Carter Wong design
Unit 5/6, Archer Street Studios
10-11 Archer Street
London, W1D 7AZ

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Thinking outside the box

I expect most road users in particular, are acquainted with the huge refrigerated trucks adorned with splendid idiosyncratic Dutch names that bring fresh flowers to our homes and offices from Holland on a daily basis? However, I’m sure most people don’t realise that once the flowers have been loaded and despatched to their various markets, these juggernauts invariably travel back empty.

Indeed this was the case until the very tough woman who runs the historic cold storage market in the heart of Amsterdam approached our client at Nomadic yoghurts and made a brilliant business proposition involving one such delivery vehicle.

As a way of gaining a foothold into the Dutch market, Nomadic agreed with her that they would load a palette of their finest lassi from their Home Farm Dairy into this empty truck once it had completed its floral deliveries. This would then be transported in chilled comfort back to Holland for distribution to bakeries and coffee shops. The concept proved so successful that lassi has now become part of the regular return payload and a second loaded palette is not far off.

As a result it is now possible to enjoy a fresh Nomadic Lassi at many locations around Amsterdam at any time of day. All because of some lateral thinking outside the box, or in this case, chilled container. Read More

Cycle genius

We recently had the honour of welcoming the designer of the original Brompton bicycle, Andrew Ritchie, to deliver the latest talk in our series, ‘Pause for Thought.’

Speaking to a full house, with the same unbridled enthusiasm that has kept him on track through thick and thin (both good and more challenging times?), it is obvious that he is as passionate about his brainchild now as he had been when it was created back in 1979. And, like a bike with no gears, it has sometimes been an arduous uphill struggle and one where many other lesser people would have given up and got off.

Recounting his story first hand, it made me, and others lucky enough to hear him, realise that when someone like Andrew lives and breathes his very own invention, logic goes out of the window while self-belief and conviction in the creative idea kicks in and consumes all.

I can’t recall the number of setbacks Andrew experienced along the road to a successful product, but it seemed that these moments of adversity propelled him on with ever more momentum. As an example, in choosing the French manufacturers of the frame hinges, he was left blissfully unaware that these were only bin ends and once-used were no longer available. The result? He managed to source a relevant jig and set about making them himself, fortunate that only small quantities were required at that stage. Read More

‘It’s what the public want’

As somebody who takes an active interest in all current visual arts, whether it be graphic design, painting or product design, I find it is new architectural developments that continue to disappoint me the most, probably being more aware of it as it surrounds us on a daily basis.

Chancing upon a contemporary building that feels of the moment is sadly the exception to the rule. Instead, many examples seem stuck in a comfortably retro world.

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that my disillusionment with the design of many new developments increases in direct proportion as the building rises and takes shape as soon as the foundations are set.

We have progressed immeasurably as consumers in our acceptance of technology into our daily domestic lives, be it sensoround sound systems or underfloor heating. And yet it amazes me that when it comes to the very homes in which we install these wonders, some homeowners are obviously more comfortable in surroundings their grandparents might have inhabited. 

What other reason would developers need to justify building such eyesores as that which has just risen in Roehampton, a short distance away from one of the largest innovative council estates in Britain, built in 1952 and designed by a London County Council design team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt. Read More

Fake or fortune

Having just returned from a long weekend in Stockholm, I’ve lived and breathed good design as only the Scandinavians know how, it being so much part of their inherent culture. Whilst there it got me thinking that perhaps the greatest legacy of any exceptional piece of design based on substance rather than style, no matter what purpose it serves, is its very timelessness.

Think of the London Underground symbol and its simple circle traversed by a line to symbolise travel across a metropolis and you can see why this logo has been copied many times to do the equivalent for foreign cities, the world over. The same goes for classic Mid 20th Century Modern furniture, though the plagiarists in this discipline have been even more flagrant in their disregard for the original’s DNA. Consequently, ‘more affordable’ copies abound of the evergreen favourites, from Alvar Aalto’s Egg Chair or Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair to Poul Henningsen’s beautiful pendant light.

Copying these originals may have been completely legal, as the copyright laws were for designs 25 years old, but it was seen by many design professionals as opportunistic rather than creative. And where was the dignity of the originals as these products were mass produced in China, their low budget manufacture destroying the integrity of the originals, even if they did look compellingly similar for some buyers, from a distance? Read More

Timeless wit

There’s something deeply satisfying about having an unexpected package delivered to the studio. Yesterday was no different when a plain brown cardboard parcel arrived duly addressed to me. Eventually unpacked from its many protective wrappers, inside was a copy of the new edition of ‘A Smile in the Mind’. This was the graphic book that became an indispensable aid to a generation of designers when the original was launched all of twenty years ago. As a contributor to that original I was kindly sent a free copy of this reprint, hence the unanticipated arrival of this most welcome gift.

