Q: How do you turn lemon squash into the go-to refreshing drink for rugged, hard-working men?

A: You hire a good graphic designer.

When Les Mason arrived in Melbourne from California in the 1960s, Australian graphic design was a non-event. Ad-men called the shots, typography was unheard of and packaging design was thrown together by manufacturers. A new exhibition at NGV Australia shows how one man led the charge against poor design, and stamped his aesthetic approach on Australian life in unexpected ways, turning product packaging and magazine covers into little masterpieces. No one knew the late Mason, who died aged 85 in 2009, better than his wife and frequent collaborator, copywriter Gail Devine. We caught up with Devine to get to the bottom of Mason’s passion and talent.

Broadsheet: Les made his name in Australia with mass-market design: laundry soap, cigarette packets, magazine advertisements and, of course, that Solo can. Was bringing good design to the masses his goal?

Gail Devine: Certainly. He said of places like Ikea that they lift society. Maybe some people think it’s all a bit homogenised, but they make houses look that little bit better.

He hated poor design and he hated bad typography – when he arrived in Australia no one even knew what typography was. He turned the industry on its head. He wanted to learn photography, but there was nowhere for designers to learn photography. So he bought a camera and worked it out himself. Those boundaries were closed when he arrived. And, bit by bit, clients started to understand, and that’s how he became successful.

BS: He must have put quite a few noses out of joint, turning up from America and throwing the industry rulebook out.

GD: Not really, no. I’ve never heard a bad word said about him. Everyone that knew him loved him. He had a big heart for design, and he wanted everyone to care about it as much as he did. In the exhibition there’s a code of ethics that he laid out to try and establish rules for how graphic designers would work. They would set up standard fees, they wouldn’t undercut each other or cut each other’s throats.

What’s not been brought home in that show is that all that work was done by craftspeople. People who could draw, had a sense of colour, understood typography, understood how to use space. He didn’t care whether his people were at the top of their field or not. He looked for instinct. He liked people who had worked for printing companies because they knew how to work hard and follow a deadline.

BS: Les seems to have been interested in more than mere design. There’s a quote in the exhibition that says he wanted to “elevate society aesthetically”. How so?

GD: That was his whole passion. He was a fine artist in every sense of the word. Before he got into graphic design he was a painter in Los Angeles. Then he had a bonfire and burnt the lot. He needed to make a living.

But everything came from his love of fine art. He loved Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya … he loved modern art as well, and read everything he could. He used to say that to be any good you had to know what had gone before. He had a huge art-book collection. On our first date he gave me an art book by Germano Celant called Arte Povera (“poor art”). I’d never seen anything like it. I kept it in Glad Wrap. Gosh he was a fabulous guy. He was really terrific.

Les Mason: Solo is showing at NGV Australia until February 21.