Arable Histories

While my upbringing may have been considered sheltered by some, my horizons have always been pretty broad.

Quite literally.

Crowle moors looking West towards Thorne
The view of Crowle moors from my childhood home

It’s true, I wasn’t born to this life of integrated creative strategies, PowerPoint ‘decks’ are not my birthright and conference calls are not in my blood.

I first drew breath in Scunthorpe, in the hospital on top of the only hill in our very flat part of North Lincolnshire, but was raised in of Crowle. A humble, former market town of little repute, Crowle sits on stretch of land that was once cut off on all sides by rivers. It was drained in the 1600s to create more workable farmland, though to this day the area is still known as the Isle of Axholme.

Rerouting a couple of rivers and digging a few ditches made for the kind of large fertile fields that taties, wheat and sugar beet just love, though it’s still marshy in places and way off in the distance of that photo, they still dig for peat.

I grew up with tales of Willo’ the Wisps – ghost lights on the moors who would lure farmers to their doom – and rumours of a mummified pilot that came down en route to one of the nearby airfields in the 1940s, forever to be preserved in the peat. I was surrounded by some of the widest, openest landscape in the UK, and the industry that loomed large in my formative years wasn’t so much the Steelworks of Scunthorpe to the East or the coalfields of Thorne to the West (though I could see the colliery lights from my bedroom window), it was farming.

Growing up in ‘The Isle’ it felt like everyone was connected to land in some way and I was no exception. My mum was a farmer’s daughter and my Uncle Tom was a big noise in the olde worlde shire horse ploughing scene.

Festival of the plough
c1980s | Nancy Spivey and Tom Howell at The Festival of The Plough

Where I live now we have the ‘Leamington Peace Festival’, a sort of micro Glastonbury where middle class types can buy handwoven hammocks and rain sticks. Near where I grew up we had ‘The Festival of The Plough’. Though I guess, compared to nearby Haxey where there’s an annual organised fight over a stick, at least ploughing with big horses is rooted in some logic.

I spent my childhood tramping across fields, making forts in haystacks, stealing peas straight from the pod and trying to snog lasses in cornfields. Crowle in the 70s and 80s was still a bit like the idealised Britain of Worzel Gummidge and Cider with Rosie.

I eventually exchanged this rural idyll for the original ‘concrete jungle‘ and a few years into my career at Parenthesis we got on the pitch list for Massey Ferguson. Working at an agency in Coventry they were the local account we always wanted and for me growing up around farm machinery, it was familiar territory. We put everything we had into the pitch and even decked our boardroom out with bales of straw inspired by my romaticised memories of straw forts.

It was a big deal when we won the work, but for me, Massey’s was a funny account to work on – and I remember the creative being incredibly client-led. I have worked into the wee small hour many times over the years, but have only actually worked through the night on two occasions. One was pitching for Barclaycard’s sponsorship of Wembley Arena, but the other was creating every single size and format variation of ads in a campaign for Massey’s entire range of tractors that the client wanted to present at a meeting in France.

To this day I am not convinced he ever showed them.

Let alone get all that foam board on the plane.

However, amid all the bit dramatically shot hardware, brushed steel and ‘power words’, I did design this sweet little brochure for their flagship combine harvester – the Cerea MF 7200…

Massey Ferguson Cerea brochure cover

The Massey Ferguson Cerea MF 7200 – a Very Hungry Combine Harvester
c2002 | Massey Ferguson Cerea MF 7200 brochure

The idea of the combine making short work of a whole list of harvest problems put the benefits ahead of all the engineering and I think we did well to get this little piece of whimsy signed off and into production.

The agency’s design output ultimately found a spiritual home in Lead Creative Paul Barton, whose Dad had been an engineer at the firm, and it was Paul who added the short cut ‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’ pages that really made this work.

Masseys were around for a matter of months before I took my leave from Parenthesis, but I’ll always by chuffed to have helped land the account and pleased with the work I did in its early days at the agency.

In more recent years I found myself back in rural Lincolnshire, checking out a grain store in Grantham while helping promote a crop rather than the harvester that chomped it up.

Brewers Select was created by über agri-business, Graincorp, specifically to serve the needs of the growing number of craft and micro breweries in the UK. There was Vital, with an abundance of experience in the brewing trade and there was Brewers Select, with a blank sheet of paper and a brief to create them a brand from scratch. Though as with a lot of open briefs there was a bit of narrowing down to be done up front. So I presented a range of options that ran from the handcrafted to the utterly modern.

Brewers select logo options
2013 | Brewers Select logo options

And they went modern.

To be honest, of all the things we showed them it was the outside runner, but the science angle (the circles representing the constituent parts of beer – water, malt, hops and yeast) struck a chord with client and served to give them a confident, cool image unlike anything else in their market.

Basic RGB

Brewers Select leaflet
2013 | Brewers Select leaflet

The identity was rolled out across all the usual bits and bobs and worked particularly well online with a website designed develop by another old Parenthesis mucker Dave Evans.

2013 | Brewers Select website
2013 | Brewers Select website

A lot of time was also spent on branding their sacks, as the various sources of grain and malt types made for a complex matrix of designs that were bulk ordered from china in scarily large quantities. I happened upon them during a brewery visit last year. They looked pretty cool in the end.

Brewer's select images
2013 | Brewers Select signage and grain sack

My experience in working for agricultural clients clattered headlong into another field of expertise when I helped to win a pitch for the UK’s leading financial services provider to farmers and rural communities.

As always, when I write about existing clients, I deftly have to avoid using such googlebot-friendly signposts as their actual name and stuff, but you’re a human, you can read the name on the logo below and clock the wheatsheaf logo and realise I am not just throwing this shit together.

It’s been a joy to work for this outfit for the last two or three years and I have got to ply my trade on a number of farming-related and more general rural-flavoured campaigns, including this above-the-line campaign for home insurance…

022635 NFUM Peg People 297x210mm MASTER.indd
2012 | Home insurance press ad

At the time these were briefed there’d been changes at the top internally, the insurance market was dominated by red phones and nodding dogs and this rather gentlemanly brand was being forced to shout a bit to get heard.

The ads were ultimately trying to do too much – shouting about their Which? award, a money off deal, a customer testimonial and present a suitably aspirational rural slice of life via the imagery – proved a lot of elements to balance. A chain of stakeholders with differing views didn’t help matters but a series of six ads were signed off and produced alongside a number of radio ads.

ad options
2012 | Insurance campaign ads

At the time, Rachel blogged about the photo shoot. I had to twist the client’s arm to work up the pegs ad, though as it was a simple shot to do, we managed to squeeze it in. I’m not sure if all the others ran but the pegs were certainly used more than the other, as it appeared in banner ads, on the inside front cover of the Radio Times and in many of the national papers the morning after the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony.

2012 | National press ads

As kids we grew quite adept at avoiding farmers, we vaguely knew that playing on and around farms was a bit tresspassy and that trampling crops was a bit vandalismy and that eating peas from the pods was a bit stealy and after regular schools showing of Apaches we understood that mucking about on farms could get a bit deathy.

Stuff like that stays with you forever and it was very much in my mind when I was asked to work on a farm safety campaign.

Farmers know all the risks that come with their job, but for various reasons, they take them anyway. A whole history of high-profile campaigns from various bodies have done sterling work to raise awareness and I felt our client was in the perfect position to build on that and offer some practical help.

Farm safety design-a-sign website
2011 | Farm safety design-a-sign

From the farmer’s point of view the benefit of being able to create a free sign tailored to the hazards on their particular farm and then translate it for the benefit of foreign workers was obvious. It also allowed the client’s agents the opportunity to remind farmers of their Farm Safety Assessment service.

The design of the site was yet another Spivey/Barton collaboration and I was really proud of it. It was simple and I like to think it helped stop a couple of daft accidents. I often try to calm stressed colleagues with the observation that ‘we are not saving lives’, though this is maybe the closest I have come to doing so.

While the site was a key feature and acted as a proof point for the campaign there was still the job of continuing to hammer home the message, outline the clients commitment to farm safety and drive traffic to the site. So taking the iconography of warning signs I designed this…

Farm safety leaflet
2011 | Farm safety leaflet

Once you see the ‘big wheel at the back, little wheel at the front’ correlation between a tractor and a wheelchair, you can’t unsee it, which I figured was a great visual hook for the campaign. Though it took ages to get the actual image to work in both guises.

This image revealed itself through cleverly folded leaflets and a four page insert in Farmers Weekly, but it really came to life online with some banner ads, developed by Leigh Dunks and beautifully animated by Ed Lewis.

(Below are the clunky gifs. Ed’s flash banners are here and really worth a click.)

skyscraper_02         mpu_04

My industry peers seemed to dig the campaign, though while it was nominated for a total of four creative awards, only managed to reap a Bronze for Best Trade Campaign in that year’s Fresh Awards.

nfu mag 13

NFUM FW insert

4 page magazine insert in Farmer's Weekly
2011 | Farm safety Farmers Weekly insert

Now for someone writing a loosely farming-themed blog about his work, to be able to jump from an image of a tractor on a yellow background to another image of a tractor with a yellow background is a bit of a gift.

Tyrells bag sm
2012 | Tyrrell’s Furrows bag

I didn’t design this. Nor have I ever officially worked for Tyrrells, though I was asked some years ago to contribute a few ideas for some consumer and trade ads by Oxfordshire-based agency, Jump To.