Rather than simply reprint the original, the publishers have had the presence of mind to give it a thorough MOT. Retaining the spirit of the original they’ve peppered the new book with more contemporary pieces mixed with the most enduring work of the old. In its own way it goes to prove the strength of this approach to graphic design. As the book’s title suggests, the work showpieces a (grand) synopsis of the best graphic design projects all with a memorably witty approach at heart. Read More

Formula Won

Asked to write a piece for a leading F1 magazine in New York I thought it worth recounting the story of how we got to work with the Grand Prix Ringmaster, Bernie Ecclestone for 10 years.

Over 30 years ago, after Phil Wong and I had set up our own studio, prosaically named Carter Wong, we looked at our new business prospects, or lack of and pondered what kind of work we wanted to do and who we wanted to do it for?

Unsurprisingly, being keen motor racing enthusiasts (I’d spent much of my misspent youth watching various Lotus racing cars testing at the Hethel track near my home in Norwich and Phil had written his thesis on Team Copersuca Fittipaldi) we decided to write to all the teams to see if we could be of help with their graphic design needs.

Excitedly, and with great expectation, we waited for those replies to flood through our letterbox. Read More

Too much information

Recent trips to a couple of exhibitions have left me with a distinct feeling that ‘nanny state’ thinking is creeping into this wonderful world.

I appreciate a well written caption alongside an exhibit as much as the next visitor, preferably one that’s succinct and to the point to aid the enjoyment of the accompanying object on display. And learning something new in the process, which can take the form of experiences and emotions as well as contextual facts, can only add to the visitor’s fulfilment, myself included.

Learning in a museum or gallery setting is normally focussed on objects, which can be particularly stimulating when handled (if possible) and studied closely. Witness the growth of facsimiles of objects in exhibitions, exactly for that purpose. They can enable knowledge recall, ground abstract experiences and ultimately arouse curiosity. And the most successful captions for me are those where less tells more.

However, it seems that the word ‘interpretation’ has recently crept into the curator’s burgeoning priorities when it comes to writing captions. Read More

Farewell ‘pardner’

This is possibly the hardest blog I’ll ever get to write, even though it has been impending for ten months since my best friend and long-suffering business partner Phil Wong announced that he would be packing up his pencils and retiring at Christmas.

Having met at the then Norwich School of Art back in 1974, I’ve scarily realised that he’s possibly the person I’ve seen more of in my life than anyone else on this planet, my wife included. And, very much like a marriage, we not only formed Carter Wong in 1984, the same year I married my fellow ex RCA soulmate Deborah, in the ensuing thirty something years we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs.

Looking back to our initial introduction, this was itself a harbinger of things to come. Having eagerly made my way into college bright and early on the first day of term, I was slightly taken aback to find I’d been usurped by two Malaysian students, one of which was Phil, as keen as the local mustard. Up to his final week here at the studio, Phil is still a big believer in getting in by 7.30am, to avoid those ‘pesky phonecalls’ as he wisely put it, allowing him peace and quiet at the start of each day. And this in itself says a great deal about his Oriental origins and upbringing; he has always possessed an inner calm and the unique trait of being able to shut off everything around him, in order to concentrate on the job in hand. Read More

Keeping It Brief

In the 31 years we’ve been operating as an active design studio we’ve had our fair share of design briefs, from the topline verbal to the considerably epic, some with enough strategic analysis to sink the proverbial battleship. Ultimately our clients understand that the material they supply, however comprehensive (or not in some cases) is instrumental in helping us create a new identity, pack design or design programme that is both unique and memorable.

Over the past few years these briefs have sometimes tended to get longer and unnecessarily wordier and, on occasion, so politically correct that we’re given little room to be creative and ultimately distinctive. And this reminded me of a letter I’ve had tucked away in a drawer for many years, to be used at lecturesŠ or at times like this.

