Designing Logos for Music & More – An interview with Paul Nicholson

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Paul Nicholson designed the logo for one of the most celebrated and influential electronic artists, Aphex Twin, as well as a host of other musicians. But how has he been able to translate music into simple graphical forms? What does his process look like?

In this episode Ian interviews Paul to discover how he works with clients, his approach to experimental idea generation, and how he ultimately ends with mathematically precise, flawless artwork.

Paul Nicholson is a London-based creative designer known for his inventive, bold graphics within the music, art and fashion industries.

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Paul Nicholson Interview Transcription

 

Ian Paget: Looking back through your work, you’ve designed a lot of logos within the music industry. How would you approach translating something like music into a simple graphic, like a logo?

 

Paul Nicholson: Well, I don’t have synesthesia so there’s no visualisation of sound. So I think usually you listen to the music first, to get a feel for it.

When I work with people, I ask for a mood board, and this isn’t specifically designed. It can be anything that they’re into. So whether it be photographs from nature, plants, animals, it could be buildings they like, objects, machinery, artwork, anything. And once you get a feel for it, you tend to find that certain shapes just feel right.

It’s quite, instinctive or intuitive, just something feels right for a given clients. There’s obviously rules in design that do apply. So if you use very lightweight fonts, it has a different effect on people than if you’re using bold fonts, and likewise with rounded edges or sharp edges. So there are tools in your toolbox that you can play with that visually denote a certain emotive response.

As a designer, I don’t tend to heavily apply a style. If you take a company like Designers Republic, they have a very strong visual identity, and anyone going to Designers Republic are really seeking their stamp, that look that is uniquely from Ian Anderson.

Whereas I try to approach every project with a blank slate and really let the idea be the starting point. So for me that’s where it gets exciting is that you’re starting from quite a obtuse angle. You’re not coming from the comfort of “This is what I do. This is my style. Take it or leave it.” It’s more one of trying to find a unique response to a set of circumstances.

And when you look at a name as well, it’s things like how the combination of letters sit next to each other, the flow and the balance that a letter P might have next to a letter H. And once you go through all of these attributes, it’s bringing all of these together and trying to find something that is unique to that particular circumstance. I mean, obviously there’ll be ways that I work that come through that people go, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely from him.” But yeah, by and large I don’t try and place too much emphasis on my own style.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. Well I mean personally I think with anything like logo design, that’s the way it should be. You shouldn’t really be forcing your own personal style onto something. You should be doing what you’re doing, understanding who they are and creating something that properly represents who they are.

I wouldn’t mind diving into the part you mentioned about mood boarding. Do you always get your clients to do that on their own? Or do you help them with that? Or do you do one of your own? Or do you just leave it to your clients to pull together different images?

 

Paul Nicholson: I think really, to understand what inspires an individual, it has to be completely from them. And I don’t want to put any input at that point in time.

In many cases, a logo is that thing that people use to represent themselves. So before you ever meet a musician, and in many cases before you even hear their music, the logo is their visual representation. So if I have an understanding of what it is that inspires them and can find the right forms to represent them, then for them it’s something that they’re very comfortable using. And they’re proud to… It’s going to be, their badge it’s going to be their thing that they put out there.

So it has to work on that level that when you create a brand, you want that symbol that you’re going to live with potentially for the duration of that product or for that project. So yeah, if it feels right for the client, then they’re going to be happy using it and it’s just going to grow with the product and it’s going to work with that thing that they’re promoting.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, I can see it’s a good way to understand how they see their music in a visual way. With the mood board do you offer any kind of guidance for creating that? Do they go on something like Pinterest? Or do you just get them to throw a load images into a folder? How would you go about getting them to do that?

 

Paul Nicholson: I literally just say “Put together a mood board.” I do ask that people don’t find other logos or other bits of design, because I think then the influence would be too close to what I’m doing.

So it’s good that they find things that are completely unrelated to typography or graphic design. Because in that way I’m looking for inspiration from areas outside of design and outside of graphics.

