Lucienne Roberts’ logo for The Office of Tony Blair
When Lucienne Roberts was asked to create a set of stationery for ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, she knew that she was embarking on a project that would ask some difficult questions of her, both as a designer and as a person.
As Blair left office last summer, plans for his political afterlife swung into action. Perhaps because of his relative youth, perhaps because of the increasingly presidential nature of his former position, Blair looks likely to enjoy a much more high-profile (and more lucrative) post-PM existence than his predecessors at Number Ten. As ever with Blair, Bill Clinton seems to be the major reference point. Like Clinton, Blair has set up a charitable foundation, or rather a series of foundations, to which he will devote his energies, alongside bringing peace to the Middle East, the £500,000 lecture tours and his nice little earner at bank JP Morgan Chase, of course. His charitable activities fall under the auspices of The Office Of Tony Blair, which is where Roberts came in.
Jo Gibbons, a former client at the Citizens Advice Bureau, had gone on to work at Number Ten. “Jo phoned me a couple of days before Tony Blair left office. She said she’d got a little job that she thought I might like to do and asked me to come into Number Ten to talk about it,” says Roberts. “I knew all the Blairites would be leaving too so I thought she was asking me to do the stationery for her next job. I didn’t realise it was for Tony Blair until we started to discuss whether The Private Office of Tony Blair or The Office of Tony Blair might work better typographically.”
“Right up to leaving, Blair’s team were busy in government,” Roberts continues, “I got the impression that they’d not had time to organise the practicalities of what happened next – stationery, the office in which to work….”
So Roberts set about considering what manner of letterhead might be appropriate for a former Prime Minister trailing half a ton of political baggage behind him. Reference points were provided by the tributes sent in by other government leaders and VIPs following the announcement that Blair was stepping down. Nearly all of these letters were on cream paper, which provided the first client stipulation on the project. Blair also insisted on recycled paper (Conqueror being the final choice) while the design was printed using vegetable-based inks, all of which, presumably, is supposed to go some way towards offsetting the thousands of miles of air travel he will clock up in the coming years….
Design-wise, the letterheads of the great and good were none too inspiring, says Roberts: “The standard for this kind of thing seems to be serifs and heraldry.”
Blair’s people wanted a design that would “be perceived as modern, not too conventional but not confrontational or to cause disquiet”.
This desire not to offend no doubt stemmed from the realisation that, whatever design was used, it would be endlessly picked over, interpreted and re-interpreted by the media: such matters being a familiar Blair obsession.
“All along I’ve been extremely conscious of the different ways that the design might be perceived – what do you do that no one could misinterpret but that still sends out the right message?” Roberts asks.
Colour, of course, was also a major issue: “We couldn’t use red, blue, bright green or yellowy orange because they are the colours of various political parties. Purple was out because of the Queen and the Pope. It called for subtlety so that the design didn’t look too ostentatious or expensive but was still classy enough.”
Roberts describes the project as “the hardest I’ve ever done. He’s not a brand, he doesn’t need to be. His name on a piece of paper has instant gravitas and yet I soon realised that the treatment of the name itself was all-important. This was truly a case of less is more.”
But Roberts says she only learned this after some initial wrong turns. “My first visuals were far too overtly ‘designed’ – I looked at putting colour on the back or stripes, there were too many rules and blocks of colour. The designs shouted, which was inappropriate and trivialised the whole enterprise. I’m quite embarrassed about those early designs now: it was almost as though I had to get it out of my system first. I should have been more confident in the beginning and said ‘you need something very discreet’. It made me think about what ‘design’ has come to mean – is it only of value when you notice it for its own sake? I’ve never thought so and yet this experience made me realise that some of my other work is actually quite ostentatious. This was about being totally minimal – what’s the least you can do but still
have a confident presence? I think we got it right.”
The final design simply states ‘The Office of Tony Blair’ in Serifa: “I tried a sans but it was too self-aware. Serifa seemed a good choice as it’s still very clean. It is bold, confident and strong but it’s also a little bit raw so I like to think it’s slightly left-wing in feel,” says Roberts. This is underlined by stripes of a mustardy and a slightly darker green, the latter being created by overprinting the former on black, keeping the job down to just two colours.
