Crit: They sell! We buy!
The Designers Republic, one of the most influential graphic design studios of the past 20 years, has closed its doors. Rick Poynor looks back at the studio’s work and assesses its lasting influence
As a company name, the Designers Republic was a masterstroke. This mysterious entity sounded big and well organised and it had the air of being an outfit with a purpose and a plan. There was nothing modest or retiring about such a moniker and 1986, the year they started, was a good time for a designer to make this kind of statement.
Back then, mainstream design groups tended to have prosaic, ad agency type names such as Smith & Milton, Lewis Moberly and The Partners. Designers calling themselves Assorted Images, Rocking Russian or 23 Envelope invariably worked for the music business, their handles as weird and unlikely as the rock groups their cover art represented. The Designers Republic went a step further, the very name a declaration that in this territory design was the administration, the ruling party, the occupying power. Wherever or whatever this republic might be, it sounded like a bolt-hole for people whose one true purpose and satisfaction was design.
Finding out that tDR were based in Sheffield only thickened the mystery. They had no plans to leave the city, they said, and they stuck to their guns. People still asked them about this long after it had ceased to be an issue, but in the late 1980s there were few designers with national reputations operating outside the capital. Attracted by Sheffield’s thriving music scene and bands such as Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League, Ian Anderson had left London in the early 1980s to study philosophy at Sheffield University. He liked the pub and club culture, made friends and put down roots.
After tDR – co-founded with Nick Phillips – had been going for two years, Anderson came to see me at Blueprint magazine. He had worked as a dj and managed bands before discovering graphic design and he talked up the tDR way of design in a non-stop tirade. Within a couple of years, these fragments of street culture had been acquired by the v&a. TDR’s cover for Kiss by Age of Chance, released in 1986, was an early sign that this was a studio with its own agenda. The back cover is a collection of images – a hand, a cosmonaut, a detail of Chairman Mao’s face, two men kissing – and slogans such as ‘Riot Bible’, ‘Radio is the medium for frenzy’ and ‘We dig everything and are shocked by nothing’. There is no obvious focal point. The design presents a field of elements to be deciphered piece by piece and the viewer is left to decide what it all means. What it does communicate loud and clear is a blast of raw energy. The design came from the same general direction as graphic work by Neville Brody or Malcolm Garrett, but tDR already displayed their own take on the energising thrill of full sensory immersion in contemporary media culture.
With their series of covers for Pop Will Eat Itself, they took their graphic wind-ups to the next level. The back of the Wise Up Sucker 12-inch single (1989) resembles a series of videotape containers lined up on a shelf. Each track title gets a different typographic style and there is a sprinkling of pseudo-corporate symbols, including Paul Rand’s classic version of the Westinghouse Electric logo, which they restyled as a smiley face. Company logos belong to everyday visual culture and tDR saw them as fair game, reflecting and parodying the brand landscape with an endless series of their own logos. For pwei – abbreviated like a multinational corporation – they produced a symbol of a robot head with radio earphones and a row of sharp teeth that dominates the unapologetically tacky Very Metal Noise Pollution buzzsaw-shaped picture disc.
Most corporate logos evolve over time and tDR accelerated this process on subsequent pwei releases, producing variations on the robot idea. These logos were funny and irreverent, but they were also cute and this was something new. They took the graphic simplifications of modernist design systems for corporate identity and fused them with a cartoon language derived from cereal packets, comic books, children’s tv, manga, Space Invaders and Pac-Man. At the start of the 1990s, these visual tactics looked childish and regressive, yet they caught a mood and 15 years later childlike images are ubiquitous in design, advertising and popular culture.
In a special issue of Emigre magazine devoted to tDR, they presented a page of 53 ‘new and used logos’ and made an offer guaranteed to give a multinational’s copyright lawyers an attack of the vapours: “We operate a tier-structure system which can satisfy all your needs by offering everything from the straightforward fuck-over, right up to the unsanctioned use of your bastardised logo on everything from T-shirts to Record Sleeves. For an additional fee, we can even claim we designed the logo in the first place.”
This piece of sacrilege, published in 1994, shows how far they had come. Even the Saville/Garrett/Brody generation of graphic rebels wouldn’t have presumed to poke fun at potential clients and the nature of the design process. And this came from an outfit that gladly appropriated such seemingly untouchable international symbols as the Pepsi logo, which they adapted for pwei and as one of their own dr logos.