So it works much better for me because the starting point sparks ideas that I wouldn’t necessarily have if somebody just said to me, “Oh, I really like the logo that Designers Republic produced for WipEout. Can you do something like that?” Because then you’d be forced into this cul-de-sac, really where it’s like, “Well, okay.” You end up pretty much copying or emulating a particular look.

So if somebody sends me a picture of a tree, it’s good to to imagine how you can develop a logo type or a logo from something that isn’t typographic.

 

Ian Paget: That’s interesting. So in terms of your process, I know you do a lot of sketchbook work. You did a short interview that I found online and there’s a three-second clip in there where you’re working in your sketch book and you’re generating loads of different ideas. Would you mind talking through the next step in the process… How do you go about generating logo ideas from a sketchbook perspective?

 

Paul Nicholson: Well, when I was growing up, this is pre-computers, so I was always drawing and even through university, it wasn’t until my third year, that the design department even got a computer, and I graduated in ’92.

So Kingston University got six Apple Mac Classics, I’m guessing at some point in 1991. But for departments with three years, 90 students, it was six Mac Classics. And I think in all my time in the third year that I had access to those machines, and being a third year we got priority, but I think in the whole of that final year I got maybe six hours max on the machine. And they were slow. I was trying to do type on a curve and a good chunk of that six hours was just trying to do that one function.

So predominantly my youth and my education right through to leaving, was old-school. It was pencil, pens, paper. So I think part of it is just the familiarity and what I’m comfortable with. I also think as well is that there’s a different process at play when you go straight to the computer.

A lot of the time the forms I tried to create are not necessarily geometric or perfectly balanced. So by sketching I’m getting more of the feeling I’m after, because the hands moves a lot more intuitive with a pencil than when you are moving nodes around with a mouse.

And the very nature of working on a computer is it is a vectoring device. So you tend to find that things are on X and Y axes and you’re aware of the verticals and horizontals and the diagonals. So straight away it limits you. You become more clinical when you design.

Where as with a pencil it can be a lot more organic and things happen. It could just be an accidental sweep of the hand or as you are raising back you suddenly see something that you didn’t see before. So there’s that chance element. It’s that more flowing freedom that you get with a pencil.

What’s good, obviously when you take it into the computer, and you start to look at it in a bit more detail and realise, “Oh well if I just twist this clockwise by a degree or two, it’s actually on the 30,” and then that balance is off with, “Well, if I move this on the other side, it’s a perfect mirror image.” So you start to discover things in your pencil drawing that you weren’t aware of, that you were drawing.

There are certain, geometric balances that come up. And it works really well that way. And sometimes you will twist things to make them geometric, but then other times you just leave it as it is. So it might not be a perfect diagonal, but it works.

 

Ian Paget: I think we work in quite a similar way. I’m a bit younger than you. So when I studied graphic design, we had computers. I remember at school there was literally one computer in there, but graphic design was slowly coming in and computers was a lot more popular. But in terms of my professional career as a graphic designer, it’s always been on computers.

So even considering that I still prefer working on paper for the reason you said that you get these happy accidents. But when you work in Illustrator it’s just too rigid and if you was to start something… It almost looks too perfect from the outset that you don’t experiment as much as what you would on paper.

I always have happy accidents because I scribble when I’m sketching. So sometimes I draw something slightly wrong or I accidentally draw over something else and you get these ideas that you probably wouldn’t get any other way.

 

Paul Nicholson: Well, funny enough you mentioned scribbling, one process that have used quite a few times is I’ll just draw your baseline and your X Heights as a starting point, but I will randomly draw lines in a variety of angles then try and fill in lettering, sticking to where those lines have fallen.

It’s a bit like throwing sticks on the ground and then trying to make letters out of it. So I can think of examples. Going right back to a logo I did in ’91 for a club called Knowledge. That was pretty much how that started. I think I’d chosen to use, I’m guessing off the top of my head, about five or six different angles so 30 degrees clockwise or 70 degrees anti-clockwise. So I just drew on a page, tons and tons of lines in all these various angles. And then would link them up to create the K and the N and then the O.

So there wasn’t a design to start with, I was letting a random array of lines be the starting points, and then move from there.

