In Thatcher’s Britain of the late 1980s, the world seemed to have the saturation turned down. The colours were gloomy and the nation’s youth were cutting through that gloom with the vivid palette of early rave culture. It was in this spirit that Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell called on fellow Yorkshire club-goer Ian Anderson to help create the visual identity of their upstart record label, newly christened Warp. Ian, a friend of Rob’s and familiar face on the Sheffield music scene, had recently left the music industry to focus on his burgeoning design agency, The Designers’ Republic. What started with Warp’s ‘globe' logo and the distinct shade of ‘Warp purple’ snowballed into a now thirty-year relationship.
Branching out from music in the 90s, tDR went on to work with corporate clients including Sony, Adidas, Orange and Coca-Cola, but thanks to its musical and political underpinnings, self-aware humour, and Ian’s generally rebellious nature, never sacrificed its aesthetic signature. In 1994, graphic design mag Emigre dedicated an entire issue to tDR. That issue was its best-ever seller and a copy is now held in the permanent collection at MoMA. Around the same time, the studio began work on the identity for Sony’s racing game WipEout, the soundtrack of which was dedicated to electronic and techno artists like Leftfield, Kraftwerk and Orbital. The game would become a cult classic amongst music fans, design lovers and gamers alike, and is still routinely named as one of the best video game series’ of all time.
Here Ian discusses why he believes his early designs still command a dedicated cult following, and the inspiration and process behind creating some of the most striking graphics in independent music and beyond.
Where do you think your interest in design stemmed from? Was art something that you were into from a young age?
Yeah, I was really into it. I used to spend hours and hours designing football kits and flags. I had loads of books on flags. When I was young, if you weren’t into sport you had to adopt a certain persona to get girls, and a good one for pale-skinned ginger-haired sensitive kids like me was the brooding overcoat-wearing type, packing an existentialist novel in your pocket.
A few things do stand out as being quite a big influence on me. My aunt used to be signed up to one of those ‘Book of the Month’ things where if you didn’t send it back in time, you had to pay for it. She received one about Andy Warhol which she forgot to return so gave it to me for Christmas when I was about seven or eight. She didn't get the pop art thing, but thought I might do some colouring in or something. I loved it. Another prompt was a TV series and book tie-in written and presented by Robert Hughes called Shock of the New. It was essentially a history of 20th century art, but to me it was a creative wonderland that started to make sense of an okay-to-be-imperfect world. So there are all these sorts of things which, with hindsight, add up if you ask the right questions. If things had turned out differently, you’d look back and say I was just another spoddy kid from Bracknell New Town.
You had London on your doorstep, what made you move to Sheffield?
London was thirty minutes away on the train and I went to a lot of gigs there, so it didn’t seem to be enough of a change for me. And I didn’t identify with the city in the same way. As a teenager, I was quite politicised. Well, I still am. I was a member of Militant, my father and grandfather were in the trade unions etcetera. But where I lived was a little like Stepford Wives-land. It wasn’t even suburbia. It was where unemployed people still voted Tory because they thought they were better than people in the north. I wanted to go somewhere I thought was more real. Somewhere that wasn't there.
For me, on a probably naive romanticised level, Sheffield was a utopian industrial city fuelled by industrial music and socialism. We had some relatives in Derbyshire so I’d also been up to visit from time to time, and I knew that Sheffield was friendly. It was a people’s city.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do for work?
If anything, I probably thought I was going to be a writer or journalist of some kind but there wasn’t really any plan at all. Leaving home wasn’t really about studying, you didn’t have to pay for education back then. I just knew I wanted to form a band.
The great thing about punk was that you didn't form a band to get a record deal because there was never any chance of that. You just did it because that’s what you did and there wasn't much else to do. I was already in a punk band at home, and wanted to go somewhere to be in a post-punk band. I listened to John Peel at the time, all the time. The stuff I liked the most was either dub or electronic. It happened to be mainly Cabaret Voltaire, early Human League, Vice Versa or Clock DVA. And it happened to come from Sheffield. So I moved to Sheffield to go to university, formed a band and then got a bit bored. After I left, the band went on to become Chakk and set up FON Studios (out of which came the trio who formed Forgemasters, the first artist released by Warp).
How inclusive was the music scene in the city at that time?
