Any designer, or person who’s had an interest in the culture of visual design during the last 20 or so years, has at one point or another been enamored with the work of the studio ‘North from nowhere,’ a vibrant yet faceless entity that created bold visual legacies for everything from soft drinks, video games, record labels and night clubs. However, after over 25 plus years in business, the studio closed its doors in 2009 from financial problems and since then Ian has been making himself more accessible through exhibitions, workshops, lectures and consulting plus also set upon a quiet quest to raise the tDR name from out of the ashes. Just don’t call it a come back, the Angryman™ never left.
Lets start off with talking about why you’re here, one of the reasons being you’re doing a retrospective show on The Designers Republic (tDR), can you give us a little bit of insight into how the opportunity for you to bring this show to Australia came about?
We do a lot of exhibitions and I quite enjoy doing those as you reach a different audience in a different way and you also get a very specific audience. It’s like a lot of design work we do, there’s always a sense for me that whenever I’m designing something, the most important thing is the fact that it’s a communication of an idea. So whether it’s personal work or client work, it’s about the communication. What you’re doing with an exhibition is communicating to an abstract, unknown audience. Imagine the audience to be your target market, you can predict an audience, but it’s still an abstract audience. It’s the same as with a band. You can make an album, but you don’t know who’s going to buy it. You don’t know those people, and you can’t imagine those people.
When you play a live gig it’s a very personal space, almost one-on-one, and it’s the same thing with exhibitions. You know people are actually coming specifically to consume what we’ve done so that’s the appeal for me in terms of exhibitions in general. The other thing is (that) The Designers Republic has really for a long time now been quite a global thing, we appeal to a certain kind of person, and that certain kind of person exists around the world.
You mentioned you have a following, or rather that tDR has followers or fans. Who do you think the typical tDR fan is?
I think in general terms of our fans, people come to us either because they’re fans of the music that we’ve designed for, like how we get a lot of Warp fans, and we get a lot of people who come to us because they grew up with gaming and Wipeout, for example, but there’s also a lot of people who are just interested in design but aren’t designers. I think that we connect with them because there’s always a message in what we do, there’s a sense of authorship and there’s a flow, and the fact that even when we’re working with clients, there’s a strong tDR voice. There’s always a reasoning to what we do, and as for me, you know I didn’t train to be a designer but I mean I’m obviously a designer.
I think you are, yeah…
Yeah, but you know I don’t wake up in the morning and say “I’m going to do some design,” the things that interest me are the thinking behind it, the communication and message.
So taking it back to the tDR fan, it’s just a mix of designers and design lovers really…
Yeah I think so. The thing is that you can’t really avoid design now, and I think even people who wouldn’t think they were very interested in design in the sense of design communication and sort of engagement. As I said, you start the dialogue with an unseen correspondent and what I’m doing when I’m designing is trying to provoke a response, I guess that people who like tDR are those people that are suitably provoked, if you know what I mean.
So do you like to create dialogue with your work, say through leaving ideas partially filled or completed, or do you always like having a strong message or idea present and ready to be consumed?
I think in general there’s always a duality in terms of what we’re trying to communicate, or when you’re working with clients you know the key thing about any sort of graphic design work is that there’s always a call for response. So if you’re designing for Coke, the response is either buying into the brand or buying the product and if you’re designing a record cover there’s a sense of on one level an artistic connection and collaboration, but ultimately the idea is still that people like the cover and want to own it and want to own that product. Whether that’s if people see the record cover and go ‘I’m not really sure about the music, but I’ll take a punt on that.’
Have you done that yourself?
Yeah, lot of times. I think a lot of people buy into things rather than buy things and I think that’s what I’ve always tried to do in terms of design is that, if you design a record cover in such a way that people are going to buy that product, then what you have to do the next time that artist releases a record is do the same thing over and over again. If you create an identity for a band you know, something for people to buy into, so similar to what we did for Pop Will Eat Itself, it was very much about using design to create some kind of mythology about the band. That’s what people can buy into and they can put on their t-shirts, or write on their pencil case or whatever, you know if you do something like that then people will buy into then it’s almost like half of the job for the next release is done because people are waiting for it for the next installment of this sort of narrative that you create, as opposed to them thinking ‘Well, I’ll see if I like the track or not.’
