The importance of graphic design in today’s society

23 min read

Joseph Scerri is a Maltese award winning graphic designer and illustrator. He emigrated to Toronto (Canada) in 1982 where he worked with the design house – Rous Mann & Brigdens. He returned to Malta in 1987 and worked in different design studios until 2011. He established his graphic design atelier in 2014.

Our guest today is Joseph Scerri. Joseph Scerri is a Maltese award-winning graphic designer and illustrator. He emigrated to Toronto (Canada) in 1982 where he worked with the design house – Rous Mann & Brigdens. He returned to Malta in 1987 and worked in different design studios until 2011. He established his graphic design atelier in 2014. He describes himself as a resourceful and passionate. The purpose of this call is to bring awareness about the importance of graphic design today and how the industry has changed over the years, so that brands and people have a much greater understanding of the importance of our profession and our role in society. So, Joseph, thank you for joining us today.

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You are welcome.

I would like to start today's conversation with your story. Your first steps in the industry.

Ok, yeah. I left my secondary education in 1971. Before that I already had some knowledge of graphic design. My dad was a graphic designer himself. He's been, I’ve heard this from different people who have been in the same [industry] that my dad was, actually one, if not the first, one of the first graphic designers in Malta, as we know them today. You know using different methods and using different tools, etc. So, I was still in my nappy when I was going around his drawing board and see his Indian ink and his ball pen and his ‘Letraset’.

So, by the time I left school I had this knowledge of graphic design. Besides that, I used to as, you know, Malta is a football-mad country. I used to do all these club badges in gouache and sell them for extra pocket money. So, I already was like honed into design. But when I left school in 1971 immediately, in those days my dad was employed with Malta Crown Corp, which was the only tin printer in Malta. And, because I was still young, you know, and for me not to stay loitering, running after girls, my dad said ‘You have to come and work where I'm working’. He was like the chief designer there, so I went there, and I learned a lot because they had tin printing thing and I was doing design because they had a little shop for screen printing and I was managing this shop going to the designs and learning etcetera, etcetera. After that, immediately I left and I went to a local printer, which was, I think in Dormax. I think he's still around or his children, and after that immediately I went to Giovanni Muscat who was a reknowned printer in Valletta doing design again and some lithography. Things like ‘Rapido’ graphs and film making, things like that, so I learned hands-on these things.

In 1980 there was a major breakthrough for me because I that was the year… It was actually 1979-1980. Yeah, that was the year where I joined ‘Perfecta’. They're still around and that was the first time as I joined the studio as a graphic designer. And actually, in those days what it wasn't even called graphic design, it was called graphic artists. Because the designer had to be an artist, you know. I can come back [to that] later.

In 1982-83 I took a risk and I immigrated to Canada. I still had my daughter was like one year or two-year-old I think, and I said, let's I had all the I papers in place because I had a trade. I had a place that I saw then I had money, so the Canadians said ‘OK, you can come we don't need anything’, but again, this was a lucky break because I believe in these things, and I met a great creative director there. Immediately, it was ‘boom’, that's it. That's the Rous Mann & Brigdens. Today he's near the big designers up there was they popped off, I think 15 years ago, but he loved my work. In, those days, my portfolio was a bit of haphazardly made up, I wasn't like, you know, over there all the designers were running with these big bags, you know.

Hehe, yes!

So, yeah, and he told me ‘Joe one thing I will tell you fix your portfolio because you have great work, but you won't have time to explain to clients if they're not put in proper’ and I said ‘OK, Jim’, but anyway. In Toronto I had four - five years, which were very well. I had my work exhibited at the Toronto Directors Club. I had the awards from the printing industries of America, so it was very good.

In ’87 I decided to come back to Malta and obviously with a portfolio of Canadian work, coming to Malta, I mean, I was in request in those days and immediately I was employed with ‘Promotion Services’.

In those days ‘Promotion Services’ (I'm saying ‘Promotion Services’, then it turned out to be ‘Miranda publications’). They are the guys who do all these beautiful big coffee table books. But I spent there 13 years and obviously in 13 years we did a lot of work, you know, book design, a lot of promotional material, a lot of corporate design. And by the way in Toronto, my main work was in annual report design because basically the job I did at Rous Mann & Brigdens - corporate design was their line.

