"I like to start every project with a blank page"
We spoke with Paul Nicholson (Number 3) graphic designer about the evolution of her career, the biggest influences on her work and her current fascinations and creative preoccupations.
TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR CURRENT SITUATION?
If you take 'doing art' in its broadest sense, it goes right back to when I was a kid. I was always doing stuff - Drawing, painting, building Lego and plastic model kits, etc. I guess I’ve always had the creative bug. I remember I’d be about 8, customising toy cars with Humbrol paints and in doing so, being able to swap them for better toys. Even then it paid off to be a bit arty.
By my teens, getting into fashion and the way I looked, I started customising clothes. As a BMX kid, I’d cut stencils and spray-paint designs onto long-sleeved T-shirts, creating my own (on the cheap) race jerseys. My first paid design job would be when I was 16, hand-painting clothing for a local boutique, the artwork inspired by WWII aircraft nose art.
The T-shirts and jackets I hand-painted as a kid would be the foundation of what became my career at Prototype 21 and Terratag, primarily fashion brands based around the T-shirt.
My work is an amalgamation of many styles and elements, but a consistently strong influence on me has been Japan. My interest, or quite possibly obsession, has its roots as a kid building Tamiya model kits. Christmas morning and the rush of excitement as the paper is torn. Amid the chaos one present stands out: Tamiya’s 1/24th scale Toyota Celica LB Turbo Gr.5. The illustration of a sleek race car set against a pure white background, even as a kid, it reeked of cool. The quality of the kit was second to none and the instruction sheet a work of art in itself. This early experience left an indelible mark and forged a profound love of this Japanese company and, ultimately Japan.
As I explored more aspects of Japanese visual culture, the imagination, style, and artistry blew my mind. I was particularly drawn to anime, especially the giant robot genre, especially the animated TV series, Gundam. Japan, more than anywhere, epitomised futurism and what better icon for my love of the future than a kick-ass robot. My obsession with all things Japanese grew, although it is a culture I will never fully comprehend. Its influence has permeated through much of my artwork. Not by copying, but from taking the energy, vibrancy, colour and transplanting it within a western context, adding into the mix other cultural references stemming from my love of sci-fi, electronic music, futurism, street art, skate and BMX.
Terratag was wound up at the end of 2012 and I left Prototype 21 in 2015 to become a freelance designer. Going freelance allowed me to focus on design and I now mostly work in music and fashion creating logos and typographic designs, record sleeves and garment graphics.
CONSIDERING THE IMPORTANCE OF KEEPING CURRENT, HOW DO YOU KEEP UP?
I would say that I have always picked up on things early and have been aware as trends emerge. For example, I have had several T-shirt brands and I see the T-shirt is often a trend starting point; The first identifier of a shift in fashion. Due to its low-cost and ease of customisation, it will always be at the forefront. With this in mind, you can see why the T-shirt became my canvas. For me the T-shirt is about making a statement; it should be said loud and proud. Without an impact, a T-shirt is just wallpaper. So, yeah, I love the 'WTF!' factor, a design sensibility that runs through my work. I don’t do subtle.
HOW IMPORTANT IS A FORMAL QUALIFICATION IN DESIGN TODAY?
With hindsight, I would say that my art education was quite a broad stroke.
On Foundation (pre-University, one year course), I studied graphics but, possibly due to a lack of creative discipline, my tutor felt strongly that I should pursue fine art. However, sticking to my guns, I was accepted on to the graphic design course at Kingston-Upon-Thames. Initially studying illustration, I switched to graphic design midway through the second year. By my third year, an interest in fashion was having a great influence on my work. So much so that for my final project I was working and producing garments and print designs. The project took inspiration from manga, utility clothing and protective gear from sport, workwear and the military. I also screen-printed designs on T-shirts.