And the same goes with almost any client work you’re constantly trying to communicate some sort of idea and some sort of mythology that people want to buy into, or discover for themselves, and if you work like that then the point is that people are far more likely to want to buy something that they’ve bought because they’ve bought into the idea, rather than just the actual product. It’s like Coca Cola, you buy it because it’s Coca Cola as opposed to some local brand of cola flavoured fizzy drink.
Well that’s just it, fundamentally there is no difference is there really.
No there isn’t, and it’s the reason that loads of brands like Apple Macs as the prime example because if Samsung did something better than the iPhone I still wouldn’t buy it because it’s just not brand-worthy. But I understand the back-story to Apple, whereas Samsung is just Samsung. You know, there’s no kind of romance or mythology with it, but Apple do that really well and Levi Jeans and all those sorts of things. The thing about Levi’s is that you have to be aware that you have to be a certain shape for Levi’s to work on you, but people still buy them even if they don’t fit properly just because of the little red tab on the back. And it’s not because of consumer stupidity and people saying ‘Oh, I’m going to buy that,’ it’s because Levi’s has created a story that we can buy into and when you wear a pair there’s a certain something that at least you can justify to yourself as to why you’re wearing them.
I think in terms of how you communicate certain things there are always two messages. The one that is the direct communication, which is a call-to-action and that’s a very specific provoked response, then deliberately there’s always the other one, which is always more interesting to me, is just asking questions, and for me the best answers are questions. I don’t know what people’s response is going to be but all I want to do is to make sure that there is a response and reaction, to provoke a response or ask a question of somebody.
On a commercial level that works well because there’s a whole sense of what everybody is trying to do is to rent little bits of space in people’s heads. And the greater space you rent, the more likely they are to respond to that, so in terms of working with commercial clients I tried to kind of get them to understand that if you ask a question, then people are more likely to respond to it and actually try your product or do what you’re asking me to ask them to do.
Is that because you’re allowing them to kind of fill-in-the-blanks as opposed to being told what the answer is and creating a dialogue?
You’re creating a dialogue and you’re giving them the opportunity to own the idea themselves. A lot tDR fans feel that they own and have some ownership or something to invest in that idea, it relates to them, so that’s what the sort of message is. Whereas you get a lot of design companies who just do nice design work for their clients and they’re quite invisible, but that was never my intention, as I say I didn’t study to be a designer but I do it because I enjoy the engagement of it.
If you look at the output that you were creating with tDR it was really almost a collaboration, like you said most designers work autonomously behind the scenes when they’re working with a brand, but with tDR it always seemed very much more like a ‘this is us’ statement. This is the brand wanting the tDR stamp, wanting to collaborate and see how tDR are going to interpret their product…
I think that there are those clients who, at various times over the last 25 plus years, have felt that it was going to be an easy first step for whatever reason, possibly because of the audience that they were going after or trying to re-connect with. They saw working with TDR on one level, and that we work with tDR and therefore we’re ‘cool.’
Because at that time you were doing work for Warp, you were working with Gatecrasher…
Yeah just that specifically, and also in general with the fact that we were selling a lot of our own merchandise and being talked about in magazine interviews. So there was a sense of at least with Coke and the people at global in Atlanta that they understood if I could do that for me, then I could do that for them. I think that with tDR there’s a sense that you’re buying into something, and that we will bring something more.
Also because of the way I work, if you want an agency to do something and provide a good service and to have some account executive turning up in the approximation of a decent suit, because basically what the big agencies really offer is good service, not necessarily good design. If you look at what they promise, it’s like ‘we’ll deliver on time and on budget,’ and I’m just thinking ‘I don’t know if I’m going to deliver on time.’ I will do because I’m professional, but that isn’t really an issue, it’s about what you want me to do.
That’s not going to be your selling point.
No, my selling point is that I’m the kind of guy that understands what you’re doing and I understand how to communicate and I will communicate that better than most people because that’s what I’m interested in.
You’ve talked about this in a few interviews where you felt that was where tDR was heading in 2009, or it was then, so did you feel you needed to strip it back?
