Mike Paisley – Designer Soapbox

Mike Paisley

Mike Paisley

Mike Paisley loves simplicity, making things and tinfoil gadgets. We first met when he was involved in Throwawaylines, a wonderful project which treated rubbish like royalty. Mike is a Design Director at The Partners, where he’s solved brand and communication problems for clients as diverse as LV=, eBay, Allen & Overy, HSBC, Penguin and Richard House Children’s Hospice.

Here he talks about design and his love of words, and why he’s started to make geodesic domes out of old bits of fence.

What does your day job involve?

Aside from making the occasional round of tea, I’ll usually be working on or overseeing a number of projects in any given week. It might be working with the strategic consultants and design team to create the visual identity for a brand, based upon the underlying strategy and positioning. Or with the design team on briefs relating to more specific pieces of communication – like a brochure of some kind, a poster or a website or app. Typically these will be for bigger organisations but in amongst these bigger jobs we also work on some smaller projects. Sometimes these are more creative on paper, in that the solution is less constrained by scale and politics, or perhaps it’s just simply a more ‘fun’ industry; pharma versus cake making for example. We try to maintain a balance between the big and the small and make the most of the opportunities in each, regardless of scale or constraints.

What do you love about your job?

I like solving problems – fixing something that doesn’t make sense, isn’t working or just doesn’t look right. That’s pretty much what we do and the problems come in all shapes and sizes. I also like not wearing a suit, and not ironing a shirt.

Learning about new things is also a nice by-product of the job… from James Bond to diabetes, friendly societies and the Magic Circle for example. Working with interesting people is good too, both those at work and those we collaborate with, such as film makers, animators, illustrators, typographers, photographers, and of course writers. It’s great when they enable you to create something better than you could on your own. Or they help realise the idea in a way that surpasses what was in your head. That’s always particularly nice.

What are your favourite projects outside work?

Taking type for a walk: Mike's favourite student project

Taking type for a walk: Mike’s favourite student project

As a student I particularly enjoyed a project called ‘Taking type for a walk’. I took a walk around where I grew up (in a suburb of Glasgow) and noted memories along the way. A typographic central narrative mapped out path and the memories surrounded it in the form of little typographic anecdotes. These featured landmarks like the Big Dipper – a hill where we used to sledge, or The Burn – home to the Death-slide and the arena for Kick-Start and two-man hunt. Some parts are better than others and there are things I’d change from a design point of view, but it captures memories from a past, which is now 17 years and more behind me. I’m especially glad I did it now and I enjoyed the play between writing and designing. The writing was central to the setting of the type; writing more or less, or changing one word to another all had knock on effects. So there was a fair bit of wrestling between the two.

I also enjoyed taking part in Throwaway Lines last year, an exhibition inspired by scraps of paper discarded in the street, collected by Andy Hayes, a friend and old colleague. It was lovely to work like a student again, finding and gluing things together ­– a chance to use my hands in a literally more hands-on way. And also work with words and a story in a more direct way too. The Throwaway Lines website has all of the stories and frames, including the story by Kate Baxter about ‘Robert’, inspired by the scrap of paper here.

For the Throwawaylines project, Mike created a frame using old type blocks

For the Throwawaylines project, Mike created a frame using old type blocks

The whole idea of taking care in the making of things provides the central discussion/premise of a book I’m reading at the moment too: The Craftsman by Richard Sennett. In it he investigates the pleasure and value in making something well and proposes that that, in itself, is a reason to do it in the first place. I don’t seem to have the time to do that very often, which is something I’m keen to address, especially given the fleeting information hits of the digital world and how I’m finding that’s changing my appetite for single-focus concentration.

Why did you originally want to be a designer?

I’d always gravitated towards drawing at school and I enjoyed Art, English and History. I think I knew that things were designed to some degree but I certainly didn’t know that ‘graphic design’ was a thing, I just enjoyed drawing, and simplifying things. Somewhere in the middle of my schooling I was sat down in front of BBC micro and a careers questionnaire. A little while later a dot matrix printer noisily prodded out ‘graphic designer’ in the number 1 position. So then I knew there was this job called a graphic designer. I found out more about it and it sounded quite good. That focused me a little and a few years later I applied to art school.

