From consumer to customer, motoring to membership and business to business – here’s a selection of magazines that we’ve designed over the years.
We relish the demands and discipline of newspaper design and in today’s fast changing media landscape a great looking, well crafted newspaper is more important than ever.
Including cricket match-day programmes, company brochures, complex annual reports and accounts, branding and other marketing material.
Above: Part of the splendid LCC Graphics Degree Show 2017 exhibition space
Notebook: 24 May 2018 | DEGREE SHOWS
This year’s summer art and design degree shows are less than a month away. If you are a final year graphic design student, it’s your one big moment to show off the culmination of your three year’s hard work studying at university – hopefully you will have a collection of brilliant design work that you are proud of – so make the most of your opportunity to display it to its very best – it might just help you secure your first job.
For many years I was Creative Director at Archant Dialogue, a large content marketing agency based in Norwich. We produced a wide range of different types of magazine for companies that included well known brands such as Saab, Harley-Davidson, CenterParcs, British Showjumping, London Symphony Orchestra, Porsche, Rolls Royce, AGA and Royal Ascot. I had a large team of designers, and over the years, many of them were recruited as graduates directly from the excellent Design for Publishing course at Norwich University of the Arts which we were lucky to have on our doorstep. Each summer I would visit the degree show with my senior designers and we would look out for talented young designers who might want to join our team. We were on the hunt specifically for magazine designers and so we kept a sharp eye out for those students who clearly had a good understanding and flair for typography and picture use. The shows were important to us – they were a quick and easy way for us to recruit new blood. Here are my thoughts on how a student can best present their work and increase their chance of being noticed:
• Try to ensure that your exhibition space is clean, free of clutter, airy and generous, with plenty of room to display your work and room for visitors to circulate freely around it. Don’t try to cram too much in. Plan your space carefully – treat it as a design project in its own right. You may not have much say in the space that you are provided with but you can spend time plotting what you will show and where you will place it.
• Make it easy for visitors to digest the work on display. Friends and family may struggle to understand the work and prospective employers may be pushed for time – so ideally every design needs to have a simple caption that quickly explains the project. A couple of years ago I visited a show where the work was beautifully presented but because it was a course that was pushing at the boundaries of, and questioning, graphic design and visual communication, it was difficult to understand many of the exhibits on show – there were no captions, no printed guide, no website and not even a student around who I could ask to help explain it. I needed a way ‘in’. Remember – graphic design is all about communication. Make sure your audience understand your work – otherwise you’ve lost them at the door.
• Prospective employers need students’ contact details and these are best provided by a show guide or brochure as well as a website (if the course has organised these), rather than business cards which can quickly run out. And make sure that your space is clearly labelled with your name.
• Employers like to see a range of work, rather than just one piece on display, so have additional work available to view on a show website, or better still in a portfolio or book of extra work tucked to one side.
• Ideally the work needs to be a mix of projects that demonstrate more experimental creative thinking alongside designs that show that a student is industry-ready.
• Some shows chose to split up students’ work and this can help the visitor make a comparison between project types (such as the cluster of book jackets pictured above). If this is the case, it is important that tutors/exhibition organisers make sure that it’s easy for the visitor to locate the rest of a student’s work.
• Go easy on presentation fads such as bull-dog clips or particle board. Personally, I prefer to see work mounted, and crisply trimmed out, on good old Featherlite board.
• Remember it’s the one big moment to show off the culmination of three years studying at university so plan it well, make sure the production qualities are 100% and select only your best work.
Notebook: 30 April, 2018 | BRANDING | PHOTOGRAPHY
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism rally and concert in Trafalgar Square and Victoria Park. I was one of the thousands who gathered in the square on that day in 1978 and marched to the park. Here’s my recollections of the period and of that remarkable day from 40 years ago.
Sometime in late 1977 I was drinking in a pub in Coventry with fellow art students. I had one of the distinctive Anti-Nazi League badges pinned to my hairy blue mohair jumper. I was suddenly approached by a burly pub regular who tore the badge from my jumper and tossed it to the floor. We were clearly not welcome in that pub and we swiftly drank our pints and left…
The Anti-Nazi League (ANL) had been founded in 1977 in opposition to far right racist and fascist organisations such as the National Front (NF) which were gaining in popularity especially amongst younger people. The ANL and its sister organisation, Rock against Racism (RAR), had a distinctive visual identity which had been created by David King, the ex-Sunday Times Magazine art editor (1965-1975) and his bold black, red and yellow designs for pin badges, advertisements, posters, placards and banners became a familiar motif to the ANL campaign.
Above: The distinctive ANL and RAR badges designed by David King.
Below: One of King’s bold posters. The ANL branding used the font Franklin Gothic Bold.
In February 1978, the Young National Front held a meeting at Digbeth Town Hall in Birmingham and the ANL organised a counter demonstration in protest. The student’s union at the polytechnic in Coventry put on a bus to take students from Cov’ to Brum, and myself and a couple of friends joined the ride and marched from New Street Station to Digbeth. As we waited for the demo to assemble outside the town hall I remember seeing two young police officers, not much older than ourselves, swigging from a small bottle of whisky – presumably to give themselves some Dutch courage in the face of the gathering protesters. As I recall, the demo ended peacefully, but the atmosphere had been tense and unnerving for all sides, with mounted police cantering along the street.
In March ’78, the ANL’s eye-catching fly-posters, announcing the London march and concert, appeared around the polytechnic campus and in adverts in the music press. There would be a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a march to Victoria Park with a concert that would feature Birmingham reggae band Steel Pulse, the Tom Robinson Band and others. Late additions to the line-up included punk bands The Clash and X-Ray Spex.
On the day, the student’s union organised free transport from Coventry and our coach joined hoards of others from across the UK which descended upon London. Trafalgar Square was jam-packed and buzzing with 50,000 people and I remember standing on the steps of St-Martin-In-the Field soaking up the joyous, carnival atmosphere and enjoying the spring sunshine that had replaced the rain earlier in the day.
A steady stream of protestors exited the square along The Strand and started to make their way towards Victoria Park for the concert. We imagined that the park was near Victoria station just a mile down the road but we quickly discovered that it was a seven mile walk away in the East End! The marchers were all in good spirits and we made our way down past St Paul’s Cathedral, through the City and out through Spitalfields along Bethnal Green Road. The only tense moment was as we passed a pub in Bethnal Green with Union Jacks draped from the windows and with a handful of snarling NF supporters standing outside.
We arrived at Victoria Park. There was a stage at the west end of the park and the bands had already started playing. The crowd quickly swelled to 80,000 people and it was impossible to get close to the stage – many people had climbed the trees and were perched in the branches to get a better view. The sound system wasn’t great and we didn’t get to see much of The Clash or the other bands, but we weren’t too bothered – we were weary from the march and so we crashed out on the park grass with cans of beer and enjoyed the atmosphere.
RAR photographer Syd Shelton’s famous picture of The Clash’s Paul Simonon on stage at Victoria Park. See links below.
