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Viral is a Verb

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A man puffs into a rubber dinghy on the beach. A boy patters toward him and flings himself onto it. The man’s head explodes. Seven years ago, Head Rush – a simple 10-second clip, carefully honed to 790k to punch through Hotmail’s attachment filters – launched Ed Robinson’s company, The Viral Factory. It’s since been viewed 100 million times. “It feels incredibly crass now,” he’s prepared to admit, “but that’s how it was then.”

Of course, in the Web 2.0 world the huge advertising potential in peer-to-peer networks is clear to a growing number of brands – but agencies exploiting the system are still shaking off those past associations. Ed for one is clearly weary of justifying himself to people who still think ‘viral’ just means a bedroom-produced funny.

“Viral is a terrible buzzword,” he concedes. “It’s a mechanism; it’ll probably disappear from our company name within a year. It’s been misconstrued. A viral isn’t a short, rude 30-second TV spot you couldn’t get past the BACC – it’s a mysterious peer-to-peer network. Viral is something that happens when a piece of content wins its own audience in an exponential way, and we use the term as a verb. It’s ‘gone’ viral.”

Head Rush unquestionably went viral, and it persuaded Ed to reach beyond his job as a TV ads producer in favour of something edgier. “I didn’t want to make ads. I wanted to make films. As a punter I resent advertising – I want an honest exchange. Either give me hard facts, or engage me; give me something. I resent people just selling eyeball space.”

Ironically, the original proposal was not too far removed from that of a traditional broadcaster – selling space either side of great content. “I had this image of not having a relationship with clients. I’d just make stuff, put it out there in a locked environment and then advertisers would buy a placement; their name at the end of it. Effectively I’d be a programme maker, making small bits of communication.”

In principle, it made sense – clients would buy media space in return for the content winning viewers. It works on TV. But perhaps it was a paradigm shift too far – part of the appeal of online content, after all, is stripping off the ads. “They didn’t buy it,” Ed recalls. So, with reluctance, he began to explore winning an audience with an integral advertising message. In other words, ads that people want to watch. And share.

Evil Twin Ka came a couple of years later: a deliciously sinister decapitation episode in which a black Ford Ka tempts an unsuspecting feline into its open sunroof, and then slides it back in place with a sickening clunk. In another version, a pigeon is splatted flat in the road by a timely flick of its bonnet. “That was back in the day when email peer-to-peer – ‘have you seen this’ – was key,” adds Ed, acknowledging Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as a useful reference on this kind of exponential growth.

“When people pull your content to them instead of having it pushed at them, you get a buzz,” he smiles. “But at the time it was an add-on thing. It’s only in the last two years that we’ve realised virals can be part of the bigger picture.”

And without the need to deal with media buyers, campaign budgets can be significantly lower. “The ad process can be quite stifling. You may have a million quid to make the ad, but they’ve got 10 million quid to buy the media for a couple of nights on Channel 4 – which is why everyone’s so anxious and sits around debating what colour a certain guy’s shirt should be. We have a much more fluid process – come up with an idea; make it for £50-100k; come back and hopefully they like it. We’re called a factory for a reason.”

Ed goes on to discuss their 2003 Trojan Games campaign for the UK launch of the condom brand, whose quirky notion of a sex Olympics persuaded 55 million visitors to spend an average of five minutes on the website, enjoying and recommending short videos of lycra-clad athletes engaging in acrobatic penetration. This equates to an army of excitable brand advocates roughly the size of the country’s population. Not bad, especially considering the clips contained no explicit sexual content whatsoever.

Sex, violence and slapstick humour – check, check, check. But within the viral space there remains infinite scope for creativity, depending entirely on who you’re targeting to disseminate your message, and why they’d be motivated to pass it on.

Web audiences are notoriously fickle with short attention spans, flitting from clip to clip on giant rambling sites like YouTube and MySpace, and are accordingly much more empowered than their passive TV counterparts. But with the growing interconnectivity between social networking sites, finding what you want (and dumping what you don’t) is only going to get easier. “Above all the advertising industry has to re-learn that they have to give something back,” is Ed’s take on it. “It’s an exchange.”

Perhaps their most innovative work to date was for Levi’s in 2006, ostensibly involving a gigantic jeans-wearing marionette being manoeuvred through the streets of Reykjavik by a trio of helicopters. Such a stunt would cost millions to stage for real, and it was considerably cheaper and savvier to mock the whole thing up in post-production, project it in cinematic glory onto a giant plasma screen – and film it on mobiles. The resulting clips, scattered over YouTube to give the illusion that random Icelandic passers-by had witnessed something wondrous, have garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

There’s an inherent talkability about a giant airborne puppet – even if people decide it’s a hoax, they’ve spread the clip, thought about it and engaged with other users about it on comment threads. That’s what a modern viral campaign needs to be about, and Ed is regularly frustrated by clients who want ‘something on YouTube’ – a request that, as he points out, is pretty meaningless. He turns 70 percent of potential work down, partly as a reality check for clients whose campaigns simply would never go viral.

“You can stick anything on YouTube – a picture of your product with you sticking your thumbs up in front of it. It doesn’t mean people will see it, and it doesn’t make it a viral. It only becomes a viral if you’ve specifically set out to generate an audience.”

Most important of all is to be straight with them once you have them. “They’ll turn against you if you try to ram a message down their throats, and that’s a massive turn-off to some clients,” he warns. “But if you do it right, you have free media, and an audience that voluntarily spreads your message.”

Ed took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

July 21, 2007 at 12:39 pm

All in the Detail

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A handful of brands have dominated the upper echelons of creative, memorable advertising over the last decade. Advertising for which people sit through the dross in the hope of catching again, and seek out on YouTube months after the TV run ceased – Abbott Mead Vickers for Guinness, HHCL for Tango, Fallon for Sony Bravia. But perhaps one of the most enduring, varied and consistently innovative campaigns of the past few years has been Wieden+Kennedy’s treatment of Honda UK.

A creative behind several of the most memorable of these – not least Cog, better known as the mesmerising two-minute chain reaction made from parts of a Honda Accord – is copywriter Ben Walker. And while he tips a nod to the surreal pin-striped, blender-headed mannequin and attention-grabbing staff self-portraits that adorn the entrance to W+K, much of his inspiration comes from a razor-sharp attention to everyday detail.

The Accord was one of the first briefs on the new account, and the initial feeling was that there was space to talk about ‘warm engineering’ – a satisfying, affable, gentle type of technology to contrast the cold, teutonic efficiency marketed by Germanic counterparts Mercedes, Audi and BMW, or as Ben’s art director Matt Gooden put it at the time, “like the way all the bits in Mousetrap fit together.”