I ended up studying at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, firstly doing a year’s general course, where we did a bit of everything – from life drawing, sculpture and drawing and painting, to animation and making chairs. It was great fun, aside from the crits and suddenly feeling less than confident surrounded by all these other people that could also draw, in many cases better than I could. Then I specialised in graphic design for the next three years. Making it out into reality in 2000.

What was your first job?

Junior designer at The Partners. My college was showing at New Designers and Jack Renwick, who was a designer at The Partners back then (going on to become Creative Director until a few years ago), came along with Dana Robertson to see our stand and her old tutors. I got talking to them, they liked my work and I got an interview off the back of that. It was luck, really, that Jack had gone to my college and came to visit the stand. She’s got a lot to answer for, in a good way.

Jack Renwick, aka Wonder Woman, talent spotted Mike

Jack Renwick, aka Wonder Woman in her Twitter profile, talent spotted Mike

How did your career develop from there?

I’ve been at The Partners for about 13 years now and have worked my way up over time. It’s changed a lot since I started, when David Stuart and Aziz Cami still stalked the floors like benevolent/malevolent uncles depending on whether things were going in the right direction or not.

In terms of my role I think the biggest change for me has been moving from being a doer to an overseer, with more responsibility. I like trying to see the bigger picture and it’s great when the designers you are working with come up with good ideas. But for me personally, it’s important to maintain a balance, to not lose touch with the design skills I’ve taken quite a long time to develop.

How has the business changed?

The business has evolved from being a graphic design business to becoming a branding agency. So not just tackling specific communication problems (an annual report, a website, a poster etc) but rather getting to the heart of a business’ brand, and then figuring out how that manifests itself in actions, behaviours and its visual and verbal expression. The specific communication needs/briefs are still there but we often work on those as part of a bigger project involving the brand. The constant over my 13 years here has been the focus on ensuring that the work is always based in good thinking and ideas.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you like to have been?

I’d either be a sportsman of some kind, probably a footballer… a portraitist, or a writer. However, if there was a job that involved doing a bit of everything and getting paid for it, then I’d probably be that.

What do you enjoy about working with words?

Words are very important to the way I approach design, either to organise thinking or to capture an idea or the source of an idea. Though semantics are always a challenge, words hopefully allow you to be more precise and certain in what you are communicating – both in discussion around the work but also in defining the core thinking on which things are built.

Where writers are concerned it’s great when they can take the seed of an idea and build it into something far bigger or just bring to life the idea that’s been in your head. I always enjoy it most when someone you’re working with buys into the idea and you feel that it’s not just a job for them – that the result really matters to them too.

Mike's currently reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

Mike’s currently reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

What do people get wrong about you?

I can appear quite serious, and a bit meticulous or considered/logical in the way I approach things. But I also like playful ideas and being silly. I like playfulness generally. That’s part of the pleasure of life, being silly, running with a silly idea and using humour to get through things in that typically British way. I think it can also be a mechanism to free up the mind a little…

I saw a documentary recently called The King of Nerac, exploring the artist David Breuer-Weil, his personality, background and his work. I particularly liked how he described this imaginary kingdom (Nerac) where all of his ideas or streams of thought are worked out through ‘Nerakian’ artists. Of course they were all him, but these personas took pressure off the ideas and allowed him to explore without fear of too much judgement. Some of these artists stayed with him for just a day, others for a year or more. He does a little Nerakian (one could say silly) dance at one point, then stops, looks at the sky and describes what he can see. It’s much like a child might describe their imaginary game-world. That little dance opens a door to a part of his brain unshackled by the controlling instincts of the adult mind. I think in some design/designers you do find that powerful juxtaposition of childlike playfulness and the rational problem solver.

People also think I’m not lazy, but I am. The reason is that if I do something I tend to want to do it well, so my laziness is born of an unwillingness to commit to doing a job properly. Often I might not bother to start something because if I get started, it’s going to be involved and I don’t think I have the time. So I often umm and ahh over what is the best thing to procrastinate myself into.

What’s your favourite gadget?

I do like gadgets but I live vicariously through my brother’s gadgets and inventions. He is forever making things and usually his gadgets are items re-purposed to fulfil a new function.