Alongside the northern perimeter of the park there was a huge line of coaches parked up and ready to take carnival goers back to the provinces. We tracked down our bus and eventually arrived back in Coventry late in the evening, tired but happy that we’d helped in a very small way in the fight against the scourge of racism.
Take a look (16.24 mins in) at some excellent recollections of the day from musicians Billy Bragg and Polystyrene, carnival organisers Red Saunders, Syd Shelton and Roger Huddle, and film director Gurinder Chadha, plus lots of footage of the march, background info on RAR, The Clash thumping out White Riot and the fantastic Polystyrene performing Oh Bondage, Up Yours!.
It’s one of three very good YouTube videos by Alan Miles charting the history of RAR.
Short clip of The Clash on stage at Victoria Park performing London’s Burning.
This is good: RAR photographer Syd Shelton talks about his work, and here is The Guardian’s profile of Shelton, Rock Against Racism: the Syd Shelton images that define an era.
Daniel Rachel’s book Walls Come Tumbling Down is a good account of the music and politics of RAR, 2 Tone and Red Wedge.
Yesterday (Sunday 29 April 2018) I celebrated the event of 40 years ago by re-walking the route with my wife Helen. As we made our way along Bethnal Green Road we remembered the story that Helen’s mum had told of how, in 1940 as a young girl, she had marched with many other children and their suitcases along Bethnal Green Road in the opposite direction, to catch trains from Liverpool St Station as evacuees from the Blitz and the Nazi bombs.
Notebook: 8 April 2018 | MAGAZINES
A profile of Andy Cowles – international, multi-award winning creative development director
On Tuesday, 11 September 2001 I was attending a business conference with colleagues in London’s Docklands. As we were eating our buffet lunch, there was news of a plane crashing into the Twin Towers in New York – and before the lunch was finished there was confirmation that it was some sort of terrorist attack. With the meeting over, we quickly made our way home – a rumour had spread that an attack was also planned for Canary Wharf, which was the tallest building in the UK at the time, and just down the road from where we were. We were glad to be back on the train and heading home for Norfolk…
In New York, Andy Cowles had been on his early morning run. He was living in Manhattan’s West Village and as he jogged down the West Side Highway he overheard a couple of workmen chatting about a low-flying plane – and as his eyes were drawn skywards, he saw the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. It was so high above him that he mistook it for a light aircraft and continued his run around Battery Park and then headed back up the West Highway for home. Glancing over his shoulder he was startled and dumbfounded to see a second plane hit the south tower…
For Andy Cowles 9/11 has understandably become one of the most significant moments in his life and in the days immediately after the attack his overwhelming emotion was one of outrage, how dare this happen! – and in that moment he became a New Yorker and felt a bond with the city, which will never leave him. It was only later that the overwhelming horror of the event set in.
Cowles was an Englishman in New York and at the time of 9/11 he’d been in the city for just a few weeks. He’d landed the job of Creative Director on Condé Nast’s legendary Mademoiselle magazine – which had been on the go since 1935. His brief was to re-imagine the title for a younger and smarter audience.
Mademoiselle Magazine used the quirky sans serif font Chalet by House Industries
Cowles had established himself as one of the UK’s leading magazine creative directors back in the mid 1980s working on the launches and early issues of Q, Empire and Mojo (all published by EMAP and later bought out by Bauer). He had a knack for knowing and understanding his readership – and together with his fellow editors, they were able to create publications that had real emotional engagement with their audiences. Take Q for instance: it was created to give regular music lovers an alternative to the tribal rock press of the day – they were saying to their reader, it doesn’t matter what genre of music you like or don’t like, you are welcome here at Q. We are a broad church – and the audience was respected. Q identified a huge gap in the music press market which they rapidly filled and the magazine became an overnight publishing phenomenon.
Left: Writer Tom Hibberts’ hugely successful Who The Hell..? column
Right: New Q Gothic, drawn by Andy Cowles specifically for the magazine. This typeface replaced Grotesque No.9 sometime around Q80
The best magazines are born when there is great teamwork between editors and designers with all working together for the common good. Teamwork is a fundamental requisite but it doesn’t always happen – and it is not uncommon in publishing for editors to ride roughshod over designers or for designers to be intransigent and unwilling to accept an editor’s point of view. This was never the case at Q. The founding editors Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, who were brilliant journalists from the old rock press, were both highly visual and understood the crucial role that design had to play – and conversely, designer Andy Cowles thought like a journalist and used design, not just as decoration to be painted on, but to help tell the story and hit a touchpoint with the reader. It was a heady mix of talented and creative people sparking together at the right time and their unstoppable energy resulted in, in Cowles words, a magazine that was bitingly funny, beautifully written and with a presentation to match and the brand gave male readers in particular a sense of identity that few contemporary titles have yet to equal.
Andy Cowles’ journalistic approach to design stemmed from way back. With a fellow student at school, they had designed, edited and published an ‘alternative’ school magazine. The headmaster had decried it offensive and ordered all copies to be burnt but the editorial committee held a couple back and entered them into The Sunday Times school magazine competition and it duly became a joint winner, with one of the judges, who just happened to be the headmaster of Eton at the time, describing it as gloriously irreverent! Following this early foray into publishing, Cowles went on to study graphic design at Bristol Polytechnic and upon graduating, and still with a taste for words, pictures and paper, took a job at EMAP in Peterborough on Horse and Pony mag. He progressed from there to become art editor on Melody Maker and then on to EMAP’s Carnaby Street office (home of Smash Hits) to work on the launch of Looks, a hair, fashion and beauty magazine and then onto Q, Empire and Mojo.
The film magazine Empire was, and still is, a hugely popular magazine and at the time of its launch in 1989 there were no other glossy mainstream film magazines quite like it, so it was plugging another well-spotted gap in the marketplace. Music mag Mojo built on Q’s success but was aimed at a slightly older reader interested in a deeper level of authenticity. Looking back at those brilliant early issues of Mojo, it is clear that this is some of Andy Cowles’ finest design work. The layouts draw you in and leave you wanting to read more about the musicians and their music. Pages are bold but always very carefully crafted and Cowles is an expert at combining superb typography with impactful imagery, always edited and cropped in just the right way. When this is all combined with the snappy words of the editor, at the time, Paul Du Noyer, the result is irresistible – no wonder Mojo became the UK’s best selling music monthly.
Cowles continued to work for EMAP for much of the 90s working on a range of launches including Premiere, Total Sport, Fore, and Ride and carrying out redevelopment work for many of the existing titles such as Angling Times, Country Walking and Trail which were all given the same vitality and emotional engagement with the reader that he’d brought to Q and Mojo. He also spent some time with News Corp redesigning the News of the World’s Sunday Magazine and on the launch of an award-winning astrology magazine, Know Your Own Destiny.
