Colin Forbes, a 'designer's designer,' is dead at 94

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Colin Forbes, a 'designer's designer,' is dead at 94
The logo used by Nissan for many years was also Mr. Forbes’s work.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Colin Forbes, a graphic designer who had a hand in countless logos, book covers and interior spaces, but whose most enduring work may have been, essentially, designing a design organization, Pentagram, which grew from its founding in the early 1970s to have worldwide influence, died Sunday at his home in Westfield, North Carolina, near the border with Virginia. He was 94.

Michael Gericke, a current partner at Pentagram, confirmed the death.

Forbes was already a successful designer when he joined with four others to create Pentagram in London. Forbes and his co-founders — Alan Fletcher, Theo Crosby, Mervyn Kurlansky and Kenneth Grange — wanted something in between a boutique firm and a large Madison Avenue-type concern. Forbes was the principal architect of what they came up with: a partnership structure that balanced independence and collaboration.

“As co-founder of Pentagram,” Gericke said by email, “he shaped a unique structure for its intuitive and idiosyncratic partners to work as individuals, within a collective framework that has stature, collegiality and business acumen.”

In the partnership’s first two decades, the “business acumen” part of that equation came largely from Forbes.

“During these early years, the one of us who worried first about cash flow, the need for more studio space or what might happen in five years got the job of planning the progress of the firm permanently,” Forbes wrote in 1992 in an essay for Pentagram’s 20th anniversary. “That happened to be me.”

The label on a limited-edition bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a line of bakeware for the French brand Soufflé, the Great Western Railway ticket hall at Paddington Station in London and the promotional campaign for Shakespeare in the Park in New York are among the recent projects in Pentagram’s vast portfolio.

Forbes was also a fine designer in his own right. Among the examples that Gericke cited was the cover of the 1979 book “George Nelson on Design,” one of Forbes’ first projects after he relocated to New York to open a Pentagram office there. Forbes came up with a word-within-a-word concept that has been often imitated since, making the “on” in “Nelson” do double duty as a preposition by rendering it in red, whereas the rest of Nelson’s name was in white.

The logo used by Nissan for many years was also Forbes’ work, and his designs for Pirelli, British Petroleum and other companies were familiar in their day. His career encompassed a significant expansion in the field, one that saw graphic designers go beyond logos and book covers to consulting on interior spaces, corporate identities and more — something that Forbes said he never envisioned when he graduated from the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London in his 20s.

“When I came out, I presumed if you could do part-time teaching and a few book jackets, that would be Christmas,” he told The Honolulu Advertiser in 1991, when he was in Hawaii to give a talk. “So I never had a thought I could be standing up in front of the board of Neiman Marcus telling them how I could improve their business in Dallas.”

Colin Ames Forbes was born March 6, 1928, in London to John and Kathleen (Ames) Forbes. He did his mandatory service in the British army from 1945 to 1949, and he had an entirely different career in mind at first.

“When I came out of the army in ’49, I had thought I was going to do aircraft engineering because ‘aircraft’ was so romantic to people of my generation,” he told the Advertiser.

Instead he took advantage of a grant program for veterans and went to the Central School of Arts and Crafts, graduating in 1952. He taught at the school for a time, but by 1960 he had left for private practice.

In 1962 he formed Fletcher/Forbes/Gill with Fletcher and Bob Gill. Their eye-catching work for Pirelli, Time Life, Penguin Books and others caught the spirit of the swinging ’60s that was transforming popular culture in London and beyond.

“As a team,” The Independent of Britain wrote in Fletcher’s obituary in 2006, “they had an ability to combine the formal restraint of Swiss modernism with the wit of the Madison Avenue advertising industry.”

Crosby replaced Gill in that partnership in 1965.

Forbes helped start Pentagram in 1972. When he left in 1993 — he retired soon after — he made sure the company’s structure would allow it to continue even after the founders were no longer involved. (Grange was the last of them to leave, in 1997.) Many small firms don’t last beyond the first generation, but this year Pentagram marks its 50th anniversary, with 23 partners whose work permeates modern life.

Forbes’ first marriage, to Elizabeth Hopkins in 1950, ended in divorce. In 1961 he married Wendy Maria Schneider. She survives him, along with his children, Christine Coppe, Aaron Forbes and Jessica Forbes, and three grandchildren.

Forbes served as president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts for several years in the 1980s. In 1991 he received the prestigious AIGA medal, which recognizes exceptional achievement in the field.

“Throughout most of a long and spectacularly successful career in graphic design,” a biographical sketch prepared for that occasion said, “Forbes has concentrated his splendid energies on nothing less than designing the practice of design itself. That makes him a designer’s designer in quite a special sense.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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