Suffice to say, I drifted a between disciplines and strayed from the requirements of a graphic design course. As a result, when setting up my final show the head of the course admitted that due to the fact I had not stuck to the set projects, she would mark me down, even though she could see I was a hard worker with passion in what I did. So, Kingston gave me a third, but I took a wealth of research, concepts and ideas, many of which would see their way into future projects, especially Terratag.
WHAT’S CHANGED IN ART AND DESIGN EDUCATION SINCE YOU GRADUATED?
When I was growing up, this is pre-computers, I was always drawing and even through university 'by hand' was how everything was done. It wasn’t until my third year, that the design department even got computers, and I graduated in ’92.
I studied at Kingston University and the first computers only showed up in my third and final year. The computer suite was made up of only six Apple Mac Classics, which I’m guessing arrived at some point in 1991. However, these Macs were for all three years; 90 students. I think during my final year, and being in the third year we got priority, I had access to those machines for maybe six hours max. And they were slow. I was trying to do type on a curve and a good chunk of that six hours was just trying to do that onefunction.
So my youth and all my education were old-school. It was pencils, pens, paper. However, even though I have had computers since '93, they still play an important part in the way I design now. In part, it is the familiarity and what I’m comfortable with, but I also think that there is a different process at play as opposed to when you go straight to a computer.
A lot of the time the forms I tried to create are not necessarily geometric or perfectly balanced. So by sketching, I’m getting more of the feeling I’m after because the hands move a lot more intuitive with a pencil than when you are moving nodes around with a mouse.
And the very nature of working on a computer is it is a vectoring device. So you tend to find that things are on X and Y axes and you’re aware of the verticals and horizontals and the diagonals. So straight away it limits you. You become more clinical when you design.
Whereas with a pencil it can be a lot more organic and things happen. It could just be an accidental sweep of the hand or as you are raising back you suddenly see something that you didn’t see before. So there’s that chance element. It’s that more flowing freedom that you get with a pencil.
What’s good, obviously when you take it into the computer, and you start to look at it in a bit more detail and realise, “Oh well if I just twist this clockwise by a degree or two, it’s actually on the 30,” and then that balance is off with, “Well, if I move this on the other side, it’s a perfect mirror image.” So you start to discover things in your pencil drawing that you weren’t aware of, that you were drawing.
Certain, geometric balances come up and it works well that way. Sometimes you will twist things to make them geometric, but then other times you just leave it as it is. So it might not be perfect, but it works.
WHAT ARE YOUR CHALLENGES AND INSPIRATIONS? WHAT INSPIRES AND MOTIVATES YOU TODAY?
In my mind, there’s little point simply creating a logo and then simply using an off-the-shelf font for the logotype. I see with a lot of logos the designer is like “Oh! Right, the logotype. OK, should it be Futura, or Monotype or whatever.” And it’s that thing where, to me, it’s just insanely boring. It is amazing how many logos there are where you realise, “Oh well it’s just Futura bold italic,” or it’s just Helvetica or something... And to not even add a few elements or break a few bits off so that it is at least a derivation of thetypeface.
I love to work with type. I wouldn’t enjoy simply presenting someone with a logotype that is simply an existing font. The very reason I’m doing this is that I want to design type. So if I’m not designing type it’s kind of pointless.
WHO OR WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST DESIGN INFLUENCE—AND WHY?
I got very much into music from a very early age. So we’re talking ’78, ’79. I was probably a little too young to get punk because I’d have been six when punk came out. What I did get into was the ska revival of the late seventies. It was the first time I got passionately involved with music and, importantly, my love for record sleeves and the way that bands use logos. From an early age, I was really into logos and was drawing them everywhere. I remember as a 10-year-old with a biro, drawing the Specials and Madness logos onto my rucksack. It is a defining moment and even now music is a major part of what I’m into.
I’m forever scouring YouTube and Bandcamp and SoundCloud for new artists, new labels. It’s something that I’ve never given up on. I’m probably finding more artists, labels and musicians now than at any time in my past. The volume of material being produced is astounding, and it’s not as if it’s rubbish either. I mean some fantastic projects are being produced.