In 2001 he made the move to New York to work on Mademoiselle at the Condé Nast office in Times Square. Think of the actor Stanley Tucci’s part as the creative director in The Devil Wears Prada and you begin to get an idea of the world that Cowles had moved into – this was Condé Nast at the height of its success with huge budgets and big teams working across its portfolio of titles… However, the attacks on the World Trade Center heralded a downturn in the publishing sector and in Mademoiselle’s fortunes in particular. The magazine had already been losing money on its ad’ sales in the fiercely competitive women’s magazine market and 9/11 became the nail in its coffin. Despite its 66 year history and a circulation of over one million, plus Andy Cowles’ best efforts to redesign it for a younger, smarter audience, it was closed six months after Cowles had started and he found himself jobless.
In a weird act of serendipity, Cowles heard on the grapevine that Rolling Stone were looking for a new head of design (legendary art director Fred Woodward had just left Rolling Stone magazine, after 14 years tenancy, to take a job as creative director on American GQ at Condé Nast). Cowles contacted Rolling Stone’s owner Jann Wenner, told him that he was the man for the job, and Wenner, who was a fan of Mojo magazine, took the Englishman onboard. It was a case of right place, right time. Cowles’ brief was to head off the challenge to Rolling Stone from new insurgent European titles such as Maxim and Blender and he did this with a more robust design but without compromising the heritage and identity of what was one of the world’s most iconic media brands. A selection of covers, from Cowles’ time at Rolling Stone are shown below, all of them bristling with rich typography and strong, powerful images.
Working for Jann Wenner had its pleasures and its perils – he was a notoriously difficult publisher to operate under, and after a couple of years or so, and feeling homesick for the UK, Cowles felt that it was time to beat a pathway back to London and so he took a job as creative director at IPC on London’s southbank, overseeing all their titles. The role later morphed into ‘editorial development director’ which reflected Cowles’ much broader understanding of the industry and played to the best of his abilities – not just as a designer, but as a copywriter, ideas man, moderniser and publishing and content guru. It was a busy and exciting time with IPC: they had a large programme of new launches including the huge circulation women’s weekly Pick Me Up! (Cowles’ title), compact TV listings mag TV Easy and the Good To Know website (also Cowles’ title)
Cooking Light for IPC’s US parent company Time Inc
Cowles found it easy to switch from one sector to another – one minute working on mass-market titles such as TV Times and the next, on more specialist or upmarket magazines such as the re-mix of huge brands like Country Life, Marie Claire or Horse and Hound to further increase their sales. And he was able to retain his bond with the US by spending some time back in NYC working on Time Inc’s huge Cooking Light, Health and People brands. (Time Inc owned IPC in the UK). One project, amongst many during his time with IPC, that captures his intelligent thinking and wide ranging skills (designer, copywriter, marketeer…), was the ingenious idea he had for promoting the IPC brand. His brief was to remind advertising agencies of the power and reach of the huge IPC/Time Inc portfolio. A roadshow was created and it included a radical pop-up photoshoot and design studio that allowed agency staff to appear on the cover of either NME or Marie Claire. Their finished cover was then sent to the social network of their choice within minutes. It was a clever and witty solution and it ensured that Time Inc. brands remained in the hearts and minds of the agencies. Each cover was written and designed by Cowles in the space of five or so minutes and were shot by the celebrity photographer Neil Cooper pictured at work below. You can read more here.
Andy Cowles’ mantra has always been to respect your audience, put them first and win them over with large dollops of emotional engagement (his so-called secret sauce) and high levels of editorial quality – in other words: understand who your reader is, develop their trust, build bridges by giving them high levels of access to content – and then they’ll come across.
Cowles continues to be one of the UK’s leading creative development directors. Since 2013 he has run his own company Cowles Media creating and reinventing powerful identities for media brands worldwide. Recent projects have included branding work for American Airlines, The Homebuilding and Renovating Show, Horse & Hound and management consultancy Vendigital.
American Way in-flight magazine and app for American Airlines
Graphic designer and author Craig Oldham recently said: “The designer who can speak powerfully and persuasively in front of listeners will outstrip others every time. The gift-of-the gab isn’t about bullshitting, it’s about understanding what you need to say and saying it with passion”¹. Andy Cowles has that gift – he is a powerful communicator and an engaging speaker and teacher, and for many years he has spoken regularly at high profile industry events. He also runs brand and content workshops, for instance for ITV’s Loose Women and he is a Guardian Masterclass trainer. You can catch Andy Cowles speaking on Good design is good business at the PPA Festival at Tobacco Dock in London next month (10 May 2018).
At the end of May, Cowles will return to the streets of Manhattan – this time to take part in The Art of Rolling Stone – a one-day conference devoted to the typography, photography, and design of Rolling Stone. Three generations of art directors from 1967 to 2018, including Andy Cowles, will present their work, tell their stories and share the contributions that they have made to this iconic publication. If you are in New York on Friday 25 May, don’t miss it – you are in for a treat!
In 2009 Cowles was awarded the BSME Mark Boxer award which is presented each year to an individual who, in the opinion of the BSME Committee, has made an outstanding editorial contribution to magazines in this country.
¹From Oh Sh*t, What Now by Craig Oldham and published by Laurence King, April, 2018.
My review of the book here.
Notebook: Friday 13 April 2018 | MAGAZINES | PHOTOGRAPHY
In February this year there was sad news that the The Hyman Archive, the world’s largest collection of magazines, had gone into administration. The collection was started by James Hyman 30 years ago and contains more than 5,000 different publications and 120,000 different issues which are housed in a Woolwich warehouse. It began operating as a business in September 2014 and attracted various paying customers from academia and the media. There had been plans to digitise the whole collection to make it available online but I guess these have now all ground to a halt.
Recently I stumbled across another big magazine collection called Magazine Canteen which is owned and curated by Warren Casey from a large ex-hotel in Cumbria. The collection is smaller than the Hyman Archive but still numbers around 30,000 magazines. Warren began collecting magazines 30 years ago, starting with Smash Hits and he specialises in titles that he is personally interested in such as fashion, music and lifestyle. Unlike the Hyman Collection, the majority of Magazine Canteen’s mags are all for sale although Warren always tries to maintain a full collection of his favourites such as ID, GQ and the Sunday Times magazine. I was particularly interested in the old Sunday Times and Observer mags – Warren has every issue since they were both launched in the early 60s – and a small selection of covers with photos by Don McCullin and Brian Duffy are shown below.
I spent far too long gorging myself on Magazine Canteen’s Instagram site which will give you a real taster of just some of the thousands of magazines held in Warren Casey’s collection – here are a couple of images that caught my eye.
All Good Magazines go to Heaven: A January 2018 feature from the New York Times about the Hyman Archive, written just before they went into administration.
Notebook: 28 March 2018 | BOOK REVIEW
Oh Sh*t, What Now? Honest Advice for New Graphic Designers by Craig Oldham. Published by Laurence King April 2018
What a great book. It’s full of advice for young designers just setting out into the world of graphic design with words of wisdom on topics such as, education, internships, portfolios, landing your first job, personal development, risk-taking and plenty more.