His Hamleys is Maplin and his box of toys when we were growing up was a cardboard box with wires and plugs in it. One gadget from our childhood that sticks in my mind was an under-doormat, pressure-sensitive burglar alarm, fashioned from tinfoil, amongst other things. It worked surprisingly well.

Mike loves gadgets

Mike loves a gadget. Current favourite: the minirig rechargeable speaker.

More recently he’s enjoyed telling me the temperature of all manner of household items and surfaces with his infrared digital thermometer, which is of course shaped like a gun. And also demonstrating how he has power over most of the lights in his house through remote-controlled light switches. He’s also working on some kind of RFID-based system so that he can open the garage door without getting out of the car or leaving the house. I love the way he approaches things and I’d love to work with him on a project one day.

My favourite gadget is a little rechargeable speaker, called a minirig. Its size belies its sound quality (and its volume). It lasts about 50 hours on a charge and it follows me around the flat/garden as I work on things.

What’s your favourite place for creative inspiration?

I like the combination of space and sunlight (though not so bright that it makes white paper too bright to look at), so sitting in a park on a bench with an expanse of sky around me would be good. But as I can’t think without writing or drawing, I’d need a big table too. And so maybe some animal-shaped paperweights… perhaps a squirrel and a hedgehog.

Who’s your design hero/heroine?

I’m most drawn to design that makes a difference and solves a problem, not design for design’s sake (or perhaps designer’s sake). The things that you use every day that make your life simpler.


Detail of Max Gill’s Wonderground map

Harry Beck’s tube map, predictably, is a great example. It serves its purpose beautifully, and I really like how its influence has been introduced on bus routes. The principles it introduced and the observation that geographic accuracy was actually a hindrance have been hugely useful in design of this kind, something I’ve appreciated many times when I’m trying to find my way around London on the buses or night-buses.

On the flipside of this though, I also really like the work of MacDonald ‘Max’ Gill (Eric’s brother). He created the Wonderground map. If Beck’s map solved a usability problem, then the Wonderground map is almost the polar opposite. It’s richly illustrative and choc-full of amusing hints about the people and stories behind the places. It captures the reason why you might want to go to these places and was designed to keep people amused while they waited for their trains, a very different purpose. I like that the design problem can be wildly different and require very different answers.

What are you doing now?

Mike's latest design: a garden geodesic dome

A garden geodesic dome: one of the projects Mike’s working on

Around two years ago I started working four days a week to create the time and energy to work on other projects. Right now I’m working on a number, one of which is making geodesic domes. It began with a friend’s observation that most fruit cages are weak and ugly. He’s always loved geodesic domes and lots of construction mechanisms exist but they are typically a little Heath-Robinson or highly engineered and hugely expensive. He had some old chestnut fence-posts on his allotment, so we set about making a dome and trying to resolve an affordable system that makes them relatively simple and enjoyable to construct. It’s been a fascinating process so far. Our intention is that they could be used for all kinds of purposes – a fruit cage, arbor, chicken run, aviary, butterfly sanctuary or, my favourite, as a children’s den. I’d have loved one as a child (maybe even now), probably with an old parachute draped over the top…

What’s next for you?

Going to four days is an opportunity to figure that out. Ideas are wonderful things, but a brilliant idea that goes nowhere or simply stops a little beyond the endorphin hit it gives you, is less valuable. The hard bit is making something actually happen and all that entails. So right now, I’m enjoying making things, allowing myself to fail, and seeing if a few ideas can make it beyond the page into some sort of reality.

Designer soapbox: Tim Foster


“Designers need to get out of the studio” – Tim Foster, graphic designer and art director

Born in Yorkshire and raised in Kent, Tim Foster trained at Ravensbourne and since then has worked for everyone from the Observer magazine to Dorling Kindersley and Mitchell Beazley (twice). Here he talks about combining his roles as an editorial designer and art director, why he loves working with text, and what inspires him.

What’s your favourite tip for getting inspiration?

Designers who work on their own need to get out of the studio. Stepping away from the computer is a good thing. You can search and find anything you like online, but I don’t think it’s inspiring to huddle over your computer wearing ear phones.

I live in East London, so if I need inspiration, I usually go to a gallery – Tate Modern, the Whitechapel or the National Gallery.

