They say that everyone has a book inside them. I’m not sure about that, but I do think everyone has a story, some more interesting than others. I hope to build a picture that will explain where my thinking is now and more so, why I think as I do.
I’ve been told for years to tell my story, so folks, I am telling my story with the hope that at least someone else will find it mildly interesting. My story is not without reason though, and please stay with this, it’s about logos and the creative industry as I know it.
Gary, c eye.
My last day at school and it’s hot. Very hot. The famous UK heatwave of 76. Making things even hotter was the age-old, Secondary Modern ritual of burning your school blazer on your last day of school, and I was excited. Most of my mates didn’t really know what they were going to do as a job, and some were going to technical college, some were going to work with their dads, most were unconcerned.
This was a time when you never worried or even thought about what you were going to do after school. I had romantic visions of painting or drawing in some high street art studio before I realised no such place ever existed. I was competent at drawing, but I didn’t have the patience. My portraits were good but only had one eye. My cars were even better but still only had one wheel. Finishing a job was something I had to learn. The thought of going to art school for some reason didn’t appeal. More school? I remember thinking, Nah, I was nearly 16 and more than ready for the world. This was a decision that was going to influence me throughout my professional life, more now than ever.
My excitement during that last day at school was due to my Dad getting me an interview on the next working day with a studio in Central London that he knew through his job. My Dad was an accountant. Not just any old accountant, but an accountant with one of London’s biggest ad agencies in central London, in a time when ad agencies were the pinnacle of everything glam and everything London in the 60’s/70’s. I didn’t know it at the time, but my own dad was the coolest accountant there could be. Who would’ve thought?
My interview was with a small commercial art studio in Lower John Street, Soho. A Georgian five-storey house right in the middle of the part of London that everyone hopes and expects London to be. I packed my bag with all my best drawings and made my way to Soho, beguiled and as naive as any ambitious 16 year old would be. Frightened, anxious and then very suddenly, I thought, a proper arty type that I had so often read about and admired thanks to amongst others a certain Mr Bowie. After all, this was the mid-seventies. I was suddenly in his world, and I have no idea how I got there so easily.
Artflow Ltd, Soho. My stool was on the top floor.
My interview lasted 5 minutes. For me, it was a nerve-racking chance to show my primitive creativity and sans art school, unfinished, drawing abilities. For them, it was a chance to keep an important client happy. I didn’t know at the time, but it turns out this first job was for a creative supplier of Benton and Bowles, my dad’s employers. I wasn’t really employed on merit, more a pawn to keep a client happy. I was chuffed as hell when they said: “can I start tomorrow?” I was given a red rover bus and train pass and promised £15 a week – every week! Blimey, I was bang in the middle of Soho, in a commercial art studio, in a heatwave and they wanted to give me money!
It was at this stage I realised that I would probably never see my school mates again. I was a London boy, working in Soho, with London creatives and I had only just turned 16. This wasn’t a new chapter in my life, this was a new book entirely.
As we all know, the thing with any first job is that you have to learn fast. I had no idea what was expected of me, but that soon became apparent on my first day. I was given a stall to sit on, no earned desk yet, and a big art bag. My job was to deliver commercial artwork all over the west end of London, take comments and relay them back to the artists in the studio.
I might need to explain the term commercial artist at this stage. Not to be confused with fine artist or heaven forbid graphic designers. Commercial artists were the workhorses of all press advertising and marketing in the pre-digital age. Paste-up artists, layout artist, retouchers, illustrators and the smart-arsed all-rounders. These were guys, and they were all guys in those days, who would hand-build all the thing easily done with Adobe Creative Suite today. Lettering, layout, logos, illustrations, retouching was all done by hand. The tools were Rotring pens, Cow Gum, Sprite airbrushes, 3a Swan Morton scalpels, Windsor and Newton 00 sable brushes and most importantly, copious amounts of alcohol at all hours of the day.
My tools of the trade.