It’s written by Craig Oldham who describes himself variously as a designer, teacher, writer, publisher, campaigner and Yorkshireman. He has an energy and passion for life that comes across in his writing – and if he can inspire a grumpy designer like myself, who is old enough to be his dad, then he’ll certainly inspire younger people. Yes, I like Craig Oldham. He seems like a good bloke and he drinks lots of tea.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see Craig talk or you’ve watched a clip of him on YouTube, you’ll know that he is very engaging and has a natural talent for telling a story and delivering his message – and that he also doesn’t mince his words. He swears a lot, “because, sometimes working in design is shit. This book will offer advice on what to do if things get hard or if you fuck up”. But I don’t mind his strong language – designers often need a release when their macs crash mid-flow or worse still, when a client asks for unfathomable changes to a design. It shows that they care about what they do.
The book is very readable and I’ve listed some of my favourites tips here (with paraphrasing):
Craig on Gap Years. Avoid them. They might broaden your mind, but as a young designer you are in danger of losing the powerful momentum and enthusiasm that you have for design when you graduate. (I have first-hand experience of this. A four month break in the USA after uni’ left me distracted and empty of the passion I’d had for design just a few months earlier.)
Craig on Interviews. It’s all very well having a great looking portfolio but your interviewer will also be making a judgement on how well you might fit into their team so be enthusiastic – interested and interesting. Know your work inside out (and do your homework on your prospective employer). Relax and always be yourself – don’t try to be anyone else.
Craig on Andy. Craig tells a good story about his university friend Andy who was very talented and one of the best students in his year group, but when he left, he just couldn’t get a job in graphics – and when he finally did, a year of unemployment had drained him of his interest in design and he bombed out and became a chef. Andy was just unlucky – wrong place at the wrong time. Craig offers advice on how to approach the problem of being unable to secure that first job offer, by taking a variety of novel approaches.
Craig on ideas. Be open to influence – embrace existing great ideas, learn from them, and transfer the relevant ones into your own work – it’s not where you get the idea from, it’s where you go with it.
Clients. As Craig says, look after them! They pay your bills so treat them well. Some of them may well be a pain in the arse but make sure that you still deliver them great work, on time. (I worked for many years at a contract publishing agency with a lovely colleague called Chris who was the client services director and whenever clients visited he always insisted on getting out the ‘posh’ chocolate biscuits and the best china. All the clients loved Chris!)
Craig on The Brief. As designers our job is to solve problems and the brief will define that problem. So question the brief, interrogate it and make sure you understand it (and the problem that is held therein and that needs solving). Ignore a brief at your peril. As a magazine designer I have often had clients who’ve asked for a redesign without stating why they think their magazine needs redesigning or listing what the problems might be with the old mag so sometimes it is down to the designer to tease out this information and to construct their own brief. Craig also reminds us that if we are struggling for ideas for a design solution then we may be looking in the wrong place and that we should go back and re-read the brief. The idea will always be there right under your nose in the brief just waiting to be prised out.
Craig on Communicating. The designer who can speak powerfully and persuasively in front of listeners will outstrip others every time. The gift-of-the gab isn’t about bullshitting, it’s about understanding what you need to say and saying it with passion.
Craig Oldham’s book contains many other pearls of wisdom – all written in his engaging, funny and honest way. The only advice that seems to be missing from the book is any tips for students on the best way of presenting their work in their degree shows – although often this is out of their control anyway, and in the hands of their tutors. I’ve taken the liberty of including a few of my own tips on this at the end of this post.
The book has a striking design with bold typography and delicious pink and green fluorescent inks and many of the pages are printed on a thick and very tactile ‘beermat’ board (although this does make the book difficult to cradle in your hands and to flick through). There are a couple of production issues with page numbers missing on some of the pages plus some of the fine ‘white-out’ serif type is filling in. But none of this stops it from being a great read and a valuable source of tips and inspiration for design graduates (and even older designers like myself).
Now, if you want to find out how Craig makes a dog drink, you’ll just have to buy a copy of the book…
More here from the publisher Laurence King and here is a good interview with Craig Oldham talking about the book to Form Fifty Five. And here’s a brilliant, very funny and very moving talk by Craig for Nicer Tuesdays about one of his previous books, In Loving Memory of Work about the Miners’ Strike in 1984 (Craig’s father was a miner who was arrested on the picket line). Craig runs a design company called The Office of Craig Oldham.
My tips for students on the best ways to present their work in their final-year degree show.
• Make it easy for visitors to digest the work on display. Friends and family may struggle to understand the work and prospective employers may be pushed for time – so ideally every design needs to have a simple caption that quickly explains the work.
• Prospective employers need students’ contact details and these are best provided by a show guide or brochure as well as a website (if the course has organised these), rather than business cards which can quickly run out.
• Employers like to see a range of work, rather than just one piece on display, so have additional work available to view on a show website, or better still in a portfolio or book of extra work tucked to one side.
• Ideally the work needs to be a mix of projects that demonstrate more experimental creative thinking alongside designs that show that a student is ‘industry ready’.
• Some shows chose to split up students’ work and this can help the visitor make a comparison between project types – but then it’s important that tutors/exhibition organisers make sure that it’s easy for the visitor to locate the rest of a student’s work.
• Go easy on presentation gimmicks such as bull-dog clips, particle board or heaven forbid… rubber plants.
• Remember it’s the one big moment to show off the culmination of three years studying at university so plan it well, make sure the production qualities are 100% and select only your best work.
Picture: Plaster of Paris dogs – the remains of a model explaining how odour TV might have worked. See below…
Notebook: 11 March 2018 | SMELL
I’d just completed a couple of days design teaching in Sheffield and I was travelling home on the train. At Nottingham a flood of passengers poured off but they were quickly replaced by another hoard that clambered on. Out the corner of my eye I saw a rosey faced woman bustle down the aisle and take her seat and as she passed, I smelt her go by. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell – quite the opposite. Outside it was cold and I imagined that the woman had had a long walk to the station because she had picked up the smell of the cool fresh air – that same delicious fragrance that you notice when you gather in freshly laundered washing that has spent a day drying in the fresh air on a washing line. It was a comforting smell and it reminded me of my mother.
When I was a child, mum had worked part time as a nurse at a hospital on the other side of town. Mum never learnt to drive and so she would walk the two miles to the hospital and then two miles back again. Often I would come back from school to an empty house and I would look forward to mum returning from work and when she came through the door I was aware of the smell of the cold air on her clothes mixed in with the leather smells of her bag and gloves. Then we would sit down together and have a chat over a cup of tea (before the days I had turned into a moody and uncommunicative adolescent…). Perfumers have tried to capture that delicious fresh air smell in a bottle with varying degrees of success and if you look you can sniff out their different concoctions.
