In his 38 years as a Graphic Designer, Garth Walker has founded two of SA’s most highly regarded design studios; Orange Juice Design and later, Mister Walker. In 1995 he published the first issue of the experimental design magazine ijusi – a passion project in the truest sense which aims to encourage and promote a visual design language rooted in our own South African experience.
Now, with a widespread following and 29 issues behind him, we chatted to Garth about the origins of ijusi and what he’s learned along the way.
To start, tell us more about yourself and your journey so far.
I started as a pro designer in 1976 (putting myself through art school at Technikon Natal). Hand painting fabric swatches for SA Clothing in gouache with a ruling pen for the warp/weft. Nearly killed me. Took 6 months to get paid so I learned early. Art school was bliss and my (to this day) lasting friendships started there. Best 3 years of my life really. Then came Soweto and everything changed. Luckily I’d done army (’75) so missed being shipped to ‘the Border’ as did many of my contemporaries (with the associated trauma). I graduated in ’78 to find no jobs and my return to Jozi wasn’t attractive (I grew up in Joburg). My mother found a job as a designer with a small family owned printer off Point Road in Durban. I stayed 16 years (no regrets as I learned both design, client service, print and business).
The time to go solo came in ‘94 when I started Orange Juice. For almost a year it was a near death experience, but then it all changed when luck played a part and I had an ‘in’ with Unilever – redesigning the (then) Pears, Shield and Impulse deodorant ranges. Like totally radical relook. By this time I had started ijusi – the year I had little work and lots of time – which started to get us noticed. Then along came Ogilvy who were looking to add ‘design’ to their Agency offering. OJ was their chosen route, so we opened OJ in Cape Town and Johannesburg. There was a parting of the ways with OJ and Ogilvy in CT and JHB after some years, leaving just OJ in Durban as part of the Group. In 2007 I amicably split with Ogilvy to start Mister Walker (I was told by everyone to use my name – the jury is still out). And here we are…
Growing up, was there ever any indication that you’d be doing what you are now?
I was useless at school (Parktown Boys High) and failed standard 9. So ‘varsity’ wasn’t on the cards. But I could draw a bit and knew that becoming the ‘doctor/lawyer/physicist’ my mother wanted wasn’t gonna happen. A Star newspaper Summer School offered an aptitude test, which suggested Architecture or Industrial Design as a career. Graphic Design was the easier to access with my dismal academic record, and Durban had the best art school. So Durban it was. I was lucky, my chosen profession landed in my lap with me doing nothing to find it. Destiny…
What influences and informs your work?
I’m a bit of a maverick, so never been good at following the herd. The biggest influence is ‘everything out there’. It’s that simple. Mostly the stuff created by the common man for his own use or enjoyment. I’m not really swayed by the big ‘design’ names – but design history has been influential.
Going back to 1995, how did the idea to begin ijusi originally come about? What did you envision it to be?
The idea started in 94 but the first issue came out in 95. Simply, I had no clients (OJ) and lots of time. So I decided (as one does) to design a ‘design’ magazine. As I had a collection of local tribal craft, I started with that as the basis. The idea was to celebrate South African indigenous design and craft, as I believed it to be as good as anything elsewhere (I’m talking about Zulu ‘earplugs’, basketware and beading which formed part of my collection – now extensive in scale).
For the first issue, Afrocentric Design Adventure, yourself and Siobhan Gunning were the only contributors. Now the list of contributors seems to be as many as the pages in any given issue. In what other ways has iJusi developed over the years?
Siobhan was (and is) a very talented writer who was interested in the same ‘stuff’ as I. she wrote the Editorial and I designed the pages. She would fax me (no email then) the text and I’d scan and insert. The first 3 issues were just myself with her writing. By the 4th I realised this might have legs so need to expand the contributors. I then introduced the idea of each issue themed to a relevant topic (always decided at the last minute). The designer bush-telegraph is very efficient and off we went. People got to hear of a new issue and sent stuff in. Nothing has changed in 29 issues, except that I now have a component of each issue being student submission due to my workshops with DUT, Potch and so on.
What response were you met with after you released the first issue?