Yes, folks, not only was I learning the demanding trade of commercial art I was also a very keen apprentice in how to drink as much as you can and still produce dead square, press quality artwork in the late afternoon. Three-hour lunch breaks and I was still getting paid my £15 a week! Suffice to say, as I was still a very recent schoolboy I didn’t have to buy a fluid ounce of beer for many months.
To this day, I am still astonished by the craftsmanship of these people who never seemed to be at all sober at any time. It seems at odds with today’s working practices, but it just worked then. One guy who, along with his Tupperware box of cheese and pickle sandwiches persistently melting in the ’76 sun, had a fully replenished hip flask of whisky for sustenance on a daily basis. This same guy could hand render the Lord’s Prayer on the back of a stamp with a 000 sable brush. He did it frequently. You could only read it with a magnifying glass. Impressive then, hugely impressive now. This all taught me a lot. I’m not sure what, but it has stayed with me ever since.
My company car…
After swanning around 70’s Central London on numerous Routemasters for six months, I started to think about my future. For the first time, really. I was none the wiser about where my destiny lay. All I knew was that this life was for me. All my mates had proper jobs, and I was getting paid to just be in Soho. Where do you go from there?
I would add, Soho was quite a different place then. Edgy, seedy, clinging on to its illustrious past, it was a forgotten place. No tourists then, no trendy shops or bars but far, far more interesting. A lunchtime stroll was always accompanied by a proposition from a doorway girl. For a 16-year-old on £15 a week this clearly wasn’t going to happen, but it would always fill my thoughts for the afternoons. In every street Danish pastries the size of your hand for next to nothing from the numerous family-owned Italian cafes. Countless Cafes with only one choice of coffee…strong!
The pubs were old school. Famous pubs now but when you went every day they were just pubs. The Old Coffee shop, The Glassblowers, The Coach and Horses, all full of London’s finest creative soaks all day, every day. Carnaby Street was only 7 years on from the swinging sixties and still sold cheesecloth shirts, loons and Afghan coats. The whole area reeked of patchouli oil, fresh coffee and rotting fruit and veg… This was a lot for an impressionable 16 year old to take in.
Soho was quite different back then…
However, it was beginning to dawn on me that, as my career goes, I hadn’t so much as crept through the back door as I thought, but I was actually climbing up the bin chute. There are only a certain amount of manky Maxwell House glass jars masquerading as water pots that you can change every morning before the novelty wears off. My ‘job’ had cost me several girlfriends, engagements etc. because I never really went home on time or even at all. I also realised that I needed to start to put into practice all I had learned and admired from some pretty impressive people.
So, being nearly 17, I started to knuckle down. I decided I wanted to ‘create’ as opposed to just ‘do’. To me, this is where all the glory is. But I realised I was in the wrong place. I realised I was at the bottom of the creative food chain (if you can call beer food). I needed to blag it to the point of inventing a whole new episode in my then very short career.
By chance, I met a guy through my brother, who was working in a London agency as a graphic designer. A graphic designer? What the hell is that I can remember thinking. I knew what commercial artists were, I even knew what the precious art directors were, but I knew nothing about graphic design. In reality, it’s all the same, just different titles, different working cultures, different parts of the process.
But I was in for a real culture shock. I somehow managed to blag yet another faux interview. This time lasting 2 minutes in a Marylebone pub. By now, I was fully armed with several paste-up artworks on CS10 board in the biggest art bag you’ve ever seen. I had ads for everything imaginable to show. To be honest, all I had done was piece them together and professionally present them. I could claim no original creativity for the work, and I still didn’t have a clue about what I was doing. To my amazement, the guy I was seeing had even less of a clue, and it resulted in what must be the most bizarre interview ever. I’ve only ever been to 2 interviews in my whole life, but this was just plain weird.
The company I was seeing were a middle-sized interior design firm called Stewart McColl Design Associates. Twenty strong, with women! This was a different world. Having spent the last year in Soho, I had no idea Marylebone High Street even existed.
In those days, Soho was run down, slightly spivvy and dangerous after 5 o’clock. Marylebone High Street was posh. Grand squares and hotels. Lovely pubs, still old school but posh old school. Then, it was an unknown through road from Marylebone Road to Oxford Street and a bit of a hidden secret. This was the west end. The girls were different from the usual Soho fayre. Lots of suits and Aston Martins. I felt another episode was about to open up for me, but I needed to land the job.
