We catch up with Ian Anderson from The Designers Republic

16 December 2015

We were lucky enough to have Ian Anderson, founder of The Designers Republic visit our BA (Hons) Graphic Design students this year…

His company, The Designers Republic, is known the world over for its innovative design approach and originality. Never one to shy away from opinions, we took some time out with Ian to get his unique thoughts on life, his career and tips on how to make it in the creative industry.  

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How does the interaction and communication with clients differ throughout the design process?, for example designing record covers for Aphex Twin but then completing corporate projects?

Essentially each project offers a different set of parameters. The key factor is that we never really work for Warp Records — we work for the individuals involved in a particular project.  When we work with Coca Cola, there is actually no such thing as Coca Cola — what there is is a group of people working more or less strictly to their, or our group’s, interpretation of a set of Coke brand guidelines; we work with people. 

Because of the way I approach what I do there’s obviously a distinction between doing an open global branding exercise creating a set of tools you know third parties will use to roll out the brand message globally where you can’t design, can’t control, everything, as opposed to designing a record cover like the Aphex Twin Syro album cover where you’re concentrating and focusing more on a finite piece of work — there’s lots of variables to consider either way. Some are the same. Some are different.

More accurately, in general, maybe I don’t approach different jobs too differently — I have a certain way I naturally like to work and a certain methodology I know is the best way for me to deliver what the client wants / expects me to deliver. In specific projects there will be bespoke aspects to the creative process, peculiar to the response to the brief  — it is never a case of one size fits all — how dull would that be? I think of myself as a filter, and if you like, the data, content, criteria input will be shaped into the finished work.  When I’m working I am not consciously applying a certain filter but over the years it becomes apparent that no matter how many different solutions or approaches employed the filter is still me, the choices are still mine.                                                                       

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And has that changed over the years? do you find that the level of your creative input has changed from when you started your career to now?

Just because a company is smaller it doesn’t necessarily mean a designer has more freedom away from a (perceived) corporate straight jacket, it comes down to the personalities of the people involved. For example Warp Records, you might imagine would be in a position to celebrate what I did as a personal artistic, aesthetic response more readily / comfortably than say working with Coca Cola. The truth is that working with a big company like Coca Cola, the people commissioning creative there are at the top of their game, they are used to working with a lot of accomplished and proven designers / agencies, and they also have a lot of other things to do themselves ‘right now’ — so the skill in what they do, is choosing, at the beginning, the right people for the right job. Usually they have less direct emotional attachment to the project allowing more confidence in their decisions-making process. They know how to quantifiably assess, judge and feedback on your response to their brief so they have a confidence that allows them the luxury of giving the designer more freedom to do what they want, within the parameters.

Quite often people at smaller companies are less experienced, and more likely to be multi-tasking across several job descriptions and are therefore less focussed, or less able to be effectively focussed on specifics, aren’t so versed in the etiquette of the creative relationship, in the context of how to get what they need rather than what they feel they want, based on greater emotional attachment / investment in ‘their’ company expressed as possessiveness about the creative outcome.

Therefore sometimes, in real terms, smaller companies unintentionally offer less freedom, as an absolute because they can’t (afford to) see the bigger picture. Over the years my position and / or my response hasn’t changed drastically — there’s always a set of variables.  Responses and attitudes differ, for example, in times of recession, plenty and confidence.  In times of confidence blue sky thinking and maverick ideas are celebrated because there is an innate and inherent confidence in what is and will happen. When we started working with Coca Cola everything economically was going pretty well for them at that time in tandem with global fiscal trends. Sales were looking after themselves, to a degree, and when sales outstrip projection quarter on quarter, then clients can afford to focus on more brand-building oriented aesthetic stuff, allowing Coca Cola, in this case, the luxury of attempting to reconnect their brand with its pop cultural past.

Everything is a cycle, action and reaction, things tend to react.  If you go back as far as The Designers Republic™ does, our trajectory was based on the fact that we were new, loud, different and we were everything that the industry, in general, wasn’t which made us an attractive proposition to our (potential) clients.  Those personality assets only work when you are new, so if you have a ten year old company you are you are no longer new so you need to make it work, evolve, and keep it credible like a young company; as your trusted lieutenants get older you need to introduce younger people in, not necessarily to do all the thinking but at least to give a contemporary perspective on things.

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There has always been an aspect of anti-establishment value to your work but you completed work for corporate clients. Do you agree that to shake things up and to get your message across using design as an outlet you need to get inside the corporate machine to get it noticed? 