This in turn sparked a recollection of an experimental chain reaction film by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and before they knew if they were dismantling a hatchback – then stringing the components back together like automotive dominos. ‘Isn’t it nice when things just work?’ was Ben’s beautifully simple tagline, and after more than 600 takes, it did – although they had to film it in two halves, simply because there wasn’t a warehouse long enough to cram it all in.

Incredible patience, precision and hours in the pursuit of that flawless take – it’s no surprise that Ben cites Michel Gondry and Stanley Kubrick as creative influences for their sharp attention to detail. But another of his ads, this time for the Honda Civic, drew inspiration from a less lofty source.

“There’s a Dorling Kindersley book in our office called The Way Things Work – which shows the actual way things work,” he grins. “They talk about something mundane like a stapler or a zip, and you think fuck me; that’s amazing. No-one ever points those things out to you.” A Civic, Ben reasons, is practical but not particularly cool – so they sprinkled this wonderment in the small unnoticed things in life onto a fast-cut editing technique inspired by Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.

In the film the technique snapshots the pill-popping, tea-drinking, remote-clicking lifestyle of a desperately lonely menopausal woman on speed, and her deteriorating junkie son – unsurprisingly the ad brings a more wholesome Dorling Kindersley edge, integrating macro shots of certain life-enhancing features on a Civic with everyday items that make life easier, but tend to go forgotten. Again the tagline makes it all relevant, as a tagline should: ‘Why is it, the better something does its job, the more we take it for granted?’

Although fewer people are interested in the craft of advertising copy – and award-winning ads seem to be increasingly about effects and glamorous art direction – Ben insists that it’s still absolutely integral to brand communication. “It took me ages to write that line,” he grins.

And Grrr! – Honda’s rainbow-coloured award-magnet, which sees chugging diesel engines knocked out of the sky to the cheerful tune of ‘hate something, change something, make something better’ – is, he points out, built around a song. “There are optimistic visuals and the colour palette is good, but it’s all about the language. Copy makes it relevant to the brand. It’s still hugely important, but people don’t realise it.”

Ben took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

July 21, 2007 at 12:31 pm

A Remit to Provoke

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“You shouldn’t be in it unless you love ads,” declares 4Creative’s Richard Burdett. “If you’re lucky, once in your life you’ll be part of something great. I’ve been lucky enough to see that twice.” Interestingly, his examples flank a period of disillusionment and frustration with a stagnating industry that’s only recently shaking itself into shape.

First is a seminal moment in the history of advertising. The colossal smiling, winking face, splashed across a rich human canvas in vivid red, white and blue, that helped turn British Airways around while he was at Saatchi’s in 1989. The very picture of optimism: diverse cultures connected across an ever-shrinking globe.

Seventeen years later, visages of an altogether grittier nature: coalition soldiers, contorted in panic and despair beneath ghostly clown makeup as hollow Iraqi gunfire echoes around them. A trail for Iraq: the Bloody Circus – More4’s season of programming on the controversial conflict – while at 4Creative.
 
Fortunately for a man who grew bored with mainstream advertising over a decade ago, the environment in which he now finds himself at the head of Channel 4’s in-house agency – a role for which he was headhunted at Cannes to cover maternity leave, and has commanded ever since – is an “incredibly benign” incubator for great work.

“I have as my client possibly the only advertiser in the country with the guts to provoke every single time, and a remit to provoke,” he declares, citing a recent campaign that sat the cast of Shameless around the Last Supper table as a concept the BBC would have “stabbed to death hideously” after a string of committee meetings. “We know they’ll buy challenging work, so we’re not mitigating ideas before we even present them. And we’ve produced some pretty visceral images – but never gratuitous.”

One of Richard’s personal favourites is a Shameless poster where Frank Gallagher has ripped the ‘4’ logo off the wall and carried it off, leaving screw holes in the plaster. “It tells you nothing about Shameless and everything about Shameless; nothing about Channel 4 and everything about Channel 4,” he enthuses. “What other company would agree to have a space where their logo should be, and have it tucked under the arm of a villain?”

Likewise, you won’t find a morbidly obese Jamie Oliver wobbling after a bus, or Gordon Ramsey smashing junk food into mush with a baseball bat, in their respective shows. “Not one of our ads tells you the story of the show, but every one of them captures the spirit of the show,” reflects Richard. “I think that applies to any brand; that’s what advertising’s going to become. British Airways is a precursor of those; the first ad that didn’t say ‘our seat is bigger than their seat’ or some quantifiable element. It just owned an absolute generic of flying. You get to the other end, you meet people.”

It’s benign, but not too comfortable – Channel 4 can choose whether their in-house agency is best for the job, and 4Creative must pitch for work alongside rivals such as DDB, who handled the launch of More4. “There’s no coercion to use us, and they’re not cutting costs – we have incredibly healthy budgets.”

“Getting David LaChappelle to do Lost, we spent all the money you’d expect a big agency to spend. But we’re tiny: 18 people, split thirds between account handlers, production people and creatives. Then there’s massive use of freelancers, which means 35 people sitting in the office at any one time.”

Besides greater creative freedom from clients, Richard feels that a more democratic creative process all round can help ensure genuinely groundbreaking work. “The ad industry has an incredible division of labour,” he reflects. “Only an account man can do this, only a planner can do this, only a TV producer can do that. And I didn’t realise how debilitating that was until I came to a place where creativity is the job of everybody.”

Having worked on the other side of the divide, both at media agency CIA and selling airtime as Head of Sales at Discovery, Richard has seen plenty of noisy battles for the strategic high ground – and the resulting appreciation of what all parties want and need has helped build a culture of joined-up thinking.

“Direct marketing, ad agency, media agency, communications planning – everyone wants to boss the strategy,” he laments. “It’s like herding cats. As an industry we should never have allowed media to slip out of ad agencies. When I was there, the agencies could talk to the guys booking the space for a clear idea of what could and couldn’t be done. Now knowledge is fractured and fragmented.”

And in an increasingly multiplatform environment, so is the audience. Richard flags up the fact that Bullseye used to draw an audience of 23 million as something of an absurdity in the modern era – anything pulling in that many eyeballs on terrestrial television nowadays would be nothing short of a phenomenon. But while they may be carved into a greater number of niches, the numbers are still there.

“The television advertising industry has been useless at defending television,” he argues. “You’d think that nobody watches TV anymore, and everyone spends their life on the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are still fantastically robust, big numbers. But the sad truth is that most clients don’t want fantastic work. They want safe, box-ticking exercises. If you find someone that does, stick to them like glue.”

