Alison Carmichael: Exquisite Handjobs

Alison Carmichael has practically cornered the market for hand-lettering in UK advertising. CR’s Gavin Lucas met her to find out the secret of her success…


Clean Me, the first in a new series of self-promotional prints. “We projected my artwork on to the back of the van so I could trace it in the dirt with my finger,” Carmichael explains. Copywriter: Sean Doyle. Art director: Mark Denton. Photography: seanandben.com

Alison Carmichael has practically cornered the market for hand-lettering in UK advertising. CR’s Gavin Lucas met her to find out the secret of her success…

Hand-lettering artist Alison Carmichael first came to our attention here at CR four years ago when we received a baby pink screenprinted poster bearing the word ‘cunt’, in beautifully drawn, ornately decorative script, along with the line, ‘words look much nicer when they’re hand lettered’. The poster, which was conceived by Mark Denton Design, made quite an impression: we featured it in our March 2005 issue and it went on to scoop various awards at home and abroad includ­ing Best Direct Mail at the 2006 Design Week awards.


The infamous Cunt poster. Conceived and art directed by Mark Denton and sent out as a piece of direct mail in 2005

Since sending out that unforgettable poster to art directors and other creative types, Carmichael now has an agent, Jelly, and has been working consistently on high-profile print advertising campaigns in the UK for brands including Virgin Atlantic, Stella Artois, Cadbury’s and the BBC. But it’s taken over a decade for Carmichael to reach this point in her career. “I’d actually been working for a good eight years before I worked on the Cunt poster with Mark Denton,” she says.


Virgin Atlantic Dubai ad from agency RKCR/Y&R. “When it was shown to an interpreter, we found if the design was tweaked ever so slightly, it read ‘soon’, which tied in perfectly with the message of the ad.” Creatives: Rob Messeter, Mike Crowe


The initial concept for this Peeterman Artois ad was that Carmichael’s artwork would be etched into glass. “In the end it was screenprinted,” says Carmichael. Agency: Lowe London. Creatives: Peter Reid, Carl Broadhurst

Carmichael graduated from Ravensbourne college in 1995 with a degree in graphic design and a penchant for hand-lettering – thanks in part to encouragement from one of her course tutors. A first job as a director’s/art director’s assistant to Harvey Bertram-Brown of production company The New Renaissance gave Carmichael the confidence to get a folio of work together.

“It’s a really hard thing to do,” she says, “to just cold call agencies, to know how to get in there, to know who you should go and see – so that process takes a long time.” But gradually Carmichael’s tenacity paid off. “I did quite a few freebies, honed my skills and had to learn to be completely versatile because that’s really the only way you can survive as a hand-lettering artist. That’s kind of what I learned early on because a lot of my early stuff was this very scripty, girly, curly hand writing. So I spent eight years really working on being able to pull off any style imaginable.”

This versatility, a lack of a particular trademark style, is now one of Carmichael’s most marketable assets, as those she’s worked with will attest. “I first worked with Alison about ten years ago,” says Paul Belford of This Is Real Art. “In fact I think it was her first commercial job, a Christmas campaign for Waterstone’s. Since then she seems to have almost cornered the market for hand-lettering in ads. The reason for this, I think, besides a supreme talent of course, is her versatility. I’m always impressed by the variety of styles when I look at her work. She can turn her hand to pretty much anything.”


This ad for Waterstones was Carmichael’s first commercial job – art directed by Paul Belford

Director and designer Mark Denton’s reasons for working time and time again with Carmichael go beyond her penmanship: “The thing I like about Alison is that she’s got loads of energy, she’s fun to have around, she’s a great craftswoman and she’s got loads of different styles. She’s always keen to do stuff, whether it’s a paid job or not. If there’s a creative opportunity, she will leap at it. She always embraces the brief, does a great job – so why would I use someone else?”


Michelle Is A Slag ran as a sponsor ad for the Creative Circle awards 2007. Creatives: Trevor Webb and Ed Morris of Leo Burnett

Carmichael first met Denton when her husband, director Alex Turner, was on the same roster as Denton at production company Godman. “Mark loves working with craft and he has always taken an interest in what I was doing. He got me involved in a few of his projects, like prop making and hand-lettering endlines for some of his ads. We gradually worked on more and more stuff.” Since coming up with the Cunt poster idea as a way for Carmichael to promote her skills to ad agency creatives, Denton, in his recently relinquished capacity of president of the Creative Circle awards, has charged other creatives to write ads for her which have appeared in the last two Creative Circle Annuals. Paul Belford wrote the line we’ve used for the headline of this feature, “Alison Carmichael: Exquisite Handjobs”, for a prostitute card-style ad for her skills, and Trevor Webb of Leo Burnett wrote the ad that sees the words Michelle Is A Slag carved into a school desk. “My strength really is working with someone who can art direct and push me in the right direction, I’m not really an ideas person,” admits Carmichael. “I like to take an idea and hone it and make it what the art director has envisaged or influence the art director to take a project in a certain direction.”


“This Regaine ad was written by Sydney-based agency Clemenger/bbdo and it appeared on lots of blogs so gets referenced a lot. It feels like one of the most popular pieces
I’ve done,” says Carmichael. Creatives: Sean Elvin, Gary Dawson

As well as working on a new self-promotional campaign (with Denton art directing), Carmichael is determined to get into agencies and talk to art directors about hand-lettering, because experience tells her that the quality of the briefs she gets is dependent on the level of understanding art directors have of what her skills can offer. “It’s usually the younger ones that say ‘we don’t want to guide you too much because we want to see what you come up with – can you just do something cool for that endline?’ That’s not a brief! Look at my portfolio, there’s loads of things I could do.”


Alison Carmichael drew the logo for renowned farmers and butchers, Ginger Pig. Design: Allies Design


One of a series of ads created to promote Loyd Grossman cooking sauces. Agency: CHI. Creatives: Matt Pam, Simon Hipwell


Ad for a two-part vegetable growing guide given away with The Guardian and The Observer. Agency: Wieden + Kennedy. Creatives: Ben Everitt, Ida Gronblom

To view more of Carmichael’s work, visit her site at alisoncarmichael.com

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