept over him in a torrent of facile branding, computerised styling and Armani suits, he needed only to point trenchantly to such mishaps as Consignia to explain how the design business had changed for the worst. And as he despaired of the quick-fix tactics of the British design scene, he found solace elsewhere – in India and continental Europe especially – where his more measured and socially responsible approach to designing earned him many significant commissions and awards. Indeed his very last job before his death was a complicated and beautiful work on early church music in Danish, to be produced shortly by a Copenhagen publisher.
Banks was as tenacious as he was talented. Born in Ruislip, Middlesex in 1932, he was struck down with polio at 14, an illness which ended early promise as a cross-country runner and left him with a permanent limp. However, as in all aspects of his life, he rose strongly to this challenge and attended art schools in Rochester and Maidstone in Kent between 1948 and 1953. It was in a printing class at Maidstone that he met his future business partner, John Miles. "We took up typography," recalls Miles, "because we thought we'd make the world a better place. There was a huge amount of idealism in the early 1950s and Colin was very idealistic indeed."
They didn't start their partnership immediately. Banks worked first as an assistant to Ernest Hoch and as a freelance. But in 1958, he and Miles opened a design office together in a cramped West End basement. Banks later remarked, with characteristic bluntness, of this period: "There was no competition in graphic design in the late 1950s but there was no demand for it either."
Despite the austere times, Banks & Miles – the names were arranged in strict alphabetical order – swiftly earned a reputation with consultancies for the London Zoological Society, followed by the Consumers' Association and the British Council in the 1960s. The work was modern in a crisp, imaginative and technically precise way. Banks was never part of the pop design of swinging London – he was greatly influenced by the traditions of the Arts and Crafts movement, whose principle typographers were stonemasons. Nevertheless, Banks & Miles made their mark on the design landscape and, in 1972, the firm began its landmark identity programme for the Post Office featuring the famous double lettering. The project ran for 11 years.
At the time when British Telecom was being hived off from the Post Office, Banks had persuaded the powers-that-be that the names "Royal Mail" and "Post Office" were valuable assets. His reward was to mastermind not only the Royal Mail identity but a new blue-and-yellow image for British Telecom as well. Design historians now regard both schemes as breaking new ground in public sector identity design.
When the new BT piper logo was controversially introduced in 1991, Banks maintained a dignified silence, but by the early 1990s, the writing was already on the wall for Banks & Miles. Indeed the partners disbanded their practice in 1996 to work independently as designers, leaving behind a solid legacy of work which still looks surprisingly contemporary today. But then Banks always argued that good design doesn't date.
He bristled occasionally at the idea that Banks & Miles were simply designers for the establishment, despite a portfolio featuring elegant identities for Her Majesty's Stationery Office, City & Guilds and Lancaster University alongside the Royal Mail. But he also took great pride in the central place his work held in the institutional life of Britain. Banks & Miles designed Which? magazine and the identities for the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1977 and 1984. It also restyled all of the UK telephone directories in 1989 to save forests of paper, winning accolades from environment groups as a result.
Personally, Banks was responsible for rescuing Edward Johnston's classic letterforms for London Transport from oblivion by developing the New Johnston typeface. According to John Miles, this project gave Banks his greatest professional achievement. Colin Banks himself once told me, "The optimum pleasure comes from creating a new alphabet. It's the designer's Everest".
For 15 years, he was principle design consultant to the British Council, an involvement which took him to India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia with an exhibition, Social Communication. Banks made many trips to India, working with local agencies on schemes for rural sanitation, cooking, schooling and low-cost artificial limb manufacture, always ready for the next challenge, always eager to show how design can be a force for good. He also lectured widely in Eastern Bloc countries before access was easy.
Away from the design word, Banks kept his private life private. He met Caroline Grigson, a zoologist, in a queue outside the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead and married her in 1961. They built a house in Blackheath and had two children: Frances, who was tragically killed in a road accident in 1978, and Joe, who is today a sound artist. The family divided their time between London and a remote Wiltshire farmhouse beneath the Broad Town white horse on the edge of the Marlborough Down, where they cultivated a splendidly wild garden and hosted some great parties.
Whatever the obstacle, Colin Banks was determined to overcome it by sheer force of will. In this way, he became fluent as a writer and public speaker, despite initial hesitancy. Such skills complemented his vision as a designer and helped to amplify his significant contribution to Britain's visual culture over the past 40 years. Banks was determined to fight cancer too. Right to the end, he continued with projects, including a new identity for Oxford University Press. Only last year, he was in Seoul to open an exhibition and he was also appointed Visiting Professor in graphic design at the Royal Academy School of Architecture in Copenhagen, a title in which he revelled.
His death does not so much bring down a curtain on an evocative era of well-crafted British graphics but serves to remind us of the continuing relevance of typographic standards and social compassion in design today.
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