In 1960s London, a wide range of magazines served a variety of political, social and intellectual attitudes. The most prominent designer of radical and libertarian journals and propaganda was Robin Fior, who has died aged 77. In 1972 he moved to Lisbon, and, after the 1974 Carnation revolution that ended decades of dictatorship in Portugal, his talents were re-engaged to brilliant effect in the service of the new liberal regime and of the Portuguese design community.
Born in London, Fior learned typesetting as a public schoolboy at Harrow. As a designer and typographer, he was self-taught, learning on the job and from colleagues and printers. His single year as an undergraduate in the English department at Oxford was spent mostly in bookshops. But he developed an interest in language and politics that marked his entire professional and social life. If his attraction to politics stemmed from an interest in Russian Jewish intellectual history, and in revolutionary movements, his radical attitudes were tested in practice.
Fior joined the International Socialist group, designed its magazine and sold copies at meetings. Black Dwarf and Peace News were among the other journals he designed, and he also worked for the Young Fabians, the Labour party and, most notably, for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He was a member of the breakaway Committee of 100, with Bertrand Russell as its figurehead, and was arrested. A more congenial result came from an early commission to redesign the weekly Cab News. Taxi-drivers who recognised him in the street offered him free rides.
He began teaching part-time at the London School of Printing in 1960 and at Chelsea School of Art in 1963. The influence of Peace News can be seen in the 1988 redesign of the Guardian by David Hillman, an early student of Fior at the LSP. Fior had himself been asked to help reshape feature pages of the newspaper in the 1960s.
His work began to be shown in magazines and in design exhibitions. He established Robin Fior Design Office, RFDO, off Carnaby Street, the centre of swinging London. Lettering for buildings was added to his practice, which ranged from book design to symbols for art galleries and industrial advertising. His design was a slow process, interrupted by spells of reading, mostly in the lavatory. For a time he had a job at the educational publishers Thomas Nelson, but his notable book design work was in covers and the symbol for the leftwing Pluto Press, where he was art director.
Fior’s work followed no style. He looked at the new kinds of advertising design brought to London by designers from New York. He admired their verbal and visual wit, every word of the copy considered and integrated into a graphic ensemble. He visited the Neue Grafik designers in Switzerland, impressed by their discipline and the cool objectivity of their advertisements. These and other influences were added to a variety of graphic styles and methods – comic-style illustration, hand-written lettering, printing on wrapping paper. For Marxist designers – even in Switzerland – the gloss of technically perfect print reflected the human and material waste of capitalism. In 1964 Fior signed a manifesto titled First Things First (published in the Guardian), a largely unheeded call for designers to work in the public service rather than commercial interests.
In 1972 Fior left Britain and his family for Portugal, accepting an invitation to help establish a school of art and visual communication in Lisbon. Known as Ar.Co, the school opened the following year and he taught there for more than 30 years until his retirement.
In an atmosphere of impending political change, Fior joined opposition groups. One of them was the co-operative design group Praxis. He devised a symbol for MES, the movement for left socialism, and laid out its weekly newspaper. Several of his comrades from the Lisbon café society, given posts in the new government, offered him work. One impressive outcome of liberalisation was a number of large posters he designed in support of independence movements in the Portuguese colonies. Based on the countries’ flags, these colourful geometrical constructions were widely displayed, hugely admired internationally, and quite original.
In 1976 Fior was a co-founder of the Portuguese Designers’ Association. He benefited from a printing trade that retained traditional craft skills, where letterpress had not been entirely superseded by offset printing. Intricately hand-folded invitations and small posters for art galleries and cultural events in Lisbon revealed their message in a sequence. These he described as “unfolders”. It was by examining the grammatical structure of a message, he argued, that a typographical solution could be found.
The deliberation in his work processes was echoed in his conversation. Language was his chief concern. Friends would wait a long time for him to complete a sentence, haltingly delivered, punctuated with an elaborate pun. He was very funny.
But he was more serious in his writing. He contributed a regular column to the monthly Arte Ibérica, and made occasional contributions to professional journals and at conferences. His PhD thesis on modern graphic design in Portugal and his father-figure, Sebastião Rodrigues, was completed in 1995. The same year he asked: “How do we redefine the engineering and poetry of visual language?” Fior’s work provided one answer.
He is survived by his partner, Madalena Alváres Cabral de Figueiredo, their daughter, Rita, and two grandchildren; and also by his former wife, Jane, their children, Liza, Jake and Rosa, and their five grandchildren.
• Robin Fior, graphic designer, born 27 January 1935; died 29 September 2012