Richard took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

July 21, 2007 at 12:23 pm

Poetry in Motion

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It made a refreshing change from tinsel-clad sprites and magical reindeer. Alongside staple fare such as The Snowman, a fresh lynchpin of Channel 4’s 2006 Christmas schedule was Suzie Templeton’s deliciously dark adaptation of Peter and the Wolf. An unsettling psychological study of a baleful-eyed boy and his lupine alter-ego, it used stop-motion puppetry with a mythical intensity that felt faithful to the yarn’s Eastern European roots.

“I thought it would take about a year. It took five,” reveals Suzie of her Bafta-winning opus. “Three years to raise the money, two years to write the script, and a year to make it. It turned into a massive production. I went from working on my own in a basement to working in Poland with a team of 100 people, communicating through a translator.”

Like so many before her, Suzie started her animation career at Farnham College. It was her second degree, and she was 29 when the course began: “I always felt that being older was in my favour,” she reflects. “I had to set higher standards; be braver and naughtier.” So she threw herself into her first stop-frame film, Stanley – spending many months crafting sets, models and puppets.

It was all going beautifully until the first day on set. “I thought, ‘Shit, what do I do now?’ I don’t know how to animate.’ So I just made it up as I went along, as we all do.” Suzie recounts her first, and last, walk cycle: “The character kept getting lower and lower to the ground,” she giggles. “So I just cut out all the walk cycles. In fact, I’ve never done a walk cycle since. I got away with it.”

Stanley was more than just a stepping-stone. Once complete, Suzie was so proud of her student project that she sent it out to over 100 festivals, and they didn’t just accept it into the programme – it started winning awards. Surfing on success and optimistic for her future as an animator, she went straight from Farnham into the Royal College of Art and vowed to widen her skills-base.

“Caroline Leaf came and gave a talk, and I thought I’d try sand animation – but it was just impossible,” she says of her self-confessedly “hopeless” first dabble in a new technique. “I thought I’d try something else, but I just wasn’t good at anything else. I went back and did another stop-motion film in my second year called Dog. It’s really, really dark.”

Signaling the birth of a unique style that initially made producers wary of disturbing their audience, but would eventually win her the Peter and the Wolf commission, Dog sprang from a disturbing episode that her ex-boyfriend’s father had had with his pet: “The vet messed it up, and it was awful,” recalls Suzie. “This grew out of that.”

And the fact that the stop-motion studio at the Royal College was in a dark basement with no radio signal could only add spice to the new style. “Someone lent me a Tom Waites tape: The Black Rider,” she adds. “That’s the only tape I had. Somehow, I think, the Black Rider is in that film.”

Suzie took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Animation in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

July 21, 2007 at 12:15 pm

When Harry met William

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Animation as an art-form covers a vast spectrum, and if you have the skills to enhance footage with effects and 3D models then there’s scope to enter a thriving commercial industry. William Bartlett represents Framestore CFC, one of Soho’s foremost post-production houses.

Split into four divisions, the company handles effects for blockbusters such as X-Men, Harry Potter and Superman; feature-length animation, with upcoming mouse-flick The Tales of Despero in production; and long-form effects for TV series, including Walking with Dinosaurs. Finally, there’s the commercial division – for which William heads up the 2D effects and compositing departments.

“Directors come to us with an idea of what they want to see at the end, and we discuss what we can shoot, where we should use models, and what could be computer-generated,” he explains. “In other words, we tell them how to get the best from their money.” Clearly from this angle animation is less a creative hobby than a service industry, with rigid budgets, targets and timeframes.

Part of his job is to think outside the box for maximum effect, such as pouring weed-killer on plants, speeding up the footage and running it backwards to replicate super-fast growth in Guinness’ acclaimed devolution ad, noitulovE. Another quick-fix trick in the same ad involved shooting rising dough on a hot-plate, treated to resemble a rock formation – freeing up the 3D animation team to focus on dinosaurs and flying squirrels.

“I wanted to be an animator really, but didn’t realise that until rather too late,” laments William who, despite an interest in art at school, found himself studying Pure Maths. Experimenting with photography as a creative outlet, he took a Super-8 camera and some blobs of Plasticine and started animating dinosaurs: “I thought I’d become the next Ray Harryhousen.” It’s tempting to wonder whether Harryhousen, creator of wobbly stop-motion monster-flicks One Million Years BC and Sinbad the Sailor, would be correspondingly impressed by Walking with Dinosaurs.

Maintaining this interest in film and photography, after graduating he got a job as a runner in a motion control studio. Gradually, he began to drift down to the post-production department – fascinated by an enigmatic new editing machine called Harry. “It was this huge computer like a load of fridges,” he reminisces. “When I saw what it was doing, that mixture of technical and artistic, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

“I could create things without having to be especially creative myself; help people solve problems,” enthuses William – and here his mathematical background was perhaps influential. “My wife did the same job as me but studied Fine Art, and she always moaned about how restrictive it was using these things. I thought it was great.”

IMPOSSIBLE FIELD

One of Framestore’s most memorable ads is Adidas’ Impossible Field, where a handful of international football legends – including Beckham, Ballack and Raúl – take on contenders along the lines of a pitch, suspended in mid-air on metal bars.

“We were filming fast action on a number of cameras at once, cutting from one angle to another,” explains William. “That’s a problem for two reasons – you’re suspended in the air, which is complicated, and footballers didn’t have much time. There were also lots of problems with insurance, so we couldn’t do anything too dangerous.”

All of the actions were predetermined in a number of self-contained sequences – Beckham receives ball, flicks it over one contender, who falls off; kicks it into the chest of someone else, who also falls off; then jumps in the air and passes it.

These sequences were roughly animated first to determine the camera angles required. “The editor took these renders and edited a final sequence together, which was hugely helpful for planning the live-action blue-screen shoot. Time spent with real footballers was minimal.”

Back at Framestore, the overall geography of the match was pieced together – 3D pitch, ball and all.

ESUVEE

Essentially a public safety campaign, Esuvee was funded by the Ford Motor Company in the wake of a successful law suit against them by a woman who’d been seriously injured in an SUV accident. “Their advert said she could drive it like a sports car, she did, and it turned over,” is William’s summation. Ford’s advertising was deemed negligent, and part of their penance was to spend thousands of dollars encouraging safer driving.

The ads depict SUVs as powerful and dangerous creatures – part-car, part-beast – at a rodeo. “The idea was that if you’re good enough you can handle the power. It was an odd job,” he smiles. “Our clients were lawyers with very specific things to communicate.”

