Spring 2001

Reputations: Graphic Thought Facility

‘It’s to do with keeping things simple and having the confidence to present an idea where everything can be understood. You don’t have to be in the know to unravel it.’

Paul Neale (b.1966) and Andy Stevens (b.1966) met on the MA graphic design course at the Royal College of Art in 1988. Neale had studied art and design at school and did foundation studies at Leicester Poly before doing a degree in design at Central School of Art and Design and St Martin’s (now Central St Martins). Stevens did a degree in graphic design at Leeds Poly. They formed GTF (Graphic Thought Facility) with fellow postgraduate Nigel Robinson on leaving the RCA. When they left the College in 1990 the British design industry was gripped by a severe recession. Since there were no jobs on offer, they funded their activities with the aid of the government’s Enterprise Allowance scheme, some part-time teaching and a bizarre and unexpected gameshow prize (a by-product of a job for Lynne Franks PR), which helped pay for their first computer in 1991.

Robinson left the practice in 1993, since when Neale and Stevens have slowly developed GTF into a small but flourishing five-person practice with a high-profile client list that includes Habitat, the Science Museum, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, record company One Little Indian, Tate, fashion catalogues for Antoni and Alison, Booth-Clibborn Editions, and identities for fine art retailers Counter Editions and new cultural publishers Little I. They have a reputation for simplicity and straightforwardness with clients – what they term ‘playing the straight card’ – that combines effortlessly with a quirky, often bizarre sense of humour and an easy grasp of all the technical processes required for each job they take on. In his piece about the move towards ‘complex simplicity’ (Eye no. 35 vol. 9), Andrew Blauvelt included GTF’s ‘Stealing Beauty’ catalogue and 1998-99 prospectus for the RCA. Another commentator, comparing them favourably to their more fashionable and flashy peers termed them ‘the last graphic design practice in London.’ They are currently working on a short book of their own work for Gabriele Capelli Editions, planned for late spring 2001.

GTF delight in playing with expectations: those of the client, the public and perhaps even their own. The following conversation took place in their studio, part of a large undeveloped block of workshops in London’s old printing quarter, while a malfunctioning Macintosh chimed ‘Indigo’ in the background. As we talked, Neale and Stevens pulled out piece after piece of tactile and perversely beautiful work for us to see and handle on the large trestle table before us.

John L. Walters: Did you always want to be graphic designers?

Andy Stevens: Pretty well, yes. I was always interested in products. At school while people were copying Tygers of Pan Tang albums I was copying TDK cassette covers in watercolour – I thought they were nice. There was a careers computer that asked for your interests and I said geography, biology, art and it said “you should be a landscape architect”. When I found that you needed seven years to qualify I said “sod that – I’ll do graphics”, which ended up being seven years!

Paul Neale: I’ve always considered myself very lucky in that I knew exactly what a designer was from age sixteen onwards. I knew what I wanted to do so I did the A-levels and foundation route at what is now Leicester Poly. There were only four of us who took the A-level art option. We had this great teacher who ignored the syllabus because we were all so into it, so we were all doing loads of stuff at home and having crits every week, which we called “unveilings”. We were doing sub-David Hockney drawings and “joiner” photography. Then I did a graphics degree which was fantastic.

Nick Bell: Did you first meet at the RCA?

PN: Yes. There were three of us – ourselves and Nigel Robinson. We bagsied the RCA’s old conservatory as a studio.

NB: Was that when Derek Birdsall was there?

PN: He was very refreshing. Coming out of St Martins, which was quite style-led, I was suddenly confronted with the stuff he had brought.

AS: Derek was a good antidote to the “style and sketchbook” syndrome . . . too many ideas and not wanting to finish anything. He’d come from that 1960s background, a kind of reductive method that helped us find a way through that . . .

PN: . . . and finish projects. It was incredibly different to St Martins.

AS: He’d push you to justify what you’d done and not let you get away with “I quite liked it.”

PN: Derek left the college after about six months. It was great that we got him for a section of the MA course. He made us do things like going out and drawing shadows, drawing plates of spaghetti, a lot of emphasis on observation.

AS: It did seem quite patronising at times . . .

NB: . . . as if you were foundation students?

