The Designers Republic Remembered

CR August 2001 issue. Cover: The Designers Republic
As we

CR August 2001 issue. Cover: The Designers Republic

As we exclusively revealed last week, The Designers Republic, one of the most influential graphic design studios of the last two decades, has closed its doors. In 2001, to mark tDR’s 15th anniversary, CR ran a lengthy interview with founder Ian Anderson, which is reproduced here (writer: Paula Carson), along with Anderson’s pick of his favourite tDR work up to that point

They’re not called “The Designers Republic Ltd, Sheffield, Soyo, North of Nowhere” for nothing. Staying up north is a statement for The Designers Republic: a symbol, geographically (and mentally) of an unshakeable desire to remain aesthetically distinct.

“The physicality of the location isn’t so important, this is where I live and I don’t see why I should move and change my lifestyle to satisfy the demands of printers or clients,” explains founder Ian Anderson a little tiredly. But anybody who declares themselves a Republic must secretly like the idea of a separate existence.

Both the name and location have served them well. Because to the outside world TDR is mysterious: an intriguing anomaly, miles away, and often miles ahead of the mainstream design scene. It’s a machine that feeds itself: the less that people know about TDR, the more interesting, to some, it becomes.

Despite a slight allergy to all things south of Crewe, Anderson’s actually a Londoner, although he’s honed the accent northwards. Entertainingly outspoken, his theories about everything from mass consumerism to the pretentious evils of London’s Hoxton Square prove rich and varied. Classic outbursts which go something like this: “Sheffield doesn’t have places like Hoxton Square and I think, ‘Good, that’s why we’re here. I’d rather slit my throat than have to work with people like that’,” or “You might as well chuck any old shit out because the client isn’t interested in doing anything interesting” regularly tumble out. He gets seriously irritated when you get him on the subject of people ripping off TDR’s ideas (which, incidentally, happens a lot). He’s not a man to mince his words.

But anyone familiar with TDR’s work already knows that Anderson and colleagues thrive on provocation. Taking a contrary stance on more or less everything is obligatory: “It’s about disinformation, because disinformation provokes more of a response than information,” says Anderson. “Say a red car is yellow and you’ll get a response… confront peoples preconceptions of what is, by presenting what could be, and you get a response: maybe not the one you wanted, but you’ll still provoke dialogue.” And dialogue, for TDR, is what it’s all about.

Their legions of fans lap it up. Many a 30-something designer will readily admit to buying everything on the Warp label, for the sheer pleasure of looking at an extensive array of TDR work. Back issues of the magazine Emigre #29, with its cover by TDR, have become so avidly sought after that they now change hands for around $400 a copy. After one week online, TDR’s website got over a million hits. People love being “in” on the dialogue, tracing TDR’s activities with a passion one might accord a band.

Despite opting to read philosophy (“It teaches you to think, to argue logically that black is white, which is very handy when it comes to dealing with clients. It’s probably that which makes The Designers Republic different from the outset,” Anderson claims), it’s perhaps not surprising to discover that his early ambitions were music-oriented. “I came to Sheffield because of the bands I liked, Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League,” he says.

But the Sheffield social scene is what really captured Anderson’s imagination: meeting locals, going clubbing and participating in various bands, both in a musical and managerial capacity. The band involvement prompted the propitious sideline in flyer design: “At first The Designers Republic was me enjoying mucking around with Letraset, cutting it up, playing around with letter shapes,” he explains. “I was into semantics, codes of communication, how far you could use numbers instead of letters before you lost any kind of legibility.”

Gradually, managing this personal creativity became more interesting than managing bands: “Some people, for whatever reason, have the desire to communicate,” he reasons.

TDR (then Anderson and ex-business partner Nick Philips) first came to the wider public’s attention in 1986 when they designed the sleeve for Age of Chance’s cover of Prince track Kiss: “It got us into loads of magazines,” says Anderson. “We went from being two people arsing about in Sheffield with all these preconceptions about what a designer was or wasn’t, to being one of the most written about design companies.”


More work for Age Of Chance, Krush and Pop Will Eat Itself (for whom TDR famously bastardised the Pepsi Cola logo, as part of a whole PWEI corporate identity) followed. “People used to say ‘you’re at Designer’s Republic because you break the rules’ and we’d say ‘we’re not really, we just don’t know the rules… Every time someone rang up about work we’d put the phone down, piss ourselves laughing and say ‘one day someone’s going to suss out that we don’t know what we’re doing’,” admits Anderson happily. “We used to take on students for work placement so that we could learn from them. I got my first lesson in typography from someone at a typesetters who was sick of trying to
work out my instructions.”