Yeah, but it was stripped back for me basically because we went bust (laughs).
(Laughs) But a part of that was because you felt that you weren’t connected with the studio anymore and the way it was heading?
Well I wasn’t connecting with clients and the ones we worked with most successfully I formed a personal relationship with and I basically kind of interrogated them to find out exactly what they wanted. Like, ‘Why do you want to do this? For what reason? Who do you want to talk to, and why?’ and so on. If someone gives me a brief and says ‘We need you to design a catalogue,’ my first question is ‘Why do you want a catalogue?’
Can we do this online, or is there another way to communicate?
Yeah, I just want to know why people want to do it and in a lot of cases I might say actually there’s a better way to do this, I can do you a catalogue, but there might be a better way to do it.
And was that process lost somewhere?
Yeah that was getting lost. What should happen is that I talk to the people who are commissioning the work, not the people who are procuring the work and have them say ‘We need this’ rather than them talking to my people and having the account executives come back and I’d say ‘Okay, did you ask them this?’ and they’d say ‘Well no, this is just a briefing session’ and I’d say ‘There’s no such thing as just a briefing session.’
You can’t just have someone ask, ‘What do you want us to do? I’ll go back and tell the studio.’ What were their motivations, their inspiration, what are they hoping to achieve? I don’t really see how you can work any other way, though obviously a lot of people do, but it just doesn’t make any sense to me.
This kind of leads me to one of my other questions. I remember when I was going through school and it was always perceived that ego was more of a hindrance to providing the best solution to your client. However I’ve always felt whenever you talk about ego you see it as being an important aspect when a designer approaches their work. Why is that? Do you think ego is an important aspect within a designer’s work?
I’m not sure that ego is necessarily the right word but I think you need to have a real strong sense of self, and when I teach at the Manchester School of Art, a design thinking course within the bigger course, the first thing I do is always get the students to stand up and tell me why they want to be a designer. It’s amazing how many people have never really thought about it or put it into words.
Then I get them to do a portrait of themselves as a designer without using an image of themselves and they can’t use typography so it has to be about experience and aspiration. The point is that if you don’t know or understand yourself, how can you understand other people? If you don’t understand other people then how can you create a piece of work for them? It’s a sense of confidence and putting yourself in the position. Again, if you’re working for a big agency, then you’re really just trying to a creative service or a campaign, and they’re never really insightful, they just do the job.
I think that if you want to be a designer you need to know yourself need to be unafraid of putting yourself out there because if you don’t, it’s your sense of self that is your USP (Unique Selling Point), so if someone comes to tDR, I assume it’s because they want what I give, not because they want what Spin or North or some other agency has, and if they’re only going to an agency because they want service and budget and deadlines then they’re not the kind of client that I want to work with anyway. So I think it’s confidence and it’s sense of self.
And confidence is being able to use your own experience to inform the decisions you make in your design?
I don’t think that good design is neutral or particularly anonymous either. I think that on one level a big agency is like ‘We just do what our client’s want’ and that’s fine, but I kind of find that quite dull. I don’t have a lot of respect for clients who don’t want to engage with you, and though people have different ways of working and ones not right and one’s not wrong, but for me there’s no point in doing it unless I’m going to put all into it.
You know if I put all of me into it then obviously it’s going to have something of myself in the end result. I know I don’t want to just go to page 42 of the ‘TDR manual’ and say ‘You’re going to get that.’ I invest a lot of thinking time into pretty much everything I do, partly because that’s why I enjoy it and because that’s really what people need.
I think good creatives are not selfish, they’re self-orientated. It’s about what I do, I’m not about what the client does because that’s them, I don’t need to be. They’re the best at selling fizzy drinks or at selling records or mobile phones. As far as I’m concerned I’m best at communicating that to their target market and if they don’t agree then they shouldn’t be working with me. But if they do, then there needs to be something of me.
The Australian exhibition Up Over Down Under opens from Thursday the 2nd of May and runs through the 26th at No Vacancy Gallery.
The Design Thinking workshops with Ian Anderson run from the 4th and 5th in Melbourne with the Sydney leg taking place from the 7th and 8th.
For info on these events and more visit tdr-upoverdownunder.com.