There was a pub called the Beehive and all the Sheffield bands used to drink in there. It was really funny because they all had their own tables, the Cabaret Voltaire table and so on. Non-scene people tended to be in awe of these local giants but I’d just go over and say hi — I'm not really an awestruck kind of person. You very quickly got to know everyone and there was mutual support, but I don’t think anyone ever thought they were part of a Sheffield scene. In general those scenes only ever exist for the audience.
When did you start on the path that led to founding The Designers Republic?
I used to write reviews for the uni newspaper but to be honest, I was always more interested in my opinion than someone else’s. From that, I got interested in working on the layout or the design of the paper, as I understood that how the reviews were presented determined to a degree how, or if, they were read. From that point, I lost interest in being in a band with other people and started running a fanzine of my own. I started putting on nights and gigs in about 80/81. Back then, if you wanted to do a flyer, you had to get some Letraset and do it yourself.
Then I was asked to manage Person to Person, founded by some former ABC members. In 1984 we signed to Epic Records and we approached The System, influential New York producers, to produce the album. Because of the promo stuff I’d designed for my clubs, I ended up designing Person To Person’s covers and a whole load of logos and stuff for The System's Science Lab Studios. The management experience wasn’t all I hoped for but the experience and ‘in’ into the music industry was key. By the time Nick and I started The Designers Republic in 1986, I’d already got a pretty good track record and a book full of contacts. Most other designers or agencies were based in London, so we ended up doing record covers for bands like Age of Chance, Pop Will Eat Itself and The Wedding Present – basically because we were in the North. Sheffield was nearer to Manchester or Leeds than London.
Did people come to you expecting a ‘northern aesthetic’?
I think it was just a practical thing, nothing as deep as that. We never saw ourselves as having any particular aesthetic and we were never anti-London – just outside of it. There were certain people who wanted to use us because we weren’t just another London design company, and that’s probably because from the outside, any perceived ‘London scene’ can be seen as a hideous blob of self-satisfied self-interest. I don’t think it’s necessarily about people in London thinking London is so great, it’s just that because the UK is so capital-centric, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave or look outside – unless somewhere up north is ‘trending’. There’s this perception from people who are caught up in the rollercoaster of any city that anyone outside of that region, or regions like it, must be either behind the time or a bit yokel. But the less you leave your comfort zone – and this goes for anywhere – the more dull and incestuous your outlook becomes. Being outside of the capital gave us more freedom to do what we wanted to do, to succeed and fail on our terms, not to get swept away getting carried away looking for streets paved with gold.
Trends in London do seem to roll forward and gather inspiration from where they’ve been before.
Exactly, but there seems to be no time to stop and question whether the trend that you’re chasing or developing is actually worth chasing. For a long time, people in this country and internationally looked to London to set the trends and the pace, and that puts pressure on the people trying to make or catch those trends. The reality is that cities like London tend to be more interesting when things appear to go quiet. Culture moves underground, people do things because they want to or as a natural response or evolution to something, not because they perceive it as the thing to do.
But things have changed. Because of increased communications and networks – digital and otherwise – a lot of people who in the past would have felt compelled to move to London don’t need to anymore. You can’t deny London is a great city but it’s not an answer anymore, it’s a choice.
How did you first get involved with Warp?
Rob and his girlfriend Michelle were close friends of me and my ex. We used to hang out about four nights a week and go on holiday together or away for weekends. Rob used to work at FON and both he and Steve were in Lay of the Land (with Steve Havenhand before he joined Pulp). But I only properly met Steve when they came and said they were setting up a record label and asked for a bit of general advice and if we’d do a logo for them. I could say that it was because we were immensely talented but I think it was more convenience, it was a logical move.
What were their hopes for the label's identity at that time?
Around the mid-80s, there was a lot of stuff coming out – independent stuff, major label stuff, lots of imports – so there was an increasing amount of material on your shelves. Rob and Steve wanted something highly visible, instantly identifiable and collectible. They came in with a load of American imports they liked, and I told them, “The things you’re showing me are only identifiable and collectible because you want to collect them. They stand out from other styles of music but within their genre they all look the same.” There was nothing about those US labels' designs at the time that would lend itself towards what we could achieve with something like Warp, visually. We had to build up some kind of framework to deliver a mystique about what they were wanting to do.
