Garth Walker

Today we chat to South African design legend and founder of iJusi, Garth Walker. We get his opinions on creating an African design language, big agencies vs small, personal vs corporate and the future of design.


DIY: You are considered one of the pioneers of developing a design language in Africa with the i-Jusi publication first being published in 1995 as the only experimental graphics magazine. Do you think this is a fair assessment? How has South Africa changed in terms of how we represent ourselves in design and art since you started?

Garth: In a way yes. But there were  people (at the time – and others since) who were experimenting with “what makes me African, and what does that look like”. I was really the first to get a new operation up and running, and thankfully have managed to keep it going. What I set out to do still remains, and I continue to feel we local designers (and our clients) missed an opportunity here. What’s changed?  Little really. It could be argued that brand advertising (consumer related) is not more ‘Africanised’ than before, but the audience too has changed. South Africans are now enslaved to global brands and branding, and local designers still want to make it big at Cannes or D&AD (with International style work). We continue to miss the opportunity to do a ‘Japan’ where we create a true hybrid language that inspires others (creatives that is)…

Durban is by some way the most (over) traded ad agency/design studio industry in SA

DIY: In terms of technology alone, the world of design has changed so dramatically in recent years that designers are constantly having to develop and adapt new working strategies in order to thrive. How have you coped with all the change?

Garth: I trained with Letraset, markers and a Rotring pen. The computer was some way off being invented. All artwork was in B&W and pasted onto board for repro to do their thing. The big advantage was that one was forced to work with type physically – and to visualise the final printed work in your head. Colour was only applied at repro so the first one saw of the job was a colour proof. Too late if the green was too light! Nowadays the Mac is all powerful and certainly makes a lot of what we do easier. But therein lies the trap. For many designers it becomes a crutch and they allow the brain to rot. This will become much worse with the advent of social media as the ‘design standard’ is considerably lower – as the barrier to entry (by non-trained designers). I really fear for the future of graphic design as a specialist discipline.

DIY: When you get chosen by a multinational brand to work for local campaigns are you just being used? Is it a parasitical experimentation or is it a symbiotic relationship? Does a big budget make a difference to creative quality?

Garth: Work is work from wherever and however it comes. So far very few if any multinationals have gone Walker. When the occasion arises it’s generally from outside SA and the client knows me or has been directed to me as “the guy that does that African stuff”. Then we start the usual client-designer debate about opinion on the work created. Seldom does any client say “you are the expert, so do what you believe is right”. This obviously doesn’t happen if one is a dentist or plumber.

DIY: How does cultural work differ from corporate?

Garth: Cultural work is open to interpretation (so supposedly much freer) whilst corporate needs to follow an agreed architecture or brand template. Both end users are problematic in that cultural and corporate clients have their own opinion on the work.

DIY: What sorts of values do you look for when sussing out potential clients? How do you know when to say no to a potential client?

Garth: In the current market (and Durban in particular) any client who can (and will) pay is worth having. This assumes they have a degree of respect for the process. If not, then ‘get out of town, and quickly’. I learned long ago that client relationships are like dating: the first date goes well, and you get to the second date. And so it goes. If it works out then you get married. 7 years is about the average length of a marriage. What usually happens is there are changes on the client side, and they suddenly “need to review the agency relationship”.

DIY: How much do you try to incorporate the work you do for yourself, in your free time, into your client work? Does your love for photography influence the direction you take with new briefs? How important is it for designers to have creative interests outside of design?

Garth: My personal work is just that. Stuff I do for me (or increasingly for others). The corporate everyday stuff is what pays the bills. But personal work is what keeps one sane and makes it all worthwhile. Remembering what we do is ‘opinion’ (graphic design is neither art nor is it science) so one faces rejection daily. Few professions anywhere have this degree of ‘personal attack and judgement’. It’s hard too, as I find designers are more sensitive than most, one of the ingredients that makes us creative. Personal work provides a balance. Yet most designers don’t do much personal stuff (or none at all) – something I find quite startling. That said, the best designers globally (and I’ve now met most of them) have other interests beyond personal work that are not related to creativity.

DIY: We live in a time where more and more small agencies and studios are entering the market. Do you think these smaller companies have an advantage in being able to form better relationships with clients, and give them more personal treatment, as opposed to the big, faceless companies who are, a lot of the time, able to avoid accountability? Who do you think will dominate the design market in the future, small studios or big companies? Are they able to coexist?

Garth: Small is a problem in that there are too many now. Every man and his dog is a ‘designer’. Durban is by some way the most (over) traded ad agency/design studio industry in SA. Durban business has one single priority: “how much will it cost me”. Why we will never be competitive as a business centre. So everything we do is price driven. If I’m quoting too much, then there are 17 others waiting to cut costs. This is often led by business having no idea as to what we do, and how. So there is less respect for the process and how good design can impact on their business/brand/customer. Large agencies offer a wider spread, and big business is more comfortable with other ‘big business’ (as in national or international ad agency). The relationship aspect is the same: in fact the success or failure of the ‘business relationship’ is dependent on the ‘relationship’ period. The size of the operation is irrelevant. The quality of the work is often secondary. Big and small will always coexist as there will always be horses for courses.

DIY: What’s cooking under the iJusi hood at the moment, any new briefs our young creatives can look forward to tackling next year?

Garth: Next issue will be the Tattoo Issue: artwork for a tattoo you would like (but perhaps too scared to apply) or a tattoo by a tattoo artist in search of a brave client. Brief out around early 2013.

DIY: 2013. What’s on your agenda?

Garth: Stay in business, pay the school fees for my three girls, do some nice work and get paid for it, do some nice work for myself, take more film photos (iPhone now rules the roost), get back into my darkroom and ride as much MTB as I can. But it will be another very, very, tough year…


Check out Mister Walker’s website and take a look at Garth’s photography here.

5 Responses to “Garth Walker”
  1. wesley says:

    Garth Walker is a legend. He is on of the few that really inspires me from Durban. Nice interview.

  2. Niha says:

    True legend of many people not know he’s work is a great shame. In Japan hes work is consider art of best kinds.

  3. Very much enjoyed and appreciated this interview. Heard Garth talk at AIGA in NY last year, very engaging and humorous! As a veteran on the industry, he highlights many issues that designers face regardless of where they are physically based but also mentions ideas about locality, which I too am intrigued and curious about – ” We continue to miss the opportunity to do a ‘Japan’ where we create a true hybrid language that inspires others (creatives that is)…” Living in Japan, I saw so many instances of how Japanese aesthetics and philosophy informed and remains present in so many contemporary designers works which are both visually powerful and ultimately speak easily to any audience both Japanese and international whether it be Kenya Hara or someone like the late Ikko Tanaka. Thank you Garth for encouraging creativity through your illustrative project, iJusi. I hope we continue to see people like him spearheading initiatives like this to develop aesthetic/visual languages in SA and beyond. Jacques Dubois has done this in Ethiopia, if only we could gather all of these characters have a seminar, a books/anthologies published… what an exciting possibility that would be.

  4. Jeanne Beukes says:

    A great intelligent & honest read with a valuable insight into the current graphic design market. I am still proud and always will be to have worked with Garth the design legend (both for his talent and his humour)

    Shine on i Jusi (I stil have mine on my kitchen walls)

    PS Isn’t a coffee table book due?

  5. Avanthi says:

    Someone please tell me where I can get a copy??

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