 

Ian Paget: With that concept, using all these different lines, where did that idea originally come from to work in that way? Was it that you just felt like doing that and you was just playing with ideas? Or was there something about the mood board or the name of the club that kind of stemmed you in that direction?

 

Paul Nicholson: I mean it’s tricky to say what exactly was the thinking at that point in time. I know that generally, as I said earlier on, I like to start every project with a blank page. And for me it’s experimenting and just trying out ideas is always been what has motivated me. So I find part of the reason that I can’t create a given style, or stick to a certain way of working, is I soon get bored of it or it’s almost like as soon as I’ve created something I want to move on.

It’s like a process of create and destroy. As soon as I’ve got something down, it’s like “Okay, onto the next thing.” So you take things that have been successful, like the Aphex Twin logo. I couldn’t simply just keep creating stuff in that style. It wouldn’t have been something I would have enjoyed.

But I think for me the main drive and impetus to keep designing is finding new ways of working and just always pushing myself.

At the moment, I work with a couple of small record labels who give me quite a lot of creative control. So with each of these labels I’ve found ways of working, which from the outset, was just something I fancy doing. So somebody will approach me and in my mind I’m going, “Oh, I’d really like to try photo-bashing, creating spaceships out of various bits of photography and images that I find.” And in having that opportunity, I’ve had so much fun working in that way.

 

Ian Paget: It sounds like a really exciting way to be working. And it’s cool that you’ve got that opportunity and they’ve given you that freedom to really just experiment.

Based on all of the work that I’ve seen from you, going back to the Aphex Twin logo, seeing the process behind that, I could see that it was quite, experimental.

It wasn’t just… you see a lot of logos out there and the solution is relatively obvious. I guess that’s the best way to describe it. But what you’re doing, of the work that I’ve seen, it’s a lot more experimental, and you’re having fun with it, and you’re trying new things and you’re trying to create solutions that are quite different. And they do properly represent that club or that musician or that group in the right way.

 

Paul Nicholson: In my mind there’s little point simply creating a logo and then, “Oh right logo type. Okay, should it be Futura, or Monotype or whatever.” And it’s that thing where, to me, it’s just insanely boring. And it is amazing how many logos we see and then you realise, “Oh well it’s just Future bold italic,” or it’s just Helvetica or something. And to not even add a few elements to it or break a few bits off so that it is at least a derivation of the logo.

But part of the… Again, it’s purely self-motivated. It’s that thing, I love to work with type. I wouldn’t enjoy simply fobbing someone off with just something typed using an existing font. The very reason I’m doing this is because I want to design type. So if I’m not designing type then I don’t know. It’s kind of pointless.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, yeah. I understand. I’m curious then is that the reason why, in your career, you have focused on music as a genre more than the corporate scene? Just because you can be a lot more creative and you can be a lot more experimental.

Something, say like Aphex Twin, you can do something completely quite ‘out there’ just because of the nature of what you’re trying to communicate.

Do you think that’s the reason why you prefer to focus on that niche? Or is there another reason why you’re taking that direction?

 

Paul Nicholson: You can look at it in different ways. I got very much into music from a very early age. So we’re talking ’78, ’79. I was probably a little too young to get punk because I’d have been six when punk came out.

But I remember the ska revival of the late seventies and then new wave. And it was that thing that I got very passionately involved with music. And from that I started to develop a real love for record sleeves and the packaging and the way that bands use logos. So I remember as a 10-year-old with a biro, drawing the Madness logo onto my rucksack and the Stiff logo, which was their record label.

From quite an early age I was really into logos and I was drawing them everywhere. So there’s that foundation. And even now music is a major part of what I’m into.

I’m forever scouring YouTube and Bandcamp and SoundCloud for new artists, new labels. It’s something that I’ve never given up on. And I’m probably finding more artists and labels and musicians now than at any time in my past. The volume of material being produced is astounding. And it’s not as if it’s rubbish either. I mean there is some fantastic projects being done.

I think with the scope now of digital downloads, it does mean that there’s a lot more experimentation. So for me it’s great because the more progressive or cutting edge a musician or a label are trying to be, the more scope I have to push what I do.

And there is an avenue through music where, as a designer, I can put this stuff out as uncompromised as possible.