It’s from Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones to the artist Andy Warhol. And it is, in my opinion, possibly the most straightforward and honest brief ever written…

Dear Andy, I’m really pleased you can do the artwork for our new hits album. Here are 2 boxes of material which you can use, and the record. Read More

Making a mark

Many years ago, having just graduated from the RCA, I was lucky enough to get my first job at the renowned design studio Minale Tattersfield and Partners, run by the enigmatic Marcello and sartorially dressed Brian. Their company logo consisted of a thick black scribble, the rationale for it being that the very essence of all creative design is originally based on simple mark making. It also gave Marcello the opportunity to recount the story to new employees about how their new window cleaner had tried in vain to scrape this logo from the glass frontage, believing it to be graffiti.

When it came to mark making itself, Marcello always had at hand a thick stubby pencil to help explain to the individual designers what he was thinking. Similarly, in the way we run our studio, I’m a firm believer in this simple act of mark making to explain a point of view. Since the early Stone Age man has always found it intuitive to describe the verbal visually, initially using charcoal and though some of it may well have been simply for decoration, much was probably to do with transmitting information, such as creation myths and social rules. Read More

Exhibition design meets its Waterloo

When visiting any exhibition I try to go with an open mind without preconceptions so that the experience is fresh and hopefully memorable. And just sometimes that experience is so rewarding in terms of a creatively challenging, considered and innovative design, layout and curatorship that it’s difficult to remember what my expectations had originally been.

Last Sunday I had such a revelation in Belgium at the totally new visitor centre, constructed to commemorate the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo and opened in June last year. I had visited the site several times before but had been largely underwhelmed by its dodgy diorama and dubious waxworks. Its biggest draw had been the 28 tonne cast Butte de Lion memorial on top of a conical 100 metre artificial mound offering a commanding view (if you had the energy to climb it) over the battlefield, complete with plan identifying the positions of each army’s troops. On reflection it had seemed a forlorn and neglected way to mark such a significant event in the course of history.

Fast forward to 2015 and the architects and designers involved in this development project have created an attraction of true distinction. Beginning with an impressive period barn, the designers have obviously taken on board that ‘an army marches on its stomach’ and had this tastefully converted into a smart and welcoming restaurant providing visitors with a welcome stop to satisfy their appetites and set themselves up for the tour ahead. We ate a delicious light meal and then made our way to the visitor centre, cleverly hidden to avoid impeding the battlefield vistas, in a dramatic subterranean world all of its own. The right wall of the gradually sloping entrance ramp was clad in heavy sheet metal listing every regiment that fought in the battle from either side, each graphically die-cut to give real scale to the enormous number of soldiers involved in the conflict. Read More

Bright Sparks

Following a week of talks and lectures to various students, I can safely say that the future world of graphic design is alive, well and positively kicking if the reactions from the assembled groups is anything to go by. Since our inception here at Carter Wong we continue to recognise the value of doing everything we can to help and encourage students make their way into real world employment; so we have regularly taken on interns and have given lectures and talks at a wide range of universities and colleges when asked. It may be simplistic, but I like to think of it as payback time from those of us in our studio who have studied at the best establishments and have been taught by some of the best tutors over the years.

And so it was that Sarah, our MD, and I spent yesterday in Norwich at the University of the Arts. It’s a very special place close to my heart – not only as the city where I was born and spent my formative years, but also where in 1974 I met Phil Wong who was studying on the graphics course with me. After speaking to a packed lecture theatre for over an hour, we were met by a barrage of questions that were not only thoughtful and considered, but showed a real enthusiasm for learning. Read More

Cock a doodle do

The world of graphic design is peppered with symbols and imagery that are steeped in history and folklore, with many stories behind their origins well known. However, occasionally a graphic symbol that’s normally taken for granted will give up its hidden secrets. For example, take the little black cockerel that proudly adorns a bottle of Chianti Classico wine graphically differentiating itself from its plainer Chianti cousin. An original example of branding if ever there was one, this iconic rooster has quietly and confidently symbolised the League of Chianti since 1384.

Wine has been produced in this area since around 1000 A.D. and, according to legend, back in the 13th Century the warring provinces of Siena and Florence agreed on a unique solution to their continually bitter border disputes. Deciding on a competition to settle the argument this took the form of a horse race which was to be started when the first cockerel crowed at dawn in each city, the audible signal for its citizens to dispatch their fastest rider towards the rival city. Read More

When collaboration is key

It’s not everyday that you get to experience a design classic up close and personal, but a generous gift from my wife on my 60th birthday enabled me to live the dream. For many, there is no equal to the Supermarine Spitfire when it comes to choosing an iconic aircraft, vested as it is with such a wealth of stories and possibly the prettiest silhouette that ever took to the skies.

