From a garden shed in post-industrial Sheffield, Matt Pyke is at the centre of the design collaboration Universal Everything. From its earliest days four years ago right up to the present, Matt has been the only full-time employee. Permanently hooked into iChat, he plays the role of creative director and calls on a talented cast of both regular and not-so-regular contributors, purely on a needs-must basis.
With a reputation for producing dazzling colours and bold imagery and animation, the ethos at Universal Everything is, as the name suggests, to push styles to their logical extremes. You can't help but respect their earnest flamboyance, or admire the variety of things they do. We talk in depth to Matt to discover how Universal Everything works.
When people think of Universal Everything they think bold, colourful, exaggerated. But how would you describe your approach to design given the kind of work you do?
It's certainly colourful. The colour thing is something that I've always been interested in and I tend to be attracted towards people who do use a lot of colour. The general approach is if a client comes to you with a problem or a brief then you find a way of amplifying what they're trying to say in some way. That might mean if they want something bold, colourful and shouty then you would make it as loud and as colourful as possible, but if they want something more austere and minimal, then you would make it as austere and minimal as possible. We push things to the extreme in any direction, whether it's extreme maximalism or extreme minimalism. That gives us a really wide playground to play about in.
A lot of designers are influenced by a lot of things. We intentionally don't look at many design magazines or anything like that. My favourite magazine is New Scientist for inspiration.
Today Universal Everything takes on anything from print design to projected environmental graphics. How has your thinking changed as the scale of the work has grown?
CD covers seem very tiny now. But the thinking's the same whether you're designing for a postage stamp or the side of a skyscraper. It's still essentially an idea and it's all about the context in which you're communicating it. We like working in quite unusual new formats - it might be the video wall in the Nokia store, video ringtones for a phone, a gallery wall, a pavement, or whatever. Maybe part of it comes from the fact that I used to be a graffiti artist when I was 16.
What is your favourite area or medium to work in at the moment?
I'm doing four different websites at the moment, so that's quite nice - to be more interactive. But I think the favourite medium is something you can stand in, such as the Nokia store stuff or the George Michael thing. Something where you can actually stand within the design or the animation rather than holding it. It's quite exciting, it has more of an encompassing effect on people.
What has been the most important project you've worked on lately?
One of the things that was really interesting was our involvement with the creation of the London 2012 Olympic logo. We were involved with Wolff Olins from the start, helping form and design it. We did a lot of animation for them to show how the logo would come to life and did some more work on how it was used with another brand, which was Adidas, who's sponsoring the Olympics.
What was interesting was when I first saw the logo I thought, 'At last, someone's done something other than a brush stroke.' It was good that graphic design became a big debate for the country but I was quite surprised at how many people felt the same way. No one saw it the same way I did without all the tabloid hysteria surrounding it.
It's like when a new building, or a new bridge, or a new art centre, or a new band or anything; it causes a bit of a reaction. It's far better than a simple brush-stroke picture of London Bridge or something like that.
I'd love to know your views on this - what do you think the optimum size for a creative group should be?
Usually around four. Perhaps me, Trevor and Karsten, and Simon doing the sound. I also think it's important that you haven't got four art directors. Each person has got to have their own role.
Collaboration plays a large role in the work you do. What do you look for in partners and what do you avoid?
The way I usually find people is just, you know, you're on the web and you see a piece of work that you like and you can tell that the thinking behind it is driven by something quite innovative and different. The main attraction is that they've got a unique voice, style and approach that makes you think, 'Wow!' You almost look forward to every new piece. So much motion graphics, illustration and design is of the same ilk. What I tend to avoid are people who are doing the clichs.
How has Web 2.0 fitted in with your work?
I think it's fitted in really nicely with how we work. When I designed the Universal Everything site in 2004 it was almost like a customised blog. I think because of the nature of how the studio is structured it has grown in parallel with the whole Web 2.0 thing. Now that sites such as Facebook, Flickr and YouTube are really established I've got into the idea that when you create a piece of work and put it online it's very easy to put your feed across the internet. We're actually updating the Universal Everything site so that it's all tied into Flickr and YouTube - when YouTube goes HD, that is. I don't think the quality's good enough right now.
What do you make of the admiration you receive from other designers?
I don't really notice, but occasionally I see other pieces of work that are heavily influenced. I'm all for it, I think it's great if you can create a piece of work that sets off inspiration in someone else who then takes it elsewhere, but if people are almost tracing it then that's not so great.
What visual trends are you tipping for the coming year or so?
The generative thing is interesting; the fact that instead of painstakingly designing a poster or an animation, you essentially design the seed, which is the parameters, the look, the rules. And then you plant it and you watch it grow. Designing the seed and watching it grow - that's exciting. You put all of the effort in at the beginning and the design goes off on its own and manifests itself, and then you either use the best specimens, or the client pays for an application. They just press play and it generates 15 new book covers for them or 15 new posters.
What car do you drive?
We've just changed our really weird, quirky Renault Modus to a BMW estate car, which I feel like an idiot in, so we're probably changing it to a Mini.
Words: Garrick Webster
This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 147
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