When I came here, I then continued where I left with ‘Perfecta’ and I was doing advertising too because over here was, you know, as you all know the designer has to be a corporate designer, has to be an illustrator, he has to be a copywriter, you know, an ad-man and he has to write copy. I know I'm seeing you smiling because you know.

I left ‘Promotion Services’ in 2000. And it was a bit of a risky move. Actually, ‘Promotion Services’ were toning down their work. They were like going more into publication. And at that time Marc Spiteri of MAS, I don't know if you know him, he is still a very good friend of mine. He was a young entrepreneur who had established MAS.

MAS was quite a big advertising agency and had some big clients, some big accounts, mainly HSBC which in those days in 2000 was acquired in Malta, they had bought of Mid Med Bank and I went to MAS and this was quite a shock for me because I was already about, I think 45 [years old] and I joined this studio with a lot of young designers, you know, a lot of new coming out of school. So, for me, but Marc wanted, Marc had an idea, he said ’I want your experience to influence these young designers‘ And unfortunately, I'm not a slave driver, I mean my character is quiet and amicable and I told Marc listen…Anyway there were four fruitful years. We did some really good advertising, really good, and I have to say it in this thing, in this podcast, Marc always had respect for the designer in the way that the designer his idea was obsolete. If the idea is good and it works the client should buy it if not, no. You know. And that that was his philosophy, and it was quite rare in those days, and it's very rare today as you well know.

In 2004 I left MAS and I joined BPC, which are now still operating. Again BPC, the HSBC accounts moved onto BPC. BPC knew I was working on that account and a post came up and I applied, and they took me like, yeah. Always I was paid always extremely well in those days. The salaries were fantastic. I mean, I was earning 30+K. Basically I mean. But anyway in 2011 that's seven years after there was a small crisis in Malta where there was that upheaval in Libya, you know and the company wasn't doing that well and I was made redundant, that was because I was, 58 [years old]. I only had three years left to get my pension. So, you can imagine. I tried to fit in. I actually had jobs here and there, but I couldn't fit in in another studio. It was too much for me to take and I had problems even health-wise. It affected me a lot. But anyway, that's life and you have to just take it on the chin.

You know, and in 2014, I said, well, [let me] start doing some stuff on my own, you know, trying to do some illustrations but now I'm more of a painting-illustrator rather than designer. Sometimes I get some old guys, listen Joe, I need a good Iogo I want I know that you're great creating logos but believe you me, I mean, there's so much competition out there and so many cut-throats and everybody cutting prices and I don't want to be a prostitute after all. I mean, you know I just want to do a good job and that's the way I want to leave it.

Well, that is my now I'm just doing painting Chinese painting. Have wanted to as I'm doing sketching everyday so I hone in my skills. You know to keep me aware and to keep me well, so I won't get the dementia in my old age.

What a story! Many times, we have to make decisions that allow us to keep growing in the profession. And this is not easy. It's not just about learning how to use the tool, you also have to observe, listen and learn from other professionals in order to really gain experience. I have often been asked how much time I have to invest to get to a good level, the reality is that it takes a few years. It is not something that will happen overnight and not everything applies in the same way for everyone.

You mentioned the experience you had at MAS and how the voice of the designer was taken into consideration. This is something I've been talking about for a while now. The designer has a lot to contribute, not only the creation, but also ideas and opinions.

You also touched on how important it is for you to keep moving, whether it's learning new techniques or creating illustrations to keep your mind healthy. There is no better therapy than one that not only helps you but also fulfils you and makes you happy.

Also, you mentioned that many of your colleagues while you were in Canada always had a suitcase with all their work in it as a portfolio. Nowadays it's a simple pdf. How have things changed in Malta from the graphic design perspective?