I keep my eyes open and normally get inspired by something I see on the journey. It could be a poster on the tube, the cover of a book someone’s reading or a shop window. It’s about picking up one thing that triggers off a thought so you have a new idea. The process – going out, putting myself in front of material and coming back – shifts my thinking.

I also love visiting the London Review Bookshop and Waterstones in Piccadilly, where I head for fiction to look at covers and also cookery books. The majority of best selling, illustrated non-fiction books are cookery and that means there is a decent budget for designers to be creative with layout, photography and print finishing. 

Tim finds cookery books inspiring

Tim finds cookery books inspiring

What first made you want to become a designer?

I liked drawing and art and at 16 decided to go to art school. I never really thought of any alternative. In the ‘60s and ‘70s art schools were places where musicians and designers could be creative and experimental and I was attracted to the idea of a non-conformist environment. I went to Ravensbourne, which was very typographically orientated, so the course pushed me towards a greater understanding of graphic design. 

Cover designs by Tim Foster

Cover designs by Tim Foster

How did your career start?

My first job was working for a direct mail advertising agency, where I learned about coping under serious pressure. Next I went to work for Frances Lincoln, a publisher of illustrated reference books. The market in the 70s had really opened up for lavish educational books with a high illustrative content. After that, I worked for National Magazines on the Observer colour magazine and subsequently as an art director for a variety of publishers.

Which do you prefer – designing or art directing?

I like doing both, and wouldn’t want to do either exclusively. Having spent many years as an art director  managing a large number of projects it’s great to get back to designing pages because I still enjoy the craft of it. I like working out the puzzle of how to get the different page elements to fall together naturally. But I also enjoy art directing, which is about guiding illustrators and photographers to produce work that is aesthetically right and fits the editorial content.


Tim has worked on books on everything from antiques to stone circles

What are the different challenges when you’re working on books compared to brochures or reports?

Well, a book can be 440 pages long and involve 1,000 images, so planning and control are vital. The decisions you make in the first few weeks are really important because a book that’s off schedule can’t be fixed by a couple of people working all night. It’s like turning a tanker around. 

Also, working with a publisher has more of an in-house quality. There’s usually an in-house team and you’re working closely with an author. Whereas with a company report, the external client might be less familiar with the design process.

What work do you most enjoy?

I’ve always naturally gravitated towards design that’s generated from text. When I was at Frances Lincoln I worked on a book called Rings of Stone about stone circles, and discovered that I really enjoyed getting the pictures to work with the text. I also enjoy designing covers and the challenge of reconciling the needs of marketing with an attractive visual solution. But I’ve never done decoration for its own sake. I start with the text and enjoy getting familiar with it and working with the author to define the best artwork or photography to define that content.

What do you enjoy about working with writers?

"If an author has command of their subject, it's a joy"

“If an author has command of their subject, it’s a joy”


If an author has command of their subject, it’s a joy to work with them. I did a big book on the guitar with Richard Chapman for Dorling Kindersley. It was great because we were able to work together incredibly closely for nearly two years to flesh out the subject in detail. He had a massive knowledge of the subject and I was able to channel that into a manageable form for a book. It helped that I play the guitar too. It was very exciting to be part of that kind of collaborative process – a virtuous circle of skills. It’s very different from just being given a Word document of text when you’ve never met the writer. 

What drives you mad about writers?

I was once in a meeting with a very senior publishing executive when he said that authors are the most unreliable suppliers on the planet. That seems a bit harsh but the late arrival of text ripples through the whole process and limits the time available for designing, so it’s a challenge to maintain quality. I’ve worked with authors who are years late. That’s the stuff that drives designers mad.

Leon Kossoff's 'View of Hackney'

Leon Kossoff’s ‘View of Hackney’

Three minute insight

  • Who’s your design hero/heroine? I don’t really have one. I’ve always seen design as commercial art. The creative people I admire are usually musicians and painters. Hockney for endeavour, Velasquez for skill, Keith Jarrett for exploration and Keith Richards for surviving…
  •  What’s the last exhibition you saw? Leon Kossoff at the Annely Juda gallery. He does these wonderful drawings of London: big, bold and scribbly. There are lots of the East End, Ridley Road market and Battersea Power Station. I just love them – they have a real energy.
  •  What’s your favourite gadget? It’s a little tuner that you clip onto the headstock of your guitar. When you hit the string, it senses whether the note is sharp or flat. 

