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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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…
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
I’ve always loved these and it’s nice for them to see the light of day here.
In the end the solution was very graphic and this window perhaps over-sold the power of the tinny little speaker…
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.
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.
It also appeared in the company’s official press photographs in various articles about the roll-out of the flagship stores…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve provided creative services to the photographer Rachel Spivey for the best part of seventeen years.
And not only is she still in business – we are still married.
I guess any relationship forged between a designer and a photographer will have a creatively symbiotic dimension to it. I, more often that not, use Rach to shoot stuff I need shooting and I’m always on hand to do bits and pieces to promote her business.
This week a book arrived from the States with her logo in it.
OK, it’s one of 2999 other little marks being held up as fine examples of the craft, but I’m particularly chuffed that Rach’s was featured because, well… it’s ‘ours’.
Working for Rach has never really been a chore and it’s been great to have been so close to something that has slowly evolved, stopped, started again and has now become a proper grown-up business.
So, prompted by this unexpected appearance in an internationally renowned design tome, I’ve had a rummage around in the archive and pulled out some bits that will serve as a potted history of my most long-standing account.
When Rach, first started with the photography, it was a bit ad hoc. She was still working at Hulton Deutsch (now Hulton Getty) and doing the odd job for people and, while she was far from a credible outfit, she needed something to put on her invoices when she sent them in.
From the get-go she was the product. All the jobbing photographers I knew were male and didn’t come with a mass of bright red hair and I always thought this was a great point of difference.
This is the first little logo I did for her…
How of its time is that? Looks like Britpop photography done by the sixth Spice Girl, and probably one of the first times I ever used illustrator. Rudimentary, though not without its charm I suppose.
After leaving Hulton and sleepwalking through a couple of temp jobs, Rach became a one-woman photography department at the agency I was working for. It meant regular work, great clients, a fully specced studio and a change of tack identity-wise. As an offshoot of Parenthesis, the venture was christened Brackets – not only a reference to the agencies grammatical name, but the name given to the process of adjusting a camera’s aperture between shots to ensure a good exposure.
The idea was that Brackets would stand alone from Parenthesis, so that Rach could effectively work for other agencies. The look therefore was deliberately completely different. All minimal and slick, just using black and a fair amount of metallic silver. Maybe because I’d heard that silver halides were used somewhere in the chemistry of photography, though more likely because we were approaching the new millennium when EVERYTHING was printed in metallic silver.
The logo was a stylised camera with a pair of brackets forming the lens. But you can see that from looking at the pictures, right? What’s less obvious is that the ® mark formed the button on the front of the camera, and when that and the first bracket were used in isolation on the back of the business card, it formed Rachel’s initials.
Which is exactly the kind of self-satisfied wankery that makes us designers feel a bit better about our shallow little lives.
I even did her a mailer that played with the elements of the identity, though looking back it seems more concerned with building a brand than showcasing her work.
Brackets came and went and Rachel Cooper (by now Spivey) was once again a lone girl with red hair and a camera. At this point her brand expression began and ended with this business card that was shoved on the corner of a print job as a favour by a friendly printer.
It was heavily influenced by the style of one of my all-time favourite designers. (I won’t name him for fear he ever Googles himself and ends up looking at this 3rd rate facsimile of his much more elegant retro-futuristic illustrations.) And I’m not sure what’s going on with that type either. I have a thing for interlinking characters, but maybe that bent paperclip S was trying a bit too hard.
Fast forward a few years and two or three kids later and Rachel entered the fourth phase of her career.
Initially intending to leave the commercial work behind her, I created the logo with the photo corners to reflect this change of tone. In the age of digital photography these fiddly anachronisms are the reserve of cherished prints and albums of special occasions, and their inclusion here is intended to create the space that Rachel would be ultimately commissioned to fill.
Though her dad always thought they looked like ‘Batman’s underpants’.
The type was arranged in such a way to suggest the proportions of a print and, as the identity has evolved, works with or without the photo corners depending on the application.
Or what sort of mood I’m in.
Ha! In your face Corporate Guidelines.
One of the first things this identity ever featured on was Rach’s initial gallery website www.rachelspivey.co.uk. It was produced off the side of the desk of my then colleague, Paul Beacham, in return for a photo shoot of his daughter. It’s all a bit flash-tastic and dated now but I always quite liked the way he brought that very simple identity to life.