I’ve always been intrigued by the power of our sense of smell – how we can catch a scent in the air that sometimes unlocks a strong emotion and reminds us of a time or place – and for a brief moment on that train, I had been transported, not to my home in Norfolk, but to a small house in Berkshire where I had grown up and had sat waiting for mum to return from work.
This is the second of two articles about our underused sense of smell. In the first I wrote about my great uncle’s collection of perfume ingredients: An Olfactory Excursion, Part 1: Uncle Ernie. My follow-up piece, Odour Television, is about a three-dimensional display explaining how a smell-emitting television could work and it was created for my final-year major design project as a graphics student at the Royal College of Art.
It was 1982 and I was studying for an MA in Graphic Information (information design) and in the 2nd year I had to undertake a 10,000 word dissertation on a topic of my choosing that was related to art and design. Three years earlier I’d written a worthy but pretty dull thesis on map design for my BA, and so second time around, I was determined to research and write about a subject that had a bit more spice – and something that intrigued me but that I knew little about. Digging around for a topic, I remembered my great uncle’s box of perfume ingredients which had sparked my fascination in our sense of smell – the most mysterious and least understood of the five senses. It felt like a rich hunting ground for research. I read as much on the subject that I could lay my hands on – not just on perfumery and our emotional response to smell – but on the physiology of olfaction as well. I quickly discovered that scientists didn’t really understand how smell worked and still to this day they argue over whether different smells are identified in the nose by the physical shape of individual molecules or by vibrations that the molecules emit.
With my research complete, I settled on an angle and wrote up the thesis. It seemed only natural to have some physical smells that the reader could refer to and sniff as they went along, and so I gathered together eight odours that were relevant to the copy, placed them in sealable test-tubes and packaged the whole thing in a box – which is pictured below.
Perfume bottle symbols in the left-hand margin indicated to the reader when to sniff one of the accompanying smells. The thesis was typeset on an IBM Selectric Composer typewriter in Letter Gothic – a typewriter face with a large x-height designed in 1956 and a sister face to the well known Courier designed by Howard Kettler a year earlier.
Now for the smelly telly bit and those dogs…
When I was carrying out my research, I had free and easy access to the library at the Imperial College of Science and Technology which was just down the road from the RCA. Like many libraries, it smelt of musty old books and furniture polish. On a shelf full of old bound copies of Electronics and Power magazine I came across an obscure feature in the January 1968 issue entitled ‘How About Odour Television?’ by an electrical engineer called JP Deignan.
He’d mused on the challenge of inventing odour television and had come up with a crazy, tongue-in-cheek idea. As I wrestled with his description of how it might work I sketched his idea on a scrap of paper to make more sense of it. Now, remember that the MA course that I was undertaking specialised in information design – that is taking complex information and presenting it in such a way that the user can understand it much more easily (think of a well designed timetable or the London Underground map). Reading Deignan’s odour TV feature I knew it would make a great subject for the major design project that had to be undertaken as part of my final-year show. I would explain his thinking and his proposal for odour TV in the form of a diagram – not as a flat diagram on paper – but as an interactive three-dimensional display.
JP Deignan’s idea was based on the theory (at the time) that there were seven ‘primary’ odours that could be mixed together to produce any smell – in the same way that we can mix the three primary colours to make any hue. He proposed that a television could contain those seven primaries which would be heated by certain amounts, mixed together and then released into the room to match the pictures on screen. The big problem he faced, which scientists have still to find an answer to, was: how on earth do you record a smell (in order that you can then transmit it in the case of TV) and then reproduce it? We can record sound and images but we are still unable to capture a scent. Deignan’s off-beat and playful solution was to use Pavlovian trained dogs – with each dog trained to recognise one of the seven primary smells. More on the dogs in a moment…
I produced many sketches for my three-dimensional diagram and then spent two or three weeks camped in the RCA workshops slowly building my model which was finally assembled in situ as part of the final show. The only record I have of the exhibit are some blurry photos which I’ve reproduced below. I hope they help explain JP Deignan’s novel idea – I’ve added in extended picture captions to help.
An overview of the odour television model with (l-r) the TV studio, odour/air mixing boxes, the odour detectors (21 dogs!), amplifier/modulator and radio mast and the television. Above the model are examples of the seven primary smells. The white coiled tube on the left, runs down from a bag (out of sight) that acts as a reservoir of odourless air.
The seven primary smells: musky, camphoraceous, floral, peppermint, ethereal, pungent and putrid. Mix these together in different combinations to reproduce all known smells…
1. The Television Studio. TV chef Fanny Craddock is making a strawberry flan. The smell of strawberries is made up from a mix of the primary odours – 14% musky, 48% floral, 26% ethereal and 12% pungent (0% camphoraceous, 0% peppermint, 0% putrid)
2 The Mixing Boxes. The smell of the strawberry flan passes from the studio through a tube where some of it is diluted with pure odourless air. The reason for this will become clear in a moment. Each primary odour is visually represented by small coloured balls with white balls used to show pure odourless air.
3 The Odour Detectors. In each cage sits a dog. The dogs have been Pavlovian trained to react to the presence of just one of the 7 primary odours. There are 3 rows of 7 dogs and the smell of the strawberry flan reaches each dog. The front row of dogs receive 100% of the strawberry smell, the second row receive 50% strawberry/50% odourless air and the back row receive 25% strawberry/75% odourless air – so the dogs in the middle and back rows are subjected to weaker concentrations of the odour. This means that only the primary odours present in larger quantities (eg the 48% floral) will be detected in the back row. So 21 dogs allows for the possibility of over 16,000 different odours – the more dogs – the higher the ‘definition’ of the odour service. When a dog detects its own primary smell it triggers a microswitch.
4 Transmitting the Signals. The electric signals triggered by the dogs are sent to an amplifier and modulator and are transmitted by radio waves to the television.
5 The Television. The TV contains the 7 primary odours in individual containers in a small compartment. The transmitted radio waves are decoded and the relevant containers are heated by varying amounts to release a particular amount of each odour. Hey presto! – the smell of the strawberry flan is artificially concocted within the television and is ejected into the viewer’s room through a tube the protrudes from the top of the TV.
When the handle on the ‘drawer’ was pulled, the dogs that had detected the smell of strawberry flan would move forward and trigger their imaginary switches, the radio mast would light up and a puff of strawberry essence would be sprayed from the nozzle on the top of the TV.
The degree show came and went. I managed to pick up a brief mention in The Guardian newspaper which I’ve reproduced here.
After the show, the model was disassembled and placed in a large cardboard box. In the intervening years, much of it fell apart and was thrown away and all I have left are the 21 plaster of Paris dogs (pictured top), my sketches, my model of Fanny Craddock, odd lengths of tube and mixing boxes (see 2 above) that connected the various elements and an old fashioned barber shop spray diffuser that contained the strawberry odour that was hidden inside the TV.
When I left the RCA maybe I should have thought about a career in exhibition design (or perfumery!) but instead, I returned to a career in publishing.