I think with the scope now of digital downloads, it does mean that there’s a lot more experimentation. So for me, it’s great because the more progressive or cutting edge a musician or a label are trying to be, the more scope I have to push what I do. As a designer, there is an avenue through music where I can put stuff out that is as uncompromised as possible.
WHAT IS THE UNDERPINNING PHILOSOPHY BEHIND NUMBER 3?
I like to start every project with a blank page. And for me, it’s experimenting and just trying out ideas is always been what has motivated me. So I find part of the reason that I can’t create a given style, or stick to a certain way of working, is I soon get bored of it or it’s almost like as soon as I’ve created something I want to move on.
It’s like a process of creating and destroying. As soon as I’ve got something down, it’s like “Okay, onto the next thing.” So you take successful things, like the Aphex Twin logo. I couldn’t simply just keep creating stuff in that style. It wouldn’t have been something I would have enjoyed.
But I think for me the main drive and impetus to keep designing is finding new ways of working and just always push- ing myself.
At the moment, I work with a couple of small record labels who give me quite a lot of creative control. So with each of these labels, I’ve found ways of working, which from the outset, was just something I fancy doing. So somebody will approach me and in my mind I’m going, “Oh, I’d like to try photo-bashing, creating spaceships out of various bits of photography and images that I find.” And in having that opportunity, I’ve had so much fun working in that way.
AFTER SO LONG, HOW DO YOU VALUE YOUR WORK AT NUMBER 3?
As a designer, I wouldn't say that I have a singular or defining style. If you take a company like the Designers Republic, they have a very strong visual identity, and anyone going to the Designers Republic is seeking their stamp; that look which is uniquely Ian Anderson.
Whereas I try to approach every project with a blank slate and let the idea be the starting point. So for me, that’s where it gets exciting is that you’re starting from quite an obtuse angle. You’re not coming from the comfort of “This is what I do. This is my style. Take it or leave it.” It’s more one of trying to find a unique response to a set of circumstances.
Because I do not actively approach or contact people it is safe to say that when I am invited to work on a project it is because of that person already at least some designs I have created. This is a great starting point in so much as people are specifically after my approach. Obviously, as with any designer, you read the brief, ask questions, determine what is needed and make sure everyone is on the same page. With this understanding, I begin brainstorming and start putting down ideas, giving a variety of possible directions. Through feedback and fine-tuning, you work your way toward the final design.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY THE MOST ABOUT DESIGN?
As I mentioned earlier, I like to start every project with a blank page. Experimenting and trying out ideas has always been my motivation. This is also part of the reason that I can’t create a singular style, or stick to a certain way of working. I soon get bored with it or it’s like as soon as I’ve created something I want to move on and try something different.
It’s like a process of creating and destroying. As soon as I’ve got something down, it’s like “Okay, onto the next thing.” So you take successful things, like the Aphex Twin logo. I couldn’t simply just keep creating stuff in that style. It wouldn’t be something I would enjoy. My impetus and motivation are to keep finding new ways of working and just always pushing myself.
At the moment, I work with a couple of small record labels who give me quite a lot of creative control. So with each of these labels, I’ve found ways of working, which from the outset, was just something I fancy doing. So somebody will approach me and in my mind I’m going, “Oh, I’d like to try photo-bashing, creating spaceships out of various bits of photography and images that I find.” And in having that opportunity, I’ve had so much fun working in that way. However, my projects in many respects are more difficult. Each step is an internal dialogue trying to make sense of a lifetime’s passion, inspiration and half-formed concepts. With no client dictating the direction or theme of the work, the numerous directions and multiplicity of ideas can sometimes grind everything to a halt. Two projects I am working on now are on a grand scale in so much as the aim is to be a visualisation of contemporary modes of communication taking on board aspects of slang, acronym, jargon, code, linguistics and the impact of social media, interconnectivity and mass consumption of image.
WHEN YOU START A JOB, WHAT DO YOU ANALYZE FIRST?