Renowned for its role in the Battle of Britain, it was probably this superlative shape that helped establish its reputation compared to the rather frumpy Hurricane, although remarkably, it was the latter that shouldered a greater proportion of the burden in battle. Produced in greater numbers than any other British aircraft and designed by R. J. Mitchell, who understandably took all the plaudits, it was nevertheless the work of another designer on the project that created those stunning elliptical wings, possibly its most defining feature. Read More

White Bear

On receiving a copy of our little book, A Cycling Lexicon, many people ask what the significance of the little white bear on the back cover is. Put simply, we decided to represent our publications, of which this was one, by a distinctive logo with a hidden visual meaning.

In 1994 the American psychologist Daniel M. Wegner wrote a book entitled ‘White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts,’ sub-titled ‘Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control.’

In a series of groundbreaking experiments, he told subjects not to think about white bears. Naturally, they found it impossible to avoid thinking of the bears, just as it often seems impossible to stop thinking about another subject once a seed has been planted. So, if you were told to stop thinking about a white bear, what would you do? Inevitably, you’d continue thinking about a white bear, and if you continually tried to stop thinking about it, you’d find it harder to stop. Read More

My favourite lightbulb moment

Always nice to be asked to contribute to Design Week’s Vox Pox, especially on the subject of creativity, something very close to our hearts. And, being away on holiday did give the opportunity of supplying a suitably creative ‘headshot’ to accompany the piece. Read the article

Busman’s holiday

A couple of weeks away abroad always recharges my creative batteries and gives me the opportunity to look at everyday things afresh in a new environment. As a packaging designer, it always gives me a thrill to wander the local shops and supermarkets and unearth hidden gems that haven’t yet succumbed to homogenous global branding. And just as pleasing is the discovery of certain visual codes we take for granted, applied across various products in another country and with such enthusiasm.

Take, for example this bar of chocolate from manufacturer Mondelez, resplendent with its seventeen clusters of medals. Strangely, on closer examination, no awards have been won in the past century, instead the last accolade, a bronze medal no less, was awarded in Paris in 1889. It makes me wonder about the validity of these awards and whether they aren’t just a signal to consumers that the chocolate must surely be good (it was). With many fine products, most notably wine, medals give a feeling of reassurance to the purchaser. So why not cover your pack with them?
Read More

Transports of delight

It made a welcome change to travel as a passenger (rather than driver) along countless motorways in France the other day, as it gave me the rare pleasure of watching the world go by as we made our steady progress towards Calais. An unexpected outcome of the multi-carriageway, as we regularly overtook the many caravans (rather than being stuck behind them), was the opportunity to observe the myriad names and graphics that adorned their shiny coachworks. And, like many everyday objects not normally worthy of a second glance, it soon became clear that there’s a whole nomenclature for these travelling homes on wheels.

Beginning with the hedonistic promised land of a caravan that transports you to Eden, reached by safely negotiating Hurricanes, Storms and Sciroccos, getting there would surely be plain sailing for these ships of the road given their Cruiser, Schooner, Galleon, Clipper or Cutter names effortlessly aided by the Jetstream and Morningstar?

Venturing bravely to a caravan park where no man has gone before would surely be no problem with a Crusader or Pathfinder in tow whilst those seeking adventure would doubtless opt for a Dreamseeker or Sunseeker. And with a nod to Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, ‘Nomads, Wanderers, Countrymen lend me your cars’ does have a certain poetic ring to it. Read More

Stop. Look. Listen.

As one of 50 British graphic designers, I was recently asked to participate in a celebration of the humble ‘British Road Sign’ by designing a unique sign of my own following the instantly recognisable format. It was whilst researching their origins and design that I was, fittingly, directed to the Department of Transport website.

With a downloadable template for every conceivable sign imaginable, including the poetically named Brass Rubbing Centre symbol or Heavy Horse Centre symbol, it slowly dawns on you that they represent a Britain seen through rose tinted glasses, stuck cosily somewhere in the early 1960s. A time when (by interpreting the signs) it appears children actually walked to school, caravans resembled home made sheds on wheels, motorcycles bore strange fairings and light refreshment facilities were represented by a good old welcoming cup of Rosy Lee.

However, it is because of the strength of these original designs that the signs have endured the passage of time so that we still interpret them and know what they stand for nearly sixty years later. There is a wonderful interview between James May and Margaret Calvert, who worked on the design of this signage system from an episode of Top Gear here. Read More

Does Nick Serota read my blog?