Thanks to JP Deignan and his article ‘How About Odour Television?’ from Electronics and Power magazine, January 1968 and reproduced here.
Notebook: 16 March 2018 | TYPOGRAPHY | NEWSPAPERS
Spotted in a corridor at Sheffield Hallam University – the front page of a special colour supplement from The Yorkshire Post celebrating the first moon landing in 1969. My eye was caught by the odd mix of typography. The title or ‘masthead’, Moon Touch Down, is set in a typeface called Microgramma which became a favourite with graphic designers in the late 1960s and early 70s. It’s a geometric CAPS only sans-serif but with distinctive rounded corners, and its square shape allowed for it to be set with very tight letter and line spacing as is the case here – it captures perfectly the optimistic mood of this period in history.
The headline font for First Flag on the Moon, looks rather clumsy in comparison especially with its gappy word spacing. It’s typeset in Futura Bold Condensed (Italic) which has been a popular tabloid newspaper headline font for many years (and is still used today in the ugly looking Sun newspaper).
Microgramma was designed in 1952 by Aldo Novarese and Alessandro Butti. In 1962 Novarese re-worked it, adding in a lower case alphabet and condensed versions, and it was released as a new face called Eurostile which was taken up with equal enthusiasm. The geometric and space-age characteristics of both fonts made them popular for use in science fiction films – first in Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and then in The Andromeda Strain, Alien, Moon and others, and in the TV shows, Star Trek and Gerry Andersen’s Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. (You can read more about this here and here.)
Microgramma/Eurostyle on the language buttons on the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey
For more examples of Microgramma and Eurostile in use take a look on the excellent Fonts in Use website. (I noticed that Microramma makes an appearance on the cover of a favourite record that I have in my collection – the Clash’s 10-inch EP from 1980, Black Market Clash, designed by Julian Balme and Paul Simonon and reproduced below.)
Microgramma Light in use top left on the Black Market Clash EP. (The picture is of musician and producer Don Letts at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. For more on Clash album cover art, follow this link)
Above: Front and back covers of a school kit, USSR 1968 (Pollocks Toy Museum). From A2Z+ by Julian Rothenstein
Notebook 5 March 2018 | BOOK REVIEW: A2Z+ by Julian Rothenstein. Published by Laurence King, April 2018
Although we spend much of our day tapping away on a phone or keyboard the majority of us still pick up a pen and make marks on a piece of paper. It’s good to see that schoolchildren continue to scribble and doodle in the margins of their exercise books and make use of decorative titling and other flourishes on the covers of their notebooks and school diaries. When I was a teenager there was a fad for writing titles with extravagant bubble writing with one outline letter overlapping the next – almost like a graffiti tag. My take on this was to use drop-shadows, 3-D blocking or primitive serifs (see pics at end) based on typefaces such as Cooper Black or the slabs of Clarendon or Playbill. Reference material for my decorative titling would have been old press adverts, packaging or the Letraset catalogue (which my father used in his work) but if I’d had a copy of a new book called A2Z+, which is an archive of old lettering and type, I’d have been delighted – it would have been a brilliant resource to make use of. The picture below is from a chapter in the book called Signwriters’ Alphabets with examples from the early 1900s. These alphabets were made available as off-the-shelf models for sign writers and artists to use for shop fascias, fairground signs and so on.
A2Z+ is compiled and edited by Julian Rothenstein who has been squirrelling away old graphic ephemera for over 30 years. His new book is an off-beat collection that includes, not just type specimens and signwriters’ alphabets, but also optician’s old eye-charts, logotypes, sign language and semaphore alphabets, monograms, old book and magazine covers and many other items that he has gathered together from across the globe. Much of the book includes goodies from the first half of the 20th century and there is a chapter entitled Czech Graphic Modernism that features a splendid Constructivist jazz-age alphabet made up from letters that incorporate a dancer in a series of dynamic poses. I’ve picked out some of my favourite details from the book and they are shown below.
Above: Constructivist jazz-age alphabet with dancer, Czechoslovakia 1926
Julian Rothenstein is the founder and owner of Redstone Press who publish the annual Redstone Diary as well as many other publications which include Surrealist Games, The Playful Eye (An album of Visual Delight) and The Book of Shrigley (a collection of drawings by artist David Shrigley). One of Rothenstein’s earliest publications was Story Without Words & The Idea – two dramatic picture stories told in woodcuts by the Flemish illustrator Frans Masereel in the 1920s.
A2Z+ is published by Laurence King in conjunction with Redstone Press and costs £25. Laurence King publish many books on art, design and photography including the brilliant The Visual History of Type by Paul McNeil which I reviewed here last year. Two other indispensable LK publications for those specifically interested in magazine design and publishing are: Editorial Design by Caldwell and Zappaterra 2016 and So you want to publish a magazine by Angharad Lewis 2016.
Finally, here’s a few of the decorative titles from my school exercise books c1970:
Notebook: 23 February 2018 | MAGAZINES | TYPOGRAPHY | PHOTOGRAPHY
I’ve been reading Paul Gorman’s ‘The Story of The Face: The Magazine That Changed Culture‘ which was published late last year by Thames and Hudson. The Face (1980-2004) was the brainchild of Nick Logan who later went on to launch the men’s magazine Arena (1986-2009) but I’d forgotten that it was Logan’s company Wagadon that had also published a bold and eye-catching but short-lived women’s magazine called Frank (1997-1999). I still have copies of Frank sitting on my magazine shelves side-by-side with two other women’s magazines from around that same period: Bare and Nova (The Second Coming). They were all edgy, unconventional and good-lookers but sadly none of them lasted for more than a couple of years or so in their crowded marketplace. Here’s what I liked about their designs and why I’ve hung on to copies of these magazines for over 15 years.
Frank (1997-1999). Published by Wagadon
Frank was launched in October 1997 as a ‘provocative, challenging, intelligent and witty’ women’s magazine and it carried a lively mix of features aimed at a ’25-35-year-old stylish urban woman’. I remember the cover of the first issue very well with its striking photo of a startled model with an apple on her head. Like all good covers, the ingredients were simple: captivating picture, engaging headlines, snappy and contemporary masthead, well crafted typography and a minimal colour palette of red dress and red headlines contrasting with green apple and masthead. And its size helped set it apart from other magazines: they’d trimmed 10mm or so off the top which gave it a slightly squarer format and it felt good to handle. The December 1997 cover was equally gutsy with a fluorescent orange headline declaring it ‘The Lingerie Issue’ alongside a picture of a model in wooly thermal underwear. This confident style and left-field attitude continued inside with for instance: articles on New Labour and ‘Lads’ and a fashion story featuring a heavily pregnant model.