I work with people, I ask for a mood board, and this isn’t specifically designed. It can be anything that they’re into. So whether it is an image from nature, or of plants, animals, buildings they like, objects, machinery, artwork, anything. And once you get a feel for it, you tend to find that certain shapes just feel right.
It’s quite instinctive or intuitive, just something feels right for a given client. There are rules in design that do apply. So if you use very lightweight fonts, it has a different effect on people than if you’re using bold fonts, and likewise with rounded edges or sharp edges. So there are tools in your toolbox that you can play with that visually denote a certain emotive response.
I also look at a name or word that I am designing. It is how the combination of letters sit next to each other, the flow and the balance that a given letter has with the next. Once you go through all of these attributes, it’s bringing these together and trying to find something unique to that particular set of letters. Some touches come through in my work that people go, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely from Paul.” But, usually, I don’t try and place too much emphasis on style.
I have worked on a variety of larger projects and it’s good to be able to employ a certain discipline and knowledge that you have as a designer, having had many years experience, to sit down with someone and understand what they want because you understand design. But ultimately you spend a lot longer on a project to produce something which is ultimately not very exciting.
The rules that exist at a corporate level are a lot more restricting and you have to pass the design through so many hands. It’s definitely like the adage too many cooks spoil the broth. But what tends to happen is that you work with, say a junior member of the marketing team. You get something quite good looking down and then it goes to the next level and they’re like, “Oh well we can’t do this.” And “Oh that’s not quite readable.” By the time they’ve had their input and then it finally gets shown to the CEO, and they have their say, there is usually little left of the original idea. Once it’s gone through that milling machine, there’s not much left of any creative merit.
Ultimately, all you can say is that as a designer, you’re proud of having done your job well in creating something that corporation can use. But invariably it’s not something you show on your Instagram or put in your portfolio because, other than the fact you’ve worked for a particular company, there are no real kudos attached to it. You’re not going to get many people following you simply because you’ve worked for a certain corporate.
What I have realised as well as you used to think, “Oh, I’ve worked for this corporation,” or “I’ve worked for this big fashion brand” and the floodgates are going to open, I’m suddenly going to get loads of work from people. And it doesn’t work like that.
When I have had work come to me from large corporations or large companies, it’s invariably because a person working there is into Aphex Twin or is a fan of Ghost in the Shell. Just because you’ve worked with a big company doesn’t mean all of a sudden there are loads of big companies knocking at yourdoor.
WHERE DOES INSPIRATION COME FROM?
The inspirations are way too many to be able to pinpoint. One that I would say, as a 15-year-old, I got into a band from Leeds called The Age of Chance and The Age of Chance where Designers Republic first commission. So along with a band that excited me musically, those early sleeves that the Designers Republic did for Age of Chance cemented in my mind what I was going to do. Through A-levels, foundation course, and University, I knew exactly where I was going and what I wanted to do - music-related graphics.
So, yeah, I would say they inspired me to do the work I do. But out of respect, I’ve always tried to work as much as possible without being influenced by the Designers Republic. They have always been a design house that motivates me to push myself because so often they would put some graphic work out and I’d be like, “Shit. That’s so good. I’ve got to try and work to that standard.” The Designers Republic set a high benchmark, which I’ve always aspired to and which pushed me to work to that level of creativity.
The Designers Republic was more about the ’90s. Pop Will Eat Itself, The Orb, Sun Electric, stuff like that. They were all just amazing pieces of graphics. Recently though, no one in particular. I’m just broadly into stuff. I am forever trawling the Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram, so it could be anything from art, architecture, photography to pop- culture junk, hazard warning signs or aircraft markings. Anything visually interesting is an influence.
WHERE DO THE IDEAS COME FROM?
When working with someone on a logo project I ask that they produce a mood board. I like to understand what inspires them as an individual. It has to be completely from them and I don’t want to give any input at that point. I ask that people don’t look at other logos or design, because I think then the influence would be too close to what I’m doing. So it’s good that they find things that are completely unrelated to typography or graphic design. Because in that way I’m looking for inspiration from areas outside of design and outside ofgraphics.
