Can design compete with rock and roll? For a few talented creatives, the experience of travelling the world and meeting fans of your work can come true. One man who knows how it feels to be part of this rare elite is David Bailey who can be found running Kiosk from a compact office in Sheffield’s creative quarter.
On a summers day, the steel city can compete with any other post-industrial conurbation for a certain feel good factor. However, its more culturally inquisitive residents will be honest with you about the determination it takes to keep any sort of flame alive when it comes to cutting edge creativity. To get talent from the city noticed takes some effort, and they’re always trying. However, there was one infamous group of graphic designers that put Sheffield firmly on the map, between 1986 and 2009 – they were The Designers Republic.
It is via employment as a key member of The Designers Republic, following an earlier career in skateboarding, that David Bailey comes to be the sought after and respected graphic designer and Art Director he is today. Meeting up with anyone whose former projects could be seen to cast long shadows over work since, it can become difficult to broach the subject of the past – like interrogating Paul McCartney about his output since falling out with John Lennon. But, for Bailey, there are no qualms about discussing his proud history.
He starts the story by saying: “I got to The Designers Republic as a friend of Ian’s (Anderson – founder). I used to draw and make skate fanzines which he liked. At the time I had no interest in design. The only reason I used computers was to colour in the drawings. He suggested I do a design course, which I did, but didn’t finish, as Designers Republic had employed me before the course ended. I still got a distinction though.”
Following little or no induction into the ways in which the design and advertising world worked, Bailey found himself at the coal face of client liaison and project management. He explains: “I was thrown in at the deep end. At the time it was myself, Ian, Matt Pyke, Michael Place and Nick Bax. The jobs would come in and Ian would allot the clients and projects accordingly. I’d meet the client, discuss ideas and be almost completely autonomous with them. As a new graphic designer, that never happens!”
Operating proudly from their home city in South Yorkshire, the working practices and singular style of The Designers Republic gained them an enviable, international reputation. Working with clients ranging from record labels (Warp, Sony and Polygram) and their bands (Aphex Twin and Pop Will Eat Itself) to computer game manufacturers (Electronic Arts) and fashion houses (Issey Miyake), it appears now that they were unstoppable. Bailey’s reminiscences suggests that this external perception, true or not, was down to the fact that he and the rest of the gang were making their living by having fun.
He says: “The Designers Republic was often considered a “wild card”, but when it delivered, it delivered something memorable. We rarely talked about design. We talked about music. We would take inspiration from music and the world around us. We would watch design trends happening but we were outside London, in the north, where we’d often be unknowingly setting new trends. We were simply enjoying ourselves. We had a good sound system, an ISDN line, the Peak District on our doorstep and heavy metal nights out, and we loved it”
The role of music, in the studio’s client list and their approach to design, became and remains obvious. But, the link to music doesn’t stop there, as Bailey explains what it was like for the team when they went ‘on tour’, travelling overseas to Tokyo and to unveil exhibitions around the world. They were designers who, somehow, had taken a whole legion of fans with them on their journey.
The memories flow as he recalls: “It was like a band when we went overseas. At these shows we’d get design fans from all over that country coming to meet us, which was odd yet incredibly flattering. Ian took it in his stride, and we of course loved it and were really grateful. People expected us to be full of ourselves, and would be surprised when we weren’t. We were young guys who were up for designing stuff and having fun. Our followers were very geeky, sometimes critical yet addicted to whatever we’d do next, or they were completely over the top in love with us.”
Although their fans, designers and clients appeared never to lose their love for the slightly anarchic team of designers, the studio couldn’t make it through the first, hopeful decade of the new millennium. Seemingly from nowhere, The Designers Republic ceased to be. However, Bailey had already made his move before the iceberg hit.
Bailey recalls activating his exit strategy, explaining: “Michael left, so new people were brought in to try and fill his shoes. Not easy. Things were fine for a few more years, but then Matt left and I felt we’d lost a second limb, as we’d become close friends. I was then expected to play the ‘Senior Designer’ role a bit more as the company became more traditional in its approach to business. This made everything strangely official. An alien concept to The Designers Republic. I started to fall out of love with it, plus I’d been there eight years. For some time, I’d been quietly considering starting up my own thing. My partner and I had our first child in 2001, so going solo and forfeiting salaried security felt bloody scary. I stalled as long as I could before the itch became unbearable and in 2005 I made the leap.”
So, David Bailey, now a former member of The Designers Republic, started Kiosk in 2005. Much like Matt Pyke (Universal Everything), Michael Place (Build) and Nick Bax (Human), Bailey was in a strong position to attract and maintain relationships with a high calibre of client from the off. However, he disagrees that this is purely down to exporting his former employer’s reputation, but that the experience gained in the iconic agency helped him and his ex-colleagues to become independent in far more practical ways.
He explains: “The autonomy we were afforded allowed us to hit the ground running. We were used to having meetings and presenting work, plus we understood the money side of things and how to negotiate, so we were confidently equipped. We’re very fortunate to have been trusted and pushed as much as we were.”
So, with a model that cuts out Project Managers (‘middlemen’ which Bailey says he finds entirely unnecessary unless the client demands it), and put the creativity in charge, Kiosk set out to make friends and influence people. Of his company ethos he says: “I try to make Kiosk as approachable as possible. We’re friendly and want to cultivate good relationships, because that benefits everybody. We’re adaptable and have highly skilled like-minded creatives on board at all times, allowing us to adapt to pretty much any challenge. We do branding, festival identities, CD covers, websites, fashion shoots, anything really. I’m usually designing or art directing myself. I haven’t lost the hunger to create. Our favourite clients are the ones that allow us to take them somewhere unexpected. Invariably, this works out well for them.”
