Just Browsing

Like most of us I’m spending a lot more time at home right now and my thoughts keep turning to my ‘ideal home’ – and like many others I have spent many hours on the web, browsing endless retail sites, falling in love with everything that I cannot afford and cursing at not being able to find what I want. Trying to navigate through frustrating websites developed by teams of crack UX/UI unicorns led by some creative ninja with a waxed moustache and a skateboard.

When did browsing stop being browsing? The original meaning; to survey goods for sale in a leisurely and casual way – like many terms, has been misappropriated by web jargon and is now part of a complex system of algorithms and and suggestive prompts designed to engage you in a controlled series of stages in order to influence your choices and encourage you to spend more.

People who looked at this also looked at this

Is this really a valid suggestion? Has anyone actually gone down that rabbit hole just find that the other thing that other people who looked at something, was also looked at by others who looked at something else. Does anyone care what others have looked at? Does this have any measurable effect upon the process? My guess is that it doesn’t, especially when you are looking at say, a replacement laundry basket, to be informed that the others who looked at the very same laundry basket also looked at a novelty plastic Groucho Marx glasses/nose/moustache kit. Hmm, might just come in handy.

This actually happened people. So  I thought, if Amazon’s finely tuned algorithms and bots think that this may be of interest, who am I to argue. I clicked on it and scrolled down beyond the listing.

Customers who bought this item also bought this

A rainbow flag and a pack of 10 melamine cleaning sponges. Wasn’t expecting that if I’m honest. Can’t imagine what this has to do with anything. Does anyone expect this to have any effect? Sure, wearing a Groucho Marx disguise may help to relieve the tedium of doing the laundry, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to start cleaning all the melamine surfaces as well, pride or no pride.

Thoroughly peeved by this point I decided not to buy either the laundry basket, Groucho disguise, Gay Pride flag or the melamine sponges and switched off.

A while later I happened to notice an old Habitat catalogue on my shelves and thought “that’s what browsing used to be”. Ok, it was a 1975 catalogue, so this wasn’t going to result in any purchasing, but I thought it might provide a little distraction.

What first struck me was the room sets, which were all really cool in that mid 70’s way, and filled with delightful details and occasionally, people! Now this doesn’t sound that strange but now that it is common knowledge that the entire IKEA catalogue is generated digitally and the old system of set building, staging and photographing inspirational spaces seems like a quaint folly of some dim and distant past. Ikea still include people occasionally, but again, these are edited in and made racially or culturally relevant for different international markets. Many have done away with people completely. No actual products, no actual rooms, no actual people. Just pixels.

Habitat in 1975 was somewhere else entirely. The first room set was intended to show of some snazzy modular shelving units, but I was transported back to an era when a man would come home from work and relax with his dog and a pipeful of ‘Dunwoody’s Old Shag’ in a brown tweed suit, in a room that is the epitome of brownness. I can even smell it: the tobacco, the dog, the spicy notes of Brute 33 and Brylcreem, with overcooked Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie balancing out the pervading odour of Shake’n’Vac!

It goes on with funky city apartments with spine-bending seating, moulded plastic occasional tables and the most monumental ashtray I’ve seen in years. But the details begin to draw you in. These are not products for sale in many cases, just props – and even empty spaces! I haven’t checked this out, but I am pretty certain that to CGI Ikea shelves, mantels and cubby holes are all opportunities for carefully composed products. No Disclaimers either – *for display purposes only. Dog not included. Of course not; this was 1975 and back then we didn’t expect to get the dog and all the stuff on the shelves when we bought something featured in a photo.

The product specs and colour ranges are shown as line drawings with solid fills too, which by modern standards of online retail seems to be a rather naive and hopeful way of spending quite a significant sum – £100 for a two seat sofa equates to about £800 these days.

