The founder of the Designers Republic, which recently closed, explains where it all went wrong – and how he’ll be back.
For close to 25 years, the Designers Republic occupied a special place in the UK’s graphic design scene. Its utilitarian posters, with slogans such as ‘Work, Buy, Consume, Die’ and ‘Design Will Eat Itself’, and its record sleeves for genre-bending Warp Records artists such as Aphex Twin and Autechre, inspired generations of creatives.
Work for more mainstream artists such as Pulp and Supergrass – as well as the visual identity for the computer game Wipeout and its sequels, and dozens of major-league brands – gave the studio’s work huge exposure.
Established by Ian Anderson in 1986, the Designers Republic (tDR) was founded with the statement, “tDR is a declaration of independence from what we perceive to be the existing design community”, but its style spawned plenty of imitators.
It was one of those studios that every aspiring graphic designer dreams of working at one day, and projects such as a shop in a hip part of Tokyo selling the practice’s posters, T-shirts and other products, only cemented tDR’s position as one of the coolest studios going.
So when the studio suddenly closed its doors, in January 2009, it sent shockwaves across the design community. The same issues of cashflow and client handling that are currently at the forefront of every studio director’s mind had combined to close the studio’s doors with brutal speed. Ian Anderson explained to us what tDR was all about – and why it won’t be gone for long.
How would you describe tDR’s aesthetic?
Brain Aided Design. Thinking and Doing. Communication By Any Means Necessary. Amplified Visual Messaging. Attitude/Approach/Art.
How do you feel about tDR’s reputation for setting trends?
We’ve never been concerned with setting trends. We go where we want to, where we need to go, to satisfy the quest for new experiences, new directions and solutions for our clients, and new questions for us. If people chose to follow, that’s not a reflection on us. It became harder when we started thinking with our wallets, but we’re all better now.
Did you work with Warp records because you liked the music?
Yes and no. We work on projects because the people involved, their stories and influences interest, excite and inspire us. We’re not interested in their output, the result of their work in the context of ours.
Our work is created and exists in parallel to the music – it’s not a visual interpretation of it. That’s why it works better: it complements, rather than arselicks, the music. The only advantage of liking the music is that it helps to create a repartee with the musicians, and a greater understanding over time.
So our work with Autechre, LFO and Aphex Twin has a greater resonance reflecting the musician-designer relationship, rather than the music-design connection. This applies across types of client, areas of work and the creative process,
it’s not unique to the music work – it’s about identifying a creative system which helps us deliver the level of product clients have come to expect from the Designers Republic.
Would you design for a band or act whose music does nothing for you?
Yes, if there was something else to connect with, something which allowed us to get something from the project, something which enriched our lives. We’re more likely to ditch a project based on a disconnect with people than with what they do.
Which studios or designers are currently doing work you like?
I don’t really relate to this sort of question, to be honest. There’s a lot of work out there, everywhere, that I love, that I like, that I’m ambivalent to, that I hate, and all of it has a value in a bigger tapestry.
I only love stuff relative to hating other stuff. In that context, it doesn’t matter to me who’s done it, so I don’t take note, and it shouldn’t matter to you either. I tend to see everything in the context of a self-generated idea, of an ongoing or potential project, whether it’s branded high art or sweet-wrappers in the gutter, whether it’s great design or supernaive: there is no hierarchy of influence.
Which brand or big name would you most like to design for?
Someone with a budget who thinks the sun shines out of my arse. We work better, and therefore deliver better thinking and doing, when we’re allowed a significant degree of auteurship.
Some designers respond better to a tight brief, delivering some shit-hot business against prescriptive client direction. We’re at our best when the client wants to engage, to discuss, debate, argue, and wrestle because they feel as passionate – or more – than we do.
We’re at our best when the client chooses us for what we can do for them because of what we do. We’re interested in working with people who want to hear what we have to say, not in what they have to say to us.
How would you approach such a commission?
We’d approach it as we always do: we’d get the palm-greasing and arse-licking out of the way doublequick, then we’d find out what they thought they wanted, and why, then we’d get under their skin, get into character and try to see what they see. Then we’d see if the brief still stood up for their benefit. Then we’d do some thinking and doing – and bingo.
What led to the collapse of tDR?
We’d spent too long in transition: internal change had become the norm, and in hindsight we made some bad decisions on who to add to the team – not because of them or their talent, but in the context of the bigger picture.
Too much was reactive to the flux, and there were too many people pulling in different directions, losing sight of why they were there in the first place. Consequently, in terms of new business, we were giving the wrong messages to the wrong people.
In short, we didn’t convert interest into new business because we were looking for work with wallet-mouths open, rather than finding work we believed in. Having said that, the projects we were delivering were excellent and if nothing else, we made some good contacts and can move forward with greater insight and experience across a broader spectrum of clients.
So it was largely down to staffing issues?
The mistake we made was having people with no creative insight interfacing with potential clients, and failing to understand inwardly or communicate outwardly what the Designers Republic was about, or what our offer was, or could be.
The final nail in the coffin, though, which prevented us from continuing as a business, was the long-term nonpayment of sizeable monies by a well-known dance venue. Irrespective of any failings the team may have had, and regardless of the efforts of senior management to look at other solutions, we simply couldn’t trade with the cashflow deficit such a debt creates.
But now we’re moving forward with a leaner, keener, more manageable team, more in the spirit of what made tDR the “most copied design company in the world” – we’re back to being about the work, the vision, the mission, the excellence, and the laugh.
What will you do differently in the revived tDR?
I always said I didn’t want to empire build, so it will stay a small creative response unit delivering high-level super-creative, to and for people up for an adventure, people who want something special in terms of market insight, brand articulation, and intelligent design.
We’re still working with the biggest brand in the world on a global scale, but the relationship is a personal, creative one. We’re working with EXD on the Lisbon Biennale, we’re still working with Doc/Fest – the best documentary film festival in the world – we’re grappling with Jarvis [Cocker] on his new album, and looking at three major architectural projects.
We’ll be looking to develop similar relationships, and I’ll be finishing the tDR book, and no doubt whoring the bastard around the world in 80 days. I’m also looking to work with other agencies on a consultancy basis and, separate to tDR, I might see what being Ian Anderson feels like for a while.
You’ll be busy, then.
The future isn’t written, which is as it should be in a creative context. I’m excited by the possibilities that lie before us, and I’m excited by the prospect of developing a young, dynamic visionary team again, and connecting with clients directly on a one-to-one basis again.
Any advice for other studios?
Batten down the hatches. And if you fail, make sure you fail on your own terms.
You’ve been going for 23 years… has design eaten itself?
It’s been up shit creek for years.
The sticker setinspired album cover for DJ Towa Tei’s Best Of collection.
Artwork for producer Richard X.
The visual identity for racing game wipEout 2097.
tDR’s sumptuous catalogue for fetish clothing label M&V, created before S&M went mainstream, includes photography by Peter Ashworth, James & James and others.
The studio’s posters, featuring fake advertising slogans and a utilitarian aesthetic, were ubiquitous on the bedroom walls of student designers throughout the 1990s.
A book project based on the architecture of the Slovenian Chamber of Commerce.
Warp Records’ website and logo were just some of the music-based projects tDR worked on – others include Pulp’s shiny logo for Different Class, Ministry of Sound, and Supergrass.