The result (above) is undeniably well-crafted. It feels modern and modest, if, cynics might point out, a little falsely-so. But perhaps questions of how Roberts tackled the project are outweighed by those concerning whether she should have taken it on in the first place.
Roberts has, by her own admission, always been a ‘political’ designer. “I was very much influenced by the Modernists and I am convinced that design can change the world for the better,” she says. “I left college with ideals and, on the whole, I haven’t had to compromise them although that has meant I have had to compromise on other things – money, creative freedom….”
Both with her previous studio, Sans+Baum, and her new one, LucienneRoberts+, she has made a thoroughgoing commitment to working for not-for-profit, ethically-sound clients, eschewing the fripperies of much of the graphics scene in favour of work of solid worth. In addition, a long-held interest in the ethics of graphic design culminated last year in the publication of her book Good: An Introduction To Ethics In Graphic Design (ava).
Given her stance on ethical design, did she think that she would be accused of hypocrisy for doing this job? “I have always said that designers should be more mindful of the messages that they help convey. Having written a book about ethics in relation to design I know that these issues are not black and white – that ‘goodness’ for example can be argued to lie as much in the intention as the outcome – that plurality and freedom of speech are notions to be upheld and that there is a balance to be struck between conviction and dogma,” she says. “This isn’t easy. If over two thousand years
of philosophical discourse hasn’t cracked it, it’s utterly ludicrous to think that one designer can – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take responsibility and I’ve always tried to do that.”
Some context is helpful here – Roberts has had a long-standing relationship with Labour, New and Old. “I voted Labour in the last three elections so I could have been accused of hypocrisy or cowardice for not taking this job on. I was one of those outside the Festival Hall in 97 cheering. I am Old Labour but my compatriots made it abundantly clear that this isn’t what they wanted, so it was New Labour or nothing so far as I could see. Put within that context I was bound to be disappointed [by subsequent events]. But I’m a pragmatist so I’m still glad that the Tory alternative didn’t prevail
in 1997. I’ve had a great deal to do with the NHS over the last eight years and the experience has been excellent. I’m not confident that it would have been the same under a different government, for example.
“When it comes to considering Blair’s policy in Iraq, of course I’m distressed and baffled by it,” she continues. “I think it can be argued that ours was a tempering influence though – that if the US had gone it alone it would have been much worse. I can’t be an apologist for Iraq though – again that would be ludicrous. I weighed up various issues and I took the job on, partly on the basis of what I knew he was about to do – set up various charities and encourage inter-faith work, something that I am particularly interested in.”
She was also swayed by the opinions of those who work with Blair: “I was pleasantly surprised at how freely and warmly Blair’s team spoke about him,” she says. “When in government they would have been, rightly, guarded but I was impressed that, once out of government, they unanimously described him as a respectful employer who is open and thoughtful. I think that designers often don’t treat each other with much respect or kindness – and clients of course are sometimes just as bad. Trying to be ‘ethical’ is as much about day-to-day exchanges with individuals as it is about decisions that affect many people. After all it wouldn’t be true to say that a piece of awareness-raising design produced by Amnesty International is more ethical than an information sheet handed out to local breast-cancer patients in one NHS Trust hospital.”
Nevertheless, Roberts is aware that she is sticking her head above the parapet here: “It’s interesting that I am likely to be criticised for taking on this job while the lower profile work I have done for Save the Children or Unicef has gone unnoticed. Meanwhile, designers are praised for work that helps prop up a materialistic and self-orientated system because it is ‘good’ design in an aesthetic sense,” she remarks. “The whole notion of ‘good’ design is complex and has to be unpicked and evaluated in subtle and diverse ways to have any real meaning. These are really hard notions to reconcile and I hope that people won’t make snap judgements but will apply intelligence to the debate.”
Where anything to do with Tony Blair is concerned, this may be wishful thinking. So, does she have any regrets? “No, I’m really glad I did it. From a pure design point of view, it really made me think about what design is for in a way that I hadn’t done before.”
The above article appears in the March issue of CR, available now