This got me reminiscing about my formative years as a graphic designer, producing product catalogues and price lists for tools and car parts, hunched over a 45° drawing board with a set of Rotring Isograph pens and a set of french curves, making complex things look simple using only two line widths (0.35 & 0.7mm of course), creating exploded diagrams and cutaways. Then cutting Rubylith overlays for the block colours or halftone areas using a 10A scalpel blade. Every drawing kept scrupulously clean, covered with paper overlays. Yes, computer software has rendered all this obsolete, yet the nostalgia is still strong. You had to be able to do different stuff back then. No ctrl-z, just start again and get it right next time. Those who experienced this will know.

Back to the catalogue, the home office section gets to push more nostalgia buttons. I spent a great deal of time in that position in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I can still smell the Spray-mount and Cow Gum, along with the slightly pissy aroma of ageing PMT developing fluid. I am smiling as I type this and thinking that I am now officially one of those old duffers who endlessly go on about ‘the good old days’, nodding sagely while uttering ‘good times’ to anyone who might listen. Oh dear.

But look at the wonderful contents page. A lot of information clearly presented and not visually unpleasant either. UI, innit? And this is what browsing should be; here’s our stuff – have a look round. And if I hadn’t ‘just looked around’ I wouldn’t have set my heart upon this little gem – I can’t believe I’ve even reached this age without owning a pot that was specifically intended purely for dripping. You won’t find that on Amazon – I’ve tried.

Ever heard the saying ‘the family that cooks together, stays together’? Well in Habitatland ’75 they didn’t say that. I don’t know what they said, but I’m absolutely certain it wasn’t that…

The Freelance Challenge

To be read in the hushed and reverential style of a David Attenborough documentary:

It is late in the year and the threat of frost is almost upon us, but now is the season for freelance designers, fresh and seasoned alike, to preen their feathers and perform the complex and often confusing rituals of courtship that is the annual search for new partners for the forthcoming creative season.

Over the years, freelancers have altered their techniques to attract the right sort of partner, and shown great initiative in adopting and deploying new methods and technologies, whilst the object of their attention have become ever more discerning in their tastes and preferences.

For instance, 20 years ago, most freelancers were scuttling from agency to agency, carefully carting enormous black portfolios, that when opened, would shine with brilliant visual displays, carefully crafted typography and exquisite window mounting, all in the hope of attracting the attention of that most fastidious of creatures; the lesser spotted Creative Director.

The reality was that many freelancers needed to spend longer periods of time carrying these heavy loads, that many became noticeably lopsided, which became a physical identifier for the freelancer and in some circles, a badge of honour.

This was so widespread during the last half of the twentieth century that the idiom ‘as wonky as a freelancer’ came into use, but has thankfully dropped from the lexicon as time progressed.

Alas, the proportion of freelancers to creative directors was always grossly unbalanced, forcing them to become ever more creative, daring and ingenious in their approach to impressing a suitable partner.

As digital technology made actual physical portfolios obsolete, it was obvious that many freelancers would perish, but those who survived did so with the aid of the Compact Disc. Shiny, small and iridescent, the CD could show much, much more of the freelancers courtship display: where the physical portfolio with 10-15 sleeves could only just be manhandled by the average freelancer, CD’s could hold hundreds. Everything that could be included was crammed in and presented in a neat, tidy plastic box. And they could be carried around in multiples, lodged at the reception desks of agencies, hoping to be noticed in the ever growing piles of CD’s that were beginning pile up like a beaver’s dam, slowing down the flow and building up pressure.

The evolutionary process, unable to sustain the buildup in the freelance market, reacted with a spectacular dam-break, forcing millions of CD portfolios out into the deltas of obscurity, because creative directors were now interested in portfolio websites and the process began once again.

With ever increasing technological wizardry, these websites soon became overproduced and bloated with animations, movies and music too. The real things that originally attracted creative directors – ideas, intuition, concepts – became lost in a murky digital sea, full of style, technique and coding. The creative directors, themselves bloated but undernourished by the over development of technology and the lack of organic, free-range typography soon began to evolve.