Ok, yes. Definitely, it has changed. The tools have changed since. I am lucky enough that I've started like even the ‘Rapido’ graphs were not invented when I started. Letraset was in it is infancy. You know, so I had to do lettering by hand. I was lucky then that I things started to come in line, and ‘Rapido’ graph and things like that. In the meantime, in 2000 when the Mac came, and it was a revolution, and the revolution was because you were in control of everything. Before that you had to check your copy, make your calculations where the computer “paper computer” it was like, you know, what you have to tell the typographer “I want this 10 on 13 Helvetica light” You know a tight but not touching kerning and you calculate and you actually get the actual copy, the copy then you get the copy you do put cow gum or wax and you build up your layout and prepare it for printing. Today, that is you know. I mean, today is easy. I mean today I mean designers can't grumble at all. But the advent of the computer especially, I mean the Mac, has a revolutionized everything, but it has made designers lazy, and I will tell you why… Besides making designers lazy, it made clients more arrogant. Sorry to all clients.

So, you had to be skilled. You had to be an artist. Besides, when I was in Toronto, I had a good, another good, art director who was an excellent marker render. I've never seen marker renderings like this guy. A friend of mine, Myron Lasko. He was phenomenal. So, I learned to do a rendering like this for clients. Ok. Marker render, hand lettering etc before the computer. So, the change has been phenomenal and for us old designers it was a godsend because you don't, before you had to go to the typographer and see that he does, it doesn't swap your type. Now you come in. Now what's happening, people have all the types, you know there are many, their type menu in Quarks hits the floor probably. You know it's so big. They are stretching, pulling. The atrocities I see in type. Especially over here in this country [Malta] it is abominable. It is immense.

You know, before you knew how to you know you had six seven different fonts and you know how to design with them. You learned how to, if you have a family and you knew that this whole family, you have 10 fonts and you had a beautiful design with them. So anyway, so it's had the advantages, but it has its disadvantages too. As I'm saying I mean, clients now pretend, one client once said “even my kid could do that” not the computer. I said, ’that's it, give it to your kid‘. You know, because clients tend to be patronisers a bit, you know.

So, this is basically the fault of the client or is the fault of the graphic designer per se?

Joseph:It depends. If you're working in a studio and I worked in a studio where the client has the last say, even if he's throwing it up, excuse my English, and I'm seeing this even today on some ads. I'm seeing ads and I said I say, ‘oh, this is really nice’. I'm seeing ad right now I'm not mentioning any names, OK? of an insurance company going on. It's very very nice. Very nice and very well produced. And the idea, the concept, because advertising is a concept. No matter how many flashes and how many dancers you get at holding… If it doesn't have a concept, it's not good. A concept that you remember. In 30 years’ time I still remember a Budweiser ad. You know? Anyway, I'm seeing ads from local pop, local companies I don’t want to... Their adverts are horrible – horrible – and I'm sure probably the client wants that, and you can't say ‘no’ because you're employed. I can't tell the guy ‘go to hell’. But I'll get fired, obviously. But I mean sometimes then if you have your own atelier, then it's up to you and say, ‘hey stop look, is this worth it?’ You explained to him you give him a rationale why you did this, how did you it. What was the process? How have you come to this? Show me your sketches. I tell them ‘listen, that's how we came up with this’ and your client will say ‘this guy knows his s***’ and I'm saying this through experience.

I agree with what you have just said, however, I believe it is the responsibility of all 3 parties: the agency, the designer, and the client. The agency should have a process that allows the client to be involved from start to finish. The designer should be able to communicate the reasons that led to that solution, or as you put it ‘concept’. As you mentioned a moment ago, "if it doesn't have a concept, a reason for existence, then that solution is not good", no matter how pretty it looks. In the case of the client, they must understand that their role is to provide information, to participate in the entire process, take decisions and to be open to ideas.

It is disappointing to hear from a client "that his son can do the same job". What they are not understanding, let's take the creation of a logo as an example, is that in order to come up with that solution (logo) it takes more than just drawing. It requires research, it requires knowing the industry, your customers, the reason why your company exists.

Much of the responsibility for the profession being in the state it is in at the moment lies with us. We don't value what we do, and we often see the profession as something banal or just something to make money. There is no love, no passion.

On this basis I would like to ask what is the role of a graphic designer in a society? The reason I ask this is because in the end what we create, be it posters, billboards, packaging, has an impact on society.