You talk about corporates. I have worked on a variety of larger projects and it’s good to be able to employ a certain discipline and knowledge that you have as a designer, having had many years experience, to sit down with someone and understand what they want because you understand design. But ultimately you spend a lot longer on something to produce something which is ultimately not very exciting.

The rules that exist at a corporate level are a lot more restricting. And you also have to pass the design through so many hands. And it’s definitely like the old adage too many cooks spoil the broth. But what tends to happen is that you work with, say a junior member of the marketing team. You get something quite good looking down and then it goes to the next level and they’re like, “Oh well we can’t do this.” And “Oh that’s not quite readable.” And then by the time they’ve had their input and then it finally gets shown to the CEO or something, and then they’ll say their bits. So once it’s gone through that milling machine, there’s really not much left of any creative merit. And ultimately all you can say is that as a designer, you’re proud of having done your job well in creating something that corporation can use.

But invariably it’s not something you show on your Instagram or put in your portfolio because other than the fact you’ve worked for a particular company, there’s no real kudos attached to it.

You’re not going to get many people following you simply because you’ve worked for a certain corporate.

What I have realised as well is you used to think, “Oh, I’ve worked for this corporation,” or “I’ve worked for this big fashion brand.” The floodgates are going to open, I’m suddenly going to get loads of work from people. And it doesn’t work like that.

When I have hard work come to me from large corporations or large companies, it’s invariably because a person working there is an Aphex Twin fan or is a fan of Ghost in the Shell, and it’s seeing the logo I did for Laughing Man. So like I say, just because you’ve worked with a big company doesn’t mean all of a sudden there’s loads of big companies knocking at your door.

 

Ian Paget: Could we dive into that a little bit more in terms of you finding clients. Because, being totally transparent, I did make the assumption that because you worked on the Aphex Twin logo, that’s why you’ve been able to work on a lot of other logos for similar musicians. I thought that was the reason why you would have done something like that and it had attracted all of those opportunities. If that’s not the case, how are you actively searching for potential clients?

 

Paul Nicholson: Okay. Well Aphex Twin has definitely helped but only really in the last couple of years. Because with the 2015 SoundCloud dump that Richard did, and then more so the 25th anniversary of Selected Ambient Works Volume Two, a number of things happened that raised general awareness of the fact that the Aphex Twin logo had been designed by someone.

And it’s quite rare in music graphics that the designer gets any recognition. But with the 25th anniversary of Selected Ambient Works, and because the cover is just the logo, people started asking about the logo.

So I think the order in which it happened was Kevin Fox, who’s DJ Food had done an article on his blog. And I think from that resident advisor got in contact with me, and it kind of spun out from there. So I had about a month or so where articles were either reposted or edited and ended up on various music-based sites and blogs, I think Hypebeast.

And so these were, from a designer’s point of view, just fantastic because it raised awareness. But obviously prior to that, I don’t think having done the Aphex Twin logo was bringing in any work in so much that Richard, as a musician, had a much lower profile. So that helped.

The logo I did for Laughing Man, which was a character in the TV series for Ghost in the Shell, that has probably consistently brought in more work and especially from Japan. So a lot of the work that I get from Japan tends to be tech companies, developers, toy manufacturers. So you can imagine that Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, is coming up to about 15 years or so ago. So a lot of the people who would have been young fans of Ghost in the Shell are now at an age where they’re involved in companies at a level where they are commissioning artwork.

So having done work does help. I don’t actively look for work. I have Instagram and it really does stem from that. I’m in the process of creating a website because I feel it would be good to present the body of work in a way that’s like a magazine where you’ve got a content page and you can see things properly presented and I can write a bit more about it and going into stuff in a bit more detail. With Instagram it’s invariably viewed at no larger than the size of your mobile phone screen.

So the website, I know websites aren’t really firing at the moment, but it would be good to have this thing that’s more like a book that I can direct people to. And especially people who are in the position of commissioning artists. I think it would be good to have something that people can look at and get a better handle on what you’re doing. Because you can’t expect or know the CEO of Adidas or something to scroll through all of your Instagram. It’s not ideal in that respect. It’s great to communicate on that quick-fire manner.