Creative directors began to demand a small PDF, with just one or two quality morsels. Their tastes had matured and they now craved smaller, more rarified and exotic portions, exquisitely presented in a format that could be easily stored on file to be quickly digested later.

Once more, freelancers responded as if in a symbiotic relationship evolving in perfect tempo, and PDF’s were attached to the emails of more creative directors than ever before. But just as millions of PDF attachments were being flung around the mailboxes of creative directors all over the world, many remained hungry, their carefully composed PDF’s featuring just the very best morsels of their portfolio never reaching their intended audience, but automatically filtered and stored in a special pouch known as ‘the file,’ where many PDF’s went in but few came out again.

The freelancers annual ritual will continue, but the creative directors, in their remoteness, will continue to devise new and more frustrating methods to thwart them. The circle of life.

…Cue music. Roll end credits.

Ok, so I got a bit dramatic just then, but I thought that this was a good way to illustrate the situation many freelancers are in; they need to make direct contact with creative directors – after all, it’s people who get hired, not their portfolios, so that initial contact is vital in order to make an impression.

It’s getting harder to speak to creative directors. They are protected behind a number of firewalls, starting with the portfolio email to an anonymous email account. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find out who works where and get their email address, but even if you send a personal email directly to them you are not guaranteed of a response.

I recently made a number of small printed portfolios, all personalised to specific people and agencies. These were carefully handbound and packaged to provide something physical and show some good old-school non-digital skills, and mailed out through the old snail mail service. Not one single person responded, even with a standard ‘thanks but we’ll keep you on file’ email. Firewall 1

I followed up a few days later with an email to each one, reminding them of my postal portfolio and asked for a good time for me to call for a quick chat. Again, nothing. Firewall 2

The following week I called each one. Here are some of the more common scenarios that played out.

It generally begins like this…

Me: “Hello, could I speak to (creative director?)”
Receptionist: “Who shall I say is calling?”
Me: I give my name and explain that I am a prospective freelancer following up on earlier communications with (creative director).
Receptionist: “One moment please”


and then this type of thing begins:

Receptionist: “Sorry to keep you waiting. I’m afraid (creative director) is unavailable/in a meeting/not at his desk/is out of the office right now (etc).
Me: “That’s ok; could you tell me when would be a good time to call back?”


Receptionist: “If this is about freelance work you need to send an email with a portfolio attached.”
Me: “I have already sent (creative director) a physical portfolio in the mail and I’m just giving them a call to make actual contact with them. Is there a good time I could call back and speak with them?”


Receptionist: “You could email them directly. Do you have their email address?”
Me: “I have already emailed them. I understand that they are very busy, but is there a good time I could call back and speak with them?”

You get the idea. Firewall 3

I didn’t manage to get any further than the receptionist. Every. Single. Time.

Not one of them offered any other times to call, or gave me even an impression that someone may get back in touch. All but one reiterated the ‘send an email with an portfolio to this address’ line. I was even told by one that if they (creative director) hadn’t responded to an actual portfolio or the email communication already that I should accept that as a response. Nice.

It’s always been tricky getting a foot in the door as a freelancer. I accept that. It gets trickier when you can’t find the door. Can’t there be a better way than this?


Two fingered typing

I was rummaging around last week looking for something else and came across this little gem of ephemera wedged between the pages of a 1970’s Letraset catalogue (I will post images of that here sometime…)

It is part of a set that came with Imperial typewriters during the late 1950’s/early 60’s (I think).

I love the simplicity of the execution of what could have been a real dogs dinner.

This 8×5″ card is double sided with each side designated a number (6 & 7) but I have no idea about what these means as they are almost impossible identical, but I’m sure someone will enlighten me eventually.

Its good to see Gill Sans paired up with Perpetua too.

