Colin Forbes, who has died aged 94, was the creator of elegant and sometimes humorous graphic design, and a co-founder in 1972 of Pentagram, one of the best known and most admired design groups in the world.
He was one of the practitioners who helped radicalise mid-century British graphic design, transforming it from a cottage industry populated mostly by freelancers wielding airbrushes and crayons, and putting it on equal footing with the best work from Europe and the US.
His work combined modernist rigour with witty graphic tropes, as in his poster for the Campaign Against Museum Admission Charges. Designed in 1970, it took the form of a petition with the painterly signatures of famous artists – Van Gogh and Rembrandt among them – rather than members of the public. The word-within-a-word idea of his George Nelson on Design book cover, with its overlapping “on”, has been much imitated, and his D&AD logo, apparently compressing three dimensions into two, is still in use today.
Forbes was especially proud of the sharp and technically accomplished covers he produced for the ICI magazine Plastics Today. Designed in the 60s, some of the covers look as if they were designed yesterday by a young, hip design studio. Corporate identity was still in its infancy in postwar Britain, and he created enduring and sophisticated visual identities for leading corporations, including Lucas Industries, British Petroleum and Pirelli.
He possessed an ability, rare among graphic designers then and now, to inspire the trust and respect of the leaders of large businesses. At the time he did so, graphic design lacked the status within the business world it has today: he took pride in having helped establish it as a profession. In the case of his own firm, the equal sharing between partners of income, decision-making and ownership assured a structure that could survive the departure of its founders.
Born in London, Colin was the son of Kathleen (nee Ames) and John Forbes, a public relations manager for ICI. While Colin’s first ambition had been to design aeroplanes, after leaving Brentwood school, Essex, at the age of 17 he began a course in book illustration at the Central School of Arts and Craft in London. For ambitious design students at that time, Central was the place to be. Fellow students included Terence Conran and the graphic designers Derek Birdsall, Ken Garland and Alan Fletcher, one of his future Pentagram partners.
National service (1945-48), when for part of the time he was stationed in Palestine, interrupted his studies. After demob, he returned to Central to study typography. On graduating he was given a lecturing post at the school and, following a brief stint working for an advertising agency, he was invited, at the age of 28, to return to Central as head of graphic design. His students included Mervyn Kurlansky, another of the eventual five founders of Pentagram.
As his freelance activities grew, Forbes was forced to give up teaching. With Fletcher, a rising star in the UK design scene, and the New Yorker Bob Gill, a purveyor of punchy, ideas-based graphics and illustration, he formed Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, an early design supergroup. Although the three men dressed soberly (Forbes had the appearance of the young Michael Caine), a publicity photograph of the trio, taken by Robert Freeman, notable for his many photographs of the Beatles, gives them something of the air of being the Beatles of 1960s graphic design.
After Gill’s departure, the remaining members were joined by the architect Theo Crosby. When Kurlansky and the industrial designer Kenneth Grange joined, the trio became a quintet and changed their name to Pentagram.
The establishment of the firm, with its distinctive multidisciplinary ethos – graphic designers, architects and industrial designers all under the same roof – marked a great achievement on Forbes’s part, as did the founding of a Pentagram office in New York a few years later.
No foreign design company had done this successfully, and at first the New York design community regarded the new firm merely as an outpost of a British design studio. But, thanks to Forbes’s charm and energy, and the shrewd appointment as partners of leading figures from the US design scene, including Woody Pirtle, Michael Bierut, Paula Scher, Michael Gericke and the architect Jim Biber, Pentagram became recognised as more than a colonial outpost of the London company. Satellite offices in San Francisco and Austin, Texas, helped transform the group into one of the powerhouse firms of the international design scene.
Forbes’s time at Pentagram came to an end in 1993 and he retired to his horse farm in North Carolina. In an interview published after his retirement, he said he felt he had received insufficient credit for the establishment of Pentagram in London, which prompted him to write his essay Transition, a lucid exposition of his design of the group’s business structure that was first published in the November 1992 edition of the journal Communication Arts. His secret was that he never forgot that he was designing a design company, one that was owned and run by designers and not by business people.
In 1950 Forbes married Elizabeth Hopkins. After the couple’s divorce, in 1961 he married Wendy Maria Schneider. She survives him, along with their children, Aaron and Jessica, his daughter, Christine, from his first marriage, and three grandchildren, Giulia, Jamie and Gemma.