But like I say as you work with more people, those nodes are out there. So some work will come in because I’ve worked with Mark Acardipane out of Germany’s. So he’s really big in hardcore techno. So I’ll get work from having done his stuff. People will see that and go, “Oh, I want stuff like that.”

I think as well is married to having done the effects, twin logo is a resurgence of interest in the ’90s. So whether I like it or not, I have been kind of lumped in that prestigious group of individuals who were around. So I think musically and culturally, people are quite excited by what was happening in the ’90s. And I’m not kind of naive enough to know that at some point people will move on. The ’90s won’t be hip and won’t be happening.

So like I say, I’ll keep pushing what I do. If I get work for having done the Aphex Twin logo, great. If I get work, I’m done the Laughing Man logo, great. But when I do get that work, it’s not as if I’m emulating what I did 20 odd years ago. It’s a starting point or a way to introduce what I do or get people into what I’m doing.

But I’m producing enough new work to know that once this current interest or fad in the ’90s dies out, it’s not as if I’m going to be thrown on the rubbish heap. And again, it’s what motivates you. You want to keep moving forward and you want to create new work because you certainly cannot rest on your laurels and rely on having that reputation. Because there will be a point in time where having done that work won’t afford you any kudos. People will go, “Aphex who? Or “Laughing Man, what’s that about?” People will have moved on.

 

Ian Paget: I find it interesting from your perspective, it sounds like a lot of your work is coming from word of mouth. So you’ve done something for someone and they’ve obviously spoke about the work and that’s attracted other work. I think here today any kind of young designer, I feel it’s almost essential that they do have a website. But you seem to be doing well without. And I do think is primarily because of word of mouth.

You mentioned about your Instagram. How much of a dent does that make in terms of generating leads? Is that bringing in much? Or do you think it’s more your reputation and the work that you’ve done that’s drawing people to towards finding you on Instagram? You have a website, but it’s just a landing page at the moment. Do you think people are finding stuff that you’d done previously, looking you up, finding you in a blog post or something and then going to your Instagram? Or do you think that by posting on Instagram people are finding out about you?

 

Paul Nicholson: I mean, I’m someone who isn’t very good in traditional networking circles. A lot of the time, if I do meet people who could potentially be a good node to add to your network, if I’m with them, I’ll end up just talking about anything and just going with the flow.

I know some people would just straight away be on the hard sell, “Oh give me your business card. Let’s meet up. Let’s talk about projects.” And I find that kind of very difficult to do. Not because in itself it’s difficult. But I’m more likely just to want a banter. Just to have a laugh. Have a chat. Rather than trying to be buy, buy, buy, sell, sell, sell. It’s not really for me.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. Well I’m sorry to interrupt. I prefer that myself because the way that I see it, when you are networking, people just want to hang out with people that they like. And if they know that you can do certain work and you can help them in a certain area, they will ask you about that when it comes. So personally that buy, buy, buy, sell, sell, sell, approach when it comes to networking, I personally would not want to spend time with that person. But that little bit of banter coming from you, you’re making friends. Personally I prefer that approach and I think that’s probably more effective.

 

Paul Nicholson: I can’t speak for the younger generation but I know when I was in my teens and twenties, you kind of went out of your way not to be liked. That was a whole kind of thing of, going right back to something like punk or skateboarding, you were antisocial. You weren’t part of the bigger society. And you would gravitate to individuals or to groups or to activities or to bands because you didn’t want to be part of the greater whole. I think one of the aspects to things like Instagram and Facebook is the very premise is to be liked. You are trying to be liked. So it turns a lot of the rules that were around when I was younger on its head.

So a lot of the time, what I like with Instagram is I put thee stuff out there and you can like it or you can not like it. And there’s a part of me that doesn’t really care, because in a way there’s a part of me where if you don’t get it, well fuck you. You’re either too stupid or too blind. And it’s not like I’m being attitudinal, or giving people a hard time. But, well it is what I do and I’m not going to try and bend to consensus or try and follow trend.

So as much as I’m aware of certain shifts in design, whether it be Vaporwave or David Rudnick or whoever’s hot right now, I won’t even touch it. And when I see that there are trends I’m invariably motivated to go in the opposite direction.