As well as all the stationery, the photo corners frequently cropped up on early ads and promotional postcards…
Though they probably reached their creative peak on the invite to the launch of Rachel’s first, modest little studio in our back garden…
They still appear from time to time, but these days the photography does most of the talking.
When Rachel made the decision to set up her boudoir business in the mid 2000s there was a lot of debate about how distinct it should be from her main identity. At the time, the current boudoir boom was still in its infancy and it wasn’t clear how such a risqué offer might alienate mainstream clients.
Though there was never any doubt about the name. Raquel Rouge was her nickname from her Hulton days and felt right for her ‘burlesque’ alter ego, but it took a lot of searching to find the right font to base the logo on. It needed something sensuous, feminine and retro-looking, but not evocative of any one specific era and modern enough to still work with contemporary shots.
I found it in Pendulum, though I still had to fiddle with some of the characters to make it read how I wanted it.
The idea with the colours was that the logo would reveal itself to you. It works best with the dark sexy red fading to a flesh tone out of a black background, but let’s be honest, with pics like these who the hell is looking at the logo?
It’s just as well I hardwired some synergies between the two brands. They both share a Goudy as a secondary font and the websites work off the same grid, because, as it turned out, these two strands of the business have ended up sitting side-by-side quite a lot.
As this niche little industry has matured and the whole burlesque thing has got more mainstream, there are a lot more swirly scripts in black and red out there than ever before. So there’s a real impetus to keep things playful and fresh.
Or at least ‘fresh’ in an old-fashioned way.
I’ve had a fascination with vintage clip-art that dates back to my college days. It’s quite over-done now but I created these as show cards for Rach’s stalls at vintage fairs. The direct tone of old ads help to get over key points as folks browse and they proved so popular with people that she had a set of business cards done.
When it came to creating an ad for Burlesque Bible magazine I was keen that we ran something that would stand out from the all the floaty feather fonts and pin-up clichés and came up with this idea, half inspired by an old matchbook.
Not everything I do sees the light of day either. Here’s an ad that will never run, as we’d never get the usage rights on the images that I, um, sourced on the internet. Though it did find an audience of sorts over at the Chip Shop Awards.
While budgets and hours in the day often curtail my bigger ambitions for Rach’s stuff, it is such a joy to work on something where the insights are first hand, the brand guidelines are all in my head and there are no sign-off procedures to stifle the creativity.
So as long as the cups of tea are still forthcoming and the client continues to give me a pretty free rein, I hope to continue working on this account for many more years to come.
In 2012 the ‘Come on ladies’ ad above went on to win a ‘highly commended’ Vinegar at the Chip Shop Awards and received a further nomination in the ‘Work That Never Ran’ category in the Fresh Awards.
While you can hardly lay the blame for broken, binge-drinking Britain at my feet, one thing that has cropped up throughout my career has been the packaging and promotion of booze in various guises.
Vital is rightly proud that its longest-standing client of 17 years is Marston’s – the largest brewer of cask ales in the country and operator of over 2,000 pubs – and as such it’s been an account that has featured heavily in my life over the last few years.
Before I joined Vital full-time as Creative Director in November 2003, I did a cheeky bit of freelance for them in the evenings and weekends. By the time I started, I’d already completed a few projects and had a few on the go with deadlines looming, so I spent my very first full-time morning putting these together.
I stood over the sink in the kitchen soaking labels off bottles and I was all like, ‘Yeah? The new CD’s in town and I’m gonna get arty on yo asses’ while my colleagues made their cups of tea and they were all like, ‘What a clown, he won’t last five minutes’.
I’d been briefed a week or two before to come up with a set of posters to promote offers on drinks in all of Marston’s (or Pathfinder Pubs as it was then) busy town centre ‘circuit’ pubs., and, after observing’ how drinkers would sit and pick at the labels on their bottles, came up with this idea. Usually with these things it’s all pack shots, big logos, starbursts and loud, shouty type, but this was a way to get the participating brands front and centre in a more interesting and cool-looking manner.
So once the labels were dry, I ripped them, and a few beer mats, into the best letter shapes I could and slapped them on the scanner.
