Though he's designed logos for some of the world's biggest corporations, Miles Newlyn has always maintained his individual approach to symbols and lettering. Garrick Webster speaks to this icon among icon designers
Although Miles Newlyn has never been employed by a studio or agency, his identity work has benefited some of the world's biggest companies - Unilever, Honda and Sky to name just three. He has a knack for creating innovative logos that carry with them an accessible look and feel, and so his style is often described as humanist. Though uncomfortable with the term, when Newlyn launched his new website recently he finally succumbed to the label. Like so many freelancers, the designer works from a bedroom in his home in north London, so we took a quick journey up the Northern Line to ask him about the human touch in graphic design.
Computer Arts: What, for you, characterises a humanist approach?
Miles Newlyn: An approach where you actually think about people rather than markets. It's one of those words that has been around in the industry for ages, and I've kind of avoided it for a long while because I thought, "Well, what is a humanist?" But after 10 years of hearing that label, or that requirement, I began to feel it's actually probably what I do.
CA: Branding has grown massively in importance in the last 10 years. Do you feel that we expect too much from branding nowadays?
MN: I don't expect anything from it. I think it has become a dirty word, definitely. It's something which, if I was leaving college, I wouldn't want to do.
I still believe in it and I still believe in identity, but branding has been pushed so hard we're now at the point where we go, "I want unbranded stuff please, because I don't want to have to pay for it." I think that's the thing - it's the emperor's new clothes. I would really like to see the king naked. So I think there's a kind of value in it. Exposing things would be quite fun. Who's the fool in that, anyway? It's not the public, it's the king.
CA: We talk about logos as an element of identity and many people see the logo as the brand. How important is the logo now and going forward?
MN: As a person, it will either turn me on or turn me off something. If it's a prominent thing that I have to wear then it's very important, really important. On mobile phones, on pieces of technology, providers, clothing, cars - they're the places where I think it becomes part of your identity, where it becomes important to me. If it's just on the bottom of a mug it's less important, and I don't mind whether it's good or bad.
CA: You've designed a lot of typefaces. Does that experience help when it comes to making logos?
MN: Yeah. Creating a logo is defining the personality of something, and if it's a logotype I use the skills that I've gained designing type. The skill and craft of being a type designer helps make a better quality logo, but it doesn't help you become a logo designer in terms of personality. It's the other way around. There's more personality in a logo.
CA: Your logos use illustrative elements, 3D, gradients and multiple colours. Have the creative technologies and platforms we use changed the rules of traditional logo design, which previously always called for simplicity?
MN: Yes, technology's a massive part of it and I do enjoy technology and software. The software in particular means you can do things which weren't possible before - it appealed to me. Now it's the other way around: I could carry on pushing the idea of the logo into reactive environments in some way. Those ideas were pestering my mind some years ago, before they were possible, but now they're possible they're no longer interesting, and I don't think they form a logo. Whether that's an age thing and I just desire more simplicity because of my taste, or because I don't think they serve the client very well, I don't know. The original rules of logos being recognisable and easily used still apply.
CA: Some companies have animated logos. Does this work?
MN: Plenty do, but they don't appeal to me. I have pushed the boundaries in terms of what you can do with a logo to the point where I've felt there's failure, so I've found out what those boundaries are for me.
CA: What are they?
MN: It's about the flexibility; it's about how much it changes. When I was working on the 2012 [Olympics] project, one of the ideas on the table was that it was a shape - it was the classic window solution. I'd done an identity a couple of years previous for a competitor to the National Lottery which was precisely that, where I'd used a kind of window and we were going to use the faces of the people who played it, and somehow your own face would become part of the TV or the billboard logo. That might be nice for people on some random level - you upload your avatar onto the website and that gets dropped into the logo on TV, and it's a different one every time - but I see that as a failure. It doesn't stand for anything, particularly.
CA: You worked with the 2012 logo designers but it didn't go in a direction you favoured. What was wrong with it?
MN: I don't think it ever looked bad. I've got nothing against the colours or the shape. But people weren't given anything else - that's all it is, shape and a number of colours. If it was something bigger you could see it in a different way.
CA: Has it made people touchy about designing important logos?
MN: Yeah, definitely. It did highlight some issues about developing certain symbols.
CA: When you are working on a massive project like this, or a big company's branding, do you ever feel daunted?
MN: No, not at all. I can't think of a reason why I should be. What I feel daunted by is not being able to have the time and budget to give the same quality to a smaller client who might equally deserve it. I do a lot of free work for friends and good causes and so on, and I wish I could go, "Yeah, fine, I'll do it - you have a week and I'll give it my best." It's a shame I can't do that.
CA: You're an advocate of sensing tomorrow's trends and bringing them to your work. How do you do that?
MN: Just open your eyes; look at the world around you and tune in to things that aren't mass. I don't watch any TV, read any newspapers, any blogs or any magazines. I just travel to interesting places, find interesting people and speak to them, and do normal things with those people rather than visiting galleries. I'm going to Russia for a forthcoming seminar I have to give. They're going, "We'll get you tickets for any ballet, art gallery, blah, blah, blah you want to go and see." And it's difficult for me to say, "Yeah, but really I would prefer to just go round your place and have lunch" - that's more interesting for me, and I would learn more about what's happening in the world than going to a gallery and seeing work that was done 100, or 10, years ago.
CA: Do you ever stretch out into other areas of creativity?
MN: I can't do layout really. I can't understand web design or interaction. I've just focused on the meaning of symbols and the craft of lettering, and that's a big enough world for me. Drawing is still key - I do life drawing once a week and have done for years, mainly because I need it. At the end of the day I'm a kid who liked drawing at school.