So it’s like with my bike, if everybody’s riding with skinny tires with narrow handlebars, what do I do? I get wide handlebars and fat tires. So I think, again, I’m more motivated to not follow and not be liked. But at this point in time I, it’s not like I have an agent. I’m not affiliated to any studio. So, as I say, I have to play the game as much as I can. But ultimately I just post stuff on Instagram. Sometimes I’ll get a really favourable reaction. Sometimes I don’t. But overall it works. And people contact me and it’s certainly cheaper than losing 10% on every project too an agent.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I’d like to steering the conversation back to the logos that you’ve worked on because I know earlier in the conversation we spoke about how a lot of what you do is quite experimental, but something that I have noticed scrolling through your Instagram, your work is very precise, very well-thought-out.

You posted a number of studies, sharing the dimensions, sizes, angles, spaces, percentages… all this sort of stuff. It shows a lot of detail and thought put into your work. So, even though there is the experimental side, there is also this real polish and finesse to everything that you do.

I’m curious to dig into this a little bit because you are presenting percentages, spaces, angles and stuff like that. Is there some kind of approach to that? Is there a reason why you use certain percentages. What’s the thinking behind that final polish and finesse on everything that you do?

 

Paul Nicholson: Well, very early on in the conversation I was saying how you start with pencil and paper, then once you take it into the computer you start to see that, “Oh okay. That border is 8% width of the overall height.” So sometimes as I’m laying out the vector graphic, I’ll invariably photograph the pencil drawing and use it as a trace in Illustrator. So I’ll have that on one layer, knocked down to 10% grade and I’ll be drawing over the top of it.

So I tend to take the vertical height to a hundred millimeters because then it’s really easy to work out the percentages. So if it’s a circle and it’s a hundred millimeters diameter and then the inner circle is 18 millimeters, you know that you’ve got a 10% border width. And I wasn’t as particular about angles and geometry until more recently, but in presenting work on Instagram and kind of getting into that whole thing of showing the geometry. And I worked on a project a few years ago, which was all about sacred geometry and you start to see these amazing symbols and shapes that have been within humanity for thousands of years, constantly refined and worked upon.

So I think what started out was just a way of showing off how something is made to a certain degree now is part of the process. Because as I’m creating them, I’m looking for these accuracies. If they’re there great. If something just doesn’t look right, dropping it down a percentage or adding a millimeter here or there, then you just go with what’s visually correct. But I think it’s good to show that you’ve done the grafting. That you’ve worked at it. That it is considered and thought out and well worked out.

If the starting point is experimental, then it doesn’t mean that it can’t be also geometrically perfect, have perfect balance and perfect weight. And having done this a long time, there’s an understanding of design that is kind of ingrained into you. So you just know when something looks right or has the correct balance.

But I think outside of design, it’s just something I’m really into. I’ll happily watch videos about people restoring a World War Two fighter and just seeing how the framework is put together. The engine is held onto the fuselage and then the skin is applied. So I love those things like the Dorling Kindersley cutaway books. Or when I was a kid I’d get aviation magazines and it would show you the cutaway diagrams. So it’s all there that this kind of interest and obsession with how things are constructed and built.

And I’ve seen a similar construction diagrams for the Nike logo or for the Apple logo. And there’s a beauty to it that sometimes transcends the actual logo. So when you see the Apple logo, it’s like, “Oh, that’s nice.” But when you see how it’s being made, that in itself is a work of art. It’s just beautiful seeing all of those construction lines and realising that everything has a reason. That it has a purpose. And again, it sounds like it goes against this idea, this notion of experimentation, being freeform and lacking constraints, breaking all the rules, but in design and in art, balance and form, follow the rules of nature.

A tree doesn’t grow the same as the tree next to it, but they all exist following certain rules of nature. So it’s a bit like that with design. You can start with a very freeform idea, but as you start to look at it more, you realise that that thing that you did just instinctively is a natural thing that flows through you that you’re not kind of control of, but it’s there. You can’t ignore it.