The first challenge at Framestore’s end was building the creature; a cross between a prehistoric mammoth and a modern day car, with headlight eyes and brake-lights in its ankles. The second was getting a rider to sit convincingly on top. “We did lots of tests with different strides – walking, running, trotting – and sat the person on a horse, a bull and a buffalo. We used a mechanical bull in the end; it was easier to control.”

William took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Animation in Birmingham, May 2007 

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

July 21, 2007 at 11:57 am

A Third Way?

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Would you pass up a juicy brief from the swoosh, the golden arches or any other glossy global with cash to spend but a somewhat chequered back-story? Is there room for conscience in our glitzy, soundbite world?

In his time, Jonathan Barnbrook has turned down Coca-Cola, Nike and a seemingly innocuous leisure company who, after some digging, turned out to be owned by a landmine manufacturer linked with the Korean War. And while he stresses that ranting for its own sake can be counterproductive, if the opportunity arises he’ll make it abundantly clear why that client has been crossed off the list.

“You have to take responsibility for what your clients do,” he shrugs. Consumers and commissioners are waking up to the power of visual communication as a prime shaper of our culture, but the transition from determination to disillusionment is all-too common. His Soho-based studio regularly receives correspondence from design graduates unsure of how to balance watertight morals with a half-decent living.

“I’m sure I’d be a lot richer if I agreed to work for large corporates, but I’d be unhappy,” is Jonathan’s take on the issue. “It’s an outdated idea to put over the client’s message and not think about what you’re doing. Working for a trendy sports manufacturer isn’t necessarily the ultimate job. I don’t see it as kudos – to me, kudos would be working for a charity. Money is an issue; you have to keep going. But I’m not starving. I can turn down work and still survive.”
 
So has he burnt his bridges with the agencies that came bearing accounts that for many designers would carve a reputation and top their folio with a crown, albeit a thorny one? “They’ve never been in touch again,” he’s prepared to admit. “But to be honest, we don’t want to be desperate to get work from these sorts of people.”

Jonathan’s close ties with the global underground scene inform his often politically-motivated design and typography. When the Coca-Cola brief landed on his desk, he immediately picked up the phone to Kalle Lasn, founder of Vancouver-based counter-culture organisation Adbusters, to work through the ethical dilemma.
 
Kalle himself is optimistic. “People are more aware now; creative people are starting to feel their responsibility,” he insists. “They had to bow low before corporate clients and kiss their arses – now the feeling is that it’s us, not the corporations, who are the cool-makers and the cool-breakers.”

Jonathan first crossed paths with Adbusters and their culture-jamming magazine back in 2000, when they set out their individualist stall in a manifesto entitled First Things First. “Too much design energy is being spent to promote pointless consumerism,” it read, “and too little to help people understand an increasingly complex and fragile world.”

It created “quite a ruckus,” Kalle recalls, with many ‘old-school’ designers protesting that client satisfaction must always be top of the list of priorities. Their argument boiled down to the scale of success: two hundred employees polishing the corporate crown are better than twenty who subvert it. But the ruckus was there, and many young design and advertising students signed up.

One of Adbusters’ central concerns, he explains, is that the culture many of us swear by is “spoon-fed to us” – filtered down from the top echelons of the multinationals as they scrabble over each other in a “quest to put a glow around brands. To create cool.”

In a world that is gradually fabricated around us, fashion and social acceptability are handed down ready-made: “Culture no longer grows from the bottom-up. We should be able to decide for ourselves what we like.”

Almost from birth, we’re told what is fashionable to eat, drink and wear – and it’s only through the ever-expanding mouthpiece of the media that this is made possible. So in a world so firmly under the control of the ‘creators of cool’, is the brand-polishing bandwagon the only way to make a name in the design industry?

“It’s the job of every human being to be proud of what they’re doing, and do it wholeheartedly,” he declares. “But visual communicators have become part of the marketing arm of corporations. It’s not the job of designers to give clients everything they want, but to try to be ethical whilst making the world a better place. They should have the courage and ethical guts to say no.”

But clearly it oversimplifies the situation to polarise all potential clients into good and bad, light and dark, ethical and unethical. I challenge Jonathan to draw a line in the sand. “Ethical clients are concerned about the impact they have, and will have in the future,” is his considered response. But while certain issues – such as worker exploitation, war profiteering or wanton destruction of the environment – will automatically warrant a firm refusal, there are inevitably grey areas.

“With some companies it’s more about what they represent,” he goes on. “We’ll always research around a company before making a decision, find out who they might be owned by and so on.” So after 17 years in the industry, has he felt any sense of disillusionment himself since the heady days of student activism?

“If anything our work has become more extreme; more confident,” he reflects. “Graphic designers are finally standing up and saying no. Of course it’s difficult if you work for someone else; if it’s not your choice. But then you can always use your talent to do something useful in your own time.”

Jonathan’s ethos sits at odds with much of the London design community, which he identifies as “very commercial, intensely competitive and very much about the money.” But Barnbrook Design has always kept an international outlook.

“There’s a lot of underground stuff in London, but nothing compared to New York or Berlin,” he observes. So why continue to be based in the Capital? “Our work is very British in style, particularly our typography,” he asserts. “We have lots of connections with Tokyo, and our British aesthetic is very different to what they’re used to.”

In an industry where smooth, clean-cut visuals can put a glossy sheen on a rotten core, Jonathan has touched on a buzzword that Kalle believes is an early signpost of change from the ground up. “The last couple of generations have seen a slick, commercial, corporate aesthetic,” he observes. “The big project of the next generation is to develop a new aesthetic not driven by big branding, that has a sustainable future.”

“Design anarchy is hard to predict, but I sense a bold move away from modernism and slickness,” Kalle goes on. “A ratty, organic feel that moves away from straight lines to reflect stalks of plants, perhaps. There’s a public feeling about slickness within the design community, an acceptance of uncoated paper as a medium and so on.”

“Grids and straight lines mark the archetypal designer of the past, sat in front of a computer with a template, dividing the page into little bits, creating slickness so it pops off the page and highlights the product.” A distancing effect, perhaps, that separates the consumer from the client with thick, shiny plate glass? “It’s boring,” is Kalle’s less complicated way of putting it. “And no-one has the guts to break the paradigm.”

If design is the language that shapes and reflects our culture, he argues, forcing a regimented structure of images and typography into a tight grid will inevitably cause a backlash; an overspill; an organic sprouting elsewhere.