Sadly no more, Jump To were long-standing creative associates of Vital and I first crossed paths with their MD and Creative Director, Mark Glynne-Jones, when we collaborated on a (as it turned out) award-winning viral game for Marston’s in 2002. I was more than happy to help out Mark with some thoughts on flogging crisps, especially because, while my Mum was a farmer’s daughter, my Dad worked at a potato merchants who supplied to the snack industry.

So if I didn’t design the Furrows bag and my relationship with the brand was tenuous at best, how come it made it to this little round-up?

Because a line from one of the ads I presented actually ended up appearing on the packet.

2009 | The original Tyrrell’s ad concept

I never even saw this until a year or so later. I was in the pub with Mark when he came back from the bar with a round and a couple of bags of Furrows. It was one of those jobs you do, then never hear anything and assume has just gone away, but I was happy that a little bit of that presentation saw the light of day.

It was fun to do and Tyrrell’s seemed like a nice bunch, but if you thought the ‘ploughing things in’ line was a terrible pun, you should have seen some of the others…

team scamps

200? | Tyrrell's ad concepts
2009 | Tyrrell’s ad concepts

The family connection not withstanding, my affinity with crisp bags actually goes way back to the beginning of my career, when as a youth I held a junior role at Teasdale Graphic Advertising.

Teasdales was headed up by an ex-Ogilvy Art Director and ran out of a purpose-built studio in the grounds of Redbourne Hall, set in more of that never-ending flat countryside.

I loved the place.

Among their clients (a lot of whom seemed to start with Lin – Lincat, Linpac, Linturf, er.. Lincoln City Council) was Scunny crisp maker Rileys who were part of Sooner Snacks, the home of Nik Naks and Wheat Crunchies. To be fair my job wasn’t much more than paid work experience, but I was let lose on paste-up artwork for crisp boxes, advertising a various promotional items.

Not much exists of that stuff now but I did find this beauty for sale on eBay for £1.99 but it didn’t even sell.

rileys crisps
c1989 | Rileys crisp packet

Having a relationship with the local go-to agency was a real asset in the final year of my BTEC at North Lindsey College and so in a bid to give my end of year project that whiff of authenticity, I invited them to play client, write a brief and review my designs like it was a real job. I was set the task of rebranding Wheat Crunchies. Ignoring the fact that they were baked in a big industrial oven I christened them Fried Pipers and created a jolly Thom Yorke-a-like piper character whose poor rat catching abilities were reinforced by the rodent on his shoulder. His pied outfit afforded a great opportunity to colour code the different flavours and I created the full suite of packaging, point of sale and even camera ready artwork with acetate separations made from bromides and rubylith and stuff.

The work earned me the top mark of my year and my future of one day coming up with a line that appeared on a bag of Tyrrell’s furrows was assured.

btec show 3 crop

btec show 1
1989 | My BTEC final year show

My job at Teasdales lasted into the first summer break from my degree in Coventry, where I returned to cover off the holidays of various designers taking their time off.

ghostbusters crisps
1989 | The Real Ghostbusters bag (Only 10p flash by me)

They kept me busy operating the PMT camera and general studio dogsbodying, though on my very last morning I was briefed on what, to this day, remains my only real contribution to popular culture. I became the guy who designed the ‘Only 10p’ flash on ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ potato snack bag. I was given a pretty free rein and the big book of Ghostbusters guidelines, but it was clear to me which direction this should take from the start. I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity on a simple old corner flash and I made it look like an unseen member of the Ghostbustin’ team were zapping and narrowly missing the famous ghost in the logo. I paid particular attention to the way the blast merged with the glow around the type and disappeared behind the ghost. See? I properly think about this stuff.

I remain immensely chuffed with this completely rubbish claim to fame.

My role as a designer has only ever been to play a small part in the food chain or merely grease the wheels of the farm machinery industry, but there’s poetry to me occasionally getting to work ‘in farming’.

All that said, my other Grandad was in the motor trade, though that’s a blog post for another day.


Arable Histories

Feast o’ Bunnies

Having a life that’s crammed with ‘stuff’ is great. 

I’d never knock being busy, but it does mean my well-intention blog only receives a bit of a tinker on high days and holidays.

An update’s been long overdue, so I thought I’d better get busy with the puns and hop to it.

When I started this, I was interested in looking back to see if there were any recurring themes among all the nonsense I’ve devoted myself to over the last 20 years. I figured there’d definitely be similar stylistic things or common industries that I could group together to tell a bit of a story, but one thing I didn’t expect to see was how often white rabbits have appeared.

And well, seeing as it’s Easter, I thought I’d stick a few up here as part of my continuing trawl through the archives…

NEMA 94 logo

Long before ‘digital’ was even called ‘new media’, it was called ‘multimedia’ and I was there, alongside my colleagues at Parenthesis, at the dawn of this revolution.

A client of ours at the time was NCET – The National Council for Educational Technology – a government quango set up to promote the use of computers in schools. One of the ways they would measure their success was to hold ‘The National Education Multimedia Awards’ to celebrate the work that children were producing with all the new tools at their disposal.

How my designs promoting the future of technology came to feature illustrations from the 1860s was right there in the brief for day one.

NEMA 94 brochure
1994 | The National Education Multimedia Awards brochure

To illustrate how multimedia could enrich any academic subject, the brief I received from the client included these opening lines from Alice in Wonderland:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

You have to appreciate that in those days I worked for lots of companies who made widgets and had names like ‘Planmatics’, so to receive a brief with such literary aspirations was a rare occurrence and one I embraced whole heartedly.

I’m sure there were other, more appropriately techy-looking creative solutions, offered in the initial presentation, but it was this wonderland theme that struck a chord.

1994 | The National Education Multimedia Awards Times Educational Supplement press ad

OK, it’s not like there’s any real pride to be had swinging off the coat tails of a great artists like John Tenniel, but there’s something I still quite like about that reappropriation of those illustrations and mixing them with the pixelated type. In a way, it reflects the age of sampling and mash-ups that the whole idea of ‘multimedia’ enabled.

Besides, that rabbit blowing someone’s trumpet and holding a rolled-up certificate was a bit of a gift.


1994 | The National Education Multimedia Awards event programme

This job landed on my desk about a year into my career and, rather than adapting existing templates or designing to strict corporate guidelines, was the first significant project I ever really remember ‘owning’ from the start.

All these years later I can clearly remember the input my Creative Director, Colin Higton, had on the brochure (adding the paper texture and the ‘down the rabbit hole’ type on the back page) and me also having a massive sulk when the text on the finished programme didn’t line up with the trumpet.

Of course, looking at it now, there are about it that make me cringe (like how that bit of type runs through the rabbit’s legs) but it’s interesting to note how the young me felt unbound by any ‘locked-up’ logos but how it still all hangs together quite well.

1994 | The National Education Multimedia Awards certificates

The event itself was hosted by the GamesMaster presenter Dominik Diamond at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, so I created a giant Ace of Diamonds character for him to stand next to on stage. Other than a bit of hand painting, it was the only of Sir John’s drawings I messed with.

1994 | The National Education Multimedia Awards exhibition panels and event set dressing

Ironically, for such a future-focused subject, everything was produced very traditionally. I had to photocopy the Tennial illustrations from an old book, blow them up then paint them with watercolours and the pixelated type was a achieved by removing the printer font before bromides were output. All the artwork was stuck on boards and a lot of the finishing, like adding gold tape and stickers to the winners’ certificates, I did myself.

The technology and convergence of media that all this promoted came to pass, NCET became BECTA, then ceased to exist, and two decades on, pasting up artwork feels as archaic as ploughing with horses.

16 years later my white rabbits were completely digital.

Having done lots of financial services work in my career, I have spent a lot of time trying to avoid wise old owls, piggy banks and squirrels squirreling things away for the future. Though these rampantly reproducing rabbits seemed the perfect metaphor for this animated web banner ad promoting a spread betting account…

2009 | E-Trade Spread Betting banner ad animation sequence

I worked on this with my longtime writer pal Dennis O’Neill and it was one of series of ads we did for the UK arm of E-Trade. I quite like how stylised and innocent the bunnies all look even though we know, by implication, they have been at it like, well, rabbits.

We had an arrangement with this client where we would come up with the ideas and pass over signed-off visuals for their in-house team to build the flash banners and translate the ideas to whatever else they needed for the campaign. They did a great job with this animation, the rabbits appearances were nicely timed and it was more fun than how these things usually ended up. I don’t have the final files to upload here so you’ll just have to imagine them popping up out of their holes whack-a-mole style.

It was always a bit weird to hand over work for a client to complete. Sometimes we’d get to see how things were translated across campaigns, other times we wouldn’t. I actually found this A5 flyer based on my rabbits in the street on my way to work one morning. It must have fallen out of someone’s copy of the Financial Times.

2009 | E-Trade Spread Betting press insert

My most recent rabbits were a favour for my friend Darren Goodwin.

Having bought a gift shop in Bourton-on-the-Water, he asked me to come up with a little logo. There wasn’t much of a brief beyond the name, so I had a free rein to experiment and throw various distinctly different rabbits into the pot to help him define the tone of his store…

2011 | White Rabbit logo options

Some of the ideas could have ended up quite ‘grown-up’ and some were out and out kiddyfied. My favourite was the one that didn’t show a rabbit at all, but rather a typeface suggesting a rabbit (all ears and a white bobtail) sat among a scatter of brown full stops.

