The role of the Art Director is sometimes denigrated. It is suggested that other people do the great work, and the art director often takes the credit. But consider the case of Helmüt Crone at DDB, who revolutionised the look of American advertising in the late fifties. Consider Milton Glaser, who imbued a band of talented people with the passion to reach higher, and created Push Pin, a world influence. Müller Brockman in Switzerland, who defined the Swiss Style with his energy, and influenced his contemporaries all over the globe. We know of Alan Fletcher, the force behind Pentagram. We know of Rudy Vanderlaans, and the Emigre Group, who shook up the new computer generation, and gave them direction and possibilities. And the crazy Tibor Kalman… ask Stefan Sagmeister… Massimo Vignelli… ask Michael Bierut.

Were they teachers? Maybe – but their motivation was not only to teach, it was to draw out the talent that they saw in the individuals they chose to deal with, and bring it to a higher level, always for commercial purposes. Mentor is a pompous word, but it fits.

Before we became so sophisticated in Australia. Before we related ourselves so inter nationally, a style was created in Melbourne in the late fifties, which b–rought together a diverse group of very young designers, and raised their work to a level none of them expected. It might be drawing a long bow, but Geoff Digby at the World Record Club, had the essence of these great innovators in him.

The World Record Club was conceived in London by John Day, one of a team of expatriate Aussies who had worked together in the Colorgravure publication division of the Melbourne Herald. The director, Terence Cresswell-George, when asked to set up a similar division in London in 1955 for the National Magazine Company (Good Housekeeping, Harpers Bazaar), lured some of his old staff there with offers too good to refuse. They included John Day, and the young designer Geoff Digby. Day left after two years to pursue his brainchild and become part of a new British venture, The World Record Club. Other parts were Norman Lonsdale of the British banking family, (the money) his wife-to-be Fiona Bentley, (the record producing skills) and the young actor, Richard Attenborough (more in an observing capacity as it turned out). They were all avid music lovers.

Cresswell-George had become a legend in mail-order, and was asked to establish the Club in Australia. Digby had returned earlier, and was working as a freelance designer in Melbourne when Cresswell-George arrived back. He was promptly invited to become the Club’s first art director.

While the operation was mail-order and didn’t have to compete on store shelves, to combat the perception of poorer quality due to their cheaper price the Club decided to compete head on with the market place. This is where Digby shone. He was allowed absolute freedom in the studio, and he engaged a galaxy of staff and freelance artists that produced an astonishing range of brilliant designs over the years, more often than not in only three colours or less, which gave the Club’s product a visual impact not apparent in the record shops of the day.

Due to clever, intuitive marketing the Club was a success from the start, The young staff designers, under Digby’s mentorship worked at a furious pace, each designer having to complete usually 30 covers a month. Without computers… do the maths. That’s pressure. But nobody cared. Guus Van Der Heyde recalls the start of a typical day; race John Copeland to the St Kilda tram to get to Flinders Lane by eight, spend half an hour eating a jam biscuit, which they called breakfast, and studying the secretaries legs, then into it. The staff designers, which included John Copeland, Graeme Moore, David Leonard, Guus Van Der Heyde, Winston Thomas, Keith McMenomy, Tony Ward, Geoff Hocking and Paul Cleveland didn’t all work on covers. Many of them were responsible for the plethora of promotional print which accompanied a mail-order operation, however due to Digby’s genius anyone who thought themselves capable would be given a chance to design a cover, and often stayed in that role. Van Der Heyde has said ‘Looking back on all this now – what a dream job that actually was’.

During his time at WRC Van Der Heyde got the chance to revisit Holland, his home turf, during which he popped into the art studio at Philips headquarters in Eindhoven. He had taken samples of the work done at the Club, including his own, and it created a furore. The designers there all wanted to emigrate immediately and work at WRC. They had never heard of or seen such a free and creative approach to sleeve design before.

The Alumni of the World Record Club were Peter Allen, Robin Archer, Asher Bilu, Malcolm Binding, Charles Blackman, John Catmull, Prue Chammen, Trish Chammen, Paul Cleveland, John Copeland, Noel Counihan, Bob Haberfield, Geoff Hocking, John Howell, Mark Jackson, Robert Juniper, Louis Kahan, David Leonard, Jan McBride, Ian McGill, Keith McMenomy, Graeme Moore, Verdon Morcom, Bruce Petty, Max Robinson, Dennis Russell, Athol Shmith, Lance Stirling, Peggy Stirling, Alex Stitt, Henry Talbot, Winston Thomas, Gerard Vandenberg, Guus Van Der Heyde, Wes Walters, and Tony Ward. The famous painters in the group had full colour printing bestowed on them. The rest of us wrestled with two, or extravagantly, three colours. But we did it with joy. There was certainly a collegiate, creative contact high prevailing in that group of early freelancers, who all knew each other, and those who came later said they lifted their game because they were aware of what had gone before.

