Ian Noble Tribute
  • Russ Bestley

  • It’s hard for me to begin to describe my professional relationship with Ian, since our lives were so closely intertwined over the past 24 years. Our ‘working’ partnership was simply an extension of our mutual interests, our deeply held friendship and our recognition and respect for each other on a personal, intellectual and professional level. Our collaboration was unusual in many ways – when students at a workshop we led in Istanbul described us as the Laurel and Hardy of graphic design, they were being perhaps more astute than they imagined. Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise, Vic and Bob, Strummer and Jones (though neither of us wanted to be Mick) – creative partnerships where the sum is greater than its constituent parts on a professional level, but equally where those pairings speak of far more than just ‘work’.

    I first met Ian as a mature student, when I re-entered higher education in the late 1980s. I had drifted through the previous decade since quitting college as a snotty punk with an attitude problem, when redundancy and the potential of a student grant brought me back into art college and a fortuitous meeting with my new tutor, a fellow punk fan, who took the time to encourage and support me (something I was later to discover wasn’t unique to me, but that was the nature of Ian’s ability to make everyone he taught feel a little bit special).

    Ian remained my tutor in a major transition for both of us, as Portsmouth College of Art and Design became part of the University of Portsmouth, and I worked my way through a degree in Communication Design. We were a roughly similar age, shared a similar taste (some would say obsession) in music, and we had a lot in common. We began working together on design projects outside of my college work, and I joined Ian’s quest to figure out and deconstruct the nature of the design process itself, to understand how graphic design works in order to become more expert and to pass on that knowledge to others. I guess that sounds quite grandiose, but it became something of a mission for us – to develop a design approach based on what we termed ‘informed engagement’, to raise the status of the designer from a mere service provider to a mediator of the message. We complemented each other well – he was a great orator, a highly creative individual with so many brilliant ideas and the motivation to put them to work, and I performed the function of what Ian called the ‘logic police’, applying an almost scientific analysis to our academic enquiry.

    We worked closely together since that time, co-authoring a number of books focusing on a critical interrogation of the design process, delivering workshops at colleges and universities across Europe and North America, and running our own design group, Visual Research. Ever ones for a snappy motto with punk and pop culture reference points, as well as what Ian always called ‘graphic tarts’, we were always looking for an opportunity to make another poster, (yet) another set of badges, to design another identity for our business, to lift another catchphrase for our letterheads and business stationery - ‘Business is Our Business’ (from Killing Joke’s ‘Money Is Not Our God’), ‘We Interrupt the Programme’, ‘Ignore Alien Orders’, ‘Know Your Rights’ (Joe Strummer / The Clash), ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ (Sex Pistols). Our books are peppered with punk reference points – a theme I carried through with my own writing, subtitles lifting song titles or lyrics from punk legend.

    Conversations followed suit. We spent the last 15 years commuting between Portsmouth and London together, and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one single train journey without some conversation, somewhere, leading on to our shared love of music. Debates ranged from the relative merits of the Clash and the Stranglers, the knowing dumbness of the Ramones, the Black Arabs and Eddie Tenpole’s major contribution to the later period Sex Pistols, and our absurd plan to invest our life savings into a stage production of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle starring a range of b-list celebrities including Jason Donovan and Michael Crawford.

    Equally, we became a fixture on the commuter treadmill – designing books and posters, writing essays on the design process, turning our by now invisibly ‘reserved’ section of the carriage into a working design studio. Others shared our space and engaged on different levels – education management specialist and entrepreneur Zenna Atkins, a longstanding friend of Ian and Susan, joined us in the front carriage, always asking questions, wanting to know more about our world. Stefan Jakobek, an architect, joined the conversations – Ian and I would often wind him up by completing his Guardian crossword in less than five minutes while his back was turned. A Tory politician fell foul more than once of choosing the same carriage as Ian and myself – he would leave the train at Waterloo somewhat disheveled and distinctly unamused, and hopefully somewhat less well prepared for the day ahead. But equally, it seemed pretty much everyone on that journey knew Ian and found some common ground to discuss, debate, argue or simply pass the time – IT consultants, auctioneers, builders, archaeologists, writers, engineers, secretaries, shop workers, cleaners, labourers, financial consultants, with shared interests discovered through football, film, literature, art, design, sport, travel, music, fashion, politics or simply the sense of shared suffering of the long distance commuter.

    I’m reminded of a few decisions and stories about our working partnership that I think help to illustrate the nature of Ian’s world-view. For our co-authored books – Document (We Interrupt the Programme), Experimental Layout, Up Against the Wall (a Tom Robinson Band song for those still spotting the references), Visual Research – Ian came up with the idea that we should rotate the credits for each publication – so they were authored by Noble & Bestley or by Bestley & Noble, a statement of equality invisible to the wider world but implicit to our strongly held democratic principles. When we were asked by our university to break down our work, to specify who was responsible for which part of the writing or the design, we answered that it was impossible to do so – our input was so closely intertwined that we simply didn’t work like that. That created a headache for the institution – apparently such embedded forms of shared practice don’t sit easily within a system of individual credit, status and recognition.

    Visual Research was also one of the world’s worst business models for a design group – we would often lose money on jobs because we decided to forgo any potential semblance of a ‘profit’ in order to use better quality materials, or to add an additional metallic ink, or to extend the project with the inclusion of a poster or another set of pages, just because it would make the object itself ‘better’. On one memorable brief, working with a conceptual artist who engaged in subversive political interventions, Ian came up with a brilliant idea to hand render the entire catalogue for the show – including all the logos for its sponsors: the Arts Council, various major galleries, Portsmouth City Council and the rest. Like so many of the briefs we took on, the labour intensive nature of the process was as important as the final product, a good idea was a good idea and to hell with the consequences.

    We lectured together, taught classes together, gave public presentations together, and over time we settled into a comfortable working relationship, bouncing ideas, trading arguments – often employing barbed comments to subtly pierce any sign of egotism or pretentiousness creeping into each other’s line of deliberation. When we wrote our acknowledgements for the second edition of Visual Research, Ian described my highly emotional thanks to friends, family and my recently departed mother as my ‘Gwyneth Paltrow Oscar speech’ – he chose to quote Dee Dee Ramone instead “I would like to thank myself, and congratulate myself, and if I could, I would pat myself on the back”.

    At times we’d fall out or we’d disagree more strongly; sometimes he was too egocentric and sometimes I was too pedantic, but it wouldn’t last long and the next day we’d resume our partnership as though nothing had happened – true friends can do that. At the station every morning, I’d drop Sarah for her train and she would spend ten minutes talking to Ian while I parked the car and came back to the platform – she always said he had a wonderful way of lifting her spirits and helping her on her way, something that I’m sure many students have also found over the years under Ian’s care and guidance.

    That’s what I’ll always remember Ian for – his sharp, lucid wit and intelligence, his love of absurdity and profundity, his compassion and humanity, and for the way that we could meet up after not seeing each other for several weeks and fall straight back into the same conversation where we left off. That kind of comfortable co-existence is a rare and precious thing in life, even more so with someone you have the privilege to work with.

    I’ll leave it to Joe Strummer’s words to sign out, and a song deeply rooted in Ian’s consciousness.

    Well I'm down, yes I'm getting thirsty
    Pour me mighty good beer, when I'm dry
    Just, just give me whisky, when I'm thirsty
    Well give me headstone when I die

    Russ Bestley, Course Director MA Graphic Design, London College of Communication (and Punk Academic)