It was entirely consistent with their buccaneering methods that tDR acted almost from the start as though they were an established brand – a pop culture myth. In an age of brand worship, this might seem an obvious strategy for any design company that claimed to be a master of branding to pursue, but no other design team did it with anything like this much conviction and panache. tDR worked as a brand because it was clear that they stood for something that went beyond solving other people’s design problems. Their identity truly expressed what they were and in their heyday they were willing to stick by it, even at the risk of deterring potential clients.
They also had the cheek to use some of their best projects to promote the tDR philosophy and name, intertwining the client’s brand, which they had devised, with their own brand, and scattering their designs with logos such as the cartoon spaceman with dr in a tiny circle like a registration mark, the sixties retro-look ‘I love my dr’ logo, and other private messages and in-jokes for viewers to pick up on and enjoy.
In the early 1990s, tDR pioneered a style aptly called ‘digital baroque’. Thanks to the ever-expanding processing power of the computer, it was possible to build up graphic surfaces of fabulous complexity. A typical tDR design plunged the viewer into a raging blizzard of shooting lines, replicating symbols, grid sections, cartoons, fragments of type, technical data, and self-referential jests. Their Emigre cover is a stunning example. They frame the image of Sissy, a pigtailed cartoon toddler, carrying a baseball bat behind her back, with horizontal bands of rules, clustering together and hurtling apart in a whoosh of graphic noise. On the back cover, words crush down to form dense typographic strata from which the usual jocular references to tDR emerge with an ‘Info overload’ warning.
Those who believe design’s task is to simplify, clarify and reduce ambiguity tended to hate this kind of thing, seeing it as unfocused, indulgent and meaningless. But it’s clear, looking back, that tDR’s designs fully expressed their moment, capturing the tumultuous sense of aesthetic and personal liberation brought about by the new digital tools. These were symbolic pictures of a postmodern cyberworld beyond the monitor screen in which everything that could be turned into an image and dissolved into zeros and ones was melting and reconfiguring itself according to the endlessly changing desires of the keyboard operator and viewer.
Was this positive or negative, though, and where did tDR stand? It was always hard to pin them down and this is a significant part of their work’s attraction and power. The images pose questions, but they decline to give firm answers. Anderson said he wanted people to think for themselves and Sissy – a ‘DR deth toy’ – embodies this ambiguity. Cute and adorable, she is a typical product of an entertainment industry that often seems to want to infantilise its global audience. If it weren’t for the bat, she would pose no obvious threat. Yet big-eyed Sissy is actually seven foot four, a monster, a bludgeon-wielding killer who is out to bash our heads in. The thing that gives you pleasure, this homicidal plaything implies, could prove to be your undoing.
This duality and ambivalence runs through the series of designs tDR produced for posters and exhibition banners. Consumer culture is compulsive. Any mall is thronged on a Saturday with thousands of shoppers. ‘Retail therapy’ is part of everyday speech and people embrace brands as sources of meaning, however threadbare and inadequate these meanings might be. CDs, dvds and computer games fuel our fantasies and the shops that sell them are dream warehouses in which the vast array of possibilities is enough to make you swoon. TDR constantly return to this theme. ‘Department stores are our new cathedrals’ says one poster. The building seems to explode heavenwards behind an orange cross in a plume of graphic excess.
TDR didn’t judge from the sidelines like moralists and killjoys. They acknowledged their role as designers and consumers, played the game with total conviction and enjoyed it on their own terms. A poster titled ‘Your role as a target market explained’ symbolises the relationship between tDR’s own Pho-Ku Corporation (‘We sell!’) and the audience (‘You buy!’) as an airport. Little aeroplanes, signifying ‘You, the consumer’, swarm like flies around the terminal which represents tDR. Even when the commentary becomes more pointed, as in the ‘Let’s hear it for consumer fascism’ or ‘Work Buy Consume Die’ posters, the designs remain playful. The Pho-Ku (Fuck You) slogan – ‘Buy Nothing. Pay Now’ – suggests that, for consumers, it’s not even the purchase itself that provides the rush. It’s the thrill of entering into a transaction with the brand as a source of self-validation, and even perhaps the feeling that you are offering yourself as an object of exploitation: a punter who dearly wishes to be ‘fucked’.