More on these here:


In a few days here in the UK we will celebrate Guy Fawkes Night (or Bonfire Night); a strange annual custom that originated from a foiled attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 and is currently marked by the lighting of communal bonfires, burning effigies of the hapless conspirator, and the setting off of vast amounts of fireworks. Well, that’s the general concept anyway.

The reality is a little different. While celebrating a failed act of 400 year old terrorism could be seen as a little insensitive in modern times, it is fair to say that most people today don’t really know or care of the origins and see it as an opportunity to get together outside in front of a huge fire in winter, eating, drinking and making merry while setting off ever more spectacular fireworks.

I am not a big fan. As a dog owner, I sympathise with all the animals at this time of year. As a Yorkshireman, I cannot for the life of me justify the expense of the things. As a designer, I am interested in the packaging and had a look at what has been on sale recently. Oh dear.

They’re not all like this of course – some are far, far worse, but many of them look like they’ve been churned out by teenage boys full of energy drinks at 3am.

I could continue with a nostalgia piece now and reminisce about when bonfire night was bonfire night, and you could get a bag of ‘Little Buggers’ Bangers and a packet of Spangles for 7½p, and play merry hell down the gennel without all this official ID and over 18 nonsense. But I won’t.

I did start looking around for vintage fireworks packaging on the web though, and found some interesting stuff. Many types of ephemera become collectable over time and it appears that firework graphics are no exception. They were seldom printed in more than 3 colours and were often quite inventive in maximising this constraint.

I was particularly taken by this Catherine Wheel:

Not because it is beautifully designed – although it has a certain charm – but because it does what it needs to do without resorting to the visual vomit of the filter gallery!

And remember, safety first.

A great collection of vintage fireworks can be found here.


Ex Libris

I rediscovered a book in my collection that got me thinking and thought I’d share it here. I think it is an elegant example of celebrating a niche area of graphic design that has largely disappeared – bookplates. Little personalised labels that are pasted into books to identify the person, collection or library the whom the book belongs. It seems a little quaint these days, but these originated in a time when many people regarded books as precious things, and felt the need to add their distinct personal mark so that books borrowed are returned.

I love the fact that this book has its own bookplate!

Many designers, typographers and artists were commissioned to produce bookplates, including Reynolds Stone, Eric Gill, MC Escher, George Cruikshank, and even Rudyard Kipling, many of which are highly sought after by collectors.

Its a lovely book that is at odds within the world it now exists, as it looks at the history and craft of this once common but now peculiar subject of personalising book ownership. After all, we often do not really own what we buy these days, but tend to buy, rent, license, hire, subscribe, etc, and our rights to ownership end when the payments stop or the license expires. Or what we have bought is just data, an app or other digital concoction that has no actual form excepting the vehicle that it installed upon.

This is not a post claiming that “it was better in the old days” or anything like that. I’m an enthusiastic technology user and am still in awe at some of the things we consider standard today. Bring it on. What I am thinking about though is that in our digital age, as design has become increasingly intangible, what evidence will remain of our current digital design culture? This book is not just a record of an almost (but not completely) lost area of design, but an account of how bookplates were considered, collected and categorised in the first half of the 20th century.

So how will the designers of 2119 know about all the great digital work in the first part of this century? What evidence will remain of all these content rich, all-singing, all-dancing websites that are interconnected with social media apps and trend aggregators in 100 years? I’m not convinced that there will be some sort of archive of landmark websites, or an ex-app depository in 100 years. After all, if the once mighty MySpace can ‘lose’ all its content uploaded before 2016, it is not guaranteed that any other digital content will exist indefinitely. What happens when the power goes off?

I’ve never made a secret of being a book guy and don’t particularly like reading digitally, but I firmly believe that reading an ebook is better than not reading at all. But what will remain? my bookshelves contain all kinds of books; fiction, monographs, history, essays and such like, as well as all kinds of books about art, design, illustration, ideas and creativity, many of which feature landmark designs and and their creators, styles and ‘isms’, and stuff that lend visual qualities to specific time periods, geographic location or cultural events. Its the stuff that informs us and lends structure to our own work as we seek new approaches to creative solutions.