In the end, the cute route was the way to go and this little carrot hugger nailed it…

2011 | White Rabbit logo

The shop sells a mix of homewares, gifts and food for Bourton’s ducks, but, as a fellow Star Wars fan and longtime dealer, Darren wanted to have a corner of the shop he could dedicate to sci-fi collectibles and such like. As a way of zoning and promoting this element of the store I duly received a request to ‘swap the carrot for a lightsaber’.

There aren’t that many obvious connections between rabbits and the Star Wars universe, unless of course you count this dude from the Marvel comics of the 1970s…

(Not the Star Wars Expanded Universe’s finest hour)

But other than Jaxxon the giant green space bunny, I couldn’t see a way of convincingly tying the two together, until I considered where the white rabbit might live…

Star Warren
2011 | White Rabbit’s Star Warren

Just no one tell George, OK?

Happy Easter x


Feast o’ Bunnies

Some Crackers and a Few Turkeys

It could be as simple as a nice picture of a robin with Merry Christmas written on it.

It could be.

But it never, ever is.

Welcome to the magical, last-minute, ‘don’t-spend-too-much-but-it’s-got-to-be-more-creative-than-everyone-else’s’ world of the agency Christmas card.

My first experience of the company seasonal greeting came in 1992, six months into my first job. There was a recession on that year. Much the same as the economically shit time we are having at the moment, only with less internet.

I’m not sure whose idea it was to send out a humbug to our clients. It could have been me, but I’m sure I’d have kept one of them as a sample if that were the case. As it is, I scanned this in from the Parenthesis 25th anniversary yearbook

1992 Humbug
1992 | Merry Bloody Christmas

The brown paper thing was something our Creative Director, Colin Higton, loved to do, though the typography is very Alan Fisher. Regardless of its creative origins, I do remember helping to attach a whole load of these labels, as well as helping myself to a whole load of humbugs.

Having set the creative ‘bah’ one notch above ‘a nicely designed card’ in my first year of employment, we excelled ourselves the following year…

1993 Build your own Snowman
1993 | DIY Snowman Assembly Kit

Little did I know that when I came up with this amazingly original idea in 1993, that I’d see a variation on the same theme done by someone else every year that followed.

In 2012 the Chairman’s Award in the Chip Shops went to this and something very similar features in this trailer for The Snowman and The Snowdog.

While this one was my baby, executionally it was another team effort. My job was to draw the snowman blueprint and to eat as may liquorice pipes as I could shove down my gob.

By 1994 our hand-crafted Christmas mailings reached their zenith with this complicated and slightly pretentious offering…

1994 Candle
1994 | So Shines a Good Deed

If the previous year’s concept was me reflecting on the great snowmen we made as kids, this was a throwback to my time in the British Spy Association. As a nine-year old secret service agent it was imperative that I always sent out secret messages written in lemon juice, that then had to be heated over a candle to be decoded.

This grown-up version was based on a quote from The Merchant of Venice. ‘How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ (also misquoted in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factor as ‘weary world’) and came with a candle, stand, match and paper scroll all tied in a literal bow.

By this time Hannah Bird had joined our all male studio and I remember her taking a big lead in making this one happen.

1994 Candle sequence sm
1994 | Interactive, engaging and highly flammable

We re-lanched from a design partnership to a limited company in 1995 and completely rebranded the agency. The Christmas card for that year reflected the new ‘retro found images with orange highlights’ identity, casting ourselves as clip-art on a stark white background. Quite a cute idea, but let down by the terrible in-house photography.

missing card
1995 | Parenthesites

What came next is unclear.

Perhaps we were burnt out by the increasingly elaborate mailings of previous years? Or maybe we were just busy? But the Parenthesis Christmas card for 1996 is a bit hazy.

I’m pretty sure we had a humbug-style relapse and sent out a blank card with the message ‘Christmas is What You Make It!’ (We didn’t even send out a little pack of crayons or anything to go with it.) It probably came across as mean-spirited and half-arsed as it undoubtedly was. I remember it being talked about, but I couldn’t say for sure we went ahead with it.

But hey, that was just a blip because by the time 1997 rolled around we were back on top form with a card that promoted the joys of getting drunk and smoking fags…

1997 Guiness & fags
1997 | Get merry this Christmas

As an agency, smoking tabs and drinking Guinness was very ‘us’. We were a young agency, staffed by young people with little responsibility outside our jobs and we had a tendency to live in each other’s pockets.

God knows what our clients thought of this – especially that dodgy looking ‘cigarette’ –  though this still wasn’t the most offensive card we ever sent out.

This one was…

1998 What a mess
1998 | Christ What a Mess!

In 1998 the agency was on the up.

And as we grew upwards, we grew outwards too.

That winter we were in the midst of converting a boat workshop into a swish new studio and it was the pain of working around the mess and disruption that birthed the worst pun I have ever got into print.

Christ What a Mess!

1998 Christ mess
1998 | Heralding our new premises

In the early days of her career Rachel Cooper (as she was then) took the moody black and white mess shots and Ian ‘Mad Dog’ Davies did the shiny 3D renders of the new studio. It was a massive deal in our world at the time, but I doubt many other people really cared.

But we did get a call from a committed Christian client who in no uncertain terms requested we never contacted them again.


One of the benefits of our growth, however, was the sprouting of our own photography arm – Brackets – and we embarked on the most laboured series of ‘meet the team’ website portraits in the history of ‘meet the team’ photography.

Because we could.

We ended up with a great set of images intended to show the breadth of our workforce to all of our clients. Everyone was asked to bring in a prop that reflected their interests and it wasn’t a massive stretch to suggest that these were actually unwrapped gifts on our 1999 Christmas card.

Ooh look, Santa’s bought Tim Empson a pint of Guinness.

1999 long strip sq

1999 pdmc spread
1999 | The massed ranks of Parenthesis

As the Parenthesis star continued to ascend, we made friends in the industry and ‘rival’ agencies found themselves on our Christmas list.

Talk about pressure.

Looking back I’m sure I had one eye on my peers as an audience when I came up with this graphic design in-joke…

2000 Scalpel tree
2000 | Scalpel Christmas Tree

This one is very evocative of the days before pdfs and Powerpoint ‘decks’, when we cut out lots of things and blunted lots of scalpel blades. It’s actually one of my favourites. The embossed blades were a black and metallic silver duotone and the star and plant pot were die-cut in the front of the card.

We must have had a quiet November in 2001 as, inspired by load more Parenthesite photos, I got my shit together early enough to put together an advent calendar.

I still love these images taken from some 1970s wrapping paper, though I always thought that four-colour orange looked ‘peachy’ (though not in a good way).

2001 advent calendar front

2001 advent calendar both
2001 | Countdown to Christmas advent calendar

By the time it came to designing the 2002 Christmas greeting, I was working my notice.

I did develop a digital card with Dave Evans that was based on a PC progress window. The bar would slowly move across while the animated text underneath would say things like, ‘Downloading: Maids a-milking 2 of 8, Geese a-laying 4 of 6’, etc. When it got to the end and it reveal a simple ‘Happy Christmas’.

We thought it was quite sweet.

Everyone who watched it said it took too long to load and not much happened at the end.

It never ran. I remember there being lots of huffing and rolling of eyes, and some muttering about ‘donating some money to charity’, by which point I had packed up my pencil-case and was out of the Canal Basin Warehouse door forever.

Fast forward a year and I was coming to the end of my very short-lived career in creative recruitment at Big fish.

Big fish recruitment logo copy
2003 | Big fish logo (by James Packer)

I’d inherited this logo, which I didn’t mind. I think everyone assumed I had done it, but it had already been created by a nice chap called James at BMB by the time I was on board. While it wasn’t strictly my job to handle the marketing, I inevitably muscled in and took over things like the recruitment ads and of course, bashing out a quick Christmas card.

When you look at the logo it’s not hard to see where the snowman came from.

2003 Big fish card
2003 | Big fish

I joined Vital towards the beginning of December 2003 and their card for that year was already well underway, but I did arrive in time to sign it.

The logo at the beginning of my tenure had been in place for a year or so, but despite a few people’s different attempts to explain what the silver and red dots were supposed to represent, I was never 100% convinced by it.

Old Vital logo

I spent the next couple of years trying to make them relevant in a number of different ways (which I am sure the blog will cover at some point) though when it came to Christmas 2004, I thought they were crying out to become physical baubles.

I forget why this never went ahead – sourcing, timescales, cost or some other equally valid reason. The one-off prototype is rumoured to still exist at Malcolm’s house and he’s been promising to bring it in for me to photograph, but in the meantime, here’s an artist’s impression…

Vital baubles
2004 | Vital baubles concept

So anyway, that year the red dot ended up being a holly berry instead, and some spot UV and die-cutting later this spiritual successor to 2000’s scalpel tree was the result…

2005 Holly leaf
2004 | Holly Leaf

The following year when the Christmas card brief flew into the studio I ducked and it hit my pal, then Deputy Creative Director, Paul Beacham, square in the chops.

Paul was always a bit of a Flash whizz and with cute critters being a bit of a speciality, it was his turn to try and turn the Vital dots into something…

Robin 3
2005 | Clever Wee Robin (by Paul Beacham)

By Christmas 2006 the dots were no more, having been replaced by my visual identity that featured the handwriting of everyone who worked at the agency.