Of course, the beauty of this situation is the freedom it gave them to run roughshod over all the traditional design parameters. They explored and exploited every emotive topic from mass consumerism to politics to nuclear war. They searched for their own global visual language; busily re-examined the layers and processes of design, nonplussing their audience by stripping it down to the basics: to rows of shapes and lists of Pantone colours. “Use information in that context and it confuses people even more. It’s part of the function of the brain to make sense of what you’re given. It’s very difficult for viewers not to build their own realities,” explains Anderson.

Like magpies, they’ve plundered everything from multinational corporate logos to Japanese type: “Consumerism is an interesting game to play… and there is that sense of piracy, that sense of ‘fuck you, if you want to ram your logo down my throat’,” he laughs. “It’s kind of visual and conceptual sampling really, motivated by the same interests and desires as people who sample music; it’s taking stuff you like and using it your own way.”

Now situated across the road from Nigel Coates’ amazing (but sadly defunct) National Centre for Pop Music building, TDR comprises seven members, although, typically enigmatic, Anderson prefers specific details be kept to a minimum. Over the years they’ve accumulated clients ranging from Warp Records, to Issey Miyake, Sony, Powergen, and even Pringles, for whom they recently developed a TV commercial. They’ve just published their first book 3D > 2D, exploring the communication of 3D experiences in print. The definitive TDR book, actually commissioned eight years ago, is still an ongoing project.

“The majority of clients haven’t the faintest idea what they’re getting into when they work with us, and a lot of them just haven’t got the balls to see it through. It’s really disappointing to realise that so many people involved in commissioning creativity haven’t got the faintest idea what creativity is,” complains Anderson. They still a turn a lot of work down, and are famed for being difficult, but they are also, quite rightly, famed for turning out one of the most distinctive bodies of work the British, and indeed global design industries have seen. “We’re analytical concerning what surrounds us, and the subject matter we deal with, but a lot of the work is very intuitive. We go for a drink and then talk and then ‘do’, we don’t plan and formalise,” Anderson says casually of their working methods. “It’s funny how finite people see us as being. The whole process is about changing, getting bored, moving on.”

Whatever their equation is, it keeps working: and TDR has lost none of its subversive power, or for that matter its sense of humour. “We know we’re good,” states Anderson certainly. This self-assurance has kept the group close to their instinctively provocative codes and themes. As ever, where they belong within the design community is, for TDR, immaterial: “The honest answer is we don’t really give a shit about what anybody else does, or about being in anyone else’s band,” says Anderson firmly. He means that.

For the issue, Anderson selected some of his favourite pieces from the tDR archives up to that point

“It was our first high profile job, the first that got noticed. It was the first vehicle for our vision,” says Anderson of this hand drawn cover: “It was done in Letraset with a tiny bit of typesetting and photocopying… the back of it is a real cut-up technique: between the band and ourselves we found loads of quotes and images that we liked, almost without looking we took phrases and images and put them together, things that didn’t really have a meaning, but unavoidably had a meaning to the viewer”

“This was actually at the time when all the Beastie Boys people were nicking VW badges, so we came up with the idea that if the Beastie Boys were VW, then Krush was going to be Mercedes Benz, so the cover has got a Mercedes look built into it. People were also wearing a lot of those Russian badges, so there was a zeitgeist thing going on there”

“We thought it would be fun to have a swipe at all the people who said our work was cartoony. It was really a sort of Sheffield piss-take of the music industry”

“This was the second project we did in terms of creating worlds, like ‘the world of Pop Will Eat Itself’. There’s Doomsday imagery, the eleventh hour, radiation, the world being destroyed. There were still lots of politics about nuclear weapons, so this was kind of political, but not anything specific, more an entertaining prediction”

This cover is on permanent display at the V&A. “Really, it’s another consumerist thing, it doesn’t have any of the meanings that people have attributed to it,” says Anderson. “It is based on different spines of recordable video tapes. I was just sitting at home looking at my shelves when I thought of it. There is a reason though: I liked the tapes’ cases more than I liked what was on them, so it was about why you’d buy into one brand over another”

