Mister Walker Designs
Graphic designer, Garth Walker, began his career in the
mid-seventies after graduating from Technikon Natal in
Durban, South Africa. In the years since, he has achieved an
international reputation and widespread acclaim for work that is
rooted in the African experience. In 1994, the election of South
Africa’s first democratically elected government coincided with
Walker opening Orange
Juice Design, which became one of the countries best known
design studios and was eventually acquired by Ogilvy, South Africa.
In the same year he launched ijusi, a semi-annual
experimental graphic design magazine, which published its first
issue in 1995. In a career that spans three decades, Walker has
worked for international companies, consumer brands and government
agencies but he has also made time to create more personal work
that combines design and photography. In 2008 Walker opened Mister Walker, a
small studio where he takes on client work and engages in personal
projects. In advance of the first U.S. retrospective of his work at
the Dr. M. T. Geoffrey Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University
which is curated by Professor Elizabeth De Luna, Walker discussed
contemporary graphic design, his work for clients, and what it
means to be a designer working in South Africa with writer and
graphic design Professor Aaris Sherin.
AS: When did you know that you were
successful as a designer? Was it a project, a client or the
audience that gave you that initial indication of success and how
important was/is that to you?
GW: Errr... I’m not sure that I know what a
successful designer is, nor if I am in fact one. I’ve always
subscribed to the idea that “if you think you know anything in this
business, its time to get out...” Insecurity is a principal driver
in any creative endeavor. We all feel we can do better work, and
that our ‘best work’ is yet to come. I think a successful designer
is a person who dies still wishing they did better work, and with
more time, budget, better clients etc. etc.
In answer to the question, I sort of had an idea that I may be
‘onto something’ was when I launched my magazine ijusi (in 1994)
and to my complete surprise I was hounded by publications all over
the world for more info. Right place, right time. Another
ingredient for success is luck. All designers need be lucky at some
point in their careers. I happened to be in a place (South Africa)
where little was known about our design history – at a time when
interest was high and (the lucky part) we had managed to undergo a
social revolution that gave us credibility globally. Prior to that
I’d been a member of a ‘pariah’ nation and was in the ‘wrong place
at the wrong time.’ But one also makes ones own luck, so spotting
the gap is essential.
My answer is this: one never knows if one is a ‘successful
designer’ because it’s something that is impossible to quantify (in
scientific terms). But one may come to understand that ‘what one
does’ (designs) has resonance elsewhere, and can affect the lives
of other designers. As for the audience, it was probably
interacting with young design students who saw my work in ‘what
makes me African, and what does that look like?’ as being something
they understood to be a shift in their own ideas about design. That
would be around 1995 after I started publishing ijusi. Before that
time, most clients though this “African stuff’ was sheer madness...
This recognition by student designers was international and
happened in the same timeframe as I was invited to show my work in
Europe and as South African students were interested as well.
Corporate clients were (and still are) uninterested.
AS: Is there a project that failed or didn’t turn
out the way that you wanted that taught you something or caused you
to rethink your approach either to the project, to the client or to
design in general?
GW: There have been too many for my liking! One
that I do remember was in the late 90’s when I was commissioned to
design a social responsibility report for a major bank. The big
cheese wanted it to be ‘African’ and to convey an enlightened
corporate approach to the community (their client base). We met
with all the big wigs. They handed over a vast amount of
stuff and then I went off and designed a masterpiece (it truly was)
and had visions of fame, wealth and glory. We got to signing off
for the color proofs and I was massively impressed with (what was
then and probably still is) a revolution in South African design.
On the way to the studio Christmas party I get a call on my
The end of the story is that the client division who were
responsible for this report hated it from the beginning, but kept
schtum since the big wigs loved it. At the point of going to print
they made a stand. They rejected the design and fired us. We were
paid in full, but the report ended up as the standard ‘bars and
charts’ with squared up pictures and block copy. I learned a
lesson: we are in the opinion business, not the design business.
Never forget ‘you are not the client,’ and people who pay us to do
what we do may well have their own opinions...
AS: Designers often work on the visual expression
of magazines and other periodicals. Why start I-jusi Magazine when
there are so design magazines already out there?
GW: At the time I started publishing, there
weren’t (and still aren’t) experimental graphics magazines of any
kind that covered ‘what makes me African, and what does that look
like?’ ijusi isn’t commercial (or a conventional magazine) and is
published in a most ‘unscientific’ manner to an audience who gets
to hear about it, but seldom actually see it. My aim was to 1.
Design a magazine, and 2. To create a platform for others to work
with me on ‘stuff I like to design’. In that sense it’s been a huge
AS: Through your company Mister Walker, you work
on client based commercial work and work for corporations. Do you
see that kind of professional graphic design as different from the
more personal work that you make? Is this distinction
GW: Yes and Yes. Commercial work (for clients)
pays the bills and keeps me in food. Personal work keeps me sane,
and makes the ‘rape and pillage’ (by paying clients) manageable.
They need each other. Without the schlock corporate work, I’d be an
artist, and without the personal work I’d have gone mad long ago. A
famous local architect who’s running a full practice at age 83 told
me “Garth, its doing the shit day in and day out that keeps you
going. If you stop, or only take on ‘nice work’ you will die. And
retiring will kill you even quicker. We creative spirits need a
varied diet to survive...” I think this is true. We do need both. A
diet of (only) broccoli will kill you, so you need the odd piece of
AS: In recent years, there has been increased
interest in employing the vernacular in design work and in creating
work that celebrates cultural and regional specificity. How
are you influenced by place, culture and difference and what does
“rooted in the African experience” mean to you.
GW: We all live in a global village (dreadful
term), and our world is now multi-everything. So it’s logical to
adopt and adapt to other cultures. In this way design can grow and
be more relevant to our changing society. In South Africa we are
obsessed with the U.S. and Europe, so clients want to “look like
New York, Paris or London” - but we live in Africa, so (I believe)
we should look like Africa. Why live in Soweto, yet design as
though we are in Sweden? It doesn't make sense. Yes, I am massively
influenced and inspired by my surroundings (Africa) but I am also
English (both sides of my family are English, my wife is Dutch and
my kids are too). So I’m a real hybrid, with one foot in the West
and one foot in Africa. I’m am blessed...
Walker is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI),
British Design & Art Direction (D&AD), the Type Directors
Club (TDC NY) and the St Moritz Design Summit. He is a founding
trustee of the South African Graphic Design Council (THINK).