I think there is an analogy with politics. When I was young and at school and had a revolutionary energy, partly due to The Clash and punk rock’s political posturing, and partly due to my father, and his father before him being staunch trade unionists; from the Young Socialists cell I was involved in in Bracknell New Town I learned the hard way — although the real reasons I moved to Sheffield (Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire) were probably politically quite naïve mixed and mashed up with Sheffield industrial electronic music, John Peel and huge social generalisations. What was key was I felt really stifled living in the middle England of the politely reactionary and joyfully disengaged South East, where the unemployed voted Tory because they thought they were a cut above the filthy workers in the north —  it was all a bit of a Stepford Wives thing for me — it was just really horrible.

Anyway when I was part of the Young Socialist movement I used to sell the Militant paper which was the voice of the Workers Revolutionary Party of Great Britain whose plan to realise a socialist state wasn’t confrontational like the Socialist Workers Party’s stance against the Labour Party as not being ‘socialist enough’, but to work within the Labour Party looking to initiate change from within, to change people’s opinions in a populist party. I think that part of that carries on in the process of deciding which companies I want to work with and which I don’t. 

When Coca Cola originally approached TDR™ part of me thought ‘No’ instinctively, but what they wanted us to do was get involved in something which was intended at the time to initiate a sea change in thinking about Coke’s responsibility within the community and society where it operated. Of course this is all, to a degree, a lot of guff and spin and PR but I spoke to a lot of people at Coke Global in Atlanta who are just normal people with kids, people with families, people that live their life within our society and just because they work for a global corporation it doesn’t mean to say that they have to pull their values.  It seemed to me that if we started working with Coca Cola on this project and on this level, that even if I could change one person’s mind within or without the organisation then that seemed to be something worth doing because the other option is to sit in your own little niche, at your usual table with your usual mates in your usual pub in your small self-satisfying self-obsessed little world and moan about everything but never do anything. 

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It is obvious that humour and irony play a big part in your work. Do you think that this is something that is important to integrate into design? Is there a lack of it?

I think that there is a lack of humorous engagement in general everywhere but maybe that’s because people are too busy trying to scrape a living together.  Then again you could look at the other side and say that humour is a great tonic, which is why I stand-up comedy is pitched as the new rock n roll.  The most important thing that concerns me is communication. People communicating. How? Why?

I didn’t study design, I studied philosophy, but all the things I did, whether it was managing bands, promoting nights / events, editing the university newspaper, writing plays, or any other diversionary tactics circumnavigating coursework were all intrinsically about communication and creating a dialogue. If your focus is communication then by default your focus is also people and I am quite social so I enjoy peoples company as opposed to going to a club and loosing myself in flashing lights, turbo rigs or amplified biology.  But anyway I think humour is important as it’s a very powerful way to engage with people and draw them in to what you really want to communicate.

Through history court jesters and satirists have been tasked with delivering uncomfortably important messages using humour to take the edge off the truth so it becomes more palatable or more desirable, even when there is no one truth, and that what we believe to be the truth is simply faith borne of perspective. The example that I usually give my students, or anyone else with nothing better to do than listen, is a great newspaper advert from the 70‘s. What you saw was a city gent with his briefcase and bowler hat and his stripy trousers, who is supposed to represent upright, proper and right thinking people, walking along with a National Front skinhead chasing after him, with the classic outfit, Doc Martins and all the other nonsense fiveheads wear...and then this skinhead jumps him and pushes him to the floor. If you saw that and you had to give evidence in court you would have to say that the skinhead attacked him, what else could you say?  Then the ad shows the same thing from further back with a wider perspective and what you then saw was exactly the same scene except you can now see the city gent is walking along under a building site and a huge slab on concrete is about to flatten him so the skinhead is not attacking him but pushing him out of the way he is just saving him.

Could you outline any current designers that you respect or who you think are creating genuinely progressive work? Work that you think is pioneering etc.