“Designers have not realised what power they have. With power comes responsibility, and just by realising that, the designers of the future are making a step forward. The designers of the past by-and-large sold out – they were the foot-soldiers of consumer culture. But the black-and-white choice between corporate design and small non-profit creative projects is a false route. There’s a third way emerging that’s much more tantalising and lucrative.”

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 6 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

April 19, 2007 at 8:05 pm

Corporal Identity

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“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” ventures Vince Frost as we wrap up our interview. Perhaps I look like someone. “You look like you,” he bounces back with a quizzical grin, somehow managing to sum up the last half-hour in four words. Because for the Brighton-born, Toronto-raised, Sydney-based design icon, it all boils down to identity.

His 30-strong studio in sun-soaked Sydney was founded on the simple premise of making the most of every possible opportunity – which includes never turning work down. One of the first Australian briefs to land on his desk back in 2003 was a company report for Supercheap Auto, a vast and hugely successful discount spare-parts retailer.

Not at face value the most creative brief for a designer with multiple gongs from across the world and D&AD yellow pencils tucked behind each ear, but it cemented the idea of applying great design where you’d least expect it – prising dry copy and statistics off the page with loud typography and chunky, pictorial graphs built with screwdrivers, wrenches and tape measures. Literally, Supercheap’s products made the report.

“The difference isn’t design, the difference is identity,” Vince asserts. “And identity isn’t just a logo; it’s a culmination of colour, format, editorial approach, all that kind of stuff. If a client says ‘I don’t like the colour’ it means you’re not doing a good job, because it’s not about the colour – unless it’s a colour shop.”

Fiddly isn’t the Frost* style. He’s an ideas man, his work instantly recognisable for its bold imagery, clean fonts and conceptual thought. As we meet he presses a small fluorescent-pink book into my hand, emblazoned with a giant letter F and his trademark asterisk – the symbol of freezers, frost and Frost. He’s used to being interviewed.

But softening the even tan and brisk efficiency are laughter lines, a twinkle in the eye and a dimpled grin that lend him a laid-back, slightly mischievous air. Topped with the hard-to-place drawl – seemingly rooted in Canadian, and laced with sun-kissed Australian – it immediately blows away pretensions and puts you at ease. He admits he owes a lot to his three children, who have made his style looser and more experimental.

“My kids are completely free,” he smiles. “I can see beautiful things coming out of them; beautiful paintings and beautiful questions. Then you see schools setting lines to get their handwriting neater, so it looks like an example of how the whole world is set. What does that do to us? It makes our handwriting neater, but it affects the way we think; our free flow. There is a very positive energy that is then made to feel like it’s wrong.”

“What they teach me is their incredibly inquisitive minds; they’re always making things,” he continues. “That’s what we should do as designers. Often we spend our whole life, our whole education, learning how not to be spontaneous, how not to question things. For me the most important thing is to have the freedom to have an open mind; a questioning mind.”

Interpretation, Vince insists, makes all the difference – and taking the time to glimpse the world through a child’s eyes can bring a refreshing sideways angle to almost anything. His D&AD Presidential Lecture the previous evening had kicked off with a holiday snap of two mating kangaroos in the zoo – a scene that at the time had prompted, ‘Daddy, that kangaroo’s trying to carry the other one.’ Ah, the wonder of youth.

Such quirky throwaway observations inform the Frost* Design philosophy as well as tickle his sense of humour. A flip through his little pink book – which boasts a single page of text amidst a flurry of snapshots, part portfolio, part stream of consciousness – throws up more such gems, like ‘NO PARKING’ painted haphazardly on the road, with PAR-KIN-G split three ways as if its creator had scrawled the word with abandon, yet was afraid to go over the lines.

“I just walk around, taking pictures of things,” he shrugs. “I can’t imagine looking straight ahead and not taking everything in. I often wonder what it’s like for people not in the design industry who don’t wonder why things are there, or how they got there.” While he wearily denies any obvious difference between Australian and British design, he admits his physical surroundings are more of an inspiration now than ever before.

“In Australia the graphics are everywhere. They completely surround you. Everybody here is screaming for attention, and you just do not know where to look. And they have flags and banners everywhere – it really makes the city feel alive,” he enthuses. “When I was working in London, it was primarily identities and magazines. In Australia I was introduced to three-dimensional design – signage, interiors and all that kind of stuff – and it was a really fantastic learning curve.”

Accordingly, in line with their ‘turn nothing down, anything is possible’ philosophy, Frost* Design have begun stretching beyond straightforward ‘graphic design’ into advertising, product design, web and multimedia. “It’s not about being precious, it’s about being open,” Vince believes. “Graphic design has moved on so much that I don’t think that’s the right term anymore. Some people say that we’re a multidisciplinary studio, but I think that sounds a bit wanky.”

Recent projects have included a giant inflatable stage and a full interior concept for Coast restaurant – which features a rippling wave of bright yellow Perspex, tracing the outline of the Australian coast. “It’s very beautiful. Nothing to do with typography, nothing to do with printing, but a fantastically fun thing to do,” he enthuses. “It cuts right through the restaurant and creates this amazing light effect.”

Another Perspex-based project – this time in neon pink – graces the entrance to the Frost* studio, the material twisted and contorted into a series of striking fluorescent letterforms. I put it to Vince that, even in his two-dimensional print work, the line between typography, imagery and the real world is consistently and playfully blurred. “I think we just have fun with it,” he grins. “I want to make it an interactive thing so it has impact. Everything we do, we want to give it an aura; a tangible appeal.”

A dancer hangs with perfect poise from a giant letter C on their poster for the Sydney Dance Company, for whose simple-but-effective logo Vince “added two letters to Sydney to make it dance.” The Last Magazine, a recent book project, played with the stat that half of all magazines end up as pulp by shredding fonts throughout the design, and stacking pull-quotes against shaped blocks of copy like magazines on a shelf.

And the Frost* identity for D&AD’s Ampersand magazine uses the simple cut-out motif of three overlapping circles, doubling as an ampersand and a thought bubble; the ultimate combo of collaboration, progress and ideas. Words become images and images become words, all part of the shared language of visual communication.

Ever-vocal about the pivotal role that great design can play in the fortunes of an organisation of any size, Vince enjoys taking on a tricky brief – after all, the lower the starting point, the bigger the difference you can make.

“Everything has potential to be better, so don’t judge things on what they look like now,” is his parting advice. “A lot of designers look at magazines and go, ‘Oh God, I’d like to work for them, they do nice stuff.’ Well if they do nice stuff now, they don’t need you.”