So, no sooner do I post last week’s blog then I receive my regular update email from artnet news. It seems Tate Britain is putting together a show which seeks to combine all five senses and challenge the perception of art as a purely visual experience. Titled “Tate Sensorium” the exhibition will bring together the expertise of a master chocolatier, a scent expert and an audio specialist to offer visitors a unique gallery experience where they can taste, touch, smell and listen to art. Featuring works by Francis Bacon, David Bomberg, Richard Hamilton and John Latham, the show encourages visitors to use all their senses to trigger memories and imagination. Multimedia producer at Tate media, Tony Guillan proffered the following by way of explanation “The idea is that our senses work together. They are not in a vacuum. While painters obviously work in a visual medium, maybe they were inspired by non-visual things. Maybe Bacon was inspired by things he heard, tasted or touched.” A case of stating the bleedin’ obvious, I reckon.

Open your mind, open your eyes

One of the greatest benefits of living in a culturally rich and diverse capital city like London is the opportunity to take in a different museum or gallery every weekend without ever having to visit the same venue twice in a year. Spoilt for choice, each establishment offers up visual treats and surprises to inspire the creative soul and inform the inquisitive mind.

After time spent wandering these galleries I find I view the world with a heightened sense of discovery. A brilliant poster picked up on this theme some years ago before Tate suddenly became all modern. A photograph of a conker with the fruit peering through the slit of the outer spiky green casing, looking uncannily like a human eye, sat alongside the very discreet copyline; ‘A conker noticed after a visit to the Tate Gallery.’ Read More

Too clever by half

We’re constantly being told that when clients prospect for new design studios to work with, top of their agenda is the word that means everything and anything; creativity.

Whether it be design studios winning pitches by unicycling outside potential clients’ offices, or those well-worn straplines emphasising how creative an agency is (and usually isn’t), we’ve seen it all and are constantly reminded that we work in an industry that holds no bars. Which is all very well as we strive to be different from the next design group, especially when clients are seemingly searching for creatively capable partners, and getting noticed becomes increasingly difficult when we can appear to say the same thing.

Therefore, when I see an example of graphic design that has crossed that fine line between a masterful stroke of creative genius and an idea that is, well, just too clever for its own good I feel a deep sigh of disappointment. Read More

Signs of the times

Patiently waiting for a bus the other evening, the silence at the terminus was suddenly broken by a curt announcement over the tannoy. Apparently not only were drivers reminded to switch off their engines when stationery but also wear their high vis jackets when venturing both inside and outside their vehicles. It seems we’re constantly being reminded to be safe in the environment and nowhere is this more apparent than with the plethora of safety signs that have sprung up in this ever litigious world we now inhabit. Once my bus did eventually turn up it appears that, like the buses themselves, the safety signs they bear by the entrance doors also appear in threes. It’s an undisputed truth that one single clear piece of communication, be it a poster, book jacket or sign stands out much more than when competing with extrenuous ephemera surrounding it. Similarly one disabled icon on this bus would have done the job effectively and quickly, a necessity you’d think when trying to get passengers boarded in a hurry. Sadly, another case of confusing the communication by resorting to what was probably specified in some TFL safety manual rather than relying on good old common sense.

Perfection to a T

Practising as a design studio for over 30 years we’ve inevitably held on to various visual elements from projects over that time, many too meaningful or desirable to dispose of.

Take for example this wonderful illustration by Bob Haberfield, created in 1997, as one in a range of Twinings fruit teas we created packaging for. So vividly real that you can almost smell that cut pineapple, his skill in rendering the fruit and every water droplet in gouache paints was without equal. And, although I’m sure there are contemporary illustrators able to create something similar on a Mac, the beauty of this particular illustration, and the other equally exquisite examples from the range, is the pure hand-painted nature of the piece. Read More

A National Type

One of the most rewarding things about travelling to a foreign land is the visual feasts lying in store, waiting to be discovered. Of these many individual characteristics, it’s surprising how a certain font can come to represent a nation – one that’s not necessarily as obvious as Helvetica forever wedded to Switzerland. Think of those quirky, racy typefaces that came to symbolise every boulangerie or patisserie in deepest France; similarly, on a recent stay in Spain, it became increasingly clear to me how Stencil has always been a mainstay of that country’s typography. From house numbers to road signs it appears to be their utilitarian font of choice.