This was our first card under the new look, so it was only proper that it featured the gaffer’s Vital flipped in a ‘Vision On‘ style to form the shape of another Christmas tree…

2006 Vital tree
2006 | Vital signature tree

In 2007, and following the release An Inconvenient Truth, the green agenda had risen to the point where it had stopped being corporate rhetoric and people were actually starting to take action. Leamington was still a few years away receiving domestic recycling boxes however, and this cute idea was born out of seeing the new year recycling schemes that were taking place at a few of the chain stores in town.

Basically a brown envelope, it was deliberately under-designed with simple, one-colour line art, and a message inside encouraging people to use it to collect all their other cards in and take them to be recycled.

It was simple, cheap and, from what I remember, went down really well.

2007 Recyled
2007 | Christmas Has Come Around Again

Then the economy fell off a cliff. If we hadn’t already made a shift away from shiny cards with high production values, we would have done in 2008.

My response to those particular belt-tightening festivities were ‘The Twelve Tips of Thriftmas’, an idea which our writer Dennis O’Neill and designer Lisa Preece developed, delivering a charming series of animated emails in a suitably witty and whimsical style…

thrift all
2008 | The Twelve Tips of Thriftmas (by Dennis O’Neill and Lisa Preece)

It’s interesting to see how, with the continued slog of a poor economy and the rise of crafting, how relevant this one is four years later.

Another sign of those times was the upped investment in Vital’s digital team and for Christmas 2009 we entered the crowded market of creative agency online games. As a first stab, this was incredibly well received by our clients, suppliers and peers and the leader board got quite competitive. Created entirely by Leigh Dunks and Rob Wilson, the marriage of stylised graphics and gameplay were spot on.

(It was actually re-skinned slightly and is enjoying a second life on Olympic skier, Dave Ryding’s website if you feel compelled to have a go.)

2009 | Snowball Fight (by Leigh Dunks and Rob Wilson)

If Vital’s Snowball Fight was Star Wars, 2010’s Rooftop Drop was The Empire Strikes Back.

A darker, more visually rich sequel that picked up where the previous instalment left off. Helmed this time by Graeme Longstaff,  though again built by Rob, Santa travelled across the rooftops as the player tried to aim the deposits from his sack.

UPDATE: Rob has just pointed me in the direction of this one. It’s covered in two year’s worth of pixel dust, but you can have a go here.

santa hero frame
2010 | Rooftop Drop (by Graeme Longstaff and Rob Wilson)

It was tempting to have a ‘Richard Marquand‘ come in and complete a trilogy of games, but after two in a row there was an appetite to go back to something physical and I was keen that we revisited one of the more creative and ownable self-promotional things we’d ever put our name on.

The irony of recycling our own recycling idea was not lost on me.

Vital xmas card front

2011 VITAL Xmas card
2011 | Turn Your Christmas Card Into Trees

I’d always thought that this idea had more mileage than being a one-off thing. Despite using recycled paper and stock from managed forests, I do wonder how many more trees would be around if I’d not been doing this job for two decades.

Not that I want to get all ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on your ass.

So it was that we dusted off the concept, reworked it under a new headline ‘Turn Your Christmas Cards Into Trees’ and commissioned Paul Barton to make it beautifully reflect the current Vital identity.

Last year it reached more people, in higher places and the feedback was even more positive, so we decided to enter it into a few awards. A Gold in The Roses Creative Awards and three nominations in Midlands Cream later, I’m glad to have brought the idea out of retirement.

Roses in drum 2012 screen
2012 | Best Self Promotion in The Roses Creative Awards

When the headlines about Ash Dieback stared to appear at the end of the summer, I figured it’d be the right thing to do to keep this one running. Paul and I collaborated again to create this version highlighting the current woodland crisis…

Vital card 2012
2012 | 2011’s card repackaged

We owe it to the trees, man.

Special thanks to everyone who worked with me on this stuff and especially Tim, Nicola and Jeremy who ultimately signed it all off.

Merry Christmas one and all x


Some Crackers and a Few Turkeys

The Bank Account

Working for big names can be great.

Bands that your mum or the kids you went to school with might have heard of. The ones on the telly, or on the high street, ones with lots of customers and big budgets to do the cool stuff you’ve always wanted to do.

Though sometimes the bigger the brand, the fatter the dark underbelly us creative souls have to square our consciences with.

For every bouncy sports shoe there’s a faint whiff of child labour, for every milky coffee there’s an aftertaste of exploited farmer and for every miracle cure there’s the legacy of a lab rat doped up to the eyeballs.

I’m a ‘commercial artist’ and this is part of a world I opted into, as much as it is a part of the world we all live in everyday.

I’m paid to dress other people’s products and services in their Sunday Best and introduce them to folk who might like to make their acquaintance, and through circumstance, rather than any great plan, I have ended up working for a fair few financial services organisations.

In particular a big blue bank.

One thing I’m not going to do is bite the hand that feeds me by spelling out all the ways the world of banking has got it wrong over the last few years, but if you’re interested in how I went from promoting other agencies’ life insurance campaigns to personally helping define how the bank spoke to their customers around the world, read on…

Back in the days when I first worked for them, banks were still pillars of the community run by Mr Mainwaring types. In fact, my own bank account was still held in the small village where I grew up. I could phone and speak to people who actually worked there and they’d ask how my mum was, sorted out any problems I had with my overdraft and be helpful, courteous and generally not try and flog me stuff I didn’t want.

So, when the small agency where I started my career won a pitch for a big high street bank in 1998, we were all rightly excited. At the time they were certainly the biggest name we managed to add to the client list, and the work was regular and relatively creative, though, looking back, not the most beautiful thing I have ever been involved with.

1998 – 1999 | Campaign briefing publications

While proper grown-up agencies came up with branch campaigns for a succession of different products, our job was to communicate to the staff in the branches what the campaigns were about and specifically what they had to do to make them a success. The branches were bombarded with various communications from head office, so the more gimmicky we made this stuff, the better chance it had of getting noticed and used.

We inherited that nasty ‘Campaign’ masthead, and while we smarted it up a bit, concentrated our efforts on making the documents as engaging and as user-friendly as possible. We threw everything we could afford to do at these – sliding panels, lift-up flaps, sales trackers and sticker sheets plus every issue came with a pre-printed post-it note to stick on cashiers tills.

It was fun to lead the creative on all this work for a while, but ultimately some streamlining at their end sought to stop their internal flood of ‘paper communications’ and Campaign, as a briefing document, was effectively banned, though motivating and incentivising the staff wasn’t.

Inspired, in some respects, by the story of the Trojan horse, I came up with the idea of sending relevant ‘gifts’ to key people in the branches as a way of smuggling the same campaign info.

Like on these shopping bag tags and wallet inserts…

1999 | Campaign giveaways

It was probably this innovation that won us a silver Cream Award in 1999.

(And in fishing this out of the archive and scanning it, I’ve just noticed that Vital got a bronze.)

We did three or four gift format issues before our particular client’s team was disbanded. Parenthesis went on to do a couple of internal training jobs before the account fizzled away, as these things can so often do.

I figured that would be the last I’d ever work for that particular bank, and certainly thought it would be the closest I’d get to ever doing a high street branch campaign, but one of my first freelance jobs for Vital would prove that wrong.

2003 | Bristol branch Christmas window

Vital were about 18 months into a relationship with the Retail Banking team and were working on a brief to see what effect making more of their window space would have on have on footfall. The initial pilot was slated for the Christmas shopping period, when the neighbouring shops would be using their own windows to full effect.

To be honest at that point I’d never done a shop window before, so it was a bit of a fluke that three of the five biro scamps that I showed Vital as ‘work in progress’ were shared with the client and signed of with no changes.

With little else to go on other than the ‘Win a Mortgage’ campaign posters that was running at the time, it was a simple case of taking my cue from the illustrations of the rosette and window arch and creating something a bit Christmassy in the same style and colour palette.

The hanging 3D displays were made from cut polystyrene, which proved so lightweight and practical that we adopted it for a lot of the subsequent campaigns. Key flagship branches in Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff and London were chosen to receive these treatments, though in addition Manchester got a grab-a-grand style installation that wafted fake money around a window like a snow globe. Shame that the fan that powered the vortex proved so noisy that the branch staff kept turning it off.

2003 | Flagship branch Christmas windows

Although it was a campaign that focused on an eerie eyeless Santa and featured no messaging beyond, ‘We’re forcing a smile ‘cos it’s Christmas’, it must have been deemed a success (or at least worthy of further exploration) as it became the first of many windows I went on to design for them.

Not long after this, the bank’s brand underwent a refresh and their already minimal and angular illustration style was simplified even further to two colours and the sole use of rectangular blocks affectionately referred to as ‘ingots’. These were created by Williams Murray Hamm, whose brilliant Hovis and Jaffa Cakes packaging were big news in the design world at the time. Along with simplifying the eagle (which is still in use today) this stark constructivist illustration style was a brave move. It did result in a quite a striking suite of bank literature, and as a graphic designer I quite enjoyed the challenge of working with such limited tools, though the marketeer in me struggled with the cold, hard-edged feel.

Among the other work that we were doing at the time were ‘template ads’. With BBH, their lead ad agency, busy with the main product campaigns, it fell to us to re-skin existing ads and later create fresh ads as they were needed in the new style.