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 6 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

April 10, 2007 at 9:33 am

Different and Relevant

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Swimming upstream may get you noticed, but it doesn’t get much more extreme than reversing evolution. Fresh from scooping just about every accolade going, Ian Heartfield and Matt Doman argue that it’s not enough to do the best ad on television. You should aim to do the best thing on television.

A successful advert, proposes Ian, must be both different and relevant. Clearly, to stand out from the endless formulaic dross splashed across screens, spreads and billboards – and to stop us switching off, flipping over or walking by – there has to be that spark to jolt us out of our blissful numbness.

But peacocking and shock-and-awe tactics alone won’t sell products, and eventually we’ll become ever more desensitised – hence the need for relevance. Simple when you put it in black and white, but doing it well is a different story. And with portfolio highlights already including The Economist and The Samaritans, it was a brief for a certain black and white brand that really pushed this creative pair up to the next level.

Understandably, they’re a bit tired of talking about it. “A creative brain needs to do new stuff,” as Matt puts it: “Once it’s done it’s done, and you’re onto the next thing.” So I’ll tip it a cursory mention and move on. But ignore it I can’t: settling into a glittering legacy that includes the spot widely acknowledged as the Greatest of All Time – Surfer – their work for Guinness picked up more awards than any of its predecessors. And despite being a UK campaign, it spread virally and got the international community pretty excited.

Matt and Ian are a rare example of a traditional Art Director and Copywriter team that have stayed together since college, the product of a matter-of-fact ‘ain’t broke don’t fix it’ philosophy. “If we weren’t doing anything good, we’d be mad and foolish to carry on with it,” reasons Matt. “If it runs out of energy, we’ll do something else. A lot of people work on their own now – there are no rules anymore.”

Straight after the highlight of their career, it’s fair to say it wasn’t broke. But when the praises for noitulovE had finished raining in, they decided to refresh things and left Abbott Mead Vickers for Fallon – the people behind the year’s other award-magnet, the stunning coloured balls idea for Sony Bravia directed by Nicolai Fuglsig.

Such is the nature of the industry; an ongoing cycle of talent to avoid stagnation. McCann Erickson, Ogilvy & Mather and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy have all enjoyed their creative input – AMV the biggest by a stretch, with three times as many teams as Fallon. “The time was right for us to leave,” reflects Ian. “The industry average is three years. Clients do stuff on a yearly basis; by the third year you’re ready to move on.”

At its best, British advertising leads the world. You’d be hard pushed to find such subtle humour, surrealism and cinematic vision elsewhere. But then, we would say that – it’s aimed at us. “I’m going to prefer British advertising because it talks to me in a way that wouldn’t be relevant in America,” reasons Matt. “Likewise, their stuff is less relevant to me.”

Still, we must be doing something right. In an international judging panel’s pick of the best advertising last year, the top five were from London. “We started doing advertising before a lot of countries,” is his theory. “We have to be more advanced because we’re more ad-literate. People expect more.”

Boundaries can help: without a box it’s hard to think outside of it, and the BACC keeps them on their toes. “When there’s something in your way you have to get around it, which leads to more creative thinking,” Ian suggests. “Maybe it is easy to chuck a granny out of a car, but if you can’t do that you have to think of more sophisticated ways to make people laugh.”

Let’s not forget what the industry’s all about, though – as a creative it’s all too easy to applaud an ad that ticks the same boxes that an experimental short or cult comedy might. Top up their production budget with a spot of blatant product placement and, for a discerning British audience at least, both of those would sacrifice kudos. But no amount of sweeping camera shots, razor-sharp wit and glittering post-production will appease the client if their ad doesn’t also build the brand and shift the merchandise.

“We are glorified door-to-door salesmen, and our job is to flog stuff,” is Matt’s simple summation. “If an ad is good and well-liked, and sells a lot of things, then industry awards should follow that. Not the other way around. Someone’s not going to afford you a reasonably healthy budget and put faith in you if you’re not giving them results.”

“The only reason we can make the films we love is because some client somewhere is putting a lot of money down in order to sell a product. That’s the whole reason we exist,” agrees Ian. Of course, some ads serve another purpose – and one that stands out from his childhood planted a picture of a ‘natural-born smoker’ with tiny nostrils and shrunken fingers into his subconscious. “I was absolutely terrified and never smoked,” he reveals. “I’d like to think that stopped some thirteen-year-old lad from picking up a cigarette.”

Years later, as it happened, he was to work on an anti-smoking brief of his own. “It was in a child’s handwriting: ‘If you smoke, I smoke,’” describes Matt. “And hearing people recite that in the supermarket, and knowing that it may have made someone stop and think twice, is a really good thing.”

While many aspiring directors or scriptwriters slip into advertising to make a few bucks before moving on, both stress that this is the medium that inspires them – a sense of belief and belonging that could explain why these creative pioneers, both still in their early thirties, have already enjoyed so much success. Whilst studying Graphic Design and Advertising at Buckinghamshire College, one particular tutor advised all his students not to go into an industry where 250 applicants fight for each place. But as Matt puts it, that was like telling a kid not to stick his finger in a plug socket.

“We just really like doing ads,” he shrugs. “That’s the reason we give over most of our lives to things that interrupt good programmes on telly, or good articles in magazines. You’ve got a TV or cinema screen, a website, a magazine or a building – a means of communicating with what could be millions of people – and you’re given this opportunity to tell them something. You’re competing with the best of everything, and you’re trying to steer people away from the story. You’ve got to stop them making the tea.”

That’s exactly what Surfer did to Ian – little did he know he’d be tasked with carrying on its legacy a few years down the line. “I was walking from the lounge to the kitchen, and the soundtrack started,” he recalls. “I stopped and stared.” Music is enormously important: try listening to the delicate beauty of Heartbeats by José González without avalanches of colour filling your mind, or Sammy Davis Jr’s Rhythm of Life without the world devolving before your eyes.

Back to those two key principles. If you’re shuffling towards the kettle, both songs are vibrant, exciting and poles apart from what usually fills the ad break. Turn round and the stunning visuals hit you – for the former an extravagant and ambitious one-take gamble, for the latter an extraordinary amount of post-production by anyone’s standards. It’s fair to say you have the viewers’ attention, and all it takes are the now legendary taglines to bring relevance – ‘Colour. Like no other’ and ‘Good things come to those who wait.’

Part of the unique appeal of the medium is the challenge of doing all that in an extremely tight timeframe. “I’m a big fan of the climate of discipline,” says Ian. “Telling a story in thirty seconds is an artform in itself.” And depending on the brief, you could be talking to anyone from a disgruntled teen to a discerning trendsetter – and you need to know your audience. “Most of my inspiration comes from sitting outside a coffee shop and listening to people’s conversations,” he confesses: “Just being a nosy bastard, really.”