It works much better for me because the starting point sparks ideas that I wouldn’t necessarily have if somebody just said to me, “Oh, I like the logo that the Designers Republic produced for Wipeout. Can you do something like that?” Because then you’d be forced into this cul-de-sac, where you end up pretty much copying or emulating a particular style.
It is better, for example, if somebody sends me a picture of a tree. It’s good to imagine and develop a logotype or a logo from something that is not typographic.
In many cases, a logo is that thing people use to represent themselves. An introduction to a musician and in many cases even before you even hear their music is the logo. It acts as a visual representation. So, if I have an understand- ing of what it is that inspires them and can find the right forms to represent them, then the logo is something that they are comfortable using.
It has to work on that level that when you create a brand. You have to create that symbol they are going to live with potentially for the duration of that product or for that project. If it feels right for the client, then they’re going to be happy using it and it’s just going to grow with the product and it’s going to work with that thing that they’re producing and promoting.
WHAT WORK WOULD YOU HIGHLIGHT AND HOW DO YOU GO FROM CONCEPT TO DESIGN?
I mentioned how I start with pencil and paper and only then take it into the computer. Usually, as I’m laying out the vector graphic, I’ll scan the pencil drawing and use it as a trace in Illustrator. I’ll have that on one layer, knocked down to 10% grey and draw over the top. I tend to set the vertical height to a hundred millimetres because then it’s really easy to work out the percentages. For example, if it’s a circle and it’s a hundred millimetres diameter and the inner circle is 90 millimetres, I know that you’ve got a 5% border width. In drawing the logo in vectors you start to notice that, “OK. That diagonal line width is 12% of the overallheight.”
I wasn’t as interested in angles and geometry until recently, but in presenting work on Instagram I got into that whole thing of showing how type is constructed. What started as just a way of showing how something is made to a certain degree now is part of the process. As I create logos and type, I’m now actively looking for these dynamics and intricacies. I think it’s good to show that you’ve done the work. That you’ve grafted at it. That it is considered, thought out and well-honed.
If the starting point is experimental, then it doesn’t mean that it can’t be also geometrically perfect, have perfect balance and perfect weight. There’s an understanding of design that is kind of ingrained, you just know when something looks right or has the correct balance.
I love seeing how things are constructed. I’ll happily watch videos about people restoring a World War Two aircraft and seeing how it is put together, how the engine is held onto the fuselage and then the skin is applied. As a kid, I loved aviation magazines and especially the cutaway diagrams.
Similarly, construction diagrams of logos. There’s a beauty to them that often transcends the actual logo. When you see the Apple logo, it’s like, “Oh, that’s nice.” But when you see how it’s being made, that in itself is a work of art. It’s just beautiful seeing all of those construction lines and realising that everything has a reason and has been considered and worked out. That every line has a reason for being where it is. It would appear that that would go against this notion of experimentation, of being freeform and lacking constraints, breaking all the rules, but in design and art, balance and form are integral and are ultimately based within the rules of science and nature.
A tree doesn’t grow the same as the one next to it, but all trees exist strictly following rules of nature. It’s like that with design. You start with a freeform idea, but as you start to look at it in more detail, you realise that that thing that you did is an instinctively a natural thing that flows through you that you’re not in control of. But it’s there. You can’t ignore it.
WHAT’S BEEN THE MOST SATISFYING PROJECT YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
When a project has been completed and the finished work handed over, it’s effectively out of your control. As good as a piece of design is, it's continued use will be instrumental in determining it's significance. In the case of Aphex Twin, the fact that he’s continued to be a leading producer of cutting edge music and one whose reputation has continued to grow has certainly helped raise the awareness, popularity and significance of the logo. Having created a logo for someone who has carried on working has helped greatly in thatrespect.