The renowned artist, educator and designer Josef Albers was himself a great admirer of the virtues of Stencil type. He stated: “The legibility of the most commonly used typefaces decreases with distance, whereas the stencil typeface increases legibility at a distance. The unprinted portions do not remain simply blank but rather become active negatives, just as empty spaces are structured positively in architecture and sculpture.” Read More

24 Le Mans logo

I had intended to write a short piece on the striking similarity between the F1 World Championship logo, that we created in 1994, and the new 24 Le Mans logo unveiled a couple of weeks ago for the annual Sports Car race. However, I’ve been beaten to it by the logo smith blog which also neatly overcomes the problem of it maybe looking like sour grapes on our part. I’ll leave it for you to decide having read the well written piece but suffice to say I have to agree with “If one is going to use inspiration from another design, then please do try a little harder to do it justice.” Read More

Take a seat

Following on from the blog before last regarding the stark and soul-less disabled icons that abound, this beautifully functional solution was spotted on a tram in Amsterdam at the weekend. As a huge admirer of Dutch graphic design I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise in discovering this innovative approach to highlighting a designated seat for the disabled, pregnant or infirm. I can almost imagine the designer tearing up the brief for a sign that would say all these and instead opting for a fabric that said so much more. Given their distinctive colour and repeat pattern of intended users these seats not only stood out a mile but by working the silhouettes into the fabric the effect was much more subtle and respective of the passenger’s ailments. No non-descript, conventional black and white stickers on a window adjacent to the designated seats but rather, a welcoming, cheerful pattern that did more than serve its purpose, brightening up an otherwise  grey and functional interior. It certainly made my day.

Lost in translation

One of the joys of being a graphic designer, occupied as we are with creating symbols and images with meaning, is that there are a host of objects to discover, many obscure, that already carry their own hidden stories. Take for example this beautifully carved life-size arm complete with a hand gesture that neither I, or the antique dealer selling it at a Collector’s Fair last year, had any idea what it meant. To be honest it did look slightly offensive with the thumb carved protruding between the first and second finger, a gesture we imagined some Latin taxi driver might give if ‘cut up’. And that was that, until I spotted a much smaller example at Portobello Road”s Friday flea market just recently which led me to investigate further. Read More

Signs of the times

Finding my way to the men’s loos the other evening in a darkened cinema was made all the more difficult by the indiscernible silhouettes on the doors. As one of the most common graphic symbols encountered by millions daily, the simple form of a male and female to denote their respective loos must surely be the most versatile and varied. It seems that the opportunity to design these ubiquitous silhouettes releases a hidden desire in designers to create something exceptionally unique, and unfortunately, in many cases, totally indecipherable.

When, a few years ago, we were given the opportunity to create signage for the National Media Museum in Bradford, I have to admit we challenged pictorial convention ourselves. However, I’d like to think our approach was based on questioning these conventions not on pursuing stylistic traits. For instance, from what I could observe, the majority of wheelchair users are more than capable of propelling themselves along with their arms, whereas the conventional symbol shows them sitting helpless and, in many cases, armless too. By redesigning the symbol to illustrate reality we tried not only to better represent the capabilities of many wheelchair-bound users but also to not shout ‘disabled’ as the previous benchmark sign had done. Read More

Go Faster

As a new Post Office van pulled up alongside me the other lunchtime in its distinctive pillarbox red I couldn’t help but notice it sporting a new livery, or rather, curved swoosh. It struck me as at odds with the van graphics itself, sitting very uncomfortably with the Post Office logo and got me thinking as to what it possibly signified. Delving into the past when Royal Mail vans were similarly branded with vacuous ‘go faster’ stripe graphics it begged the question; At a time when consumers were questioning the delivery times of both first and second class mail, who thought it a good idea to adopt this erroneous speedy graphic? And so, with time, very much like the service it provides, the Post Office van’s graphics have gradually morphed into a pedestrian green band along the way to becoming what we have now….a meaningless white rainbow swoosh. Maybe with the rainbow colour palette added it could at least represent the crop of gold that the hedge funds discovered who bought the shares when floated a couple of years ago? Read More

Type Delight

A beautifully graphic object, this stencil disc was found on a recent trip to give a lecture in Norwich, fittingly, on ‘what inspires me as a designer’. Invented by Eugene L. Tarbox way back in 1868 and manufactured by the New York Stencil Works, this humble object in itself tells a story of the rapid industrial growth of the USA at that time. Based in Pearl Street, Lower Manhattan, Eugene, along with his brothers Jerome and Henry plus a growing number of stencil cutters, quickly ensured the area became the centre for their trade whilst it simultaneously developed into the centre of the US wholesale market. The many stencil designers and cutters provided ready-made fonts for the ports’ busy freight operations and heavy industry with one of the very first typefaces, Stencil Gothic, being designed by John West of Brooklyn just across the river. Read More