I honestly don’t take a lot of notice of what other designers do.  Of course I am not so arrogant and one dimensional that I don’t like I don’t like anybody else’s work but I was never in design education so I was never part of that culture where you have to look at other people’s work, analyse it and have favourites and influences.  I am very analytical of everything and some people accuse me of over thinking, but I would counter that by saying that they don’t think enough. It’s certain pieces of work I pay attention to and at any given time I could reel off a list of things I liked at a certain time or that I can remember liking, and it’s sometimes the case that the authors of those works names keep popping up.  The things that I like change dependent on what I am working on. And consequently what I’m thinking, what’s populating my headspace. I do an interesting project with students which is over a four workshop period so I say ok this is your first workshop and one of the things you have to do is take ten images of anything you see that interests you on your way into Art School tomorrow morning.  What you find is that even though they make the same journey in every morning what catches their eye is totally different depending on what is in their head or what answers and visual stimulation they are looking for at that certain point and that is the same for me with design.  If I give you a list of five or ten I know that as soon as I had finished that specific interview I would think of another five that actually meant more to me, it is the same if you asked someone their favourite album covers, unless you are a real billy no mates who has nothing to better to do than sit there and compile lists that you can trot out.

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What are you working on at the moment, can you say? 

Ones that I can talk about. I am not sure how it is going to manifest itself but there is ongoing work with Aphex Twin, there are always bits and pieces with Autechre which quite often are not used or they get shelved and then re-used.  There’s a label which is an American, free music, improv label called New Atlantis. I did some work with Ed Ricart, the guy who runs it and, as I don’t have a regular outlet for quick-fire ideas that spring to mind fleetingly and disappear unloved, I said I’d get involved as creative director. It isn’t about the money but the experience, the challenge. The idea is that I have only 1 day to get the label copy, conceive the idea and complete and deliver the artwork — Ed sends me label copy, get the idea, complete it and send it off in one day.  Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t but I guess one of the benefits of being who I am, where I am and the age I am is that I don’t feel the need to prove anything anymore.  I think quickly but tend to do slowly which is one reason why I employ people. I could be happy consulting and directing for bigger brands, which is what i do well, just designing niche and or special projects as a playground for ideas developed through process. I don’t have a passion for the craft of design beyond the need to make it look better so it is a more effective communication. 

Almost like the creative advertising process?

There’s a trend in advertising agencies to assume that ‘it’s all about the idea’ is permission to involve non-creatives in the creative process — the outcomes of which are judged on their creativity by non-creatives. I rarely meet people who claim to never have ideas, I rarely meet people with good ideas. Being creative is a description of the creative process of coming up with good ideas — it’s only a spent media which needs to describe a role box as ‘Creative’ upfront and then try to fill it (and then market-research the imagination out of everything it creates). There’s a general lack of appreciation of the power of creativity in good design versus the role it serves as a function or service of business.

In Japan, when they put a think tank together to solve a problem, whether it is over population, or building a flyover, or changing the way people think about education etc., one of the first names on the list will be a designer, because the Japanese understand what a designer does, or should do all day, is problem solve.  Part of the solution of any problem is not related to expert skills, it’s about how to dismantle the problem, analyse it and rebuild it as a solution, as an abstract structure. I don’t understand why people with expert skills get so possessive about their solutions.

Finally could you offer any words of advice for students making the transition into industry?

It really depends on what someone wants out of life — if a person wants to be a designer because they find that lifestyle attractive and they’d quite like to do some creative stuff, make some nice designs, be a bit of a visual stylist, work in a cool company and maybe meet some interesting people and go snowboarding with their spars once a year and all the other clichés — if that appeals then the advice is just to fine tune your skills, your presentation techniques, your personality, and clean your teeth every morning.  For me, a designer is someone who problem solves, who thinks and then does.  I’m shocked how many people really don’t like thinking and I’ve met a lot of people I thought would be, you know, really interesting based on my interpretation of their work, who aren’t really interested in the thinking process. They like curating the surface, preferring the eye candy shallow end of the pool as a choice not as a result of ability.  If someone wants to be a designer who makes a difference, who creates room to have something of themselves in their work then they have to really think about who they are?  What is it that they do best? What do they want to achieve?  And then find a sympathetic, like-minded employer, or an avenue for generating an income with understanding enlightened clients.

If someone’s happy being a nice designer fulfilling a service role in a big studio the employers don’t need to know who you are beyond the usual HR stuff on team building / indoctrination days, they just need to know that someone can deliver tidy work as instructed.  If someone wants to work for a company like The Designers Republic™ they need to know who they are.  Why is it that they work in a certain way? My advice to the people that I am more interested in, is always be true to yourself. Because if you’re good, you’ll find somebody something somewhere, and if you know you are good it is better to fail gloriously on your terms than it is to succeed on somebody else’s.  I spend a lot of time looking for glorious failures because I know they will work well at The Designers Republic™.


All images:- Copyright courtesy of The Designers Republic