For Anderson, tDR’s work offered viewers a ‘subjective documentary’ about life in a comfortable consumer society that caters to all our desires.
At the heart of this vision was their conception of an imaginary Japan. Anderson didn’t visit the country until 1998 and from the outside it seemed to represent the most advanced, extreme and intoxicating form of consumer capitalism on the planet. TDR’s visual sampling was influenced by manga, anime, Blade Runner, images of Tokyo in photographs and tv programmes, and the national genius for creating innovative electronic products.
They embedded their designs with Japanese scripts and Anderson freely admitted that he had no idea what most of them meant. The Kanji ideograms and Hiragana and Katakana signs could signify anything the non-Japanese viewer wanted and their sense of mystery made them even more compelling. TDR would redraw the characters so they became literally meaningless if it suited a design. The sampling of a distant culture about which they knew little was entirely consistent with a postmodern economy in which almost any cultural product could be plundered, spliced together with something else to make a novel hybrid, and sold in the global marketplace. Here, again, tDR were wittily reflecting contemporary reality without passing judgement.
As tDR evolved and attempted to apply their way of thinking to a broader range of clients, their position and motivation sometimes seemed less clear. In their era-defining work for Sony’s Wipeout PlayStation games, in the mid to late 1990s, they achieved probably their biggest international audience and their graphic imagery was even applied within the games, producing a seamless relationship between packaging and content. Around this time, Telia, the Swedish telecom company, engaged tDR to produce a series of ads purporting to come from the ‘Department of the Future’ that were perhaps a little too blank and robotic as expressions of the social intimacy and interaction of the fast-growing mobile culture.
TDR’s self-conscious digital aesthetics could be distancing when applied to real human subjects. In a catalogue for fetish clothing designers Murray and Vern, bursts of graphic improvisation assault and sometimes obscure the models posing in skin-tight rubber, though one page does carry the legend – did the client really approve this? – ‘Pure fashion bollox’.
By the end of the 1990s, tDR’s designs had left the cartoon jokiness and warmth of their early work behind and become increasingly austere, with a greater emphasis on photography. For the Warp 10 compilation’s cd booklet, they shot a series of 35 photographs of architectural details and interiors at the University of Leeds: walkways, steps, ceiling panels, lift doors. The brutalist concrete buildings are hard and angular and tDR mask sections of the images – walls, handrails, chairs – with blocks of flat purple. The interior and exterior spaces look unsympathetic and even alienating, yet these environments are redeemed, to some extent, by the abstract purple shapes, which open up other imaginative possibilities within the images. Is that the point? Or is this no more than a slightly sterile graphic exercise undertaken because tDR liked the idea of blanking out bits of the photos?
TDR began as amateurs. They weren’t part of any design scene and they had no wish to join one. Their geographical and professional distance freed them to approach design in their own way. In the early 1990s, when observers started to point out that tDR seemed to be reinterpreting modernist typography, Anderson denied this as a conscious influence. He hadn’t studied graphic design at college and wouldn’t have been exposed to design history to anything like the same extent as graphic design students. Later, though, he employed educated designers who were exposed to these sources.
TDR were hugely influential in the 1990s and modernism returned as the basis of a fashionable new international graphic style. Later tDR work is consequently much closer to prevailing design preferences. Their typography is more carefully resolved, more refined – you could even say tasteful. On their cd covers for Japanese dj Satoshi Tomiie, they use discreet sans serif capitals in panels of white space. It’s a long way from the trash aesthetic and screaming graphic overload they once delivered with gleeful abandon.
This is the curse of knowing too much, though tDR were still capable of sneaking up on professional design and mercilessly pulling down its pants. Their cd booklet for Funkstörung’s Additional Productions (1999) presents guidelines ‘for the integration of the Funkstörung aesthetic into the global marketplace’. We see the band’s logo on signs, furniture, clothing, vans, a plane and a snow mobile, and they also show 12 illegal variations with the stern admonition: “Never combine the Funkstörung logotype with peripheral elements that corrupt its value.” For music fans who weren’t designers, this meticulous spoof was perhaps tDR’s most explicit revelation of the way the design business goes about building and policing identity. Endlessly beguiled by a system they both questioned and embraced, tDR were clearly, by this time, more than a little in love with the object of their piss-take.