Voyage of discovery

They say that travel broadens the mind and, for a designer especially, you might add broadens the vision. On a recent trip to Venice, wandering one of the many smaller canal’s pavements, I happened upon what I thought was a wooden sculpture from an exhibition, displayed outside the gallery. On entering the premises it turned out to be the workshop of one Saverio Pastor, a master craftsman of forcole and oars specifically for gondolas. The beautifully carved forcole are simply the fitting for the oar to rest on but the workmanship and variety of shapes is anything but so simple. Read More

Turning an idea on its head

The Schaukelwagen, to give it it’s proper title, started life as a rocking chair designed by students Hans Brockhage and Erwin Andra at the Dresden School of Visual Arts back in 1950. However, as the story goes their tutor, Mart Stam is reported to have said, in his best Dutch-German, “When horse fall over, horse is dead. You must make horse that isn’t dead when it fall over” The result is an innovative rocking “horse” that when it falls over becomes a “car”. An object that addresses a child’s natural inquisitive nature and fondness for reinventing objects by giving them a form that they can interpret and use as they wish. For me the real genius is that moulded plywood seat that can be used from both sides. All in all, given its simplicity of materials and concept, the Schaukelwagen just goes to prove that with the right encouragement and enthusiasm a good idea can become a great idea.

Classic Posters

It’s always a thrill visiting Portobello Friday flea-market, and far more rewarding than the Saturday antiques market, what with all the associated tourists. Never knowing what you’ll find gives it ‘the thrill of the hunt’ and to be honest most weeks bear little fruit nonetheless, occasionally a real gem turns up. Such was the case with this collection of original posters designed by the celebrated graphic designer Karl-Heinz Drescher. Most were designed for the Berliner Ensemble in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, others for the Ministry of Culture in the DDR. However, although created under an oppressive regime they have a free typographic spirit that looks as good today as some forty years ago. Read More

30 Years Young

November 5th, a time to celebrate three decades as a design studio and also an opportune moment to think back at what we’ve achieved along the way.

From a start up of just the two Phils working at a kitchen table in Kew to a company of eleven dedicated people based in a mews studio in Bayswater, we still value creativity and craft above all else as the keys to our success. That, and nurturing a relaxed, friendly and open atmosphere in the studio, which I still believe is conducive to doing good creative work. Keeping an open mind on how to tackle each challenge and remaining true to our original belief in having a unique creative idea at the core of every project has sustained us to where we are now and, looking to the future, will remain at the heart of what we believe in as a design studio. Read More

Drawing Inspiration

A recent article in a gallery guide by Andrew Marr, a very competent illustrator himself, on the value of drawing had me nodding in agreement. As he quite rightly put it “Most of us can draw. All of us learn to look, to see the world more sharply, and to enjoy the simple pleasure of making something when we learn to draw. Talk to any engineer, inventor or designer and you discover how fundamental drawing is. But as photographic reproduction has got better and faster, the drawing culture has withered. We are now in the ridiculous position of having a couple of generations who have almost been taught not to draw-that they can’t draw- that drawing is only for some bizarre elite of artists.” Well, I myself am a firm believer in drawing daily and encourage our designers to do similar. The Apple Mac has changed our industry immensely since its inception however, it is still normally a means to an end, albeit much faster than was previously the case. An original thought in my opinion is rarely ever recorded spontaneously via a keyboard. Drawing allows the individual to literally make their mark and in terms of designing a logo, for instance, nuances in line weight, thickness and flow are much more sympathetic and considered when rendered by hand. And in the same way as believing everybody can sing, given tuition, I’m also a firm believer in that everybody can draw. Although Sarah, our MD might make me reconsider the former. Pick up a pencil and make your mark.