PN: It did feel like that, with so much emphasis on finding existing forms, observation, editing.

AS: The whole thing shaped us, helped form the way we work and think about things. I’m sure there’s a fashion cycle thing in it because it was so post-Dumbar [Gert]. We were ready for a change, anyway, two years after Why Not [Associates, also hatched at the RCA]. There was a lot in that 1960s thing we liked, but then we were always striving to make our work not look it. I liked the method of working but not so much the direct pun. I preferred things a bit more raw. The Dumbar stuff contains a lot of obvious skill in bending type and things. We liked solutions that didn’t have that.

PN: That Dumbar work looks very processed. We were looking for something a bit more awkward and less designed.

JLW: When did you decide to work together?

PN: None of us was offered any jobs coming out of college in 1990 – the recession had just started. There was so little “real work” or “real clients” that we stood a better chance of getting work by pooling our resources. Graphic Thought Facility became a more formal thing as a result.

NB: How did you choose the name?

PN: We went through the misery that all start-ups have of trying to find the name. We had a much better idea of what we didn’t want than what we did want. We didn’t want another overly dynamic big-sounding small word kind of name. Going back to that 1960s thing . . . DRU [Design Research Unit] had an appeal in the way that BEF [British Electric Foundation, formed by ex-Human League musicians] did, so we got this acronym, GTF, meaning something very different, and we made a list of G, T and F words. Graphic Thought Facility was the best we could come up with.

AS: It’s a plain corporate name. It’s why we ended up with the logo as well after a while.

JLW: When did you come up with the logo?

PN: That came from a very early commission, in 1991, when we were asked by a Dutch fashion industry prediction magazine to do a feature.

AS: We chose to do eight pages on dogs on ropes.

PN: Early crusties.

AS: We’d not seen anything like them in that type of magazine and it was on our doorsteps. The logo was for “I Like” instead of “I-Spy” [the object-spotting book series for children].

NB: When did you start teaching?

PN: We both started teaching straight out of college, and it was an important means of income.

AS: Although it was the recession era, it was a very reasonable time to start on your own. We got into teaching, and then Enterprise Allowance and rent rebate. When you left college, you were as well off as you were in college. You weren’t starving, so you just carried on.

JLW: Has that informed the way you work, compared to practices that began in the 1980s?

AS: That making do, almost, the hardship? It probably made us a bit more ‘cottage industry’ than we needed to be, doing everything for ourselves, cutting corners . . .

PN: . . . and probably too cautious a lot of the time. I mean, ten years is quite a long time. We’ve been very cautious in terms of what we’ve taken on.

AS: Also, because of the type of work we do, we’ve not needed that investment to make us look more flash, or have a smart studio, ’cos obviously we’re working for people who aren’t particularly bothered that we’re working here [i.e. this studio].

The ‘drawer of shame’

NB: What were your first clients like?

PN: We did a lot of very commercial work – we used to have a plan chest which we called the “drawer of shame”, full of dodgy A5 flyers.

AS: We got handed on Lynne Franks PR agency as clients from Why Not Associates, who said: “You’ll not get any decent work out of it.” And we thought: “Oh, they’re just going about it the wrong way . . .” so we learnt the hard way.

The better work was big posters for fringe theatre which paid nothing. Because the budget was poor we went looking at process very heavily. With no photography budget and the worst printer in the world, we could reduce it down to one colour and a silkscreen to try and make it look rich. When you’re just out of college, not having enough work, you often work far too slowly, poring over everything. Nigel worked in a more spontaneous style – like David Shrigley, well before David Shrigley – while we spent days doing one poster. We were happy to spend time on jobs that didn’t pay and Nigel thought we should get paid, which is [pause] fair enough!

JLW: Did you believe that by doing interesting work that didn’t pay, you would get better work?

PN: It’s always been like that . . . decent work attracts decent work. Mediocre work attracts more of the same. We were always interested in trading in the clients and the work we had got for better clients who were more on our wavelength; more exciting jobs; more money for production, for getting ideas through and for ourselves.

Until about five years ago we were working for a lot of people on a one-off basis. The relationship with Habitat grew out of an invitation for a press show. We were recommended by one of my students, who knew a chap in marketing.

NB: Did Habitat know your work?