Here are a few of mine that turned out OK…

2004 – 2005 | Above-the-line template ads

There was often a bit of debate around diluting the purity of the ingots by joining them together to make a line, but I always tried to stay true to the basic principles.

When it came to our next big 3D window execution, it couldn’t have been more ingot-y.

2004 | Manchester branch window

Hanging these buggers was a nightmare but the combination of the window vinyls and the blocks created quite a nice effect when you walked past to the point where everything lined up.

2004 | Flagship branch windows

By the time next Christmas came around there was the appetite (and budget) to make a bit more of a splash for the festive season.

Though this year, rather than leading with vague brand messages, this activity was actually flogging something – a  credit card with 0% interest for 6 months. It’s not a big leap to marry the idea of a ‘card’ with ‘Christmas’ so the ‘Only card you’ll need this Christmas’ idea felt like a clear enough message for a window execution.

As their sister card company operated under a different set of visual rules the ingots were out, though I referenced their shape and colours in the gifts that accompanied the giant card sat on top of an oversized fireplace.

2004 | Cardiff branch Christmas window

Unlike the previous year this scheme was much richer, the fire gave off a flickering glow and hanging lights and garlands added a cosy appeal as late night shoppers went about their business. One little touch I also fought for was sticking charity logos on the backs of the other prop cards on the mantlepiece as a bit of free advertising for them inside the branches.

2004 | Flagship branch Christmas windows

I like Christmas, much more than I like football anyway.

While I find it hard to get excited about financial services products, it was just as much as a stretch to get excited about the bank’s sponsorship of the Premiership football league. Luckily I was working alongside enough people who appreciated the significance of each individual player while I concentrated on making it all look pretty.

2004-6 | Premiership flagship branch windows

It was through a combination of these special flagship windows and the above-the-line work on the template ads that we were eventually handed the prime job of creating and delivering the national in-branch campaigns on a rolling basis.

This was great work to have and a privileged position to be in and our first brief was for a tie-in with a well-known family film company and the government’s Child Trust Fund hand-outs.

We threw ourselves into it as this old pic of a boardroom full of early scamps testifies…

2005 | Child Trust Fund campaign scamps

My eldest son was four at the time and it was great coming up with ideas for this campaign, though the final executions don’t quite reflect some of the joyous kid-friendly creativity that came out in the initial ideas. Sadly, what innovative stuff the client didn’t reject, the well-known family film company did.

2005 | In-branch Child Trust Fund poster

Still, there were a few cute bits that made it through, but the compromises that came from a long and complex sign-off procedure proved to be a recurring theme of these campaigns.

At least they didn’t try and make us create Winnie the Pooh out of ingots.

2005 | National Child Trust Fund branch campaign

By the time the next branch campaign came around for free National Trust days out with every ISA, the ingots started to show their limitations in creating a warm, engaging campaign at street level.

The creative on this really went around the houses as we tried various ways of appealing to an older audience only using blue blocks. In the end the rules were relaxed, a warmer colour was reintroduced and the final work appropriated the old cliché of oak trees as a visual link with the National Trust’s acorn logo, while the copy played on the word ‘trust’.

2005 | ISA campaign branch window

The in-branch material played on the days-out theme and included oversized tickets and ‘leather’ bookmark giveaways – a National Trust gift shop favourite.

2005 | National ISA branch campign

We’d work on these in-branch campaigns at the same time BBH would work on the above-the-line campaigns. As our lead times were longer we would often have a head start and get to steer the creative, other times, it’d be down to us to interpreted their strategy into the branch environment, like with this insurance campaign…

2005 | Cardiff flagship branch window

The original idea used the 1,000,000,000 which we integrated into the word ‘billion’ to make the point that bit clearer. There’s nothing subtle or clever about selling insurance, so the rest of the job was to present the message as clearly as possible.

And the big polystyrene cut-outs made another reappearance.

2005 | National insurance branch campaign

While these were great projects, it was hard, demanding work. Lots of great ideas were presented, and lots were rejected. The creative had to jump through a number of hoops and changes in strategy were often made along the way. As things were deliberated internally the deadlines loomed larger, though the massive volume of individual items that had to be produced never changed.

I won’t begin to pretend that these were all my own work as so many people have to work together to deliver jobs of this scale, but out of all the campaigns we did, these were the ones I can claim the most creative ownership of.

By this point the strong style of the ingot illustrations had been diluted to the point of blandness and the brand’s positioning of being ‘experts’ felt out of step with a world where the internet was making the world a less formal place and smoothie bottles wanted to be your best mate.

When a change of management at the top brought about a dramatic change in tone for the brand, Vital were well placed to bring it to life in one of its key touch points – the high street branch.

It was a pretty open brief too and we put aside a day to sit in a room with the client to talk about the possibilities.

Rather than turn up with no ideas, I gave it some thought on the train on the way down though kept coming back to how much I hated the pens chained to counters. They are such a symbol of mistrust – we trust the banks with our salaries and they don’t trust us with a 30p biro.

It thought freeing them was the least the bank could do.

Of all the ideas we ended up putting forward this was the one that struck a chord, not only with the new Brand Director but with the press when the ‘new friendlier branches’ were launched.

2006 | ‘Pen Point’ Guardian cartoon by Kipper Williams

There can’t be that many below-the-line ideas that have made the Guardian cartoon.

Everything a customer came into contact with in the branch was up for grabs. We softened and humanised  the language where we could and worked with Interbrand who were creating the new visual identity to help determine a new tone of voice which was adopted in branches around the world.

Admittedly we went too far sometimes and occasionally some of it got downright surreal, but it got noticed and shook things up and soon other banks and similar institutions followed suit. It even inspired the wrath of verbose curmudgeon and pop-culture commentator, Charlie Brooker. Which, as a big fan, I was secretly quite pleased about.

Freeing the pens was a metaphorical act that, at the same time, removed one little annoyance from the branches and I always smile when someone unwittingly produces one from their pocket or handbag.

While they have their fans, they have also inspired a series of artworks commenting on the recession, though this remains my favourite sighting.

It would be in very bad taste for a bank to adopt such an all-out chummy persona in 2012, but throughout the more recent seismic shifts in the public perception of banks, the pens have endured. The design and the messages have changed but go into any branch and you can still ‘steal’ a pen.

And to this day the guy who commissioned the work is out there telling people it was his idea.

That’s OK. I guess, he paid for me to have it on his behalf.

This new, brighter, friendly bank was much more fun to work with and, as an agency, we entered a bit of a golden period where the work was judged much more on its wit and visual appeal.

2006 | Travel money and student insurance branch posters

And the illustration style was dropped in favour of much more playful cut-out photography.

2006 | Image from extended travel insurance offer poster

The branch campaigns kept us very busy, but so too did the above-the-line work, with tactical ads in the national press and campaigns for the bank’s stockbroking arm, though despite the fresher look the good stuff was still sometimes hard to get through. For instance, the original line for the SIPP ad below was ‘Dance Pension, Dance’, but I got to be the hand model, so it wasn’t all bad.

2006 | Tactical press ads

One of my favourite ads from this time was essentially a rework of the ‘ingot telescope’ ad near the top of this page. Inspired by the teaching of money matters in schools and community groups, the art direction is clearly from the mind of a dad who had new-born twins and a son at primary school…

2006 | Community template ad

We even found ourselves working on more strategic briefs like: What can we do to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the fist ATM – sorry – ‘Hole in the Wall’ (TM).

2007 | Hole in the Wall 40th birthday campaign

This visual identity was adopted so wholeheartedly by all of their agencies that after 18 months everything being produced to the white space, cut-out image, blue box template had started to look the same, so it was time for another change.

This was our penultimate branch campaign and was created during the transition. Based around little insights into the British summer it featured some of the most light-hearted work in one of the most cohesive themes we ever managed to get signed off.

2007 | Summer branch campaign window

Pasty white legs, ice cream prices that go up every year and banana boats all featured in a campaign that ran during one of the coldest, wettest summers in history.

2007 | ‘You know it’s summer when…’ national branch campaign

Eventually there was another change of management at the top and things transformed again. The branch campaign material became ‘more closely aligned’ to the above-the-line creative and over a relatively short space of time I found myself working almost exclusively for their slightly funkier credit card company and less and less for the bank itself. (But that’s another tale for another day.)

Not long after, the big banks collapsed in on themselves and today jolly banana boat posters feel like relics from another age.

Then, as one final footnote to this story, there’s this…

2012 | Student insurance poster concept

I’ve you’ve read all these words and not just looked at the pictures, firstly ‘well done’, there can’t be many of you, and secondly, you’ll have spotted more than one reference to concepts that never saw the light of day.

Well, sometimes it’s hard to get those ideas out of one’s system and when Vital decided to enter some work into the Chip Shop Awards this year, I remixed this little rejected scamp into the current identity and stuck it in the ‘Work for a Brand You Have but Have no Chance of Running’ category.

It not only went on to win a Big Chip, but was also awarded silver in the ‘Idea That Never Made It’ category in this year’s Fresh Awards.

Proof, if any were needed, that good creative can win out in the end.



The Bank Account

Mid-Century Modern Love

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about the fifties.

It’s certainly been a recurring theme in my work and as I look through the archives, it’s dotted with (often freebie) jobs that have allowed me to play about with various styles and motifs that are all in some way rooted in the atomic age.