Cover Art

Maybe you can judge a book by the cover, especially if it’s as simple and graphic as this example tucked away in the library area at Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge, created by one of my favourite artists, Ben Nicholson. What occurred to me though was the commissioning of an internationally renowned artist for a lowly book jacket seldom happens nowadays, if at all, and that we’re all the poorer for it. When this stunningly simple cover was created the divide between designer and artist was far less discernible and, in the case of this particular example, probably occurred through Adrian Stokes being good friends with Nicholson and his circle in St Ives, with whom he had contributed to the second edition of Polemic, an art journal of the time. How things have changed since then. Having had to make the choice myself at art college in the 70’s between design or fine art, I still remember the stigma and divide between the two schools, having made my decision to become a designer. That I paint as well reassures me that we are in fact part of one big artistic melting pot, with collaboration to be encouraged whatever we do, and all the better for it. It would be refreshing to see the same kindred spirit between art and design return as it once was but, given the super status of many leading artists now, would they even consider undertaking a commission of this sort?

DIY Typography

Think we have the makings of another book with our ever growing collection of untutored typography. With the most recent example photographed in a newsagents’ door window in Cambridge, we’re still not sure if the shop is only open for half an hour a day? And, although all our designers have gone through extensive training to make them the consummate typographers that they are, there’s still a nod of appreciation for type rendered in this untaught, from the heart manner. I suppose it’s all about the context as much as the hand rendering and remember well a talk given by one of ‘The Partners’ where this was illustrated brilliantly with a handwritten FRESH EGGS sign in a country lane, serving its purpose perfectly. Read More

Drawn to Protest

A visit to the Stasi museum in Leipzig bought home not only how we take our freedom for granted but the political changes in Germany since the Wall came down in 1989. Sometimes in a museum the seemingly inconsequential exhibits tell the bigger story better. Such was the case of the drawing opposite, a heartfelt and simplistic view of an East German boy called Johannes criticising the cost and environmental credentials of the home manufactured Wartburg 1.3. Unfortunately, by creating this drawing it was enough for him, his parents and school headmaster to be arrested and questioned. To be under this constant surveillance, it does make you stop and think, no bad thing ever.

Ingenuity Aplenty

They say that travel broadens the mind and, on a recent trip to Leipzig in Germany, Phil C saw plenty to make him think. First up, a trip to Colditz Castle and a chance to marvel at the sheer ingenuity of the inmates in their many attempts to break free, culminating in the construction of a two man glider in one of the lofts that sadly never got to fly. However, in the various attempts that succeeded (and failed) was the creative thinking employed to deceive; from life-size mannequins to make the numbers tally at daily roll calls to the unexpected use of literally any material to hand to fashion duplicates of everything necessary from documents to stamps, uniforms to passports. I suppose you could argue that given they had nothing else to occupy their minds it was inevitable that these prisoners would pursue every opportunity to escape, nonetheless it really does go to show the resourcefulness of the human brain, especially when constrained.

Think Big

Big brands using smaller consultancies?

Just read an interesting piece on the Designweek blog regarding the new phenomena of ‘decoupling’ work from bigger groups and instead using networks of smaller consultancies. It seems Simon Wright, MD of Greenwich Design believes that big branding consultancies are definitely still seen by clients as the go-to places for the big creative idea on which to hang the whole brand strategy, redesign, advertising campaign, or packaging design. And where these big branding consultancies fall down is in the detail as, once they’ve come up with the big idea they lose interest, or at least a bit of focus.

So this is where ‘decoupling’ comes into play whereby the smaller agencies are bought in as executors of the bigger agencies ‘big idea.’ Read More

First Past the post

Originally tied in bunches around horse racing punters’ binoculars, this feast of coloured card tag passes begged to be bought at a recent jumble sale. Visit any meet and these small, innocuous pieces of cardboard instantly bestow a status on the pundit far beyond their material worth, depending on their quantity.

And looking at them closely they do have a beautiful simplistic charm, from their foil-blocked typography, sympathetic colourways and die cut silhouettes, many resembling a crest or badge highlighting the esteemed origins of the sport itself. One oddball amongst them is for Brooklands Motor racing circuit, the first of its kind. Apparently, being the inaugural venue for this new four-wheeled sport, much of the nomenclature from horse racing was appropriated for anything from The Paddock through to the drivers wearing silks. Read More

Less is More

OK, so the photo is out of focus but, completely unintentionally, it emphasises the strength of the design for this cover of a catalogue on British Art and just goes to show the graphic genius of Abram Games. As with the best graphic design, you can almost sense his brain thinking how to combine those two essential elements, British and Art into the final design. Found in a favourite secondhand bookshop haunt in Norwich it led me on a trail of discovery to the Abram Games website. As its homepage quite rightfully states, ‘Games was one of the twentieth century’s most influential graphic designers. He fervently believed that the biggest impact came from the simplest of designs.’ An adage well worth remembering today, as then.

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