OJ clients went into a panic thinking their design would look like that. A lot of designers thought I was mad – some liked the idea and collaborated. The ‘international design network’ went nuts and that was the start of my ijusi traveling (I’ve lost count of the countries and even more cities – but ijusi has taken me to most of the planet now). The first issue started the trend for designers from other countries to show an interest in South African graphics, ably assisted by the aura of Madiba and the ‘rainbow Nation’ miracle.
What typically goes into the making of an issue? Tell us a bit about the process.
Theme: always last minute and usually unrelated to events (there are exceptions like the death of Mandela). I send out a brief (email, Facebook and the website) and that’s about it. Usually there’s a workshop at a design school (DUT for example) which forms part of their final year portfolio submission. Then I select the best, assemble the issue and off it goes to print (all at my cost I might add).
With 28 issues behind you, what have been some of the highlights?
Issue 6 (V8 Power) was created – in my mind – when in New York doing a workshop with Milton Glaser. Issue 11 (Typografika 1) won us a Grand Prix at Loeries, but the real highlight was Jury Chair Brian Webb saying “I came to South Africa to see something I’ve not seen before. And this is it”. With that he made the call to award the issue. Issue 15 (The Porn Issue) was great ’cause it shows ‘porn’ without showing porn. Issue 13 and 21 were the first to publish comics/graphic novels in collaboration with Bitterkomix. Issue 19 (The Foto Issue) was the first to showcase photography. Issue 24 (South African Stories) published writing: oddly the writers produced a better book cover for their text, and the designers wrote better texts. A lesson in there somewhere… all the issues are special really as they each have a life of their own.
Yet, ijusi is non-commercial so surely there are challenges too. What motivates you to keep it going despite these?
I’m a stayer. So I just keep going. This year is 20 years of ijusi and 30 issues (we are doing a book which will be the 30th issue). It’s now so far down the road that to stop would be a crime. Some things in life are meant to keep going, and ijusi is one of those. At least that’s the idea.
The latest edition is The Mandela Issue. What does this one mean to you personally?
I share the same birthday as Mandela. So there is a connection, albeit tenuous. I’m from the old SA so Madiba was unknown till the very late 80s. I’ve designed a million things with ‘Mandela’ as the subject – his death had me working for weeks flat out on Madiba tributes for clients all over the world – so he’s kinda like this guy I’m quite familiar with, but don’t know at all. My wife has met him and says all the hype is true. But his legacy will sadly be manipulated to suit those left behind with something to gain.
Having been a graphic designer since 1976, what observations or insights can you offer with regards to the design industry?
Real graphic design (not this digital shit) will return when people realise that digital looks crap. Technology may change, but human nature doesn’t. But it’s gonna be far harder to be heard (seen) than when I started out 35 years ago. Everyone is now a designer/photographer/musician/whatever, so one needs to find a client who understands you can do what they can’t. I think there will be a return to ‘hand work’ – we humans need beauty in our lives and that is the concept we designers need to hang onto. It will be a rough ride, but worth the journey. In the end, graphic design is what I do. It’s a way of life – not a job. It’s a calling (and we are very lucky to get that call).
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I’ve been a fanatical photographer all my life, so I’m always taking photographs. My work (Mister Walker) is project based (so feast or famine) and I’m doing some interesting things right now. But this is Durban, so economics always play a role (as in you will never be rich as a designer). Really, all I want to do is keep going. I have to (school fees and all that). It’s dealing with the shit, day and day out, that keeps us going. Stop, and you’re dead. It’s what I am. What else would I do?
What could we expect to find you doing in your spare time?
I’ve ridden bicycles all my life (50 years this year) so weekends find me MTB and weekdays on the road after work. If nothing, I am a creature of habit. I had kids late so my three girls see a lot of dad. I’m the Chez Walker ‘domestic goddess’ so do all the shopping and cooking. Cooking is very therapeutic and I like eating. I’ve petrol in my veins (thanks to my much missed and beloved father) so my two old Porsche 911s get some Garth time, each and every weekend. And I’ll jump on any airplane to go anywhere in a flash. So travel is very much part of the deal.