The choice of fonts for the magazine was a curious mix of the stylish sans Avenir, Helvetica Rounded and a feminine and flamboyant serif which I think is called Kumlien – but they all seemed to work well together. The Art Director was Jason Shulman (who had previously worked at Harpers and Queen and The Sunday Telegraph magazine) but he only lasted three or four issues and his early departure heralded a less than successful redesign which may have been prompted by the magazine’s sales figures being much lower than what the management had hoped for. In an effort to turn sales around, Wagadon’s owner Nick Logan decided to make Frank more mainstream but as soon as it lost its edginess, it lost its sense of direction – it was design and editing by committee – never a good combination. The magazine hobbled on until its closure in autumn 1999. Those early issues had promised so much but a lack of investment from its owners and the loss of its sense of direction coincided with a downturn in Wagadon’s fortunes with both Arena and The Face, and the plug was pulled.
The deputy editor of Frank was Lisa Markwell who went on to edit The Independent on Sunday and she gives a very good account of the birth and short life of Frank in this fascinating article for The Independent in 1999.
Bare (2000-2001). Published by John Brown
In 1992 I took up the position of Art Director with Summerhouse Publishing, a fledgling contract magazine publisher (with Saab and Renault magazines under its belt) based in Norfolk. Helen Gilburt and myself moved from London to a house with a large overgrown Victorian walled garden which we set about redeveloping in our spare time. My visual gardening bible and inspiration was a stylish and glossy new magazine called Gardens Illustrated which was full of beautiful photography – a bit like World of Interiors mag but for those who enjoyed gardens. It was published by John Brown (the founder of John Brown Publishing, now John Brown Media) and the Art Director was Brown’s wife Claudia Zeff. Seven years later in autumn 2000 John Brown launched Bare, a similarly stylish title with Zeff as Creative Director and a young New Zealander, Kirsten Willey as Art Director (Interestingly, the John Brown Group Creative Director at the time was Jeremy Leslie – now owner of MagCulture). Bare was a health and well-being magazine for those women who had ‘traded in the chardonnay and Marlboro Lights for grapefruit and yoga‘. Whereas Gardens Illustrated was all luscious pictures and classic serif based typography, Bare was luscious pictures and pared back sans-serif typography – lots of Helvetica Light and cool oceans of white space. It was a bi-monthly and edited by Ilse Crawford who had been the launch editor of Elle Decoration. I have three of just six issues that were ever published. I don’t think I ever read any of the articles but instead I wallowed in the minimal design and enjoyed looking at the pictures.
In 2001 John Brown decided to sell off his consumer titles and focus instead on the more fruitful contract publishing side of his business. Gardens Illustrated was bought by BBC magazines (who made it more mainstream and consequently it lost some of its style. It is still going strong and now owned by Immediate Media who also publish Radio Times) but I believe that John Brown failed to find a buyer for Bare – which had proved to be just too cool and niche, and with sales at a low, the magazine was closed with the last issue appearing in August 2001. (John Brown’s eclectic cluster of other consumer titles – Viz, Fortean Times and Bizarre were sold to James Brown, the former editor of lad’s mag Loaded).
Nova (The Second Coming, 2000-2001). Published by IPC
In March 1965, as Britain emerged from the dark days of winter (marked by the death and funeral of Winston Churchill in the January), the first issue of an outspoken and visually brilliant women’s magazine Nova was published. It was to capture the optimism and energy of the swinging sixties and it became compulsive reading for many women (and men) who were ‘not only interested in fashion but also politically, socially and sexually aware‘ – and for the next ten years it shone out for the quality of its writing, design and imagery. Its art directors included Harry Peccinotti, Derek Birdsall and of course David Hillman who later went on to design Le Matin de Paris and The Guardian newspapers.
Powerful words, design and photography in the original Nova magazine from the 60s and 70s
Sadly the 1970s recession and poor sales forced IPC, Nova’s owners, to cease publication in 1975. However, 25 years later in June 2000 a new Nova – a mk II or Second Coming – was born and it was positioned to be as bold and as edgy as the original. The design reflected some of the ingredients of the mk I version with the chunky, tightly set, all caps, 60s typeface Compacta Black being used for headlines on the more outspoken features. And the handrawn masthead¹ hinted at the original ‘blobby’ masthead typeface which had been set in Windsor Extra Bold Condensed. Din Light was mixed in to add style and remind readers that Nova mk II might have picked up on the best of the original but it had its feet firmly set in the new millennium. Pictures were captivating with a good dose of black and white gutsy reportage mixed in with fashion shots with attitude and lots of cutting-edge illustration. The design was by Gerard Saint and Big-Active who had already made their mark with fashion magazine Scene, the design² of which was almost a precursor of what was to come at Nova.
Nova Mk II: born 2000, died 2001
With just three or four issues published and sales lower than expected, Gerard Saint and editor Deborah Bee (who like Saint, had come from Scene) came to blows with the IPC bosses and they were both replaced, with the IPC management declaring that the magazine had been ‘too edgy’… Nova struggled on but failed to carve its niche in the marketplace – whereas its predecessor had found rich, fertile ground in the 1960s, by the year 2000, the women’s magazine sector was saturated with titles, and Nova Mk II folded in mid 2001. Some commentators felt that IPC didn’t give it long enough to make its mark and that it should have been even edgier and more groundbreaking like the original (the covers never had the attention grabbing, questioning ideas-based headline and imagery of their predecessors), while others said that Nova should never have relaunched and that society had moved on. Maybe IPC should have learnt from Frank’s failure just six months earlier…
If you want to read more about Nova Mk II’s short life, take a look at Gerard Saint’s own account (reproduced below) or click on ‘Brand Failures‘ or Lisa Markwell’s (see Frank above) old article from the Independent. And for more on Gerard Saint and Big-Active, here is a 2010 article from Eye magazine.
Now all we have left are the bones of Nova, Frank and Bare to pick over (scattered amongst the dusty and faded remains of many, many other magazines that have come and gone across the years). But these three edgy women’s mags still look good today and they will remain on my shelves for inspiration and as a reminder of times gone by and of the creative energies of their makers.
¹ The new Nova logo was hand drawn by Gerard Saint and has more recently been ‘adapted’ by fashion brand Very and by Huck magazine.
²Big-Active’s Scene magazine made use of the font Clearface set with super tight letter spacing that echoed the typography of the late 60s and early 1970s.
Big-Active’s Gerard Saint talks about the Nova (Mk II)/IPC mismatch
“I think the major factor that contributed to things not working out for the new Nova was that IPC were simply not the right publisher. They had acquired the rights to the title and were looking for reason to relaunch – they were obviously aware of what we (Big-Active) were trying to do with Scene hence them approaching Deborah and myself. And for our part, at the time we’d felt we’d taken Scene as far as we could – we’d achieved a level of respect and credibility – but we wanted the opportunity to play to a bigger audience.
In hindsight, I think sadly Nova was a contender for being the right magazine brand for the time – but a victim of being wedded to the wrong publisher. IPC did of course have clout and were very successful with a very wide range of titles, but in truth they had no experience of working with a fashion title with higher aspirations. And in this respect we (and they) were worlds apart. For us it was going to be all about being creative and directional – courting the international fashion brands as this is where we’d hoped the solid advertising revenue would have been expected to come from. However the most successful female title they had at the time was Marie Claire (which of course they were doing really well with) – but it was only part of the audience we had hoped to reach. They knew how to sell Marie Claire, but they just didn’t fully understand the culture we hoped to set up around Nova.