Whether or not an ad literally tells a story, it needs to have a kernel that remains effective when all else is stripped away – which more often than not becomes its tagline. It has to pitch convincingly in a sentence: post-production and technology can add sheen, but at its core a great advert needs a great idea.

“Have an idea, then make it ten, twenty, thirty times better before you make it happen,” is Ian’s advice. “Don’t just see a technique and try to shoe-horn it into a product. You can get seduced into things looking really good, but not using them for the right reason.”

Similarly with new technology: to be effective, a medium should channel an idea; a means to an end, not the end itself. “The danger is that colleges tell students that people aren’t interested in big Press or TV ads. They want virals; web stuff; stunts; ambient things – if that’s what they get as feedback, then everyone does that by default. We’ve had students showing us stuff where there isn’t really an idea to start with. You can’t miss the idea out because the other stuff is easy.”

In fact, for new entrants scratching at the door of the industry, live by the principles of a successful advert: be different, so long as you can make it relevant. “A team a year above us at college spotted that no-one wanted to do radio advertising,” recalls Ian by way of example. “It was seen as a poor relation; no-one in London was working in radio.”

“They had no intention of doing it long-term but they did loads and loads of scripts, and sure enough got a job in a top London agency as the radio team. They got hired, half the other students didn’t, and when they were there they could move into other areas. They’ve done very well.” Surprisingly few creative people, he observes, apply the same lateral thought process to their career as they do to their work.

One of a shrinking number of creative teams still split into Art Director and Copywriter, they’re taking their own advice and swimming upstream – and with most colleges advising students to call themselves ‘concept teams’ they urge anyone coming up from underneath to maintain a point of difference wherever possible. “Think about selling yourself,” is Ian’s advice. “Obviously you need the work to back it up, but you can’t do anything in advertising unless you’ve got a job.”

© Nick Carson 2006. First published in Issue 5 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

December 14, 2006 at 2:38 pm

Graffiti in NYC

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“New York is one of the ugliest cities in the world,” declares Hugo Martinez in the no-nonsense, self-assured drawl so characteristic of the Capital of the World. “It’s a cacophony of fourth-rate architecture, all mixed up. It doesn’t have any grand buildings. What gives the city character is the immense fight between the classes – you can’t picture NYC without graf in the background.”

 

Contentious words guaranteed to strike a chord with some and a nerve with many, not least Lieutenant Mona of the dramatically-titled Anti-Graffiti Task Force. Spearheading the city’s zero-tolerance initiative – including a dedicated 311 graffiti-reporting hotline, although work in progress merits a 911 call – Mona’s official line is one of rigid condemnation. “I refer to them as vandals, because that is what they are. Make no mistake, they are not artists. Vandals are not interested in artistic expression, or social commentary, all they care about is getting their ‘ups’ all over the city.”

 

It’s statement that Martinez dismisses as “moronic” – although he doesn’t deny the core accusation. “Why can’t an artist be a vandal?” he counters. “I don’t trust art that’s legal. The world is fucked up – art is institutionalised if it’s legal. Art has to change something.” Dismissing the vast majority of the world’s graffiti as “bullshit”, Martinez argues that NYC remains the undisputed vanguard of the culture not only because the city gave birth to it, but because of the fiercely defiant attitude that still beats at its heart. He lists just four other cities worthy to share this kudos: Los Angeles, Rio, Sao Paulo and Mexico City.

 

Romanticising the situation a tad in favour of the underdog, it’s that age-old struggle between the trampled underprivileged and the ultra hard-line establishment – the former spraying their way back into public consciousness to re-appropriate a city that’s sold its soul to the high-rise fat cats; the latter scrubbing and scouring away their identities and clapping those “poor working-class schmucks” in the slammer.

 

But then battling the system’s no fun if the system rolls over and takes it. In January 2006, with the sale of aerosol paint to minors already prohibited – and merchants obliged to keep it locked away from potential shoplifters – Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr. developed controversial legislation that would make it illegal for anyone under 21 to possess spray-paint or permanent markers. This sparked outrage from fashion mogul Marc Ecko, who sued Vallone and Mayor Bloomberg on behalf on art students everywhere. They backed down in May.

 

Bring it on, eggs Martinez. “Repression leads to aggression,” he asserts, exposing the core of any self-respecting class struggle. “Republicans are really good for graf – they believe in repression, and hard-line measures have made graffiti boom. Writers are inspired by being erased, and come up with quicker, more unusual ways to do it.”

 

“There are 11,000 train cars and 140,000 buildings in New York,” he goes on, clearly having done his research. And the advent of ‘the buff’ in the early ‘80s – a chemical wash that stripped the paint off trains every night – didn’t stamp out graf so much as fire it up further. “When they attacked the subway system and brought in graffiti-free trains, it moved onto the buildings,” he observes. “In the last twenty years, graf has blossomed again. Everyone’s killing the streets; they erase them much more often than the trains.”

 

Now in his mid-50s, Martinez has been immersed in the culture since his days as a philosophy student in 1972 – when he shuffled some Puerto Rican teenagers painting trains into a loose collective called United Graffiti Artists. Now, as part of his All City Project – the phrase ‘all city’ designating a writer with visible tags in all five boroughs – he’s invited an eclectic group of graf writers from teens to middle-age to spray their multicoloured mark all over the regulation décor of a low-income 1960s apartment.

 

And he has no qualms about sharing his views on the rest of the art world. “I didn’t want to turn it into a latrine for the wealthy, like every other gallery,” he scowls. “The art world is fifty people, and it represents their culture. Art’s a commodity.”

 

“There’s no such thing as a graf artist,” he continues, building up steam now. “That describes beautifying private property; figurative art. That’s not graffiti. It’s like Pat Boone is to rock ‘n’ roll – a dumbed-down version. A true graf writer will wait for a muralist, and then go over it. They have no love for private property – it’s more like punk rock. NYC is all about fighting and appropriation. Art doesn’t have to be legal – on some level, it’s all against one institution or another.”

 

© Nick Carson 2006. First published in Issue 5 of TEN4 magazine

 

Written by Nick Carson

December 14, 2006 at 11:06 am

Jonathan Ive

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Perhaps the most influential product designer of his generation, the soft-spoken Brit that steered Apple from failure to phenomenon discusses form, function and how brushes and plaster dust helped shape the man he is today.

“The design we practice isn’t about self expression. I don’t want to see a designer wagging his tail in my face. I want to see a problem solved, and in a way that acknowledges its context,” states the man behind some of the most understated yet revered designs of the last decade – from iMac to iPod, his mass-market consumer products are as sculptural as they are purposeful.