Joseph:Ok, yeah today more than any other time the designer is almost an educator. And we're seeing this with the environment today. If the designer doesn't think in that sense for example, my big question to young designers is this: If you have a client that he's selling a soft drink that you know it's harming people, will you design for him? Or that you know that he's hurting the environment big time, will you design for him? I think today more than ever… I have to mention this.

Please do.

Have you seen the Ronaldo ad?

I saw the Ronaldo ad.

I loved it. He's got 80 million subscribers on his channel, ok, on Instagram. I mean and it was so powerful that that company lost 20 or millions or how much on the stock exchange. That's how powerful it is. No, he didn't do anything this guy, he didn't design a poster, but he did what he felt is right for humanity. Now the designer and we've seen posters I mean if you go to the famous Polish posters, their exhibitions are phenomenal, you know. The Latin American posters I always mention. They've made the revolutions with them. So now it's even more. We can't keep on saying, you know, ‘uh, nice, pretty, good’ - it has to have a voice. It has to be an agent of change. If the designer today is not an agent of change, he will be failing his mission. Personally, I can't start restart my career. You know. If I restart my career, that would be my mission.

Should that be the mission of every graphic designer?


I mean, I understand that we need a salary. But I think that the communities, that people also deserve someone that can help them with their voice. We should do that part. Right, to communicate visually all these issues that are happening in society.

Exactly. We're seeing this taking the knee in football. Come on, these are players getting millions. Why do certain teams do it, and certain teams they don't? Or in teams you have half of them, they do it. And this is things that that have happened, that there's life problems.

I completely agree, but if we change this from the community side and we start looking it from the brand side, are brands nowadays reacting to this sort of social responsibility that we are talking about?

I'm just trying to think ut they've I think they've marred their... Today I'm reading France are taking them to court. It's something I've seen today. I think the profits for the brand is number one obviously that is there main, or they won't exist. But I think some of them are doing everything to compete, especially a brand the same, the same kind of genre of the other brand and they will go that extra mile, and that extra mile sometimes it will put them in a bad position. Like what happened, with Apple. We've seen what how they treated their people in China. But I think as you said, the challenges are more. They are not one fold, they are tenfold today and I can understand their position. But again with the Ronaldo thing, did these people need this? Do you need to do it, like that in your face? I asked them because these people, they've been having this brand since the ‘40s and the ‘50s. I mean it that had damaged their brand. So that was a challenge, and they knocked it off. We see a lot of branding on films. For example, I don't mind that, but again Apple is phenomenal for it.

I think that they forget sometimes that is not only about profit it is also about the people that they are supposed to care about. The conversation goes like this “I love you; I am here with you; I will be with you the entire journey and at the end is just taking money from you. That is where they fail. They are not true. Now going back to the responsibility of the graphic designers, how important is to design for the people and not just for the client?

If you're employed with a company, you can't really, you know you have a certain amount of control because I mean, you're not generally you don't meet the client, it will be the accounts executive, and you know how they work.

Now for all those young graphic designers out there what advice would you give them?

I think the first thing I would say is passion. No matter what you do - if you're doing a two column ad or a business card, or you are you doing annual reports, or you are doing an exhibition and exhibition design or doing a great website for a client - the passion has to be the same. That is the number one.

And perseverance because we get, you get dips here and there. I have them a lot. As I told you in my life, but I've always put passion in it. And I question myself and I'll ask myself is this going to work? This is not going to work, you know. You find designers today they do everything on a tablet. They don't even, you know, they've lost this [pencil], this is lost. When I was in Canada, I had a couple of young designers with me. I used to tell them I want to see your sketches. I want to see where you're coming from with this. I would understand, and even in over in Malta, especially when I was with Marc, with MAS and even with BPC. I encourage them to sketch, even if you don't know because I know that not all the designers are artists and I understand because today the designer is a thinker more than an artist. You know, but even if you're thinking, you can scribble your idea, you can write it down, you know, and you know, listen now, this is where I'm getting this idea from. Or this is where I am getting this thing from.