After a very supportive start in the development stages it became clear to us after launching that IPC assumed the two titles could sit side by side for them – using the same advertising sales and promo teams. Unfortunately these people didn’t really get what we were trying to aspire to. As a consequence there were a great many things that we did that really put their noses out of joint – as they felt the fashion presentation was uncomfortable for many of their clients i.e shooting a fashion story in a nudist camp with real nudists as models for instance… that, and the lack of girlie features. It all was just a step too far for IPC. They simply hoped to sell space to the same clients and advertisers as Marie Claire. This goes a long way to explaining why they eventually tried to dumb down the creativity under Jeremy Langmead (no disrespect to him) (ed’s note: Langmead was the replacement editor for Deborah Bee). Maybe it would have been different with a more supportive publisher – who was a better fit in terms of vision and fashion credentials – but in any case the plug was pulled before the title had time to develop to it’s full potential.
Despite all of this, in many ways we were confident that we were on to the right thing. It’s not any secret that our competition was initially rattled. Condé Nast actively tried to ‘dissuade’ creative agencies from allowing their photographers and fashion people to work for us and threats along the lines of – if you work for Nova we might have to re-think booking you for Vogue assignments were not unusual at the time. This encouraged Debs and I as we’d put in a great deal of effort into courting a very loyal team right from the start – Venetia Scott and Jurgen Teller to name but a couple – and it was these creative people that Deborah and I didn’t want to compromise. When the knives came out we all knew it was time to walk. There was no other choice.
I’m glad to have played part in the escapade but the world keeps turning and I’d say that despite everything the title still has it’s credibility intact. The original of course was a true trail blazer – we just hoped at the time that we could do it justice in a different era. Sadly the second coming of Nova was never given the opportunity to fully flower and deliver its full potential.”
Gerard Saint, March 2018
Notebook: 31 January 2018 | SMELL
Forgive my self indulgence as I put all thoughts of editorial design temporarily to one side, close the lid on my laptop, throw open the window and sniff in the air. Today I detect an overriding but comforting smell of woodsmoke from a neighbouring chimney pot and a background tang of tarry smelling pig manure from a far-off farmer’s field. And every now and again I catch the delicate and ethereal fragrance of the winter-flowering Sweet Box shrub (Sarcococca Confusa) quietly doing its thing at the end of the drive. It’s a heady but rather delicious mix. It’s time now, for me to step back 36 years and more, on the first of a two-part journey about our underused sense of smell.
My great-uncle Ernest Paul was a chemist, botanist and plant hunter. He worked in Bristol at Wills tobacco and lived on the coast at Clevedon in Somerset. As a small child I remember his garden being awash with greenery and exotic plants which must have benefited from the warmth of the Gulf Stream pushing its way up the Bristol Channel.
Uncle Ernie enjoyed writing to his great nieces and nephews and one day in the late 1960s a shoe-box sized package arrived for my sister. It was carefully wrapped in brown paper and secured with string and the contents had been protected with tissue paper and straw. Uncle Ernie had an interest in perfumery and once the box had been unwrapped, it revealed its treasure: phials and small bottles, each one containing a perfume ingredient and each methodically numbered to be cross referenced to sheets of writing paper covered with Uncle Ernie’s detailed and spidery handwritten notes. There was labdanum, sandalwood, Oil of Bergamot, ambergris, olibanum, myrrh, spikenard and many other exotic sounding ingredients that Uncle Ernie had collected on his travels across Europe and the Middle East. One-by-one, my sister and myself carefully removed the stoppers and caps, gingerly sniffed the contents of each phial and found ourselves transported to far-off places. Many of the perfume ingredients had an unfamiliar but attractive and mysterious scent and a couple were deliciously intoxicating – but there was one phial that we approached with extreme caution… Uncle Ernie’s notes stated: ‘CIVET: A secretion produced by the Abyssinian Civet Cat. Concentrated it is an abominable smell but in minute quantities it gives (an aromatic) note to oversweet perfumes’ Blimey… I guess we must have unscrewed the cap, reeled back in shock and then screwed the cap tightly back on…
Uncle Ernie’s phials were returned to their box and carefully packed away in a dark place and the perfume ingredients sat sleeping and inert for the next 10 or 12 years. Then in 1980-1982 I found myself studying a graphics MA at The Royal College of Art and part of the course was the writing of a thesis on an aspect of art and design. Digging around for a topic, I remembered Uncle Ernie’s box of goodies and I was also very aware of how long forgotten aromas could drift past on the wind and trigger powerful emotions and memories inside myself and I certainly had favourite smells that reminded me of a time and place from long ago. It felt like a rich hunting ground for research and so I decided to ignore the visual arts and focus instead on our sense of smell – the most mysterious and least understood of the five senses. My thesis would touch not only on perfumery but on whether artists and designers had made use of this sense in their artwork and designs.
My great-uncle’s trove of perfume ingredients became the starting point for my thesis. My sister retrieved the box from its dark hiding place and in I plunged nose first. I was surprised and delighted to discover that most of the ingredients smelt as pungent and mysterious as they had 12 years previously. And now, another 35 years on, I’ve been carefully through Uncle Ernie’s collection again and I have transcribed and catalogued his notes. In the intervening years I was probably guilty of not replacing some of the stoppers – the genie was out of the bottle and some of the precious ingredients have evaporated forever. The phial marked ‘Civet’ no longer smells of rotten meat – which is probably a good thing. The fragrance of each of the individual ingredients have mingled together and the box has take on a heady overall smell. If I was a perfumer I’d probably be able to match this combined scent to a very particular perfume but with my limited knowledge the best I can do is say that the smell of the box is musky and oriental and has something of the mystery of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue or Après L’Ondée about it.
There is one perfume ingredient in the collection that still smells astonishing. In the 1950s or 60s, Uncle Ernie must have visited the rose fields of Kazanlak in Bulgaria where they grow a very fragrant crimson rose (General Jacqueminot) which is used to produce rose oil known as Otto (or Attar) of Roses. As Ernie describes it, ‘tons of rose petals only yield a few drops of the distilled essential oil’. He came away with a small painted wooden screw-top cask (pictured below right) and within it is a tiny glass phial containing the precious oil. I unscrew the phial, sniff, gasp with delight and then quickly screw it tight again for fear of letting too many of the precious odour molecules escape. The smell is exquisite and still has the pungency of when the oil was first bottled.
I insert the phial back into the cask, return it to the box and place the box back into the cupboard.
Ernest Paul 1899-1974
Coming up soon…
An Olfactory Excursion, part 2: My RCA thesis and ‘Smelly Telly’. How the research for my RCA thesis about smell led to my final-year major design project – a three-dimensional display explaining how odour television could work