Gentle curves and translucent fruity shades may have made his name, but it’s the technical minutiae that really animate Jonathan Ive. Hours of sweat and head-scratching are channelled into the finest of functional details – innovations that could set the tail of the most reserved designer flapping furiously. But instead they’re carefully smoothed over in soothing white for that cool and effortless je ne sais quoi.

Reaching for one of any number of examples at his fingertips, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Design turns to the latest iMac. “The stand is a simple piece of aluminium which has been stamped and then rolled,” he begins, allowing himself a chuckle that – refreshingly – his British pronunciation of ‘aluminum’ isn’t met by raised eyebrows. “One of the problems we encountered was that you could adjust it, but the screen would wobble slightly. It was really frustrating.”

“We architected an entire system to iron this wobble out.” Ive’s notoriously self-effacing nature allows a flicker of pride to shine through. “A horseshoe foot that went below the stand. In between that and the stand was a cunning material designed to absorb the energy of the wobble.”

“We try to solve very complicated problems without letting people know how complicated the problem was,” he shrugs. “That’s the appropriate thing.” And this deep-rooted – and very British – notion of what is right and proper carries through into his resolute refusal to bask in individual glory. Rather like that horseshoe foot, he sees himself as one of many essential components meshed together beneath a polished and professional exterior.

“Teamwork is the only way – not out of principle, but out of necessity,” he reasons. “You can’t develop these ideas and take them to market by yourself.” Several members of the team that he praises as “ridiculously smart” have been together for over twelve years, resulting in intuitive, almost pre-verbal communication over the smallest of details.

But despite such close-knit familiarity, they’ve never worried about stagnation. Every time a fresh product is released under the Apple banner, for all the frenzied public adulation their core market is notoriously hard to please – for which he’s genuinely grateful for keeping standards high and avoiding complacency.

“Half of our customers are creatives; people who are incredibly tenacious and forever criticising what we’re doing. So that’s wonderful,” he enthuses. But your own criticism is easier to take, and Ive has always been keen to disconnect any sense of ego from the task at hand, in favour of rigorous self-analysis – a goal that he admits has taken many years to achieve.

Considering his first major gig out of college was co-founding an independent consultancy, Tangerine – developing everything from power tools to televisions – he’s settled pretty comfortably into the mould of a dedicated in-house team. But then he never took too well to the business side of things, and relishes the opportunity to plough all of his resources into the creative side, a luxury that most freelance designers simply can’t afford. Although it’s fair to say he’s earned it.

“There’s tremendous pressure on designers to do anything except focus on the path of design,” he observes. “One of the dangers is that there’s a focus on trying to be professional, rather than being a good designer. But I’ve learned that if I focus on design, somehow the other things will happen if the ideas are good. You can circumnavigate all kinds of different stuff with a good idea, and that’s tremendously powerful.”

Famously media-shy and cocooned within a utopian design environment that he’s described as “heavenly”, Ive’s is an existence so exhaustively concerned with the pure nature of design that for his counterparts on the ground it seems almost like an ivory tower – or rather one made from twin-shot white composite polymer and laser-welded aluminium. After all, it’s talk of innovative processes, precise tolerances and advanced materials that extorts glimmers of excitement from this calm, shaven-headed pioneer.

“I think as a design team we’re beginning to get the hang of this,” Ive allows himself. “My drawing’s got worse and worse and it just doesn’t matter.” Ever since his college days – studying Art & Design in the mid ‘80s at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic – actual sketching has been a self-confessed weakness. “I was at college for four years, just at the point when computers were getting important,” he recalls.

“I started hand-drawing and had a horrible time. I was frustrated because conceptually, I couldn’t do something that I wanted to do.” For three of the four years computers were more hindrance than help, and it wasn’t until his final year that he had his first bite of an Apple Mac. He wasn’t to know it was the start of a long and monogamous relationship.

“I remember coming across this remarkable product. It was easy to use, and you could do little things like change the noise when you made a mistake,” he grins. “It sounds small, but at the time that was remarkable. I went from feeling stupid to feeling empowered – I somehow connected to the people that made it. The object testified to the care that went into it.”

Soon after graduating, Ive was to make ever closer contact with Apple and his mentor Steve Jobs through Tangerine. They were clearly impressed, and by 1992 he’d moved in with them in San Francisco. Six years later he was turning their fortunes around with the first iMac. Then the well-trodden tale begins: not only did it shift two million units in its first year, it made its beige boxy rivals look moribund and so last millennium.

It’s no coincidence that it was tender loving care and attention to detail that first attracted Ive to the brand that’s now synonymous with his career – the difference between superficial differentiation for its own sake and genuine investment in a better and more innovative product. From hidden horseshoe feet to the celebrated iPod one-touch navigation, his design team pours time and resources into getting it right.

By way of example, he draws attention to the new iPod shuffle – which ships for $79 in the US. Its extruded aluminium body clips together with a tolerance of 0.03 – a precision that, for those that need to look it up, is remarkable. “The way the parts fit together is extraordinarily tight,” he insists. “I don’t think there’s ever been a product produced in such volume at that price, which has been given so much time and care. I’m really excited by that, and even if you can’t articulate its value, at some level I hope that integrity is obvious.”

That inbuilt sense of intangible value has served him well through the years, and had a somewhat unusual genesis. Casting his mind back to his days at Newcastle Polytechnic – “in some ways I had a pretty miserable time; I did nothing other than work” – Ive picks out a personal inspiration figure faceless to the rest of the world. “In my first year, we had a class that was pure sculpture; an exercise in the translation from vocabulary to physical object,” he recounts.

“We had to make moulds, and sculpt the object from plaster. It was such an interesting exercise; so pure and so terribly focussed. What really struck me was that the chap who taught the class had a terrible allergy to plaster dust. But he thought it was so important that he’d wear these ridiculous gloves and mask, and spend whole mornings in the plaster room.”

“And he had these fantastic big brushes in his pocket. When he came round, he wouldn’t just stop and talk to us; he would make us brush off what we were working on and clear a little space. Even if it was terrible, and in our minds didn’t deserve any clearing of space, there was something about respecting the work; the idea that actually it was important – and if you didn’t take the time to do it, why should anybody else?”

Jonathan Ive was in conversation with Dylan Jones, editor of British GQ, following his award of Honorary Doctor at the University of the Arts London, 16 November 2006

© Nick Carson 2006. First published in Issue 5 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

December 12, 2006 at 3:28 pm

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