People who stick in my mind were David Leonard, arguably a genius, he could draw anything, anywhere, effortlessly, and he could design, but he was mad as a boot. I remember him parading around Melbourne, in any weather, in a white suit, white shoes, and a white panama hat, carrying a white cane to fend off attackers. I said to him once, ‘David, what you need is a parrot on your shoulder’. He looked at me, slowly contemplating the suggestion, and said, ‘I think the parrot is a little superfluous’. The mark of the man.

The sublimely talented Bill Sykes, who suffered from the wanderlust, and drove Digby crazy. He would disappear in the middle of a job and reappear later – much later. Eventually he did it again and never reappeared, finishing up in Sydney in another job entirely. Thank God he finished that Rimsky Korsakoff cover before he left. It’s a classic and typical of his swashbuckling style.

Bobby Haberfield, who was turned on by Irish/ Aussie painter and polemicist Ian Sime, who introduced him to Matta and the surrealists. Just look at that Stravinsky cover, with the peacock feather! Rob Hall’s masterly Beethoven Piano Sonatas cover, favourite of the alumni. Imagine what focus groups would make of that today. And the great Alex Stitt.

The staff designers and the freelancers all felt protected by Geoff Digby. If it worked, it ran, no matter what management said. Bob Francis, Head of Graphic Design at Swinburne from 1960 to 1987 said Geoff Digby became first choice to preview appropriate graduating students – many of whom enjoyed successful careers as a direct result of their WRC folio of achievements.

Alex Stitt; ‘Designers were eager to receive a commission, prepared to work for low fees to be able to do creative and interesting work’.

Lance Stirling; ‘I believe no other single institution has had a comparable influence on the graphic designer in Australia’.

Keith McMenomy; ‘There was great comraderie among us all. Geoff Digby was always in suit, tie and with briefcase, but he set casual ground rules for us’.

John Copeland; ‘Compared to some clients I have worked for, he allowed me a HUGE amount of freedom and encouragement’.

Geoff Hocking; ‘He said on employing me that I would get a salary review after six months, I asked and Geoff replied ‘You’re not worth any more just yet’. I made sure I was worth it next time I asked’.

Paul Cleveland; ‘I used to do about 30 sleeves a month’.

Verdon Morcom; ‘Geoff Digby deserves the attention given him’.

Brian Sadgrove; ‘The WRC archive is the most representative collection of Australian designers’ work in one field, over one decade, that has ever been established. It highlights the years of transition from commercial art to graphic design.

As for myself, I will always be truly indebted to Geoff Digby for dragging that Beethoven cover out of me. It’s like an old friend now, and I look at it often and think, ‘How the hell did I ever do that ?’

The truly astonishing thing about Digby was that this was a part-time job. He had agreed with Cresswell-George at the very beginning the percentage of his time he was prepared to devote to WRC. For the rest he serviced a freelance portfolio of the top agencies of the time. K.M.Campbell, Nicholls Cumming, Paton. I remember from the early seventies, a superb series of brochures he produced for APPM, called Impressions, and designed by Brian Sadgrove, Whaite & Emery, and Les Mason. There may have been more. They were beautiful.

It lasted in Melbourne from 1960 to 1978. An eighteen year stint, over 3000 new designs produced – a long time to keep the creative fires burning. The writing appeared on the wall when EMI bought it in 1976, and new management had their own ideas. The covers were more and more being produced from film supplied by EMI and Deutsche Grammophon. Geoff Digby left when they insisted he work full time – a preposterous idea. Eventually the studio was disbanded in 1978.

Eighteen years of passion, emanating from a small room in Flinders Lane, and then Hartwell, wherever that was. Eighteen years that wrapped neatly around the glorious sixties like a cloth of gold, and show clearly now how that decade influenced the best of our young graphic designers. Eighteen years of talented kids, coming to artistic maturity and moving on to greater things. Thanks to Geoff Digby.

Max Robinson, 2008.

This text marked the induction of Geoff Digby into the AGDA Hall of Fame in 2008.