    This guitar tuner is Tim's favourite gadget

    This guitar tuner is Tim’s favourite gadget

Designer soapbox: Anja Wohlstrom

Anja grew up in the Swedish countryside outside Helsingborg, near Copenhagen. Now Art Director of the New Statesman, she steps onto the Designer Soapbox to talk about her love of illustration, the Swedish design aesthetic and having ideas in airports.


Anja Wohlstrom

Swedish Art Director Anja Wohlstrom likes clean lines and white space.

What’s your day job?

As the Art Director of the New Statesman magazine, I’m responsible for the overall look of the magazine. I work with my team of picture editors and designers to design the magazine and get the right ‘pace’ and balance of text and images across the magazine as a whole.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I really like the arts scene in London. It’s amazing, compared to Sweden, because there are so many places to visit. I recently went to see the new tanks at Tate Modern. It’s a great space.

I’m trying to find time to work on some personal projects as well. I have loads of ideas but don’t seem to be able to find the time at the moment!

What do people get wrong about you?

Although I tell them that I’m from Sweden, people tend to mix it up with Switzerland. And of course spelling my name.

What do you appreciate about the Swedish design aesthetic?

Swedish design is very clean, light and airy in everything from architecture to graphic design. That’s something I like in design – clean lines and white space combined with great ideas.

Rodeo, Swedish magazine

Rodeo, eye-catching Swedish magazine

Rodeo magazine celebrates Scandinavian creativity; its creative director is Stefania Malmsten. Swedish design duo Studio Yra do great products inspired by typography that I really like, and of course I’m also a big fan of the classic Scandinavian furniture designers. I admire some Danish design studios, too, like Hvass & Hannibal, for their colourful, simple graphic designs.

What first inspired you to become a designer?

I always wanted to be an artist when I was growing up, but my parents thought I should get a proper job. So I studied physics and maths A levels, then moved to London and met a graphic designer. I thought, ‘That’s interesting – it’s like being an artist, but it’s a real job.’ So I did a foundation in graphic design at LCC, then studied editorial illustration as part of an BA LCC course in Graphic Media Design.

How did you find your first job?

During my degree I did lots of internships with design companies, including a freelance role with a company called Itchy Media which turned into a full-time job. Then I worked as a graphic designer at Time Out.

How did your career develop from there?

Three years ago, I went to the New Statesman as Art Editor, then became Art Director two years ago.

new statesman cover

What do you love about your job?

I love that it’s a weekly magazine, so things move quickly and you really have to think on your feet. I find that quite exciting. It’s great to work with really bright, interesting people – writers and journalists. And personally, I’ve learned a lot about politics. I’ve re-designed the New Statesman website and I’m working on a new iPad app and it’s great to be able to design on different platforms for a magazine. I’m really exited about the opportunities for editorial design on tablets and within digital design.

How do you decide which images to use?

Sometimes the editor will have a very clear idea of what needs to be visualised. Other times, we’ll choose an image or layout that goes with the particular headline or type of article. It’s all about looking at the magazine as a whole. To get the best pace across the magazine, we work closely with the editorial team.

Infographics have become really fashionable in the last couple of years. They bring something new; you can visualise quite hard-to-understand topics in a really simple way.

For other pieces, a good illustration by someone who can really draw adds so much value. I try to use illustration for the cover when it’s suitable. I work with one artist, David Young, who paints very realistically, which works really well for humorous political subjects and offers a fresh alternative to cartoons. With artworks like David’s illustrations, you can see that they took time and they have that human element that you can connect to which I think adds value. There are so many talented illustrators out there and the world is pretty small, but with email we have the opportunity to work with people around the world which is really exciting.


Which other magazine art directors do you admire?

I really like Italian IL magazine, art directed by Francesco Franchi. It has a bold design which feels current. Bloomberg in New York do exciting things like using graphics throughout the whole magazine. Acne puts together a beautiful magazine every six months on newsprint. THE GERMANS is a magazine that launched last year that looks really good.  Another favourite is Apartamento, a Spanish ‘everyday interiors magazine’ that is full of great articles. The format is like a small book with really organic layouts – I think it’s really lovely.