As they went through a couple of rounds of amends the type got bigger and the images smaller, but, for a compromise, I was happy enough with where they ended up.
A few weeks later I was tasked with creating some more in the same style. But without paper labels to rely on, I had to approach it a bit differently. The curry one came first, with the burger briefed some time later, but we managed to keep the theme going…
These promotions were a regular fixture in the studio for the next year or so, but with ever fiercer competition from supermarkets, the pubs had to be more and more competitive and offer-driven. With each new concept the pack shots got bigger (the drinks brands played an increasingly prominent role in funding their existence) and the type got bolder and brighter, until they just became down-and-dirty retail posters.
There’s nothing subtle about bulk buying a round of the cheapest drinks at an the bar, so I guess it follows there shouldn’t be anything subtle about the posters that promote them.
There’s nowt clever, or particularly nuanced, about this next job either – a one-off billboard for Banks’s situated outside Walsall’s Banks’s Stadium next to the M6.
It’s a very simple and immediate message, aimed at drivers on one of the biggest arterial routes in the UK. And as the poster itself was situated in the heart of Bank’s country, it was only proper that the pint should be shot in the heart of the stadium that bears its name.
Passions run as deep for a local brew as it does for a local team, and there was never any question that we would try and fake the shot of the centre circle or the stand. Provenance is a big deal in the ale world and it had to be 100% authentic, so on a grey and drizzly Tuesday I headed off to Walsall with renowned local photographer Sam Moxon, a car full of high-end kit and a few cans of Banks’s.
We camped out for the day on the pitch and picnicked in the centre circle like local radio prize winners. There was a fair bit of poncing about, trimming individual blades of grass with nail scissors, though our stand-in pint was always going to be way too riddled with reflections to be useable and was later replaced with a pristine-headed beauty, shot in the warmth of Sam’s studio.
It was struggle to get all of the elements onto such a proportionately long poster site. We needed to show the full length of the pint and the fact it was sat on the centre line, as well as showing enough of the goalmouth and stand to give it a sense of place, AND get the fugly-fonted headline as large and legible as possible within the turf area.
Always Womble-esque in my quest to re-appropriate old files on my hard drive, the same pint shot was used for one of the more low key Marston’s jobs I’ve worked on, but also one of my favourites…
A team of workers at the brewery were attempting the 3 peaks challenge to raise money for their local hospital’s neurological unit, and we donated some of our time to help them create some posters and web graphics to help them hit their target. It was great to work with a group of people that never usually get to do stuff with agencies like ours and help them to spread the word wider and further than they could have on their own.
This idea of a ‘glass of something that, at the same time, is something else’ is spiritually akin to another dusty old job in my cellar…
My previous agency had a long-standing client called Ritchie Products who were, and still are, in the business of home brew. We did a lot of packaging and promotions for them over the years, and in 1997 were briefed to help them name and create a new brand for a revolutionary way of selling wine.
By importing ingredients and creating wine in the UK, the duty on alcohol was avoided and the saving passed on to the customer. The product was sold buy the caseload via Ann Summers-style party plan tasting evenings then made to order. So, in theory, you could stock up on decent quality stuff for a fraction of the price, but you had to wait for it to be created for you.
There were a few name options and ideas presented.
‘That’s Ritchie!’ was a 1950s ‘wine of the future’ thing (pretty terrible really) and ‘Dr Demi-John’s Wine Revolution’ had a traveling medicine show vibe to it, so it’s no surprise that the slick, modern approach was the clear winner.
Though while I came up with the name early on, it wasn’t until the second round of creative that I nailed the image. This was all a couple of years after Toy Story and CGI had slowly spread out from Hollywood and had just about reached Coventry.
We managed to find a guy locally to create us our realistically rendered wine/hourglass image within our tight budget and I proceeded to stick it on absolutely everything.
The thriftiness even extended to the very cheap models co-opted to appear as the upwardly mobile wine conossieurs in the company brochure.
While the years have been kinder to the basic black and white logo, the full colour version really shows its age. That said, the David Carson-esque backwards numbers and exclamation marks standing in for letters are very of their time too.
The clipping path on that wine glass and bottle ain’t too hot either.