So, with all things vintage enjoying a bit of a fashion moment, I thought it’d be cool to keep calm and carry some crap down from the attic and spread it all out on the formica topped-table that is this blog.

Hitting my teens in the mid-eighties, the fifties was like the eighties is to today’s sideways-haired young people. Nick Kamen was dropping his kecks in laundrettes, Morrissey was posing with his Billy Fury albums in Smash Hits, the Live Aid poster featured a classic Wurlitzer jukebox and Hi-Di-Hi never seemed to be off the telly.

Though it wasn’t until a chance encounter with a genuine slice of real-deal 1950s some years later that I became truly smitten.

Wisconsin Dells
Welcome to Wonderful Wisconsin

Exactly how my best friend Danny and I ended up spending three months of 1991 working in a holiday camp in Wisconsin is a tale of laziness and bad planning I will save for another day, but finding myself in the fifties resort that time forgot turned out to be an absolute treat.

Today the Wisconsin Dells claims to be the Waterpark Capital of the World, and to be fair there were a couple there 20-odd years ago, but what there were lots more of were original googie-style motels and roadside signs. These had sprung up in its heyday as a tourist destination centred around river cruises through a landscape of unusual natural rock formations.

‘The strip’ was a riot of bold colour, odd angles, jaunty typefaces and fair bit of neon, though the faded glamour of it all gave things an added dimension that appealed no-end to a design school student from a depressed industrial town in the north of England.

Many of the signs look like they are still there, as this more recent Flickr set by repowers shows.

When I wasn’t washing the pots and trying not to confuse the meat plates with the dairy plates in the strict kosher kitchen, I would poke about the antique shops of Lake Delton, soaking up the Americana and wishing I had a few more dollars and a bigger rucksack to my name. In the end, all I managed to carry across North America and back home with me were two issues of The American magazine and a handful of old leaflets.

The American magazine
My May 1952 issue of The American magazine

I loved everything about it – the optimistic illustration style, the photography, the type, the layout, the earnest cheesiness of it all – and it wasn’t long before it before it inspired one of my final year graphics projects.

We were briefed to create a programme for a production of the 16th century opera – Les Boréades – a rather heavy-going work with a plot involving someone being in love with someone they shouldn’t and Gods behind the scenes pulling strings. To my mind there were enough parallels to transpose the story from its ancient Greek setting into McCarthy-era America.

So I did.

My research extended to getting ‘Guilty by Suspicion‘ out on video and I had this ‘big idea’ about the red star of communism being stitched over some of the white stars in the American flag. I borrowed a flag from my mate Andrew who worked at the DeVere hotel and sewed the stars on myself, though it sort of lost something in the blue and white duotone execution.

No idea why I did that.

A fair few of the images were lifted straight from my cherished copy of The American and reappropriated to illustrate the plot points outlined in the synopsis. There’s some pretty dire typesetting in evidence too.

Les Boréades college project
1991 | Les Boréades programme (college project)

One of my more subtle 1950s graphic influences was a set of The Modern Children’s Library of Knowledge encyclopedias.

Handed to me over the garden fence by my next-door neighbour, these reference books, published in 1957 were my Google all through my school days. If it wasn’t in here it wasn’t worth knowing. There were six Ladybird book-esque volumes, covering various topics and full of great illustrations of wholesome fifties kids collecting tadpoles in jam jars and stuff. How I ever passed my O Levels with such up-to-date information at my fingertips, I’m not sure.

(In the process of writing this I’ve looked them up online to discover there were eight volumes in total. Now I’m feeling like I’ve been cheated out of part of my education. Anyway, there are some nice pics of their inside pages in MuppetLabs’ Flickr set here.)

1957 The Modern Children's Library of Knowledge
The Modern Children’s Library of Knowledge published in 1957

Some years later I found myself working on a brief for a government quango concerned with promoting the use of technology in schools. Fondly remembering my old encyclopedias, and in particular ‘The World of Science and Invention’, one option I proposed mixed the retro schoolkids with a modern (for the early nineties) font.

It was rejected out of hand when the client pointed out that, at the time, there were still text books from that era in circulation in schools.

Scamped concepts for training manuals
c1993 | NCET Science Series (rejected concept)

That idea didn’t go away though, and a bit of that job, as well as Les Boréades, made its way into one of the longest-lived corporate identities I have ever worked on.

Launched in 1995 the multi-faceted vintage clip-art-tastic Parenthesis identity ran for about 15 years, and was so full of cute little touches I fully intend to devote a blogpost to the full suite of work. But for now here’s just a tiny selection of bits and bobs that were created.

Parenthesis Design & Marketing Communications stationery
1995 – 2010 | Parenthesis Design & Marketing Communications visual identity

One of the few times I’ve got to do some fifties-style stuff for a fee-paying client was for the same homebrew company I did Wine in Time for. Prohibition originally had a 1920s theme – hence the name and the wide-shouldered box – but my brief to refresh things for a new range led me straight to different era of high cocktail consumption.

The pattern on the red box first appeared in the Les Boréades job though they were mainly inspired by the Ultralounge compilations and a mirror-backed cocktail cabinet we had at home.

There’s still a bit of a whiff of Tom Cruise about them though.

Prohibition spirit kit
c1998 | Prohibition cocktail range packaging

The work I get to do for Raquel Rouge affords me plenty of opportunity to muck about with lots of retro fonts and imagery and occasionally that spills over into favours for the Team Rouge extended family, like these flyers for vintage hair stylist, Jeni Aldridge…

Vintage hairdressing flyer
2009 | Jeni Aldridge vintage hairdressing flyer

It was also via the murky graphic design underworld of favours-for-favours and payment in kind that I came to do this little job for a start-up bakery in return for a bit of web building by that digital bloke, Rob Wilson.

I was quite pleased with it too, until I was later reminded of the classic Boddington’s pint with a quiff ad by BBH which must have been rattling around my subconscious. Oh well.

Cake, Rattle & Roll cupcake logo
2010 | Cake, Rattle & Roll bakery logo

Far and away the most retro fun I have with any job must be the Garter Lounge posters.

I’ve worked on these for the burlesque starlet and promoter Darkteaser over the last three years and, as I get a pretty free rein on them, they’ve become my playground to try different stuff out. Flitting around whatever eras and styles take my fancy, some just take style cues from the past, while others have been more of a straight pastiche.

I’ll post some others another time, but there are a couple with a strong fifties flavour, like the one for the Halloween show in 2009 which took a strong lead from the B-movie posters of the time.

B Movie posters
1950s vintage B-movie posters
Almost Halloween Darkteaser's Garter Lounge poster
2009 | Almost Halloween Darkteaser’s Garter Lounge poster

To be honest, you see this sort of thing a lot ‘on the scene’ but I think the extra work in making it look like a genuinely cheaply printed poster of the era pays off. If you click it a couple of times you’ll see the halftone screen on the images and how I managed to make it look like the ink has bled.

While it’s maybe one of the more obvious all the posters I’ve done, it’s always been the most popular and has graced the pages of both Burlesque Bible and Photo Pro magazines.

Garter Lounge poster in the press
2010 – 2012 | Garter Lounge poster in Burlesque Bible and Photo Pro magazines

When the Garter Lounge grew out of its working-men’s club origins and into the sumptuous Assembly in Leamington, I wanted to reflect the change with a more showgirly take on the proceedings and looked to more glamorous old style cosmetics ads and Vegas paraphernalia for inspiration.

Vegas glamour
1950s glamour Las Vegas style
Darkteaser's Garter Lounge poster
2011 | Darkteaser’s Garter Lounge poster

The keen-eyed among you will notice that the atomic stars from Jeni’s flyer make another appearance.

I love doing the burlesque posters, and reviving of these old graphic styles suits the promotion of a revived artform. I think for this stuff to work it has to be relevant to the subject, as most of this is. Well, maybe apart from the NCET job which never happened anyway.

Before Christmas I caught a tweet flying around calling for help with a history festival that a group of volunteers were putting on in my home town. With it being Jubilee year a lot of the events had a fifties theme, though the headline event featuring one of my heroes Tony Benn, swung it enough for me to stick my hand in the air and volunteer Vital’s services.

A mixed bag of walks, talks, performances and events, the first job was to unite the festival under one identity. I developed a few routes, that all attempted to make the event look vaguely retro while broadly accessible – with varying degrees of success. The clear winner managed to balance the long name ‘Leamington’, introduce a backwards-looking eye and just about avoid the red, white and blue colour scheme that is dominating this particular summer.

Leamington Looks Back logo
2012 | Leamington Looks Back logo

It also set up some simple graphic assets and a strong palette that were easy to use to create a cohesive set of communications. Together with my Vital colleague Nick Whitehouse, we helped build a simple WordPress template that the organisers could pick up , populate and manage, in addition to coordinating a bit of social media and creating Flickr group to encourage local folk to share images of the festival and their town.

Leamington looks back website
2012 | Leamington Looks Back WordPress site

It was always the intention of the festival to have a wider appeal beyond the history buffs that would seek out the activities anyway, so while it would have been easy to get carried away and make everything look like avant-garde Blue Note jazz covers, I did try to give it a family friendly populist touch.

Look, there’s even a little girl with a jaunty hat on it and everything!

Leamington Looks Back poster

Another key element for me was to include as many photos of old Leamington as I could possibly cram into the 32 page programme. Everyone likes looking at old photos of their high street and working out what shops are now.