PN: They didn’t know us from Adam, really, but when they compared it to what they’d been used to, it was substantially better. Other people in the company saw what we were doing, and we got involved in developing the art programme.

AS: It was back to the problem-solving thing, rather than style. Although the job is intrinsically about style – Habitat is selling a look – they’re asking us to communicate a set of values. That’s where we can strike away to answer that, as opposed to making something look pretty . . .

PN: . . . in a non-formulaic manner . . .

AS: . . . and it had that individual attention from us. We’re lucky that the people who commission us have always been in charge of departments, so it didn’t need someone else to sell it up the chain.

PN: I think the clients that stay with us appreciate that we’re physically involved with doing a lot of the work.

JLW: So you can never delegate?

PN: That’s right! It puts a limitation on the size of the studio.

JLW: And you lost the “drawer of shame” clients.

PN: We certainly got better at recognising jobs with potential and jobs that were fundamentally flawed. A lot of our solutions are unapologetically “political” solutions, presenting jobs that stand a good chance of getting through.

AS: Finding the path of least resistance.

PN: It’s coming up with a solution which can allow them to write in, to adjust things, to play around with things to a degree without it wrecking the solution. We did the exhibition graphics with Russell Warren-Fisher for the “Design of the Times” exhibition – we used the notion of images in the slide mounts and the slide mounts were more important than the slides themselves, so the committee, the college could choose the . . .

AS: . . . pictures they wanted.

PN: Similarly the solution for the RCA prospectus was press cuttings that linked the college into the real world. It didn’t matter what the cuttings were.

AS: They’ve not got any particular aesthetic merit in their own right, it’s just the fact of using them and how they’re used.

Ideas that design themselves

NB: You’ve talked before of “ideas that design themselves”, where you come up with a system that enables people to participate . . .

AS: . . . definitely, that systems thing is something that often goes through our work, and it’s also come back to that thing that you’re not looking at each page brand new afresh

JLW: They could have made a totally different selection and it would be the same . . .

NB: . . . editorial design!

PN: Take the invitation to “Stealing Beauty”. We’d worked with their press officer before and we knew she was a bit of a meddler, a ‘can you make that bigger’ person. So it fitted in with the nature of the exhibition, which was a lot of people using a lot of ready-mades. We used her press release as the basis for the invitation. We said, ”you can have whatever you want”. . .

AS: . . . so that was generated by the ICA.

JLW: The normal ICA press release!

PN: . . . with all the over-emphasis, bullet points, underlining and everything they wanted . . .

NB: . . . and a ready-made!

JLW: Do you think there’s a GTF style, a recognisable approach?

AS: There are several strands: there’s observation, and vernacular . . .

PN: . . . and materials and process. A lot of stuff is remembered – the feel and format of the books I had as a kid, Jackdaw folders [see Eye no. 29 vol. 8], or remembering the quality of duplicating machines. We’re equally interested in playing with a lot of new technology – lenticulars, new embossing possibilities – but there’s so much old-world stuff out there that still has resonances, the memory of seeing those materials used elsewhere. It’s avoiding the A4 full-colour approach while working within a budget. We thrive on being given a budget for design and production, where we can look at the job in its entirety.

AS: Systems is another strand. You establish a working method, solve the problem and it runs itself. It’s possibly less self-conscious because the system makes the decision.

JLW: To what extent do you edit what comes out?

PN: It depends on the job. With a lot of systems it’s important that the constraints of that system are apparent, seen and understood.

AS: And at times we defy the logic of the system.

JLW: With the Stephen Bayley book [General Knowledge, Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2000], do you think the system you’ve imposed on that will be understood by his readers?

PN: I don’t, actually. Which is a shame. [Laughs]. But there’s no way we’re going to stick in an explanation in the back. The budget demanded a two-colour job, so we were thinking of all the possible ways to achieve richness. The fact that the printer works in sixteens meant that there were several economical place to change colours.

NB: But you sometimes change typeface in the middle of an article.

PN: Right – we changed it five times, I think.

NB: So it’s out of kilter with the content!

PN: Which we quite like – it’s that sort of “wrecking it” bit coming in. We wanted to reflect the fact that this work had come from different sources, but to do facsimile settings of the text was well dodgy ground. Using a system overrides that.

