On Designers Republic's 15th Anniversary
They’re not called “The Designers Republic Ltd, Sheffield, Soyo, North of Nowhere” for nothing. Staying up north is a statement for The Designers Republic: a symbol, geographically (and mentally) of an unshakeable desire to remain aesthetically distinct.
“The physicality of the location isn’t so important, this is where I live and I don’t see why I should move and change my lifestyle to satisfy the demands of printers or clients,” explains founder Ian Anderson a little tiredly. But anybody who declares themselves a Republic must secretly like the idea of a separate existence.
Both the name and location have served them well. Because to the outside world TDR is mysterious: an intriguing anomaly, miles away, and often miles ahead of the mainstream design scene. It’s a machine that feeds itself: the less that people know about TDR, the more interesting, to some, it becomes.
Despite a slight allergy to all things south of Crewe, Anderson’s actually a Londoner, although he’s honed the accent northwards. Entertainingly outspoken, his theories about everything from mass consumerism to the pretentious evils of London’s Hoxton Square prove rich and varied. Classic outbursts which go something like this: “Sheffield doesn’t have places like Hoxton Square and I think, ‘Good, that’s why we’re here. I’d rather slit my throat than have to work with people like that’,” or “You might as well chuck any old shit out because the client isn’t interested in doing anything interesting” regularly tumble out. He gets seriously irritated when you get him on the subject of people ripping off TDR’s ideas (which, incidentally, happens a lot). He’s not a man to mince his words.
SAY A RED CAR IS YELLOW AND YOU’LL GET A RESPONSE
But anyone familiar with TDR’s work already knows that Anderson and colleagues thrive on provocation. Taking a contrary stance on more or less everything is obligatory: “It’s about disinformation, because disinformation provokes more of a response than information,” says Anderson. “Say a red car is yellow and you’ll get a response… confront peoples preconceptions of what is, by presenting what could be, and you get a response: maybe not the one you wanted, but you’ll still provoke dialogue.” And dialogue, for TDR, is what it’s all about.
Their legions of fans lap it up. Many a 30-something designer will readily admit to buying everything on the Warp label, for the sheer pleasure of looking at an extensive array of TDR work. Back issues of the magazine Emigre #29, with its cover by TDR, have become so avidly sought after that they now change hands for around $400 a copy. After one week online, TDR’s website got over a million hits. People love being “in” on the dialogue, tracing TDR’s activities with a passion one might accord a band.
I CAME TO SHEFFIELD BECAUSE OF THE BANDS I LIKED
Despite opting to read philosophy (“It teaches you to think, to argue logically that black is white, which is very handy when it comes to dealing with clients. It’s probably that which makes The Designers Republic different from the outset,” Anderson claims), it’s perhaps not surprising to discover that his early ambitions were music-oriented. “I came to Sheffield because of the bands I liked, Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League,” he says.
But the Sheffield social scene is what really captured Anderson’s imagination: meeting locals, going clubbing and participating in various bands, both in a musical and managerial capacity. The band involvement prompted the propitious sideline in flyer design: “At first The Designers Republic was me enjoying mucking around with Letraset, cutting it up, playing around with letter shapes,” he explains. “I was into semantics, codes of communication, how far you could use numbers instead of letters before you lost any kind of legibility.”
Gradually, managing this personal creativity became more interesting than managing bands: “Some people, for whatever reason, have the desire to communicate,” he reasons.
TDR (then Anderson and ex-business partner Nick Philips) first came to the wider public’s attention in 1986 when they designed the sleeve for Age of Chance’s cover of Prince track Kiss: “It got us into loads of magazines,” says Anderson. “We went from being two people arsing about in Sheffield with all these preconceptions about what a designer was or wasn’t, to being one of the most written about design companies.”
ONE DAY SOMEONE’S GOING TO SUSS OUT THAT WE DON’T KNOW
WHAT WE’RE DOING
More work for Age Of Chance, Krush and Pop Will Eat Itself (for whom TDR famously bastardised the Pepsi Cola logo, as part of a whole PWEI corporate identity) followed. “People used to say ‘you’re at Designer’s Republic because you break the rules’ and we’d say ‘we’re not really, we just don’t know the rules… Every time someone rang up about work we’d put the phone down, piss ourselves laughing and say ‘one day someone’s going to suss out that we don’t know what we’re doing’,” admits Anderson happily. “We used to take on students for work placement so that we could learn from them. I got my first lesson in typography from someone at a typesetters who was sick of trying to
work out my instructions.”
Of course, the beauty of this situation is the freedom it gave them to run roughshod over all the traditional design parameters. They explored and exploited every emotive topic from mass consumerism to politics to nuclear war. They searched for their own global visual language; busily re-examined the layers and processes of design, nonplussing their audience by stripping it down to the basics: to rows of shapes and lists of Pantone colours. “Use information in that context and it confuses people even more. It’s part of the function of the brain to make sense of what you’re given. It’s very difficult for viewers not to build their own realities,” explains Anderson.
CONSUMERISM IS AN INTERESTING GAME TO PLAY… IT’S VISUAL AND CONCEPTUAL SAMPLING
Like magpies, they’ve plundered everything from multinational corporate logos to Japanese type: “Consumerism is an interesting game to play… and there is that sense of piracy, that sense of ‘fuck you, if you want to ram your logo down my throat’,” he laughs. “It’s kind of visual and conceptual sampling really, motivated by the same interests and desires as people who sample music; it’s taking stuff you like and using it your own way.”
Now situated across the road from Nigel Coates’ amazing (but sadly defunct) National Centre for Pop Music building, TDR comprises seven members, although, typically enigmatic, Anderson prefers specific details be kept to a minimum. Over the years they’ve accumulated clients ranging from Warp Records, to Issey Miyake, Sony, Powergen, and even Pringles, for whom they recently developed a TV commercial. They’ve just published their first book 3D > 2D, exploring the communication of 3D experiences in print. The definitive TDR book, actually commissioned eight years ago, is still an ongoing project.
THE MAJORITY OF CLIENTS HAVEN’T GOT THE FAINTEST IDEA WHAT THEY ARE GETTING INTO
“The majority of clients haven’t the faintest idea what they’re getting into when they work with us, and a lot of them just haven’t got the balls to see it through. It’s really disappointing to realise that so many people involved in commissioning creativity haven’t got the faintest idea what creativity is,” complains Anderson. They still a turn a lot of work down, and are famed for being difficult, but they are also, quite rightly, famed for turning out one of the most distinctive bodies of work the British, and indeed global design industries have seen. “We’re analytical concerning what surrounds us, and the subject matter we deal with, but a lot of the work is very intuitive. We go for a drink and then talk and then ‘do’, we don’t plan and formalise,” Anderson says casually of their working methods. “It’s funny how finite people see us as being. The whole process is about changing, getting bored, moving on.”
Whatever their equation is, it keeps working: and TDR has lost none of its subversive power, or for that matter its sense of humour. “We know we’re good,” states Anderson certainly. This self-assurance has kept the group close to their instinctively provocative codes and themes. As ever, where they belong within the design community is, for TDR, immaterial: “The honest answer is we don’t really give a shit about what anybody else does, or about being in anyone else’s band,” says Anderson firmly. He means that.