Leamington Looks Back programme
2012 | Leamington Looks Back programme

One of the visuals in my first presentation to the organisers was a poster for the Tony Benn event to show how the identity could be applied in different ways across different things. It ended up going to print, pretty much as it was.

The Writing on the Wall poster
2012 | The Writing on the Wall event poster

Though I also thought this design lent itself to doing some old school screen prints too, so I contacted Warwickshire College School of Arts where I act as an Industry Advisor, to pull a favour. From a technical point of view it turned out the modern water-based inks were too opaque to do the overprint-y colour mix-y thing where the circles overlapped, but four head scratching plate separations later I was round at the college getting my hands dirty.

It’d been a long time since my early atrocious attempts in this media when I was at North Lindsey, so massive thanks to the technician Charlie, who not only made it all happen, but did the majority of the work. It’s a clarty old process and, as someone used to getting things within three decimal places on a mac, I forced myself to relax and let the happy splodgy accidents happen.

The results were great. Really worth the effort.

Looking at them they’re more Warhol than anything, and of course every one of them is different. We put the best two aside to present to Tony and Roy as a thank you for appearing at the festival.

Hand pulled screen print
Hand pulling the screen prints

I’ve long admired Tony Benn’s common sense approach to antagonising the establishment and, while at 87 he is undeniably frail, he’s still as sharp as a very eloquent tack. It was such a thrill to meet him backstage after the show and help present him and Roy Bailey with their framed prints.

They seemed to be genuinely chuffed, even though they must have been given lots of other well-meaning nonsense over the years.

Tony Benn & Roy Bailey at Leamington Looks Back
Roy Bailey & Tony Benn receive their framed prints

I still have a handful of posters left. If any of you blog readers are fans of Tony, Roy or are just a bit partial to slightly out of register screen prints, drop me a line and I might be able to sort you out.

The festival officially ends this weekend, though it’s planned to return next year. Hopefully the opportunity to do a bit more vintage-inspired work will be there again.



Mid-Century Modern Love

Ten Year Danny-versary

If it’s 20 years since I graduated, it’s also 10 years since I my best friend died.

10 years to the day in fact.

While I always intended for this blog about my day job to make the odd reference to the people and things that had been an influence over the years, no one or no thing had an effect on me quite as much as the life and death of Danny Walker.

And, in a daft way, he has always cropped up in my work.

If anyone has ever been on the receiving end of one of my presentations they may have seen his name. For ‘Danny Walker’ has been my stand-in ‘sample name’ on stuff like business cards and sample letters since I was at college.

When I first had cause to put dummy monikers on visuals, it amused me no end to give Danny stupid job titles and be the imagined recipient of various letters and direct mail pieces, but what started as a childish mickey-take at North Lindsey became a nice reminder of home once I moved to Coventry. By the time I had a proper job it was just something I did. Not as comedy as ‘Joe Bloggs’ or as jarring as ‘Mr A Sample’, for me ‘Dan’, ‘Daniel’, or ‘Danny Walker’ has that everyman ring to it whatever the application.

Now he’s no longer around, it’s just a private tip of the hat that I’m sure no-one else even notices.

Well, at least it used to be private.

Anyway, here we are in a picture taken by a Japanese tourist…

Craig Spivey and Danny Walker
1990 | Niagara Falls

We first met at big school when we were 11. Then we went to the same Technical College – him studying Leisure and Recreation, me doing Art and Design. We did the same Saturday job in the kitchens at Scunthorpe Leisure Centre, then took those washing-up skills to the USA, where we became catering assistants at Camp Chi in Wisconsin for a whole summer. Danny was the best man at my wedding and I was penciled in to return the favour.

I could write pages about our misadventures at home and abroad, and maybe one day I will. Until then, these pictures will have to tell a bit of the story…

1985 – 2000 | Weymouth, Cleethorpes, Scunny, Lake Delton, Boston, Coventry, Warwick, Leamington

He was the funniest, warmest and down-to-earthest, person I’ve ever known, though as I progressed from ‘bloody art student’ to know-it-all graduate, Danny could always be guaranteed to temper my more pretentious behaviour.

Ever ready with a glint in his eye and some piss for my chips.

Six months or so into my first proper job I went home for a visit, dragging with me a hastily assembled portfolio full of the business-to-business brochures and housing ads that formed the bulk of my early work. I can remember the following conversation so clearly, not only because of the truth of it, but also because it tickled me hugely…

There’s never any doubt that he didn’t respect that I’d ‘got out of Scunthorpe’ and was making a career out of something I loved. Danny went on to become a much-loved PE teacher at a school for kids with special needs and was due to leave the town for a new job down south when he suffered a ruptured cerebral aneurysm.

On Good Friday 2002 I sat with him in intensive care, by Easter Sunday he was gone.

I was completely honoured, some days later, to stand and speak at his funeral service, and can honestly say I have never been scared of a client presentation since.

And, I finally got to put his name on something for real.

2002 | Funeral Order of Service


Ten Year Danny-versary

Tele Pros and Comms

Had I graduated in 1792, my portfolio might be full of creative work promoting the mass-produced wonders of that age – ironwork, ceramics or maybe industrial loom-woven textiles.

As it is I have been working slap-bang in the middle of a different kind of revolution, and this is none more evident than in my work for the telecommunications industry where the pace of change has been massive.

Right now, even as I type, I’m heavily involved in The Great Smart Phone War of 2012.

Crack troops are being trained and deployed and, though my role as propagandist precludes me from going into detail, I can at least reveal what side I am being paid to fight for.

Web banner ad
2012 | Banner ad

My first job for the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer was in 2005, when I was called upon to design a business card.

And a not very interesting one at that.

But it at least meant I could chalk up another respected global brand for my CV.

The business card must have impressed them (well, that and Vital’s impressive retail design pedigree), as our next brief was a campaign for their brand new flagship store in Russia.

Tired of being sold through third parties and having no control over what sort of the brand experience a customer received at retail, they began an ambitious roll-out of 18 self-governed flagship stores worldwide. A team of the brightest and the best store designers from the likes of Apple and Nike Town were assembled and beautiful cathedrals to mobile technology duly created. The first of these flagships opened in Moscow, away from the world’s gaze and in the middle of a, then, booming economy.

The stores themselves were smartly hardwired with some clever technology that changed the colour of the interiors, controlled 360 screens that interacted with live devices and they were designed to connect with the other stores around the world. While lots of time and money were being spent advertising phones via TV, outdoor posters, and the press, the brand now found itself with a stunning blank canvas to bring the above-the-line campaigns to life in exactly the way they wanted.

And so it was we received our brief to promote a new high-end device being promoted under the headline ‘Hear New. See New. Feel New’.

Peephole retail window display
2006 | ‘See New’ window, Moscow

After an initial seven man mission to Moscow and some time spent fumbling around outside my comfort zone, we managed to get our first flagship window designed and installed in a relatively short space of time.

With the windows flooded with an image from the main campaign, passing customers had to peer into a peep-hole to ‘see’ the phone and a motion operated whispering window (a speaker that turns the window pane into a speaker) allowed people to ‘hear’ the device in action in the street. Inside the store customers were invited to ‘feel’ the phones.

See what we did there?

Retail campaign Moscow
2006 | ‘See New. Hear New. Feel New.’ retail campaign, Moscow

I could fill up a whole blog just about the experience of that first trip and the process of creating workable ideas, getting stuff made, through customs and stuck up in a shop in a strange land, but it’s enough to say we learned a hell of a lot.

And we must have done something right, as this one-off project led to a steady series of campaigns as new stores were opened around the world.

Our next campaign, hot off the heels of the first, was a similarly prestigious bit of kit hailed as ‘The Next Story in Video’ (their words not mine). As part of the promotions Gary Oldman shot a movie on one, and it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here…

Moving clapperboard window display
2006 | ‘The Next Story in Video’ window, Hong Kong

We had lots of ideas how to get over the idea of ‘professional quality movie-making’ but this clapperboard was the clear winner with the client, especially when I got a bit carried away in the presentation and told him we could make it light up, move, and flash messages on and off, all within the budget.

It was iconic, immediate and the flippy-top action reflected the way the phone opened up. Inside the store we made smaller clapperboards and mounted lenticular panels on the display podiums where customers were encouraged to play with the camera phones. Staff wearing ‘cast and crew’ shirts then helped them edit stuff on a laptop.

Clapperboard retail campaign
2006 | “The Next Story in Video’ retail campaign, Hong Kong and Helsinki

Next up was a music phone.

iPods were around at this time, but iPhones were still a way off, and carrying your music collection on the same device you made calls on was still a relatively new thing. However listening to music on your earphones was considered a bit of a solitary thing for a brand built around ‘humans interacting’ so the wider campaign for this phone was based around the idea of ‘Music Gets You Talking’. The TV ad our retail execution had to sit with featured people listening to a track, then being asked to make one call.

Hong Kong technology store
2006 | ‘Music Gets You Talking’ window, Hong Kong

The solution for this one worked on the basic level of ‘You can get all this music on this small phone’, but when you looked closer, all the ‘album titles’ expressed people’s personal relationship with music. With pretend tracks like ‘The One I Borrowed And Never Gave Back’ and ‘Driving To My First Job Music’ they were supposed to evoke the memories that music sparked in the minds of anyone who bothered to get close enough to read them.

