We all struggle with the finality of death. We look for ways of rescuing sense and meaning from this most absolute of states and the loss it entails. This is not an idle or self-deluding pursuit, it is not a futile denial of reality. It is instead a way of coming to understand reality, a realisation that the past is with us now and in the future and that what we are is the accumulation of what we've done, where we've been, and above all who we've known and been able to share moments of life with.
Amidst the tears and inconsolable sense of loss—and perhaps because of these—there is no other way forward but to transform death's finality into that which continues to live. We are compelled for the sake of sanity to rescue from our memory the enrichment that our experiences have given us, gaining solace from the understanding that memories are not merely phantoms, but are the living fabric of what we are and will be.
Ian Noble, educator, author, designer, husband, father, brother, and dear friend tragically passed away on Wednesday 30th January, 2013. His passing sent far-reaching waves of shock and sadness through a variety of communities, personal and professional, local and international. For twenty years thousands of design students have benefitted from his insight and unique vision, including many here in Portugal. The paths and careers of countless professionals have been forged as a result of his influence.
For those who had the good fortune of knowing Ian, the impact of his presence will not have escaped them—big in body and even bigger in spirit. And for such a imposing man, Ian had the ability to be remarkably delicate in his interaction with students, always encouraging, always generous but always questioning and challenging. I would listen to him playfully coaxing students, teasing if need be, feeding them references, and always in the spirit of sharing. There was an incontrovertible warmth about his engagement and Ian's humour was as inescapable as it was contagious. Often low-key in delivery, highly observant, dry and wickedly sharp, it was a humour that often revelled in the absurd, with pomposity and sanctimony in the crosshairs. He could be hilariously profane, and whilst this irreverence was directed at all around him, he often reserved the most cutting observations for his own self.
To characterise this aspect of his being as some sort of amusing addition or supplement to his character would be to completely misunderstand his way of being in the world. It may sound grand to suggest that humour is a form of philosophy, but critical observation, the ability to think at a tangent, even the compulsion to expose rhetoric, are all philosophical attributes that are implicitly present in humour. We often laugh because we recognise a truth. And truth was fundamental to Ian, no bullshit, no airs and graces—instead honesty, sincerity, endeavour and enlightenment was what he sought. All of which made his humour both the reflection and the embodiment of his outlook. We worked, we laughed, and we worked some more because we had laughed.
I first invited Ian to Portugal to speak in 2003 in the now long-running Personal Views international seminar series on contemporary graphic design practice. He was the 4th speaker in the series that now totals 48 of the world's most prominent designers, design educators and writers. By 2009 when I invited Ian to help set up the newly formed MA in Communication design he had already become a regular visitor to the school. The clicking of the steel segs on Ian's custom-made brogues, the swaying of his black collared crombie as he walked the central school corridor had become part of an accustomed presence. With typical endevour he would commit himself to learning a few new Portuguese words or phrase on each visit—“meyerdilate” (Meia de Leite—a milky coffee) he would croon at the bar waitress to her quiet delight.
So many years as educators he and I, and what certainties can we have? How do we evaluate the capacity and ability of one who teaches? All our childhood experiences tell us that above the amount of knowledge and information a teacher may possess—which Ian possessed in bucketful' —it is the method and the nature of delivery that matters most. Not simply through warmth and generosity but above all through the understanding that learning is a process and not a product. And as Ian understood so well it's a process that involves passion, adventure and the courage to test oneself. His approach embodied this understanding and was itself fired by his integrity.
In planning projects and workshops together I would invariably fret about outcomes, needing, I once thought, to know in advance what outcomes were possible. “Is this going to work?” I would ask. “I don't know”, Ian would reply, “but it will be fun to find out”. Far from being casual in any sense, this was a reflection of an absolute recognition that a fear of failure is the antithesis of creativity, that the most successful outcome, as Ian so many times stated, was being able to manoeuvre oneself to a point where it was possible to ask a better question, and that the journey of searching, testing and discovery was itself the most significant of destinations.
The value and range of Ian's contribution to design and to education has become all too clear from the responses to his passing. But it is not simply as a unique educator and author that he will remain in people's memories. Above all it is his humanity that will set him aside, in his loyalty to his friends in his local Portsmouth community that he so dearly valued, and to those with which he shared so much in his professional commitment and passion, to the countless students he shepherded, and at the centre of all this to the love of his life, Susan and his adored children Eugene and Audra.
And so, my dear sweet friend, thank you for exposing me to your dedication and insight, for your generosity, for sharing your thoughts and your sentiments on so many occasions, and for making me laugh so much. Thank you for your willingness to travel alongside me. Where you will always be.
Ian Noble 1960—2013