As the designer, I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth and having one of my designs become iconic has helped immeasurably. Because if nothing else, when I first meet people, I can say, “Oh yeah, I did his logo.”
Similarly, having worked on Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, if I’m in the company of Japanese people and anime fans, I have an instant in with them. The film and TV show was massive in Japan and Production I.G, a highly respected animation studio, kind of on par with Marvel or DC. So, with most Japanese people I meet, I can say, “I designed the Laughing Man logo", and they know exactly what it is.
As a designer, if you have that instant connection with people and you can mention one thing you have done and immediately people have a handle on what you do, it’s veryuseful.
LIVING IN THE ERA OF IMAGES, HOW CAN VISUAL COMMUNICATION STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD?
There are a lot of musicians on a similar level to Aphex Twin and even more successful who don’t have a logo or recognisable graphic element. So, what that means is, that if you are into Aphex Twin or you are into techno and electronic music generally, you’ve got this symbol that you can wear or have tattooed and you know that it will communicate to people that you belong to the same niche, the same tribe.
Now there are iconic designs within every genre of music. You may be into late ’60s rock and roll, but because The Rolling Stones have got the lips and the tongue logo, it’s likely that if you want to wear something that represents your love of that era, you will go for a Rolling Stone T-shirt.
Likewise, with the Joy Division sound waves, the white lines on the black shirt. That sleeve design by Peter Saville is probably as recognised if not more so than the music of Joy Division. So there are circumstances where the design transcends the music. How many people wear a Joy Division, Ramones or CBGB T-shirt and in reality know anything about the music? It’s just these graphic elements have become iconic and representative of a given genre.
WHAT PART OF THE DESIGN PROCESS GIVES YOU THE MOST SATISFACTION? HAVE YOU ANY TIPS FOR YOUNG DESIGNERS.
I know when I was in my teens and twenties, you kind of went out of your way not to be liked. That was the whole point of being young dumb and full of cum. It was an attitude very much rooted in the things I was into; Not being a cog in the mainstream machine. I would gravitate to individuals or groups, activities or bands because I didn’t want to be part of the greater whole. One of the issues I have with social media is the very premise to be liked. People go out of their way to be liked. It turns a lot of the rules that were around when I was young on its head.
What I like with Instagram is I put stuff out there and people can like it or not. Rightly or wrongly, I don't care, because still within me is that attitude from my youth where you can take it or leave it, but if you don’t get it, fuck you! You are either too stupid or too boring to give a shit about. It’s not like I’m attitudinal, or giving people a hard time, but this is what I do and I have neither the time nor inclination to bend to consensus or try and follow this year's trend. As much as I’m aware of certain shifts in design, whether it be Vaporwave or David Rudnick or whoever’s hot right now, I won’t even touch it. Furthermore, when I see that there are trends I’m more motivated to go in the opposite direction. I am more motivated to NOT follow and NOT be liked.
At this point I, it’s not like I have an agent. I’m not affiliated to any studio. To get noticed I play the game as much as I can, but ultimately I just post stuff on Instagram. Sometimes I’ll get a favourable reaction. Sometimes I don’t. But it works. I have people contact me and I constantly have projects on the go.
DO YOU THINK EGO IS AN IMPORTANT ASPECT WITHIN A DESIGNER’S WORK?
I am not a psychologist so defining the difference between self-belief, ambition and ego are difficult. I would say though that it is important to have confidence in what you do. If you don't believe in what you are doing, why should anyone else?
DO YOU THINK THE COVID-19 SITUATION WILL CHANGE THE INDUSTRY?
These are very unusual times that we live in. Certainly nothing this big has happened on a global scale since World War 2. How long this will last, what is left when it is over and to what degree 'normal' life will return, nobody knows. I think we can’t return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem. I hope collectively we embrace what has happened and build something better for all mankind.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR PRESENT AND FUTURE PLANS?
Drawing, designing and creating.
With Number 3, I aim to consolidate all my experience into something more cohesive, unique and instantly recognisably as Nicholson.