Marylebone High Street and The Black Horse pub, the venue for my second and last ever interview.
This is where I learned very quickly how to blag, bullshit, convince, persuade, sell, lie, present and all those other fine business skills we need. I was still 17, and I was meeting the great man himself, Stewart McColl. Who? You might ask. Well at the time he was a very imposing, exceptionally well suited Scotsman with a booming voice, a constant glass of single grain in his hand, a hand-rolled Havana and the overpowering smell of Paco Rabanne. I remember thinking he smelled like the ground floor of Selfridges in Oxford Street.
He drove a white Aston Martin DB6, badly, and would always buy the whole pub a drink even if he just popped in for a minute. He also went on to sell his company, by then 300 strong for £49m to WPP. I learned a lot from this man. My interview consisted of 3 double gin and tonics followed by “so what can you do”. I showed my cack-handed commercial artworks that were very deliberately riddled with well-known logos such as British Leyland and ICI and the reaction was “did I do those?”. To this day I’m not sure what he meant but, of course, I said yes!. “you’ve got the job, see you tomorrow” and off he went. Now, strictly speaking, I had ‘done them’. But not in the way he thought, I hadn’t designed them I had just pasted them together. But I wasn’t going to mess this up. I lied, sort of. I think.
Suddenly, my career was on. I now work for a design company. My god, get yourself down to Fiorucci’s and get some loafers I thought. I spent the rest of that evening in a Marylebone pub gazing at all the beautiful people that were so different from the earthy Sohovians. Within 2 hours, my accent even changed.
Soho had an edge, but this is where Bowie had lived and shopped, where Hendrix hung out, where Kenneth Williams aimlessly wandered the streets. I only know that because I saw him that night and found out he lived locally. The backstreet mews’ are straight out of the 60’s, an episode of The Saint maybe, this was class. And I was now on £30 a week! No bus pass though but hey, I had Fiorucci loafers, who needs a bus!
Now, graphic design is quite different from commercial art. Well, the first bit is. It was all about ideas. This was new to me. And it felt a bit weird. Getting paid for thinking? Who would’ve thought? What if I can’t think of anything? What if it’s not good enough? What if they find me out? I was 17 having a mid-life crisis! After a little while, I sussed it out. This was still the seventies, and graphics was still at an anything-goes stage. Or so I thought. This was corporate graphics. Serious business.
This is when I first met corporate identity. Based on logic and rules, rules and rules about rules. This was also when I started designing real logos for real projects. No time for blagging now.
1978. Designing. Still by hand but designing.
I now had a desk. A big A0 with parallel motion. I also had my own ashtray and Maxwell House water jar. With my new astronomical wage, £40 per week, I invested in a full set of Rotring pens and various squares and metal rules. I then found out that if I presented a receipt to the accounts department and blagged a bit, I got the money back. Any receipt!… I didn’t have to pay for a birthday, Xmas present or treat for a girlfriend for the next nine years! But I have to keep quiet about that. My lunchtimes were now being spent in Selfridges, a far cry from my old Soho lunchtime haunts.
I soon started to realise that I was surrounded by creative academics. They had all gone to Uni or Art School. Interior designers, Architects, Space Planners, Visualisers and little me from the University of Soho, graduating in blagging, drinking and swanning around.
I also realised that the real key to any design position is to be creatively aware of everything around you. The process is one thing, but being aware of your surroundings is vital to any good designer. This is an early sponge-like quality I’ve never lost since that early epiphany. I was fascinated by these people, posh, clever, and so confident. A very middle-class environment, even the Scots came from either Inverness or Edinburgh!
This was a huge challenge for me and an endless source of entertainment for everyone else. I was their ‘bit of rough’, but I was now hard working. No room for swanning around or blagging here, I thought, and I was getting on…I was nearly 18 now.
If you have any questions or queries about this article please get in touch.
© 2019 c eye (Gary)