AS: These are related projects . . . certainly things like using different typefaces evolved into this one [I Am A Camera for the Saatchi Gallery] where we’re using a disparate set of typefaces. This time they had a specific job to do. It was the same with things like the textures.

JLW: Why did you put this embossed pattern on the outer cover?

AS: We knew that this book was going to be picked up and thumbed and looked at. We wanted the texture to give it a bit of warmth. This pattern has no relevance to the book whatsoever . . .

PN: . . . it’s an old pattern.

AS: We pondered about this pattern having relevance, about it relating to the layout on the cover, about it being somehow photography-related but at the end of the day we wanted the texture to make it feel nice . . . there seemed no reason to make it relevant.

JLW: So the choice of pattern is arbitrary?

PN: It’s not arbitrary, in that we definitely didn’t want to use a stock pattern, we wanted to use something that was a little more figurative.

AS: In some ways it’s Victoriana . . .

PN: . . . use of decoration . . .

AS: . . . just for richness

JLW: Which brings us back to your visual essay. [‘A grammar of ornament’, Eye no. 31 vol. 8.]

PN: Another of these strands is decompartmentalising the individual facets of the book. Texture is there to decorate. The spine’s there to be a spine. Image and type are divorced.

AS: Charles Saatchi had also envisaged the work in three families . . .

PN: . . . so it’s a political solution. Charles wants this image in or that – he wants that one bigger. It’s not going to destroy the integrity of the book, because it has a more basic structure.

AS: Placing the title page and the essay well within the book, they act as dividers between the three sections. So they were odd, but at the same time functional. When you flick through a photography book, there’s no way you start at the front and read the essay to contextualise what you’re then going to look at. You look through a book and decide whether you like it or not.

PN: It’s playing with expectations. Spending money on foil and burying it inside the book!

AS: It would have been difficult to justify doing that if it hadn’t been for these three sections.

PN: Charles Saatchi took the photographs home every night and started sequencing them. We knew it would be contentious if we came up with a solution where certain photographs had to be here or there, so it was a political solution.

AS: We looked to find interest in other ways through the book, rather than having a running battle about where images are placed.

PN: “Playing the straight card” is another strand. It was really important that the captions were sensible – not upsetting because they were a little bit too small. Appearing practical, legible, not self-consciously different for the sake of it . . .

AS: . . . so the page layouts are conservative, the spine is fairly straightforward and the oddness only comes from the book as a whole.

Techniques and materials

JLW: You carve up the production responsibilities between you – what are the differences between “Paul” projects and “Andy” projects?

PN: Andy’s better at blue sky projects.

AS: I’m probably less worried about things getting realised . . .

PN: . . . whereas I like working backwards from production to create something, talking to printers and so on. We just got this Printing Trades Directory 1994, which is full of great things. Overprinting, NCR sets, metal speaker grille fabrics, Braille, magnetic ink printing . . .

AS: And we’ll bear them in mind if a job comes up that needs engraving or enamelling or plastic welding . . .

PN: . . . we like going down to the printers and actually seeing the machines and how they do it and what the restrictions are. At the RCA, I used to go into the resources library in the evening, make a list of phone numbers, get into college half an hour before the secretary came in and spend half an hour phoning up for samples. I used to get an incredible bag of samples every day.

AS: You can see a lot of elegant Web solutions, but at the moment it’s really lacking that enjoyment.

JLW: The material side?

AS: Yes. There’s also the fact that you are trapped in that plane.

NB: What about the Counter Editions website?

PN: That was us coming up with an identity – essentially a logo, a type style and an attitude to the layout.

NB: So that relates to the captions in the Saatchi book?

PN: Yeah, they’re both in Plantin. It appals me the amount of times we’ve used Plantin in the past couple of years, but it keeps coming back. It’s got a nice evenness to it, but more than anything we use it a lot because of its very odd weights.

AS: That’s a satisfying detail, but at the end of the day, no-one would like or not like this book because it was in Times!

A lot stuff with a lot of bits

PN: This is the first thing that we did for the Habitat Art Club. Though we were designing a broadsheet, what we were doing was setting the identity for Habitat Art Club, and that was about finding a typeface using different sizes where they were tonally exact.

JLW: What was the thought process behind that?