It was one of a handful of jobs we put into the Cream Awards that year, and went on to be declared ‘bloody brilliant’ by curly-haired Brummie ad supremo and Wonderbra flogger Trevor Beattie, as well as winning Gold in Best Corporate Identity and Best Packaging.
And the Grand Prix.
Which, for a 27 year old, provincial, mid-table Creative Director, was probably as high-octane and thrilling as the one with all the racing cars.
Wine in Time became a bit of a landmark for the agency (it was recently featured in their top 25 jobs) and a bit of a benchmark for me. The agency went into press overdrive, though it was nice that my local papers at home that had featured the calendar also picked up on the story.
The explosion of wine clubs and supermarket deals must have made the business model unsustainable, as it seems to have died a resounding death. I’m sure it was fun while it lasted.
Now it seems to me that a bit of drinks packaging is the mainstay of a design education. Most graduate portfolios I have seen over the years feature some in one form or other, and mine was no exception.
This was another one of those student competitions, briefed in as part of my degree course in Graphic Design at Coventry Polytechnic.
It was a similar situation to the calendar really. Only this time, rather than earnest town councilors wanting to promote the talents of the region, it was some geezer wanting some free design work doing for a range of Vodka. Recognising this as another opportunity fortune and glory I promptly went off and put as little effort into the brief as I possibly could.
I was always doing these doodles on backs of notebooks and stuff (still am) so, a couple of photocopies and a bit of Letrasetted Futura Condensed later, I had my entry.
And bugger me, if it didn’t end up being one of the three that were chosen to be developed as prototypes.
I got to go to Rockware in Doncaster and watch palm trees get screen-printed onto Malibu bottles before having to recreate my original scribbles into printable artwork. As I had to completely redraw it I took the opportunity to sneak in a pic of my dad and include a couple of guest doodles by my mates.
I’m not sure where the final stuff ended up. It was destined for the ‘gift market’ and I was told it was going to be sold in duty-free shops. I know there was, at least, a limited run made with my design as I did receive one solitary bottle of the finished product for my troubles which, as far as I know, still sits unopened in the back of my mum and dad’s drinks’ cabinet.
If any one out there ever saw, bought or got drunk on a similar-looking bottle of Graffiti Vodka in the early nineties please let me know.
If it all goes to plan, this blog will jump around my timeline, making connections, highlighting recurring themes and inevitably at some point look at just how much financial services work I have done in my career.
However, as this is the first entry it makes sense to start at the beginning.
And this is as much of the beginning as I can find.
This little thing reappeared in my life a couple of years ago when my grandma died. I was previously unaware of its existence, but she’d kept it for some 3o-odd years and is now the earliest evidence of ‘my art’ in existence.
It’s a fire engine.
But you don’t need me to tell you that, right? The ladder gives it away.
That and all the fire.
To be honest, painting with a brush was never my medium. Too messy and it never really went where I wanted it to. When I took my O Level options at 13 I dropped art but did tech drawing and, by the time I was into my BTEC OND in Art and Design, I’d swapped the poster paint and sugar paper for Indian ink and cs10 board.
So if the fire engine was among the first marks I ever made on paper, the 1989 Scunthorpe calendar was certainly the first thing I ever got printed on it.
In those days it was all very analog, no inkjets or laser printers. So for a kid like me to get some of his work professionally produced on a proper printing press was a massive thrill – up there with cutting a single and getting it played on John Peel.
Our course at North Lindsey College of Technology was approached by the local Industrial Development Enterprise Agency (IDEA) who wanted a calendar that would showcase our ‘industrial garden town’ and encourage businesses worldwide to locate their factories on all the bits of land left after the closure of big chunks of the steelworks in the early 80s.
I have vague recollection of a representative coming in to brief us, along with promises of fame and fortune for the winning designer. It was like getting a sneak preview of real working life, which was something the course leaders were always good at setting up.
I threw myself into it wholeheartedly.
And after my fab and inspiring tutor, Carole Van Hoffelen, steered me away from one of my earlier ideas – aerial pics of an industrial wasteland with an overlaid cross hair and the line ‘Set Your Sights on Scunthorpe’ (I wish I was joking) – I settled on something that ultimately proved to be a bit more appropriate and much less luftwaffe-ish.
