Martin Lambie-Nairn and the power of TV branding

Martin Lambie-Nairn, designer of the Channel 4 logo plus countless pieces of broadcast design for the BBC, died on December 25. Here we look back on the influence of his work

It’s difficult to imagine the impact that the arrival of Channel 4 had on its launch in the UK in 1982. In a world now drenched in TV channels, where watching live is increasingly old-fashioned, and where the most dynamic storytelling – and major talent – is now found on television rather than at the movies, it’s hard to imagine life with just the BBC and ITV. TV was by its nature limited, so the arrival of an extra channel was a big deal.

From the get go, Channel 4 aimed to provide an alternative to the viewing options offered by the BBC and ITV. This was apparent both in its programming, but also in its identity, which was summed up in its dynamic and bold logo, which remains remarkably modern-looking today.

The logo was designed by Martin Lambie-Nairn, who by the time of the C4 launch had worked in broadcast design for almost two decades, both as an individual and via the agency Robinson Lambie-Nairn, which he founded with Colin Robinson in 1976 (which later expanded and was renamed Lambie-Nairn & Company). Prior to his work with Channel 4, he had worked across the BBC, London Weekend Television, and ITN, creating title sequences, idents and on-screen graphics.

The significance of the C4 logo cut across popular culture at the time – even appearing in a spoof form in a Hamlet cigar ad, shown above – and remains hugely significant to the channel today. When it came to redesigning the C4 identity in 2015, Chris Bovill and John Allison, then heads of 4Creative, Channel 4’s in-house agency, turned to the original logo, but then broke it down to its constituent parts.

“We went back to the start, we went back to the iconic Lambie-Nairn 4 … and we broke it apart. It was incredibly liberating,” they said. The original blocks have since appeared across the channel in increasingly surreal forms, yet remain vital to its look.

Lambie-Nairn also worked his branding magic at the BBC, where he was consultant creative director from 1990-2002. He brought a particular freshness to BBC2, as well as redesigning the BBC One identity and launching the look for BBC News. Outside of TV, through various design agencies, Lambie-Nairn also created branding for the likes of O2, the Royal Opera House, BT and many more. But his significance is most felt in the realms of television – where he is also credited for coming up with the idea for the satirical show Spitting Image.

His work in television branding set a benchmark in the UK for design that was as good as the programming itself, if not occasionally better. The shows that are broadcast may be the reason that people return to a specific channel but it is the identity that defines it and links it all together.

This is a concept that is recognised now more than ever, as with the ever-increasing competition wrought by streaming giants such as Netflix, broadcasters are aware that they need to stand for something and their identity is vital in how they demonstrate this. Lambie-Nairn, with his talent for charming, consistent and distinctive TV design, likely knew this all along.

During his career, he also developed a methodology for how to successfully mix business and creativity. He turned this into a set of seven rules in an article for CR, which can be read in full here, which he felt were true “no matter what the technology, medium, product or geography”.

In them, Lambie-Nairn acknowledges the difficulties that lie in making great creative work, but stresses that with a strong relationship and understanding between client and creative, they are surmountable. “The basic requirements in a partnership are mutual respect, openness and honesty,” he wrote. “Egos, internal politics, self-importance, bullying, throwing toys out of the pram, will not deliver great creative work, only partnership will.”

Martin Lambie-Nairn, 1945-2020