We talked about something that we’d previously done for Sheffield’s Warp precursor FON Records. FON had wanted the label to be identifiable but didn't want to put out just one type of music – we were just coming out of post-punk so there was a lot of crossover of styles. We put a strip of black and white stripes down the left-hand side, across the spine and down the back, so if you put all your FON records together on your shelf, you had this block of highly visible, immediately identifiable black and white stripes. That allowed us to do whatever we wanted with the rest of the design. So that was in my mind — how we could evolve that idea. So we proposed we should just choose a colour and make everything that colour. Everything. To stand out against garish, over-designed house bags, we would reduce everything to one colour, one purple, one specific Pantone — bold enough to stand out from the noise but also dark enough to work on a white background with white reversed out of it.
What was the idea behind the globe logo?
The music Rob and Steve were looking at putting out from the beginning was kind of future-facing, it was really different, so we wanted to create something that echoed and messaged that futuristic aspect. But the obvious problem with any deliberately futuristic design is that it’s going to date. Ideas and visions of the future date so quickly, more quickly than time itself. Our perception of the future really tells us more about us now, our aspirations and our dreams. It’s so temporary and fragile. Nothing dates so badly as ‘the future’, so I looked at futuristic imagery from the past. I looked at old sci-fi, where any neo-futurist revisionism had already been unleashed, and where we could find a warm glow of nostalgia for the future from a time of utopian dreams rather than dystopian visions. I rewound back to the days of 50s sci-fi and Dan Dare, when the future was an adventure rather than a nightmare, and from when the future as we visualised it had dated as much as it was going to.
The other thing I always did with The Designers Republic was pitch a whole nation of design – an idea, a mission, a way of thinking – as much as a tangible entity. I wanted people to feel that they didn’t know who we were. Warp, in the same breath, had this mystique with people not knowing who was behind it, but seeing a sense or life in it that they felt they should be aware of. Everything was done in a playful way. In actual fact, The Designers Republic was at that time just two blokes in an old rehearsal studio in Sheffield, and Warp Records was just two blokes selling some records by people no-one had heard of out of the boot of their car.
How much of the early catalogue was your responsibility?
We did everything for the first ten years.
Have there been any bumps along the way?
When you work with people for decades, there will inevitably be a few disagreements. I’d occasionally have clashes with Steve because Steve was very practical. He’d call a spade a spade when I didn't want to call it anything. If you’d put us through one of those personality tests, we’d would have come out quite differently. But that wasn’t usually a problem. Once he’d bought into an idea, he was really into it. And I think it helped that Rob and I were close friends as we all obviously had shared interests and tastes.
Are all artists as responsive as you hope?
Everybody responds in their own way. An artist expresses themselves and that’s that but for a designer, there’s the same level of creativity but also a need to understand why people do what they do, what it is that they really want to say and how people will interpret that. So all responses are valuable. It’s different with Richard (Aphex Twin) than with Rob and Sean (Autechre). There are far fewer emails between Rich and me, and what conversations we do have tend to be off-topic. With ‘Syro’, there was an initial conversation and a few developmental conversations, but he’s more “Yeah, that’s brilliant”, unless there’s something he wants to change. Which isn’t to say when people step back that they’re not interested. It’s only the same as being in a restaurant. Some people like it if someone comes to check if the service is okay, some don’t. Everyone's different, thank fuck.
So Richard’s not much of a control freak?
I think he understands that he has control whenever he needs it so he doesn’t need to exert that all the time. I haven’t had as close a relationship with all artists as I had with Mark Bell (LFO) or with Autechre over the years, but I guess there’s a sense that after thirty years of The Designers Republic, people trust us to do what we do for them. I think if you’re a new client and don’t know much about us that’s one thing, but if you’re signed to Warp Records, well, you can look back and know you’re going to get a well-considered cover.
Do you always work on a story or do you occasionally do things off the cuff?
Every design starts with solving a problem, and the solution is usually expressed as a narrative. It’s never just about style or arranging colours, shapes and words. Unless that is the solution!
Our perception of the future really tells us more about us now, our aspirations and our dreams. It’s so temporary and fragile. Nothing dates so badly as ‘the future’
A lot of your work for Warp has an underlying social commentary. Was that ideology and purpose shared by the label?
Rob probably had less extreme views, but I think everyone in Sheffield at a certain time shared a political standing because you could see Thatcherite policies ruining the city. It wasn’t like living in the south-east where you had to watch a documentary or read a newspaper to understand: you could see the city falling apart through unemployment after the miners’ strikes. I read something the other day where someone said one of their hobbies was politics and I just thought, you know, that's like saying one of my hobbies is breathing. tDR’s ideology is my own, and therefore our own. We speak for ourselves and our design speaks for itself. Warp can speak for itself but maybe I can communicate it a little better. It’s the way you tell it!