What do you like about working with writers?

I really enjoy working with journalists and writers, and have learned a lot working on the New Statesman. Sometimes there’s almost no contact with a writer, other times there’s a lot. It depends on the writer. Some have very strong ideas and want to be involved with the choice of visuals, and it’s always fun when a writer is engaged and wants to contribute ideas.

What drives you mad about writers?

It can be frustrating when a journalist has written too much and doesn’t want their work cut!


Infographic from Delayed Gratification magazine about Booker Prize plot lines

What do you think about the trend towards long forms of writing?

The print version of the New Statesman features articles several thousand words long, and I think there’s a need for long articles that are a counterpoint to the quick, short pieces people read online. They’re the kind of thing you want to read on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon – longer printed articles can really expand on ideas. I’m interested in a quarterly magazine called Delayed Gratification, a ‘Slow Journalism’ publication, which is all about taking a slower look at news, months after the event.

What’s your favourite gadget?

I use the Next Bus app a lot. Does that count?

What’s your favourite place for creative inspiration?

Waiting in an airport is good because you have time in between two things. I quite often find myself drawing ideas on the back of the boarding card.

Esquire cover designed by George Lois

Esquire cover designed by George Lois

Who’s your design hero / heroine?

George Lois changed the idea of magazine covers in the 60s and his covers for Esquire are great. Some of the East European designers like Roman Cieslewicz are very inspirational as well.

What’s your favourite book?

Things As They Are – Photojournalism in context since 1955′. Photo essays are presented in the original context of the magazine that they were published in, so it’s really interesting in regards to layouts.

Designer Soapbox: Dave Petherbridge

Dave Petherbridge is one half of the Two Teas design partnership based in West Yorkshire. As ‘Purveyors Of The Finest Pamphlets, Motifs, Slogans & That’, the agency works with clients including the RSPB, Kelly Hoppen, Motorola and WharfeBank Brewery.

They may work with a brewery, but these are people with a serious love of tea. Catch up with them on Twitter @Two_Teas, as they send their tweets from inside a giant teapot on top of a hill in Yorkshire, looking out at the world using a periscope through the spout. Just don’t mention coffee.

Here, Dave talks about what he loves about his job, what drives him crazy about writers and how to find inspiration in a packet of frozen peas.

All this - and a proper brew too

All this – and a proper brew

What’s your day job?

Being half of a small agency with some big clients, I share responsibility for everything from bringing in the work to taking out the trash.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Spare time is a rare and cherished thing for anyone with their own small business. Fun and fresh air are usually a top priority.

What do people get wrong about you?

Forgetting the sugar in my tea.

Why did you want to be a designer?

Every time we returned from the shops, my mum discovered me clutching anything from brochures and pamphlets to simple handouts, promoting everything from films to frozen peas – if I liked it, I picked it up.

Almost 30 years on and the attraction has become a career driving passion. I’m still collecting imagery, ideas and ways of working. Thankfully the collecting has become digital these days.

The supermarket as source of inspiration (see Sainsbury's Own Label book)

The supermarket as source of inspiration (see Sainsbury’s Own Label book by Jonny Trunk for striking 70s packaging)

What was your first job?

I started my career at a small agency in East Yorkshire with a despotic but brilliant Creative Director. It was both a baptism by fire and a wonderful way to learn my craft, at speed – especially after the indulgent deadlines of university.

How did your career develop from there?

I moved to West Yorkshire and spent the ensuing years working for a handful of very different agencies. Art Direction became a passion, allowing me to work with photographers and also directly with writers as more of an old school ‘creative team’. Working with passionate, creative, positive people is a wonderful privilege.

Traditionally a print designer, I have had to evolve over the last couple of years as our work is now 98% online.

What do you love about your job?

Every day is different. Things change so fast that even after all these years it still excites and challenges me. I’m fortunate to have seen such seismic changes in the industry. I started in 1996 on a drawing board (you may want to Google that, kids) and now find myself working in ways that seem to completely change with the seasons. I always said it was the best job in the world, and it is.

Ad for the A.B. Art magazine. "The text on the strap is a day in the life of the owner," says Dave. "The writer typed the text into a mask I'd created,with me kerning the type to fit exactly. I just about drove him nuts."

