“When people ask me what it is that I do, I say I’m interested in a sort of design that explains things rather than sells them,” Peter Grundy says.
Grundy has worked in information design for 40 years. His simple, colorful illustrations have been used by clients ranging from international corporate powerhouses to regional magazines. A skim of his enormous portfolio — one that includes maps, infographics, and bold iconography — showcases a cheeky approach to enlightening an audience.
His work not only helps describe both complex and simple ideas, but it’s also presented in a way that is uniquely Grundy: an entertaining perspective reminiscent of colorful construction paper cutouts. Like the best school teachers, he has a way of masking education with simplicity and playfulness.
When Grundy attended the Royal College of Art in London in 1970s, the field of design was populated by creatives looking toward Madison Avenue. “Advertising was the place to be in those days,” Grundy says. “Mainly because it was very glamorous, it was where the money was.”
But Grundy, who currently works under the name Grundini, saw an opening for design that could help simplify complex ideas. He partnered with fellow RCA graduate Tilly Northedge in 1980 to launch one of the earliest information design firms: Grundy & Northedge.
Because the concept of information design was so new, few companies had the budget for such work. The limited funding meant the two designers — who, Grundy notes, were not artists — created the work themselves. This insistence that the two “weren’t artists” speaks to the way design was perceived at the time: it was basic illustration intended to help sell. But, the simplicity of their work became their signature.
“That sort of style grew out of the need to actually produce imagery and a very simple way to depict our ideas,” Grundy says. “We never started out as illustrators, it just became a component of our work. And we became well-known not only for doing design, but for also being designers who came up with the illustrations and had their own visual signatures.”
One of those early projects was for the UK Design Council’s now-defunct magazine Design. The team was asked to create a diagram for the cover that would depict the efficiency of steam locomotives. They presented the editor with what Grundy describes as an illustration of a toy train engine, to which the editor balked and asked if it was a joke. Their reply was that yes, it was intended to be fun.
“In the end, they did put it on the cover,” Grundy says. “And it became an enormously successful piece of work for us.”
This has become Grundy’s trademark: simple design that both informs and entertains. Take his illustration of food eaten in one year during the era of King Henry VIII (below): the geometric image features the king with his mouth wide open. Inside are iconographic symbols of various food and drink arranged to fit snugly into Henry’s spacious and rectangular maw. What could have been a pie chart of actual pies was instead transformed by Grundy into a playful dive between King Henry’s chompers.
“I see entertaining people as being quite an important part of engaging them,” Grundy says. “And therefore I see the sort of ideas I have, the sort of ideas I bring to these charts and diagrams that I do, as being useful in that context. It enables people to stay with it and enjoy it.”
Even Grundy’s explanation of his process is simple in nature. He shares an illustration he made of an iceberg (at left): the vast majority of the work is underwater and unseen — this is his research, his ideas, and his unique perspective. The small portion that exists above the surface is the final product.
When Grundy was asked to create a map of Gatwick Airport in England for new staff, he spent a day being shown around the site. He then took the rather messy and complicated environment and distilled it down to its most basic parts — what Grundy calls its raw essence: check-in, shops, gate, bathrooms, baggage claim, and so forth. The resulting image (below) is both informative and even joyful — hardly two words that are often used to describe the experience of navigating a bustling airport. As with many of Grundy’s illustrations, it has a playfulness to it that doesn’t sacrifice education.
“I find as simple a way as possible, in terms of illustration, to actually show all this complexity,” he says. “Hopefully, what you get at the end of the day is something that makes the whole thing easier to understand, but is just a bit fun and elegant.”
While Grundy’s goals have remained fairly consistent in his 40 years as an information designer, the industry has come quite a long way. In the 25 years that Grundy and Northedge ran their firm together, the first 15 years were spent creating their work by hand. Certainly, modern design tools have sped up the process immensely (Grundy says a project that once took a month or longer now takes closer to a week to complete), but Grundy says one of the greatest benefits of computers is the ability to adjust a design without having to completely redo the illustration.
He argues that the biggest game-changer came with the internet. The firm began working with organizations in the U.S. in 1992, but had to ship their work via DHL. The ability to send along digital files led to a boom in their international business.
Another component of the job that has gotten easier to navigate, in Grundy’s telling, is client requests.
“People are much more visually-educated now than they were 30 or 40 years ago, that’s for sure,” Grundy says. “Back in the ’80s, there were a lot of clients, even ones in the creative business, that didn’t really understand what graphic information was. They didn’t know what value it had, or whether it had any use for them.”
He says organizations — including governments — now better understand the need to educate people through data visualization. He uses the COVID-19 pandemic as an example.
“If we had had COVID back in 1980, there wouldn’t have been any visual representation on the television, it would’ve just been somebody talking about it,” Grundy says. “Whereas now, if you turn on the television you’ll see a lot of graphs, a lot of iconography explaining how to do things, when to do them.”
As the industry and the audience have matured, Grundy’s work has shifted a bit as well. His projects of late have featured more of his iconography than infographics-style work. His work with Shell Scenarios, part of Shell Global, is one such example. In one brief for the organization that resulted in 30 posters (three examples below), he was asked to visualize simple messages. Rather than complex, explanatory diagrams, these images illustrate a single concept each.
After all his years in the industry, clients continue to seek Grundy out. And he believes it’s because of his point of view.
“I think people come to me because they want my opinion, my visual opinion on stuff,” Grundy says. “They don’t want me to just produce an abstract sort of realm of gobbledygook, which makes things very beautiful, but there’s no idea, it’s just a simple geometric design. They want my take, they want my individualism.”
Sarah Steimer is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Chicago magazine, Marketing News, Chicago Architect, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and elsewhere.