Warp has been through a fair few musical phases in its thirty years. As a music fan, do you find it easier working on projects that align with your own taste?
No, not necessarily, because I don’t think packaging design should reflect the music per se. I’m not that interested in listening to the music before I start designing. I’m more interested in talking to the artist and finding out what it was that inspired them while they were making the music, what motivates them, who they are aiming at... and why? I’m looking to be on the same creative plane. If my role as visual communicator, graphic designer, whatever, is to relay a message from my client to their audience, then my interpretation of the music isn’t relevant. It’s much more important to understand why they made the album and who they are, what they want and where they’re going, and how we can connect that with an audience. And encourage sales, from a Warp perspective.
How does that compare with people you worked with longer and inevitably know better? Can that familiarity with their musical and aesthetic tendencies be blinding?
It’s the same process but even more so because you evolve a deeper relationship with those people. With Autechre, the interesting thing for me is that there’s an ongoing conversation. A typical conversation with Autechre, massively oversimplified, might start with: “What were you thinking with this album and how is it different to the previous one? What are you looking to communicate? How do you perceive the music?” I’ll often ask them what colour they see the album as. I think the reality is out of all the artists I’ve worked with on Warp, Autechre is the one that comes most naturally to me. The irony is that I have more conversations with Rob and Sean than I do with any other artist. But by the same token, those conversations are actually less necessary because I know them, and I know there’s a synergy between the way they think and the way I think.
In the past, you’ve referred to Oversteps as one of the artworks you are most proud of. Is that because of the strength of its narrative?
I think the one thing a creative should treasure is options. Saying X or Y or Z is a favourite… all that does is negate the possibility that they could all be favourites. But Oversteps is one piece of work that means a lot to me. I have always had this thing about humans versus technology. I’m fascinated by it, and my work is informed by the way that – in very visual, obvious ways during the early days of computers – people try to emulate or mimic machines. Even now, on a more subliminal level, we’re trying to be as effective as machines and do the tasks that we’ve developed machines to do.
One of the things Rob and Sean always used to say when they came to play me new material was, “This one’s a bit more hip hop than the last”. And I’d be thinking none of them have ever really been hip hop, but I kind of knew what they meant. Increasingly, the way they make music has been through developing and programming their own software, so they’ve got all these self-generated samples that they can interconnect. In some ways, their method of making music around the time of Oversteps had become less and less organic. You then have to ask the question: “Is it becoming less and less human?” They’re now making software to generate sound. Is that less human than playing an instrument or more human than using existing software? Maybe because I studied philosophy or maybe just because of the way my mind works, I find these questions more interesting than the music. I like listening to music – I’m obsessed by music – but it inspires a response in me, not a creative thought.
So initially when they came in, I thought of Oversteps as the least organic album they’d done. But funnily enough, the first thing that came to mind was that there was a real kind of ambience to one of the tracks. Even when I listen back now, I can’t generate the same response. But the ambience of it sounded a bit like when you go into a church for a wedding and the organ player plays a few random notes. It’s not a tune necessarily, you just get this sort of ambient sound from the acoustics in the church. And that’s what I got from this track on Oversteps. That started me thinking again on this man versus the machine thing. I was thinking about what we can do that machines can’t and vice versa, and the one thing a computer can do instantly that a human can’t do is draw the perfect circle. A computer finds it more difficult to not draw a perfect circle, you’d have to engineer glitches and imperfections. I started thinking how many times you’d need to draw a circle to get a perfect one. Or if you overlaid and twisted circles that you’d drawn on tracing paper, maybe at some point you’d be able to build a perfect circle. I worked out, given the formats that we’d been asked to design for – CDs, vinyl, inner sleeves, outer sleeves, boxes, labels, t-shirts, magazine ads, posters, potential backdrops – that we’d have seventy-two opportunities. So I asked the people in the studio to make seventy-two attempts at a perfect circle, some with paintbrushes, some were done with felt tip pens. So whenever you see a circle on one of the different formats, every one of them’s different. Every label’s different, every cover’s different, every different format is different. So I suppose that’s one of my favourites because there’s a visual and conceptual glitch to it but there’s also a big idea. There’s a plan to it, it’s not random. It’s planned random. Plandom.