When asked who the ‘we’ Bailey refers to actually is – seeing as there’s barely enough room in the Kiosk studio for any more than two or three bodies at a time – he explains: “I have an ever expanding group of collaborators, be they web programmers, photographers, designers or illustrators. I don’t try to be a jack of all trades; I concentrate on the ideas and concepts, though I’ll often finish off the design myself. They run their own studios also, so it’s a network really.”
He also thinks that the cache of The Designers Republic is wearing off, giving way to a new identity which belongs entirely to Kiosk, saying: “People don’t come to us for that history. Many of today’s commissioning media people haven’t even heard of The Designers Republic. It’s obviously great to say you’ve done eight years with a design company of notoriety, but we’re approached based on the work shown on our website. I like to think our work is quite varied in style, and our clients are excited where we’ll take them, and that’s exciting for both us and them.”
Half a decade on since striking out on his own, there have been plenty of achievements for Bailey and his collaborators to reflect on. Not least the welcome that greets so many travellers to Sheffield, the text of an Andrew Motion poem ‘What if?…’ which adorns the side of a high rise building belonging to Sheffield Hallam University, art directed by Kiosk. Then there is the identity for the FutureEverything festival, Manchester’s ground-breaking exploration of new ideas, and a string of designs for Nottingham’s international dance festival, Nottdance. But, which is he most proud of?
“There are a few I suppose,” he says. “The Hello Dolly piece that we did for the ‘Helvetica 50′ show is something I’m very proud of. Conceptually it’s very strong. I’ve perhaps done more eye catching work, but for me it’s just great, not least as it was part of a high profile group exhibition, and we were in pretty esteemed company. Fifty of the UK’s so-called ‘leading image makers’. Wow, right? We were given 1996 as the year to illustrate. Dolly the Sheep was cloned that year. I’d been racking my brains for the right solution, and was trying to explain it to my daughter in a pub garden. She said something about the scientists being the mummy, which gave me the idea of the sheep having a human host. This would perfectly illustrate the idea of man playing God and the Immaculate Conception. I asked local artist Paul Evans to draw it as simply as possible, which he did perfectly I think. I also resisted the obvious temptation to apply some Helvetica slogan or title. I just wanted the idea to speak for itself.”
Picking out that particular example of his work, with conceptual origins that might make a thoroughbred contemporary artist blush, brings about a question about the distinct gap between artists and graphic designers. Bailey, not one to play around the edges of such an issue, finds a simple answer. He says: “Most designers are tortured artists. Well, I know I am. But we’re impatient. We want our ideas out there quickly, whereas an ‘artist’ will refine an idea to perfection. I have a low boredom threshold unfortunately… or not, as the case may be”
Like any restless creative, he is itching to keep moving rather than dwelling on work that’s been done and no longer holds much interest for him. He’s proud enough of what he’s done, illustrated by the genial manner in which he discusses it, but the conversation is equally lively when pondering what the future holds for Kiosk.
Put simply, the plan for Bailey is “to continue having a creative outlet for myself.” He continues: “Some of my friends have design companies, yet no longer design themselves. They concentrate more on the business. I often agonise and think ‘I should be doing that’ instead of worrying about the kerning of some logotype. But I still love designing. I’d like to do less maybe, and have an easier life. Wouldn’t we all? But for the time being I’m happy running my Kiosk and turning out colourful things.”
But, that’s not where it ends. There’s more fire left in his belly to continue to push into areas, like he experienced in his first design job, where there is no formal training, simply a hunger to get out and do more. He explains his ambitions further, saying: “I’d love to direct more live action. When I was at The Designers Republic I directed a couple of music videos for a band called Yourcodenameis:Milo, who were signed to Polydor. I took to it like a duck to water, and the videos were a hit and got heavy airplay on MTV. I absolutely loved it. If I wasn’t a designer, I’d be a film maker. Many film makers have come from a design background; Ridley Scott, Mike Mills and Spike Jonze for example. I envy what they do. I found directing really satisfying.”
So, having enjoyed an unplanned journey from skateboarder and gifted amateur draughtsman to one of British graphic design’s leading lights, the man at the helm of Kiosk is pushing to exploit his enthusiasm and gift for ideas yet further. Before ending the conversation, and returning to work, Bailey offered a final thought on the subject of an old friend and a lesson for creative businesses everywhere.
He concludes: “Ian Anderson recently reactivated The Designers Republic as a smaller studio. He seems happier now than he did when they were peaking, albeit financially. Being careful what you wish for springs to mind, and helps with my own peace of mind. Do what you’re good at rather than aiming to build an empire, and success, in whatever form that may take, will come to you”
Info: David Bailey is a Graphic Designer/Art Director who was born and currently lives and works in Sheffield, England. He travelled as a professional skateboarder until 1993, shortly after which he met The Designers Republic founder Ian Anderson and became a key figure within the agency. On leaving in 2005, he formed Kiosk, which currently operates globally in multi-disciplinary design projects for a range of clients, including BBC, Ministry of Sound, Conde Naste Publishing, Nickelodeon, Universal and Warner Music.
Images from top:
1) Hello Dolly, Kiosk
2) L – R: Richard X v Jarvis (2004), Kill Yourself (2003) – The Designers Republic
3) L – R: Wanker (1999), Silver City (2003) – The Designers Republic
4) L – R: Futuresonic 2009, Nottdance 06 – Kiosk
5) L- R: SOYO, What if?.. – Kiosk
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