Photographer of some repute, Rankin, had taken a whole load of nice shots for the press campaign, so we employed them as our sleeve art, as well as giving then a pop art treatment and creating hanging canvases to suggest a domestic environment.

Music phone store campaign
2006 | ‘Music Gets You Talking’ retail campaign, Hong Kong, Helsinki and Moscow

One of the recurring problems we had with these displays was selling a tiny thing in a massive window, and we’d use every trick in the book to lift the devices to eye lines and draw attention to the heroes of the piece. Not every phone we were asked to flog had as obvious a hook as ‘film’ or ‘music’ either, so when it came down to promoting this ‘Simply Beautiful, Beautifully Simple’ phone, we focused on the quality of the materials and the design.

And built a massive, eff-off phone.

Large model phone in retail window
2007 | ‘Simply Beautiful. Beautifully Simple.’ window, Hong Kong

We’d previously always avoided oversized phones. Small equaled good at a time when devices were getting smaller and smaller and the idea of a Trigger Happy TV giant brick of a mobile was to be avoided at all costs. That said, windows like this one proved very successful but they relied on getting the 3D model absolutely spot on.

Retail campaign
2007 | ‘Simply Beautiful. Beautifully Simple.’ retail campaign, Hong Kong, Helsinki and Moscow

This campaign ran successfully in Hong Kong and Helsinki, but while those stores were in mainstream shopping areas, the ones in New York and Chicago were in chichi neighbo(u)rhoods where our big, shiny phone would have come across a bit brash and shouty. For these we went back to one of my earlier ideas, where a collection of high-end stainless steel and chrome lamps were made to look like they had gathered round to admire the phone, well jel that they hadn’t been made into something that beautiful.

Elegant store window display
2007 | ‘Simply Beautiful. Beautifully Simple.’ window, Chicago

Each installation taught us something new and we were able to make running changes as we went. From quite distinct shifts in tone like this, to tweaking odd lines of copy and the strength of the vinyls.

Store campaign design
2007 | ‘Simply Beautiful. Beautifully Simple.’ retail campaigns, Chicago and New York

With projects on such a grand scale as these, the odd compromise was inevitable. Logistics, budgets and deadlines obviously dictated how certain elements were realised, but the direction of the above-the-line campaigns would also sometimes change halfway through and the process would sometimes stop and start.

One of my favourite ideas that got away was for a phone that twisted one way to activate a speaker, then another way to activate a camera. The above-the-line featured air guitarists and I had planned a whole group of air musician puppets that shoppers could control from outside the window. The idea was signed off and we had meetings set up with marionette makers and commissioned an illustrator to develop these characters…

2007 | Air musician character development sketches by The Apple Agency
2007 | Proposed marionette development by The Apple Agency

I’ve always loved these and it’s nice for them to see the light of day here.

2007 | Interactive marionette window proposal

In the end the solution was very graphic and this window perhaps over-sold the power of the tinny little speaker…

Window vinyls
2007 | ‘Twist to Share’ window, Mexico City

It looked great though. The vinyls were particularly effective and we had some nice twisted acrylic displays made, though one of the cutest touches were the ‘twisted’ red and white braces that we put together for the store staff to wear.

Retail design
2007 | ‘Twist to Share’ retail campaign, Mexico City and Helsinki

While I can say I dreamed up and directed all of these, so many other talented and tenacious folk were involved it would be impossible and very rude of me to try to take sole ownership of them. I worked alongside some great designers who developed the concepts, production people who made the ideas a reality and project managers who managed to keep all the plates spinning. I’ll attempt to name-check everyone best I can in the credits and if you’d like to see the full extend of this work it’s all collated here.

All told we did 9 different campaigns in 6 key global stores and I got to see a bit of the world. The clapperboard creative even came close to winning a Design Week Award in 2007 and got to rub shoulders with the iPod shuffle and other, much more worthy, medical products in the winners book.

Design Week Awards 2007
2007 |Design Week Awards nomination 2007

It also appeared in the company’s official press photographs in various articles about the roll-out of the flagship stores…

Flagship store article
2006 | Building Magazine

I personally even had to pretend to be an expert on this stuff when I was interviewed by In-Store magazine for their Globalisation in Point of Purchase supplement.

Yeah? You heard me. The In-Store magazine Globalisation in Point of Purchase supplement.

In-Store Magazine Globalisation in POP supplement featuring Craig Spivey
2007 | In-Store Magazine Globalisation in POP

The downturn has put pay to a few of the flagship stores now but these projects paved the way for us to work with the client on a much more strategic level. We still do the odd physical store campaign though, like this one featured in Mrs Spivey’s blog.

It’s always great to have clients that people have actually heard of, and back when Bob ‘Oskins was on the telly telling the nation it was ‘Good to Talk’, I also worked on the BT account at Parenthesis.

Well, I say ‘BT’ it was actually ‘BT Message Services’, a funny little atrophied arm of the proper phone company that acted as a kind of Bureau Du Message Exchange. In theory, if you phoned up and dictated a message they could deliver that message via telex to Botswana. Or convert your faxed message into a series of direct mailings, if that’s what floated your boat.

They were the people the Post Office Telegram service became and, while they sold consumer-facing Greetings Telegrams, their biggest business-to-business product was the official-looking, yellow-enveloped ‘Telemessage’ which was often used by utility companies to chase debts.

I created their wordmark from elements of the master identity, though I’m sure the brand guardians at BT proper never even knew or cared. The tinted block behind the type was made up of thesaurus-bothering words like ‘distribute’ and ‘dialogue’ and rather sweetly changed shape to echo whatever format piece of paper it was printed on.

BT Message Services stationery set
1995 | BT Message Services stationery set

We produced a lot of work for the WeddingGram and their BabyGram services, which I’ll save for another time, but one of the bigger production numbers was this super-glossy A4 8 page sales brochure.

BT Message Services directory cover
1995 | BT Message Services Directory cover

The whole bright gels and drop focus style was very much the look that season, though this was clearly influenced by the Belly artwork by Vaughan Oliver’s mate Chris Bigg at v23.

A much cooler design touch point than it may have warranted.

Belly artwork
1993-1995 | Belly artwork by Chris Bigg v23
1995 | BT Message Services Directory

Topped off with a font that included morse, semaphore and number code elements, design-wise this is really showing its age, but the print and finishing by Reynolds Press is still stunning, with a perfect little pocket designed just to hold a sample Telemessage envelope.

The photo shoot was no mean feat either. All done in camera without so much as a byte of Photoshop involved. Every element was painstakingly positioned around the type, which had been laid out beforehand, then each object was individually lit. To allow for the drop focus we needed, entire rig stretched back to fill the length of the studio.

A brilliant job by the photographer Graham Bullock and some nifty client tea-making by me.

BT Message Services original polaroids
1995 | BT Message Services original polaroids

But my involvement with the world of telecommunications didn’t stop there.

Mediacom Long Distance (not to be confused with the media-buying agency I later had dealings with) were in the business of buying telephone airtime and selling it cheap to companies operating worldwide.

To be honest, I never really knew how that worked and it always felt a bit like selling fresh air, still the bits of print and ridiculous 12 inch gatefold sales folder I created for them went some way to compensate for this lack of tangibility.

Mediacom Long Distance
1996 | Mediacom Long Distance stationery and promotional material

Does that thing look a bit like the Death Star? Yes. Was that intentional? Not really. Was it designed after we took delivery of our first PhotoDisc stock CD and Photoshop released a load of new filters? Um, as it happens, yes it was.

Oh come on, I defy any designer of my generation to deny they went through this phase too.

In the space of a couple of years we had gone from making mock-ups from photocopies and a colour tag iron, to a whole world of spherizing and lighting effects. Luckily I got over such shallow trickery relatively quickly, but for this particular company, who wanted to look bigger and slicker than they actually were, it actually fitted the bill perfectly.

As well as a whole raft of print, we got to do their exhibition at the annual TMA show in Brighton where, rather than have a stand in the main hall, they had their exhibition in a nightclub on the seafront and lured people in with free drinks.

Which is why the invites were created as (ahem) ‘south’coaster beer mats and stuck onto an ad in ‘Cheap Airtime Weekly’ or whatever their trade publication was called.

1996 | Mediacom Long Distance exhibition ad and invitation

I did them a series of Mediacom pun-based exhibition panels (that ended up forming the basis for their show guide ad, complete with a bizarre blue drop shadow.) and, keen to see the job through to the end, I went down to Brighton with Tim the Account Director to help set up. The job of erecting the exhibition system fell to me and I’ve never been convinced that it was purely spilled beer that had made that club carpet so sticky.

Mediacom’s briefs always had a fairly decent budget attached to them, though for a client involved in the business of communication, I remember that particular aspect suffering a breakdown when it came time for them to pay their bill.

I think a Mediacompromise was reached.

I’m not sure if they still exist, though there’s certainly someone else out there with a similar name doing similar, though more diverse, things. They’ve got a swoosh logo though. At least I didn’t give my Mediacom one of those.

Some more extensive research (a quick Google) also indicates that BT Message Services is alive and well and operating under the name Telegrams Online and there’s even a familiar friendly client’s face on their website. (Hello Colin!) I’m quite chuffed about that. It’s nice to think I could dial a number from my iPhone* and still send a physical telegram in 2012.


*other smartphones are available

Tele Pros and Comms