Magazine ad for a.b.art Swiss watches. “The text on the strap is a day in the life of the owner,” says Dave. “The writer typed the text into a mask I’d created,with me kerning the type to fit exactly. I just about drove him nuts.”

How’s business?

Despite all the portents of economic doom, our clients have managed to continue to grow and be successful due to their positivity and ability to work smarter, as well as harder. Being a small, agile agency with a non-traditional model, we are able to service international brands and one-man bands without difficulty.

What do you enjoy about working with words and writers?

Words originally meant typography to me. During my time at university I was actually taught how to hand render type. Can you believe that? And I have been much the richer for it. Understanding type is key to working with it. Too often, designers confuse typesetting with merely typing in words. Letters are a thing of beauty to be individually appreciated. They can be kerned and aligned in order to create something beautiful. With more typeface and combinations available to convey and reinforce any point or emotion, words will always be an intrinsic part of how I design.

As my career developed I was fortunate to work with many, very different writers – each as individual in approach as the typefaces available to set their work. I have always envied good writers in the same way I do actors, for their ability to portray any character, delivered in any tone of voice – and especially their ability to switch between styles.

A Boys' Own style brochure for a brand strategy agency

A Boys’ Own style brochure for a brand strategy agency

What drives you crazy about writers?

Apart from envying their understanding of the richness of the English language, it does sometimes seem that writers feel the need to give us quantity instead of quality for fear of not earning the money.

How do you see the interplay between words and design changing in your work?

The way we use words as a company has changed drastically over the last couple of years, essentially due to the shift towards digital work. SEO changed words into a very functional element, removing the need for any real depth or audience engagement. Now that has all changed once more thanks to Google’s new machine-learning algorithm developed by Navneet Panda. Google Panda has seen the rise of ‘content’ as a driving force in search engine rankings. It has brought depth, interest and engagement back to the fore. Essentially it rewards site content that’s written by humans for humans – and punishes those who fail to engage. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for writers.

What’s your favourite gadget?

For my 12th birthday I received my very first Sony Walkman – half the size of a breeze block and about as sophisticated. Through countless evolutions, reinventions and more ‘AA’ batteries than I care to remember, the mix tapes have been replaced by playlists. My iPods may be infinitely more advanced, but the experience is still as enjoyable. That said, I do have real trouble rewinding MP3s with a pencil. It’s not all progress.

What’s your favourite place for creative inspiration?

I’m usually at my most inspired when I remove myself from any deliberate creative process. I also crack problems by going for a walk, and am regularly thankful for having a camera on my phone.

Who’s your design hero?

Harry Beck created a true classic with his 1931 London Underground Map.

Designer Soapbox: Gill Thomas

Gill Thomas has played many roles since she left Liverpool Poly with a fresh BA Hons in Graphic Design. She’s been a designer, team leader, creative partner and board director. She’s worked for some of the most influential design agencies around, including Pentagram, Newell & Sorrell and The Partners, and her clients have ranged from the BBC and Virgin Atlantic to the Design Council. She’s also witnessed huge changes in the design industry.

Here she talks about her work in the new Throwaway Lines exhibition, her latest role as an independent creative consultant, and her thoughts on writers and the design business today.

Gill Thomas at a D&AD event

You’re currently taking part in the Throwaway Lines exhibition at the Free Word centre. What was it like creating a frame for the short story?

Andy Hayes gave me the scrap of paper that inspired the short story ‘Ella does some remembering’ by Nick Parker. The writing said ‘TWIST STEPPER WITH BUNGEE-CORDS’, and the story was about a woman who tries to recreate happy childhood memories. At the beginning she’s on an exercise machine, imitating the feeling of running on the top of Box Hill with a kite; at another point, she’s microwaving geraniums to remember the smell of summer at her grandparents’ house.

I liked the fact that the story was about a woman going back to her childhood, so I created a childlike Teletubby-esque frame that was covered with very green fake grass and daisies, with a kite that flew away from the frame. I researched sticking Astroturf onto wood and ordered lots of artificial daisies. I had to order the daisies twice. A hundred daisies are still on their way to me from China! Then I took all the elements into the kitchen and stuck them together with a glue gun. I felt it looked quite naive, which was the point.