Every design starts with solving a problem, and the solution is usually expressed as a narrative.
Do tDR fans tend to have a favourite cover?
Recently, in a Warp context, it’s been ‘Syro’. Partly because it was Richard’s first album for eleven years but also because it didn’t match their preconceptions of what a cover should be or what an Aphex cover should be. We didn’t work that closely in design terms with Richard back in the day. We did quite a few covers and I knew him, but he did a lot himself or with other people. The main imagery for ‘Come to Daddy’ and ‘Windowlicker’ was done with Chris Cunningham, then we took that stuff and made them into packaging. There’s a lot of design in there, a lot of deconstructed stuff on ‘Come to Daddy’, but back then we had more of a “Hi, how you doing?” relationship.
How has that changed over the years?
I think what’s happened is that we’ve all grown up and evolved. You get to a certain age that when you go out, there are fewer and fewer of the people you used to know out. Eleven years ago, I could go to pretty much any bar in Sheffield and see someone I knew. But for whatever reason, people drop out and they aren’t there anymore. And that’s kind of what Rich and I talked about a bit during Syro. There’s a more limited number of people you can trust to know what you’re talking about and who can empathise with you, who have an understanding built on comparable experiences. So ‘Syro’ was almost like the first time we’d properly spoken, apart from when Rob died. Rich knew I had been really close with Rob and I knew he had, but it wasn’t until ‘Syro’ that we really talked a lot. The eleven-year gap was no pressure on our relationship. There was no sense that we needed to do something impressive. From Warp’s perspective, there may have been that business pressure to maximise the potential of that release. But for Richard and me, it wasn’t there.
To a large degree, the cover did represent why he hadn’t released an album for eleven years which was: primarily, when you have to market and sell a record, the music becomes a product. And that’s unavoidable. It’s nothing to do with an evil capitalist empire. People need to sell records because that is the nature of their job. So the cover of ‘Syro’ very much references the fact that creativity is transformed on one level into just being about units, and discussion about the creativity of an artist or a designer is used as a means of shifting more units. On the inner sleeve, it details the software and hardware used on every track. The outer cover tells you all of the expenses and deconstructs the promotion and marketing process. In some ways, it tells you exactly how to make an album. But obviously, it doesn’t. It’s the idea of disinformation: the more we tell you, the less you really know.
What do you think of what younger artists are doing in the present day?
I run a series of workshops mainly at Manchester School of Art and I do find it frustrating that no matter how much you give the students permission to take ownership of an idea, they have a certain amount of trepidation when facing a blank canvas and a non-creative desire to do the right thing. So I set them a series of impossible briefs. There aren’t any answers, it’s just a chance to pull the safety net away and see what they can come up with.
To my mind, it does seem that there’s a prevailing dull, consensus culture that artists need to overcome. There are a lot more placebos to keep you happy. Everyone watches the same box-sets, and trends tend to be much further reaching because of social media. With the state of the nation as it is, I think young people should be on the streets. If I was that age, I’d be like, “I’m not fucking standing for this”. I do see a lot of interesting things but nothing breaking the mould necessarily. The more choice you’re given, the less likely you are to choose something that hasn’t been put in front of you. So you get generation upon generation who are losing sight of the most interesting choices, the ones that haven’t been given to them, the choices that you make for yourself.
Do you have any issue with seeing what you might call your design signature periodically imitated and referenced?
If you set your stall out to do something that’s always different and evolving, then one of two things will happen. One: people won’t notice you because you’re not following other things, which goes back to the rolling trends we were talking about in London. Because if they don’t notice what you’re doing, then they won’t see it or act on it. Two: people will think what you’re doing is really exciting and incorporate it into their lifestyles, and then it will be regarded as a new trend and people will start copying you. If you’re successful at getting people’s attention, the only way you can carry on getting their attention is to reinvent things and do new things.
For one reason or another, even after three or four years, we were being copied all the time. That might have been because we influenced people, or because they wanted to celebrate what we were doing, or maybe because we inadvertently created a visual vernacular for a certain genre of music through working with Warp and R&S. But we’ve always been used to being copied. There were articles in the 90s about The Designers Republic being the most copied design house in the world. So if the current zeitgeist wants to reference the 90s, it’s not going to look 90s if it doesn’t look like us.