The very fact that you’re scraping a piece of graphite over paper, there are rules of nature that apply there. The fact you can see it. So I’m kind of getting unnecessarily profound, but yeah, it looks good.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I find it fascinating, your approach. I don’t know how much time you spend online in any of the communities, but I’ve seen a lot of work from companies like Pentagram, Michael Bierut and the team at Pentagram. And even going back to Paul Rand days, they used the golden ratio and there’s so much hate online towards the golden ratio.

People are like, “Oh, it’s nonsense. You don’t need this.” And I think that’s come from inexperienced designers applying rules and grids based on those diagrams that you mentioned of the Apple logo and the Nike tick. And I think that’s where it’s come from just because people are using it wrong.

What I like about what you’re doing, and what I like about people that use the golden ratio… I don’t think it’s necessarily because it’s the golden ratio that the designs look good. I think it’s just the sheer act of doing what you’re doing and recognising that there are alignments mathematically, or certain percentage angles or elements of consistency.

I think it’s just the sheer act of having the freedom of experimentation and then having this final element of proper thought, detailed thought as to what could align. Asking yourself if maybe that percentage could be a percentage of that, or maybe that can work that way.

I think that’s what makes certain people’s work stand out. Yours and a lot of the graphic designers that I really admire, like George Bokhua, he always does fantastic work. I’ve always been a fan of Paul Rand, all of the stuff that Pentagram are doing. It is just that finesse. And if they use the golden ratio, it’s just a method for refining and perfecting that final thing. And I just think when it comes to logo design, I think it makes a difference.

 

Paul Nicholson: Well you think about most creative ventures, you can watch a film. I recently read a book about the making of Taxi Driver and on one level you can watch a film and just go, “Oh wow, that was really exciting. I really loved that film.” But there are people who will watch films who maybe understand the medium or understand some of the backstory and you will see a different film because you start to understand the reasons for certain choices. The way scenes were set up. The words that were written and then acted.

So with a logo, there will be that instant reaction. A lot of people, taking Aphex Twin logo, who aren’t design-literate, but they all write and go, “I really love it.” And they’ll say, “Oh, it doesn’t look like anything else, blah, blah blah.”

So you can obviously succeed if you can communicate to anyone. When it’s something though that is there, there is that deeper level. There is that higher level of thoughts. It’s good to be able to show that, to inform people that it wasn’t just purely by chance.

You can’t be too up your own ass about stuff because really you still have to communicate. And when I have a project where I’ve got more scope to really loosen up and create something that may be difficult to read, that may be unbalanced or whatever, those opportunities are great.

But then having had the training and sometimes when you’ve got the client, sometimes you just have to reign it in and create something that’s elegant or beautiful, a well balanced. Because in those circumstances doing something that’s fucked up isn’t appropriate.

 

Ian Paget: Absolutely. Well I think we’ve covered a lot of the questions that I had, but yesterday I posted out to the Logo Geek community that I was going to be interviewing you, and I asked if anyone had any questions. Last night when sending over these questions to you, I only had one, but I’ve actually had a couple more since.

So I don’t know if you’ve got a little bit more time, but I think it’d be good to go through them. To do some quick-fire questions and responses. So the first one I’ve already got written down, but the rest of them I’m just going to have to open up my phone. So I’ll ask this one first. So this is from Liam Jackson.

He asked did you have a feeling that when you created the Aphex Twin logo that it would become so iconic? And did you think that people would recreate that logo in a matter of objects, and even get it tattooed on themselves?

 

Paul Nicholson: Well I think when you do any logo, once you’ve handed it over, it’s effectively out of your control. As good as a piece of design is, in the case of Aphex Twin, the fact that he’s continued to be a leading producer of cutting edge music and one whose reputation has continued to grow, having created a logo for someone who has carried on working has helped.

I’m not naive enough to believe that it’s just down to the quality of the design. So the fact that after, I think it’s coming up to 29 years, Richard is still using the logo is a good thing because obviously it works for him then, and it works for him now.

That said, there’s a lot of musicians on a similar level to Richard and even more successful financially who don’t have a logo or don’t have a recognisable element graphically to what they do. So it just means that if you are into Aphex Twin or if you are into techno and electronic music generally, you’ve got this symbol that you can wear and you know that you will communicate to people that you belong to this tribe.