What is wonderful in the exhibition is the contrast of so many different ideas. People put a lot of thought and effort into them. A lot of the stories were quite dark and challenging. I was pleased I got such an optimistic, fun, energetic story.

One hundred artificial daisies:
in transit from China

Going back to the start of your career, what first inspired you to become a designer?

I was always good at art at school and thought it would be a good thing to do as a job. But it turned out that there’s a bit more to it than that!

How did you find your first job?

I found my first proper job by chance. I was helping out a friend in a small design studio in Notting Hill. While I was there someone mentioned that there was a company around the corner who were looking for junior designers and maybe I should go and see them in my lunch hour. I’d not actually heard of them but thought it would be worth a look. That company turned out to be Pentagram – and after three interviews I was in.

“There’s this place around the corner…”

What work do you do?

I do three types of work.

  1. I work with boards and brands on positioning. Because of my experience in both the visual and strategic sides, I’m a good bridge between an organisation that’s commissioning the positioning work and the agency that’s going to bring it to life visually and develop the final communications.
  2. I also help smaller agencies decide where they’re going or help them refocus how they work. I started as a junior designer, then moved up to being on the board of a reasonable sized business, so I more than likely have the breadth of experience to relate to the issues that a small business is likely to be facing. I can work with them to review where they are, where they want to go, and give them pointers on how to get there.
  3. My other area of work is naming. I really enjoy the challenges of naming projects, because they combine logical and creative thinking. A name has to be spell-able, say-able, url-able, culturally accept-able, own-able and it needs to be the start of a story. The legal aspects can be a real challenge but sometimes if you come at it from left field, you’ve got a chance of finding a name that will really make a difference to an organisation and please the lawyers.

How have your thoughts about writing changed over the years?

As a junior designer, I was always more interested in pictures. I thought the copy was just grey stuff to drop into the visuals and probably didn’t even read it. But after a few years, when I started working at The Partners and gained more experience, I realised that the copy had a job to do. The words had to communicate something and make a difference. They are, of course, very important in creating a brand and positioning a business.

What qualities do you look for in a writer?

Apart from having a talent for writing, it’s also important that writers listen, and understand that they’re part of a team.

If I put a writer in front of a client, I want to be confident that they’re informed, that they understand the client’s business, their peers, their competitors and their offer. They have to be keen to find out about the client’s culture, how they like to work and what kind of people they are. A writer will be brought in at a certain stage of the project’s journey, so they need to understand:

  • What stage the client has reached
  • How they have got there
  • What has worked well so far
  • What hasn’t
  • What’s appropriate to say at that point.

If a team has just spent months defining a brand and its positioning, we’re not necessarily looking for new ideas. We’re probably looking for a clear and concise articulation of the information we’ve gathered so far.

Particularly in this climate, it’s vital to make sure the client is comfortable with what the project team is doing. So that means building on the trust that the agency has already created, and not throwing in a curve ball or lots of options when that’s not part of the brief.

What kind of writing do you prefer?

The Partners was a highly creative world, and we often used to work with writers who’d been in advertising, ideas-based writers who wanted to play. They wrote witty, clever headlines, and I enjoyed that playful, creative approach.

A playful, creative approach

But sometimes a more straightforward approach is needed. It’s important that writers enjoy what they’re writing and are passionate about their work, but sometimes overly complex language can get in the way of the message.

Occasionally writers seem to think they need to do more, add more, when in fact an extra metaphor can confuse a positioning statement. More often than not, I need writers to be clear and precise.

How’s business at the moment?

I’m as busy as ever, but no one’s taking any risks at the moment, so there are more smaller projects and tactical work. But because clients are nervous of making big decisions, they are looking for a more focused approach. As an independent, I can offer the perspective and experience of years spent working for large agencies, and I can also be flexible, offering a few days here and there which can really make a difference to a project.

It will be interesting to see what happens when we finally come out of this recession. Clients have got used to being pragmatic, pared down and engaged at a real level, working with agencies and consultants who understand and focus on where they can add real value to a client’s business. I think they’ll still want that approach, but will also appreciate fresh thinking, confidence, directness and the energy of good ideas.