But I encourage them. Ok, if you don't want to sketch, you know I want to see you reading, listen to music, to good music not rubbish, because there's a lot of rubbish you know. There’s a lot of good music, but there is a lot of rubbish too. If you to Tick Tock, you see the rubbish there. But again, if you don't have a culture behind you, you won't be able to design it properly. It's very important that you read books. Reading is very important. And you start with classics, with the Russian classics - Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, you know these are the basics of culture. You know. Look at Italian art. Look at South American art. Look, you know, at European art. Inform yourself. You just got sticking to into Instagram. To show yourself with selfies. People are lost then and then, you know. Where is the Eiffel Tower? Yeah, I don't know. That means you design from what you have, from your baggage. If you don't have that baggage, what are you going to put then? What are you going feed your crowd, your followers? If you have garbage, you are going to feed them garbage? But if you have culture, you're going to come up with a great ad with a lot of thinking in it. You know there's a lot of psychology in it. That you make them think. This is what this guy wants to say. Listen, this is there, you know. But as I'm saying, you know it's even today, even if you if you have 20 and 30 [years old] there are so many things and things that we didn't have [in my day]. And this is I really cry when I see these things, we didn't have these things and we had to dig deep to get these things and then today there's there for you on the web, use them. If you go and see a magazine which is one of the best magazines in the world for design, you'd want all these papers that you can read from California, from Los Angeles, and you see how these designers think you know, and you see that's what I'm saying it's there. But you don't have to, you know, read a book. I mean, OK, it's it is not happy. But you can search and find.

I totally agree. It is important for the designer not only to know about the tool he uses, but also to know about the history of art, the culture of different countries, about great designers whether they are architects, engineers, painters, sculptors, and their contributions. I always try to advise new colleagues to read, to learn new things and not only about design there are many other subjects like theatre, poetry, psychology, science fiction, our planet. All this enriches us as people, but also as designers. So, Joseph, as a graphic designer what do you want to leave as a legacy?

I think. First of all you want to leave, your work. The work that you did that you think “this work came out of my soul” I did everything to do a good job with it. And hopefully you leave a bit of this world a better place with maybe a good poster you did. That you steered a bit of controversy, that people stopped and thought about it and said yes, I mean no, I never thought about that thing. I mean again, coming into the question before this, because this you pull a punch below the belt with this Luis. You're a naughty man. But before this for young designers, one other thing I would suggest ‘be humble’. Be humble. It's very important. Humbleness in design and you know when you're humble you will be elevated, without even knowing. But again, if you do crap, you leave crap. If you do good things, you leave good things, you know. As I told you last time, he told me what are your best things? I told you that local within DC and a book I designed I can show it to you. This was a landmark and landmark thing. It was a, it should have been a brochure, yes, but it ended up as a book.

So, I it this was for Fort Chambray, now they're building this high-class project. They wanted something up-market so they go to banks and get people to invest. So, I said this needs to be, this was my last job I did with ‘Promotion Services’ and I said this “I want to give my best about this” so I put in some of my modelling there of the Fort and the cover and everything is designed as it should be on the inside, with the illustrations and everything. And the photography is great too. But this is what you leave after all, and after I die, which is going to happen for sure and that's one thing that is, it is a fact of life. But at least you'll be remembered for some good pieces you've done, you know, and of not being arrogant. That means that you've been humble all your life. That is very important.

Ego will not take you far.

It won't. I've seen people going down very, very easily. Very easily.

So just finishing this podcast and can you please give us some takeaways for the general public and your last words for designers. Joseph: My father had this thing. The three P’s he used to call them: Perseverance, patience, and passion. If you if you have those three, those three you will do it. And for the public. The public has to understand designers. And have to help designers, in what way? In many ways. First of all, by getting what brands [are]. Because obviously the public and the and branding is synonymous with their buying this product, not this product. But for the public to be aware of what they buy. Of their products, of what they get, of what is right for them. You know, sometimes as you said, brands try to put you in a position to buy this not that, but you know. You have to be very careful. And be choosy. And discerning. I find that sometimes have people just go for the for all that glitters. But as we say all that glitters is not gold. And as I said that again before, I've followed some brands and some brands that I really believed in, today I think the public, the brands you believe in, be careful. Make your own decisions.

Yes, I will close with that. Thank you very much.

I hope I was of help, and I'll wish you every success with this podcast because I think it's a great thing.

This was Joseph Scerri, and you are listening to the Human Agenda. Thank you so much for joining us in this episode.

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