Now there are iconic designs within every genre of music. So you might be into late ’60s rock and roll, but because The Rolling Stones have got the logo with the lips and the tongue, it’s likely that if you want to wear something that represents your love of that music, you will go for a Rolling Stone Shirt.

It’s a bit like Joy Division with the sound waves, the white lines on the black shirt. I mean that image is probably more recognised than the music of Joy Division. So there are circumstances where the design actually transcends the music. I mean, how many people do wear a Joy Division shirt or a Ramones shirts or CBGB shirt know anything about the music. It’s just these graphic elements have become iconic.

I get the impression, when I was at the Printworks gig, I think for a lot of people who probably have a relatively small appreciation of electronic music, but that they’ve discovered Aphex Twin, and kind of proud to wear the green T-shirts or whatever. I think it’s that thing where he has that visual identity that a lot of musicians don’t. There isn’t much competition. I can’t really think of anyone in that arena who have a brand identity, for want of a better term.

I mean, I’m a fan of Boards of Canada, but they don’t have a logo. So I’m not going to go out and buy a T-shirt. I’m going to see Amon Tobin in a few months time. And again, you look at all of his record sleeves, there’s no one logo that you would say, “Ah, Amon Tobin.” There’s a collection of disparate images.

So like with anything through repetition and familiarity, something becomes iconic. And in the case of Aphex Twin, because he stuck with that one logo, it has grown. But, as a designer, like I say, I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Having something that’s become iconic has helped immeasurably. Because if nothing else, when I first meet people, I can say, “Oh yeah, I did this logo.” If I’m in the company of Japanese people, it’s an instant in with people. Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex was massive in Japan. Production I.G, are kind of on par with Marvel or DC in Japan. They’re a highly respected animation studio. So most Japanese people you meet, I can go, “Oh, I did the Laughing Man, or I go, “Warai Otoko” in Japanese. And like I say, if you can get an in like that where you can say one sentence and immediately people have a handle it’s definitely very useful.

 

Ian Paget: Well thank you for that. Hopefully Liam will appreciate that. I’ve got a couple more questions. I’m going to just going to ask you one last question just because we’ve gone well over an hour now. So, Dennis Lloyd, he’s asked a whole list of questions, but I’m just going to ask the top one… Who is your inspiration?

 

Paul Nicholson: Well, it’s a bit like how I described how people should create a mood board. The inspirations are way too many to be able to pinpoint. One that I would say, as a 15-year-old, I got into a band from Leeds called The Age of Chance and The Age of Chance where Designers Republic first commission. So along with a band that excited me musically, those early sleeves that Designers Republic did for age of chance really cemented in my mind what I was going to do. So through A-levels, through my foundation course, through university, I knew exactly where I was going. There was only going to be one job that I was going to work in, which was music-related graphics.

So, yeah, I would say they inspired me to do the work I do. But out of respect, I’ve always tried to work as much as possible without being actually influenced by Designers Republic. But they’ve always been a design house that motivate me to push myself, because so often back in the day they would put some work out there and I’d be like, “Shit. That’s so good. I’ve got to try and work to that standard.” So yeah, I mean fair play to Designers Republic. In my mind they set a very high benchmark, which I’ve always aspired and pushed myself to work to that level of creativity.

More recently, I mean Designers Republic for me it was more in the ’90s. So probably those records sleeves for The Orb and Sun Electric, populate itself. They were all just amazing pieces of graphics. Recently, no one in particular. And I think I’m just more broadly into stuff. So it could be anything from photography to architecture to hazard warning signs, anything really that is visually interesting is an influence.

 

Ian Paget: That’s a brilliant answer. I’ve absolutely loved this conversation, Paul. It’s been amazing. We got through a lot in the time and it’s been inspiring for me and I’m sure listeners will have enjoyed it as well. Thank you so much for coming on. It’s been a real pleasure to chat with you.

 

Paul Nicholson: Okay. Yeah, you too. Enjoyed it.

 

Thank you to the sponsor, FreshBooks

 

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An interview with Paul Nicholson

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