As one of the younger members of the disparate group that pioneered graphic design in Australia in the 1960’s and 70’s, John Nowland was in the fortunate position of having both formal training as a designer and a number of established designers who acted as teachers and mentors when he set out in the field.

In common with many of his peers, he was unsure of what to do with his career when he left school and, despite his artistic talent, decided to take up a law degree. Thankfully for the graphic arts fraternity, he quickly abandoned that path and instead ventured into the newish world of graphic design, still known at the time as commercial art.

A chance meeting led him to RMIT, still then considered a trade school, where he took up a four-year course in graphic design and fine arts, learning not only technical skill in drawing, photography, typography, etching and print making but other, more immeasurable traits that hold any artist in good stead, such as the ability to look and observe and the importance of curiosity.

Nowland, himself now a mentor to young artists and a part-time graphic design lecturer, pays huge tribute to his teachers at the time, most of whom were self-taught. He mentions his drawing teacher John Mason, the skilled stamp designer Ray Honisett and a Dutch typography teacher called Guus Van Der Heyde. The latter was a particular influence, Nowland says.

“He gave me an inkling of what else happened in other parts of the world. Growing up in Melbourne in the 60’s and 70’s – the images of that time of boys in long socks and short pants, with short hair and a fringe with a parting – that was true. We used to spend a lot of time in the library discussing books and what else was happening in the world.”

Upon graduation in 1970, Nowland was again fortunate that the nascent graphic design industry was taking shape in Melbourne. There were several up and coming studios he applied to, including Garry Emery and Lyndon Whaite’s new studio Whaite & Emery, Rosetzky Waddell and solo firms led by the likes of Les Mason and Brian Sadgrove. It was with Sadgrove that Nowland eventually began work.

“Brian has a lightness of touch and a clarity of thinking, a strategic clarity of thinking that very much appealed to me”, he says. “Brian opened up not only some opportunities for me but emphasised the care in the craft, the love of the medium.” After only a matter of months in the new job, Sadgrove got together with Whaite & Emery to put in a joint tender for a large design job for Australia Post. While they didn’t get the job, the partnership was formalised shortly after (although it didn’t eventually survive the test of time). By that time, Nowland was skilled enough to want more responsibility, so he was encouraged to move on to bigger and better things.

Emery presented Nowland with a going-away gift of a book by the Hungarian painter and photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a teacher at the Bauhaus school, which had a big effect on the young designer’s thoughts about design and observation and what Moholy-Nagy called ‘the language of vision.’

In another happy circumstance, Nowland then found work with an up and coming designer called Barrie Tucker and moved to Adelaide. Tucker, who had spent some time working in Switzerland before returning to establish himself back home in South Australia, was another major influence.

“Graphic design in Adelaide at the time was about as obscure as cranio-facial surgery,” Nowland says. “It was considered commercial art and if you worked a bit differently to what commercial artists did, they would think it was too ‘arty’. They didn’t see it as a level of communication that is idea driven and that creates and establishes a personality and quality.”

It was Tucker who encouraged Nowland to travel and in 1974 he set off to attend a conference of the Association Typographie Internationale at the Basel School of Design in Switzerland. There, he was able to not only learn more about people he had only read about in books, but to meet some of them as well. “Swiss design was considered the best – there was meaning and logic, it was a disciplined craft, not personality-driven. It also encouraged formal schooling and design as a profession.”

Nowland is still very much influenced by some of the pioneers of design of the last century, particularly Armin Hoffman, a director of the Basel school; his predecessor Emil Ruder; the great graphic artist and teacher and Pierre Mendell and the legendary typographer Jan Tschichold, who once famously condemned all fonts except for sans-serif.

Back in Adelaide, Nowland set up his own studio and has pretty much worked for himself since.

A breakthrough was some work commissioned by the Adelaide Festival, as well as the development of a professional relationship with Brian Croser, a giant of the Australian wine industry who founded the Petaluma Winery and has since become a valued client and friend. Like Tucker, Nowland has since become a hugely influential force in wine packaging and labelling, helping the formerly disparaged New World wineries become the international force to be reckoned with that they now are.

Another opportunity was designing an identity for the Canberra architectural firm Guida Moseley Brown, which had been commissioned to design the new SA State Library. Hal Guida recommended Nowland to the library to design an identity as well as the external and internal signage. The marvellous identity for the library – featuring a red dot above a capital L – is memorable not only for its immediate impact but also for the clarity of the idea that is represented.

Nowland was later commissioned to collaborate with textile artist Kay Lawrence to create the much-awarded glazed entry to the Spence Wing of the library, including the startling relief text on the entry bulkhead.

He has also worked for many years for the Botanic Gardens creating its colourful signage and wayfinding system, some informative and at the same time gorgeous signage for the Coast to Vines Rail Trail, a protocol sign system for the Spinifex people in Western Australia and numerous print works such as programs for performances at the State Opera, annual reports, catalogues and brochures for wine brands and many identities.

A humble and quietly spoken man, Nowland is not as widely known as his peers such as Tucker or Emery, but within the design fraternity in Australia, his influence has been immense. (The designer Irene Previn, in an Artlink story about the legendary Adelaide printer Ernie Orel, with whom Nowland pioneered the split font technique for printing presses, agreed with her photographer when he called Nowland “God”).

He gives back to the craft not only through his work but also by teaching and mentoring up and coming designers, imparting to them his belief that design is a craft and that one’s work must stand for something. “Practitioners can be a bit fashionable,” he says. “Brian Sadgrove once said, that he’d be in business long enough that his way of working was now beginning to reappear. You wait long enough and what you did is new again. I really respect people whose work holds true – it’s not fashion and it’s not trendy. If you are rigorous with the idea, keep your mediums and palette simple, then the answer should be appropriate.”

This is a philosophy that he has carried throughout his working life and it started back in his training days. “Many of the lessons and the advice from painting lecturers and in print making stood me in good stead, as it was about observation and questioning. I learned to limit my palette, tried to do the most with the least. In my case it was ideas, materials, shapes, colours and typefaces – you start with the least, which is a great discipline and you try to achieve the best results out of it. And you only add when the job requires it. I think that this is the foundation of a lot of my work and a lot of things I most enjoy looking at and doing.”

Larissa Meikle (co-writer: Kate McDonald)

This text was first published in On the Shoulders of Giants, 2014.