"tDR's default starting position was that the clients are always wrong. I apologise. It was the fucking account executives all along!" The Designers Republic founder talks punk ideologies with Nick Carson..
As with so many iconic design outfits, The Designers Republic had its early roots in the music industry. Founded to create flyers, it grew organically into one of the world's most influential creative studios, famed for its defiant disregard for the design establishment, its subversive sloganeering and its trend-busting dedication to putting creativity before all else. Compare tDR to Andy Warhol's Factory, and its opinionated founder Ian Anderson would unquestionably be Warhol. A year after he closed his office doors for the last time and struck out alone, Anderson shares the uncompromising approach that's inspired a generation of designers from So Paulo to Sarajevo.
Computer Arts: It's been said that you ran tDR like a record label, with conceptual ideas and freeform creativity taking centre stage. How would you describe your design process?
Ian Anderson: To me, 'freeform creativity' suggests creativity without direction. More accurate is a commitment to creating freedom for creativity to grow, rather than to the letter of a brief. I forgot that for a while, and went bust. Creativity is not born of consensus: I think in terms of solving puzzles, and making connections. I don't trust anyone who claims they're just providing a service for the client - good creatives do it for themselves, and the client benefits from that amplified input.
CA: Did managing a band [Person to Person] give you a fresh perspective when you first founded tDR?
IA: There was a seamless evolution from managing bands to designing for them. The beauty of being the band's designer, rather than their manager, was that I got to create the shit rather than having to clear it up.
I guess it's unavoidable that I had a different perspective. My natural tendency is to use words, colour and form to express my thinking. Graphic design, in the current vernacular, holds little appeal for me. Designers who are essentially graphic stylists are an enigma - what a fucking waste of time. That's all the more ironic given that, for significant periods of tDR's history, our visual styling was so copied that people forgot there was an idea behind it in the first place.
CA: Your work for Warp Records brought tDR to a bigger stage. Would you draw parallels between the Warp/tDR relationship in Sheffield and Saville/ Factory in Manchester? Do you see iconic music designers such as Saville, Brody and Garrett as influential forerunners?
IA: You could draw parallels, but I wouldn't; neither would I regard Neville, Peter and Malcolm as iconic, or anything other than passionate and eloquent fellow designers, although undeniably some of their work has proved to be iconic over the years.
tDR kicked against the 'establishment' attitude - a non-sensibility fattened on the loadsamoney dollar, patting itself on the back for running ideas up the flagpole to see who saluted them. There were people who personified all that, but we weren't interested in them. With an increasingly distant past, it tends to be the effects, not the causes, which are remembered.
CA: Did your sloganeering, anti-consumerist attitude stem from the original punk movement. Are those your musical roots?
IA: The original UK punk revolution, the first cultural year zero since the birth of teenagers, happened to kick off when I was ripe for being influenced. Living with a trade unionist father during the dark socio-political days of the three-day-week '70s, punk wasn't a spectator sport.
Like graphic design for me now, the music then was an expression for something I perceived to be much bigger. Punk only lasted for six months prior to it going overground, but its cultural resonance is still felt now because it was an idea, not just three chords. That might be why way too many flyers these days look like they fell out of tDR's bins in the '90s.
CA: When expanding the studio, did you deliberately seek out designers who shared your wider philosophy and approach?
IA: We always called it the 'office'. Everyone knew a 'studio' was for a musician or an artist. It grew organically as it needed to - if you choose the right people to work with, it makes sense to give them creative freedom, so they deliver according to their ego, not your expectations. Clients should understand this too: it's more cost effective than sitting through numerous pitches where creatives are basically second-guessing what they want.
I tried to identify fellow travellers, people with something to learn, something to prove, something to say. [Latterly], I made a big mistake employing people to satisfy particular types of client. That doesn't work if you want creativity at the core rather than business - it was a step towards satisfying, rather than exceeding, clients' expectations.
CA: Your early work has clear Soviet influences, which permeate the language of the studio - The Republic, The Peoples Bureau, and so on. How have politics influenced your approach to design?
IA: I see politics as something to opt out of, not something you choose to get involved in. As designers, our work is public, so we have a responsibility to enhance the environment - otherwise we're just culturally fly tipping.
I'm interested in big messages, in absolutes. Revolutionary art and propaganda is always extremely potent, because of the verve and passion of the progenitors, coupled with the willingness of the adherents to comply. I'm interested in the similarities between huge roadside billboards in Communist states - urging the people on to greater productivity - and the consumerist subtexts inherent in every billboard hoarding everywhere.
CA: tDR's critics have drawn attention to your heavily kerned, heavily designed and at times unreadable typography. How do you respond?
IA: Fuck 'em, and damn their pissy little rules. Words are expressive; language should be bent out of shape. How else can we express new ideas in a torpid, static language that's evolved to explain old ones?
In the late '80s we tried to develop a 'universal global visual slang' based on modern Japanese type-based designs. We couldn't read Japanese, but we could understand them because of the multinational corporate logos that populated the work. Understanding the sense of something - the spirit of it - is more important than legibility.
CA: In recent years, did having a relatively large studio to sustain pull you into a vicious circle where smaller, cooler projects just weren't practical?
IA: I think the fact that the successful work I did for Coca-Cola worked across every cultural and linguistic mix on the planet is cooler than selling a limited number of cracking or storming 12"s out of the back of a van. But that's just me.
Unfortunately, the type of person who wants to deliver forward-thinking design doesn't always sit well with the type of person who feeds the larger corporate clients. They build relationships based on business compatibility, not the ability to deliver great visual communication - as opposed to budget-busting eye candy. tDR's default starting position was that the client's always wrong. I apologise. It was the fucking account executives all along.
I don't regret taking on high-profile projects; I regret employing people purely to feed those projects on the clients' terms, rather than ours. A large studio wasn't sustainable because there wasn't an internal fit. You can lead horses to water, but you can't make them drink. It's better now. For everyone.
CA: Do you feel a greater sense of creative freedom now that you've scaled everything back to the core? How do you operate now?
IA: The future is communication by any means necessary. I'm working on collaborations, as a consultant and with tDR. I'm going to spend some time being Ian Anderson, and see who wants a slice of that. I want to do more than the designer superstar straightjacket allowed.
I'd like to see what it's like working with people who were considered devils incarnate by tDR, just to see what happens. There are tDR books, and there's a mighty retrospective tDR festival coming up in Tokyo in 2011. There's plenty to do but, unsurprisingly, having an oversized studio hanging round my neck isn't one of them. I'm using other people's studios from now on.