On Sunday 7th October my friend Nic Hughes lost his fight against cancer. He leaves a big hole in the lives of those he knew. He was one of the kindest, smartest and most talented men I’ve had the pleasure to meet. The World without Nic is smaller – diminished and less bright – and without him design will take longer to reach maturity.
I don’t want to write this post about how broken I feel. I want to celebrate my relationship with Nic and speak of the legacy he leaves through my memories and ideas: most importantly how he influenced the way I think and feel about Graphic design.
We met in 2005 when he joined the MA Critical Practice at Goldsmiths. At the time I was Programme Leader, fumbling my way through my first year as a full-time academic. The degree was new and I was new. It was uncharted territory. Nic was my student. This statement alone makes a mockery of the hierarchies of education, whilst simultaneously highlighting one of the most fruitful aspects of working in such an environment. Our relationship was one of shared exploration – talking about and prodding design – in an attempt to figure out if it had a future. I learnt a great deal from Nic, and it felt like a true partnership. During a year when I was unsure of my capacity to lead a new Masters degree, my discussions with Nic made my efforts worthwhile. He saw every lecture and every project brief, as potentially fruitful and exciting. He absorbed everything. His hunger for knowledge was contagious and he infected his peers with a desire to learn. This in turn made my job a lot easier, and more enjoyable.
Nic arrived at Goldsmiths with years of experience as a graphic designer and his level of craftsmanship was incredible. He had that rare skill of being able to combine image and text in a way that ‘just works’. He had an amazing eye for composition. But he was frustrated with his practice, and wanted to push his work conceptually and critically. He was steeped in the Swiss tradition, but in a way he was truly post-modern: first he mastered the rules, and then he set about breaking and rewriting them.
The development of a critical and conceptual voice in graphic design became the foundation for many of our conversations over the years. Understanding its role in the transformation of society, beyond being simply the framework for legible communication, was something that fascinated Nic. Mediators of social relations are always easier to identify and prototype in three-dimensions: ‘Flatland’ offers up a different set of concerns. Nic argued that typography was an object in itself, and he went so far as to place it under an electron microscope to convince me of its three dimensionality.
In its close relationship with advertising, Nic saw the opportunity for Graphic design to play a revolutionary role in effecting social change. But he knew there was a fight to be had, and that designers had to move away from self-satisfied ‘smiles in the mind’ or the obsession with type as fetishised object. Or, as Nic once put it to me so eloquently:
“The world is fucked… We’re not going to kern our way out of this one.”
Our friendship grew through a love of theory. Nic’s work represents the best use of complex philosophy I’ve seen; he didn’t espouse theory as a justification or proof and he also didn’t fall in to the trap of illustration. He allowed complexity to infuse and inspire his ideas, with philosophy acting as a springboard for a material practice.
At the start of 2011 DWFE (myself and two colleagues) asked Nic to generate a visual identity for our collaborative practice. He produced a ‘sketchbook’ that immediately influenced how we talked about ourselves and our work. By the end of February we had invited him to become a full-time member and, because he was (geographically) distant from us, he became Our Man in Havana: the rebel Flatlander. He relished the challenge, and manipulated our graphic reality by fabricating a new space and time for us within design history. He produced a counter-factual history for us and our ideas. Nic referred to himself as the Bez of DWFE, but we like to think of him more as the Borges.
I will always miss Nic and his beautiful big mind, but his ideas, generosity and heightened sense of ethical practice will forever be a part of me.