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.