That brush stroke abstraction thing was everywhere in the late eighties. And this illustration style is clearly influenced by some of the logos that were around at the time. It looks a bit like the Glasgow Garden Festival logo, as well as that year’s Eurovision logo…
…but what it didn’t look like the image anyone had in their head when they thought of ‘Scunthorpe’.
Conceptually it talked about things like ‘prosperity’, the ‘future’ and, um, ‘golf courses’. The painter’s palette on the last page was supposed to be a self-referential link that tied the whole idea together, while heralding a bright and colourful tomorrow for the town.
I’m sure that wasn’t lost on the councillors on the judging panel.
Though maybe it was the golf courses that won it for me.
I created all the illustrations and the headings in black ink and specified the colours on old school overlays, while my mate Sean provided the handwriting for the little pieces of text. The dates were set by the printer along with that incredible Scunthorpe graph paper logo and contact details.
I was granted a ‘small’ picture and a byline and my then girlfriend, Janine, and I put as much effort into that as I did creating the calendar. We went all out to the recreate the style of the cover art of the Lloyd Cole and the Commotions Mainstream album, although Lloyd wasn’t a teenager whose skin looked like the surface of the moon when lit so harshly from the side.
Here’s Lloyd looking all cool and tortured and me looking like a miserable, pretentious prick.
As our BTEC course was relatively new, the powers that were went into PR overdrive and I appeared in various local publications, clutching the calendar, striking a balance of cocky and awkward like only a 17 year old can.
I find the calendar all very quaint and naïve now. If the style doesn’t date it, the big slab of a computer monitor does. The brush work is hardly Alan Fletcher and spacing out the three character word ‘May’ over about 150mm is something I couldn’t see myself doing these days, though it does represent my first real step into this industry.
I loved my BTEC course, it was a blissful time and I got to hang out with people who, all these years later, I still class among the most naturally gifted I have ever worked alongside. Janine’s now an Art Director on the Nike account for W+K in Portland, Oregon but Sean and I lost touch some years back. A bit of googling shows him to be doing some sweet stuff up in Sheffield at his own agency – in the final analysis, while I won a calendar design competition, he was the one that actually cut a single and got it played on John Peel.
But I digress.
The brush stroke thing reappeared some years later in 1999 when I was working at Parenthesis in Coventry.
We were asked to design a logo for The Arena for a the new SkyDome complex that was slated to be built in the city. I remember putting a presentation together that included two logos that captured the energy and spirit of people enjoying live entertainment, and a third option that nodded to the middle curve of the existing SkyDome logo, as well as The Arena’s arched roof and some of the architectural features on the plans we’d been given.
They went with the latter.
The idea was around a ‘building with spirit’. A physical structure whose purpose as a live music and sports venue gave it an energy and attitude – hence the dynamic brush stroke execution. In this instance I briefed a proper illustrator to paint the final image, though I forget who. It’s neater and sharper than any of my attempts were anyway.
What wasn’t clear at the outset was just how much the SkyDome brand would end up dominating The Arena, and, as the project progressed, they began to feel more and more at odds with each other. The worst expression of this is probably the exterior signage, which I remember having no control over. We produced some nice bits of print collateral for them as well as supplying them the digital assets and then this ill-considered monstrosity just appeared in glorious light up 3D chunky plastic.
Still, I suppose that the fact it is still there some 13 years later means it has done a good job for them.
I don’t think it ever took off as the big music venue it wanted to be (and now Coventry has the Ricoh Arena) but it has enjoyed life as an ice rink and occasional boxing and wrestling venue. The Arena branding has certainly outlived the two iterations of its super-club neighbours on the other side of the SkyDome complex anyway.
Though I still think how much nicer that sign could have been when go past it.
Bringing things up-to-date is more recent piece of work with a painterly theme.
So recent it hasn’t really happened yet.
This is a sneaky peek at some notional logos aimed at getting the ball rolling on a new local enterprise. Hydrotherapy is very much at the heart of this project and the location plays a huge role too. The Japanese feel is no accident either. A job like this really benefits from the flow and serenity of watercolour textures that instantly get the right vibe over to potential investors and partners.
It will be a long project to bring to fruition but I really hope it happens, as it will be great to do more work on.
In the meantime, I have plenty to be getting on with.
Will be back soon, if only to prove I can do logos in other colours.