What will remain of todays digital output to inform and excite the designers of the next century? What kind of historical record will they learn from, deride and choose to ignore – as is their right?

I’ve been blogging for about 11 years now and have a fairly decent archive of my work, my thinking and general ‘how d’you do’ that many other people have found interesting, useful or just mildly diverting, and I’m quite proud to observe that what I was doing in 2013 (for example) is still generating interest today. I just don’t think it will last.

Ex Libris.

I first wrote about bookplates back in 2014 when I picked up a book in a charity shop that had this little gem which turned out to be by the legendary Edward McNight Kauffer:

Sing Along!

All together now! Who doesn’t love a good sing song! Especially when we’re young! My friend Jon Lawrence (also known as The Music Man!) has just released another collection of original songs for children – with illustrations by yours truly!

Here’s just a little taste of what’s inside…

Published by Eyrie Press, this is the second book by The Music Man, which even comes with a CD with recordings of all the songs so you and your little one can sing along!

You can buy your copy directly from Eyrie Press and all the usual online book retailers, but you can also buy directly from Jon himself, who will even sign your copy – bonus!

Happy New Year

New years resolutions don’t usually feature in my life, but I have decided to put more effort into blogging after the dismal efforts last year, so I guess this can be classed as a resolution.

I hope you all had a great holiday and that you gave and received a few good pressies too. I did. Oh boy.

I was gifted a wonderful vintage DYMO label maker by my good friend Michelle (who always gives great presents, but this year she outdid herself!) and I want to show it off.

These were also known as ‘Tapewriters’ and I remember having a cheap plastic one in the 1970’s that looked like a Star Trek phaser. This one, however is from 1963 – five years older than me! – and is chrome.

Chrome! And it’s about a foot long too!

It has a purposeful heft and everything operates with a satisfying ‘clunk.’

In itself, I think this is a fantastic present. But it gets better. It came in it’s original packaging – this is new old stock!

It all fits in a nifty stiff leather case complete with carry handle and gold logo print…

And it also has its original shipping packaging too – I have photographed each side and assembled it as a net:

You gotta love those line illustrations!

And if you thought it couldn’t get any better, it had all the original literature with it!

And for the the afficionados of such retro graphics, here is the main leaflet in more detail:

I’ll be clicking away in the corner if anyone wants me.

Thanks Michelle. X


Trumpet Blowing

Hello again. It’s time to blow my own trumpet.

As a freelance designer, I am usually called upon by design agencies to create something that will be a part of a much larger project. Quite often I only see the part of the project I am directly  involved in and sometimes never see the end results. This means that I am somewhat detached from the finished work and unable to show the end result which is why some of the work in my portfolio is presented out of context.

Occasionally I get to do a little more and a little while ago I was engaged by Elmwood NY to produce a series of icons to be used in the background of a rebranding project. This eventually turned out to be almost 500 different icons!

These included:
65+ cups and mugs
30+ coffee paraphernalia
25+ donuts and pastries
30+ other edibles
30+ trees, foliage and flowers
20+ animals
40+ cultural references
20+ coffee spoons
and a large amount of other things too numerous to list!

The final project has been successful at the Mobius Awards, an international competition that recognises excellence in a wide range of creative disciplines (more here – scroll down for the listing).  The project was awarded a First Place Statuette in the Food and Beverage category.

source: Elmwood

More images and information on the project can be found on Elmwood’s website here and here.

You can see the full range of icons in their background compositions by clicking on the image below.

Also, the project won first place in the USGD 2017 Awards and if you look at the credits you’ll even find me there! (Thanks guys!)

It’s great that Elmwood have won these awards for this project and I am proud to have contributed.

There, trumpet blown!