PN: It’s always that balance between how much emphasis goes on the design and how much on the art. It’s getting a system which is in its purest sense easy to use and feels just run out.

NB: It’s like a default design . . . it’s got that aesthetic of email.

AS: It also creates an overall pattern. If everything here that’s in caps had been in a bolder weight then overall, there would have been quite a smattering of emphasis, your eye would have been caught by emphasis in every paragraph. It was a way to reduce the noise.

This job [Habitat 1998 Autumn / Winter catalogue] was us trying to give over the theme of Japanese, in a way. Neither of us has been to Japan, though we’re interested in the culture, so it’s down to way it folds, to the mixture of paper stocks, to the way ranged and centred things are used, like a Japanese production without using Japanese characters . . .

NB: Like “Stealing Beauty”, it’s a set of bits.

PN: . . . it’s got a lot of bits. A lot of our stuff’s got a lot of bits in it that come from different sources. It’s trying to get a honed aesthetic balance even though some elements might be quite ugly or unrefined. It’s that thing about taking things apart, but putting them back together again rather than leaving them in bits. Making something which eventually feels whole and complete.

JLW: How do you find illustrators?

AS: We’re often looking for someone with an oddness of attitude, but they can easily slip through the net after leaving college. They’re the kind of people who don’t get work, so they either change style or become something else – you go back to find someone whose work you liked and they work as a paper rep now!

PN: But we really enjoy it when we find somebody that we can commission. It’s the possibility of what that brings in terms of places we wouldn’t have gone, or thought of.

JLW: So you enjoy using illustrators the way you enjoy different printing processes?

AS: It’s the different “handwriting” that an illustrator or photographer will bring us.

PN: Commissioning something like our “Gin and Jags” catalogue [for Habitat] was very much like trying to find a certain kind of specialist print finisher. It was a completely different way of working to when we did the Habitat Christmas press brochure last year. We asked Angela [Moore the photographer and Paul’s partner] to work with Hannah Bryan, the illustrator, and to shoot on large format these backgrounds and then hand over the stuff to Hannah to work over. She normally works on top of photographs that are more snap-shotty. For the storecard, we had the notion of utilising the old books of carbon slips as a way of producing illustrations, so we got Nick Higgins and asked him to sketch people in the shops, giving us two sets of originals to scan from.

AS: It solved several problems, avoiding photography so that the products wouldn’t date as quickly. We didn’t have squared-up images to deal with so it could have a bit more life to it.

Exhibitions

JLW: How do you regard museum signage?

PN: Exhibition graphics is a direct extension of the way we work, relying on a system which is often process-related, finding a particular supplier, working within a fixed budget. It’s the same process apart from giving us a lot more grief. We make life difficult for ourselves by choosing not to go down a conventional route with a graphics contractor and bubblejets. To do it like that is about as interesting as designing a website.

AS: We’re looking to use simple, less bespoke methods that by context change when you put them in. The production might be simple, but it’s where it’s placed or how that gives it life.

PN: On the Science Museum, timewise, in hours worked, we got our fingers burnt. We’re trying to improve the way we manage projects.

AS: The hassle is unlike a piece of print which is pretty much self-contained. It’s the fact that your thing has to interact with so much other stuff and someone else’s design that might keep changing.

PN: Our instinct keeps taking us further back. We want to control those details – we want to do vacuum-forming or whatever.

AS: But sometimes you do have to let go. You have to try and set it up in a way that a normal signage contractor can make it, do it and it won’t go too far wrong, otherwise it’s too much.

Simplicity

NB: Do you keep up with other designers’ work?

AS: We get sent stuff by M/M. And lot of Paul Elliman’s early stuff [see Eye no. 25 vol. 7] seems to be coming through very strong.

PN: In Switzerland there are a lot of companies with similar concerns when it comes to decisions on taste.

JLW: Is that different from, say, ten years ago?

PN: Definitely. There’s a trend towards simplicity.

AS: When we went to teach in Lausanne there was so little interest in typography. Everyone’s into photography and photo-illustration.

PN: I think it’s to do with keeping things simple and having the confidence to present an idea where everything can be understood. You don’t have to be in the know to unravel it.

First published in Eye no. 39 vol. 10, 2001