“It’s the temperature at which the majority of murders are committed,” says Anderson of the title of this record. “So basically the cover is about murder and shooting: the blood splat in the background, the bullet hole represented by the target in the middle, the white PWEI that looks like a 007 gun. This is one of the first pieces where we took Japanese characters that looked a little like PWEI and 92°F, it was an experiment for us, using those characters to express something in English. It was about seeing how far we could abstract legibility, it asked questions of the viewer”

1991 LFO: LFO
“This was one of the early releases on Warp Records. We were trying to establish an identity for Warp and that was the font we were using for them. So we just went for LFO. The shaded character was a doodle by Mark out of LFO, and we played around with the position of it to make it read as UFO”

Says Anderson: “The text here is a really early example of taking icons and elements and running them like statements. You can look at it as abstracting legible language, as building a new communication based on intuitive responses”

“Incunabula is really about early stages of development, so we wanted to create a sense of genesis. Our concepts were getting so convoluted… we were trying to express them in a way that wasn’t literal, that would express ten things in one. So we started playing around with the idea of lots of layers, cutting away layers to expose other parts. With Incunablula there’s lots of layers, which is a way of expressing lots of different things about the music”

1994 EMIGRE magazine ISSUE #29
“Emigre summed up the whole American multinational corporation thing: that idea of being cute and nice to people, but having a big baseball bat hidden behind your back”

“With Wipeout you’ve already been given your target market, so you’re playing this consumerist game. The fun is that you’ve got a choice of deliberately going for them, or deliberately trying to alienate them”

“There’s nothing there to do with Foster’s apart from the actual word Foster’s. The background is actually a Foster’s beer can we cut open and laid flat and scanned into the computer. The DR stickers were stuck on and the words ‘n(ice) not nice’ were pasted on. It was interesting because we were playing with this whole idea of layering at the time and this was the ultimate expression of this whole thing. Now people do it just for the sake of doing it. It was an experiment, it wasn’t meant to be a style that carried on for five years”

“We did a joint exhibition with people like David Crow and Swifty at the Blue Note in London. The content of the Sign-Age project was about multi-layering of designs and images and constructions. It was about taking existing designs and abstracting them, reducing them to the basic elements, so that every piece we did was part of the evolution of our designs”

A TDR remix of the sleeve for Speedjack on R&S Records, Belgium. For the working method behind this project see notes from Sign-Age poster (above)

Album artwork for Virgin Music, with food mixer shot by Peter Ashworth. “We’d do a lot more of this kind of thing if people had the vision to come to us.”

“I was looking at the skyscrapers in New York. When I came back we started playing around with abstracting architectural forms. The natural lines of the skyscrapers, from these photos I’d taken, gave lines of perspective that formed an almost 3D grid. The black shape in the foreground of the cover is one of the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, as seen from the Empire State Building. The type isn’t a font, it’s all just hand done, making a font that’s just made up from blocks”

“Context is important to us, so when we do record sleeves the idea isn’t to design a record sleeve, but something that is autonomous within its own physical space”

Record company Parlophone might have been tempted to go for a pretty cover of the band, for Supergrass’ album Supergrass. TDR gave them the portrait, but of course, it wasn’t the most traditional picture.

“This is more about the buildings than abstracting them into grids,” says Anderson of this phase in TDR’s work. “We started looking at 3D buildings, or photos of buildings and rebuilding them as impossible structures. These architectural projects are part of a whole evolutionary thing: you work on ideas and they converge. There is an architectural drive in this work. Rather than wanting to deconstruct buildings and create them as 2D objects, the idea was to create an image of an impossible building, then go to an architect and say ‘build that’”

As well as sleeve design, tDR produced an ‘aesthetic standards manual’ for !K7 Records’s act Funkstörung, treating the band like a corporate brand

2000 WARP 10
“When we designed the identity for Warp, we chose a particular purple colour. For its tenth birthday we had the idea of turning the world Warp… we overpainted buildings and objects with slabs of Warp colour, it’s part of this ‘The World Of Warp’ thinking”

TDR’s first music video (included on Creative Review’s June 2000 CD-Rom). Developed for !K7 Records, Germany

2001 3D > 2D
Adventures In and Out of Architecture with Sadar Vuga Arhitekti and Spela Mlakar. Based on the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Ljubljana. TDR’s first book

CR August 2001 back cover

Apologies for the slightly shonky pictures – if anyone has links to better ones, please let us know in the comments. Thanks

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