In the third installment of the Makers Series with Tom O’Dell, we meet father-son duo Phil and Joe Carter; two halves of inspirational graphic design practice Carter Studio.
Tom joined them at their vibrant studio in Mortlake and, following a lengthy conversation about the skill of making coffee, found out more about their approach to all things visual.
TO: Welcome to the Maker Series with Tom David O’Dell. Phil; describe what you do?
PC: We are Graphic Designers. Yes, I think that’s what we do...What is our day job, Joe?
JC: We are Graphic Designers, I think.
PC: Yes, we are Graphic Designers.
I ran a much bigger design business for 31 years but wanted to start afresh, so we decided to set this up about 18 months ago with the sole purpose to do work we enjoy doing. Working with clients who enjoy working with us, and us with them.
Our aim was to do projects that allow us to be truly creative and make great work across whatever discipline necessary. ‘Graphic design’ is a very broad term, and if an architect calls us and needs some help with signage, a photographer wants to put a book together, or whatever, then we’re always open to the challenge.
JC: We discuss the type of work we want to do and then go out and try to find it. We try to stick to our principles and have fun, so it doesn't really feel like work at all.
It's great to be involved in all aspects of a project rather than just the graphic design element. It feels like we can add something to any given project if we have a say in other areas and disciplines. For example, we’re currently putting together a couple of books but, rather than just typesetting the content, we’re putting the client, paper company and printers together to really push the production techniques. We’re also helping with the launch event design and marketing. We know how important this can all be, and working across the board usually means a better project delivery and a consistent end result.
TO: Essentially another member of staff without being in their office.
PC: Yes, it's all about collaboration. We’re lucky to have so many valuable connections, having worked in the industry for a combined 45 years. It's great we can draw from these specialist printers, typographers, developers, makers, architects, photographers, paper sources etc. You don’t always get the chance, when you work in a big organisation, to draw on these contacts or have them involved in a project; normally you just have to work with the people you have in the business.
TO: Phil, you set up Carter Wong in 1984, the studio that designed the original Formula 1 logo, amongst other things. Would say the way you look at design has always been the same?
PC: Yes, but with a bigger company you have more mouths to feed so need to be more thoughtful with your approach and the types of jobs you take on. With Carter Studio there is only the two plus a few collaborators, and we get to work directly with the client. I really enjoy that, working with them and talking to them about their ideas, their vision and what we can achieve together. With the two of us involved with everything we can dedicate all of our time to the creative work.
Joe has a great talent, especially regarding typography, which is a skill that I don't have. So it's brilliant that we can work together now. I’ve learnt so much in the past 18 months from Joe and the clients we’ve been working with, even after 35 years in the game. You never stop.
TO: And the same goes with you Joe?
PC: He's learnt nothing…ha!
TO: 35 years of experience and Joe has learnt nothing from you Phil?
JC: He’s taught me everything about making a coffee in the morning and making sure I shut the windows at night…no, of course it goes both ways. Technology can be a big problem with many designers of my age these days. It is a great tool and you can be a design studio as soon as you have a computer, but there’s a lot to be said for thinking outside of technology and physically making ideas, not just typing something into Google Images for research and creating within Adobe Creative Suite.
Sometimes we have pretty heated discussions, as I’ll be thinking about how to make it, whereas my dad will go about just making it. It's great to have both strengths. He is the master of the paper and pen and the paintbrush.
PC: For me it’s about making, and working design around this. I set up with Joe not because he was my son, but because of what he could do and how we could work together. The combination is brilliant and the stuff we have produced has been great, even if we do say so ourselves!
We look at each project together and think, “How can we tackle this?” There isn't a standard format. We share the same goal for what makes it a good job: a good idea. This is key. You can create lots of things with a computer but there’s more than that. You need to play around, draw things and have within your hands. For example, we currently have a children’s carpet laid out in the hallway for a book we’re creating for a photographer. Without going into details, we could have found an image on the Internet, but we wanted to see it and photograph it, and then show the physical item to the client. It takes on a whole different dimension when you have an item in your hands. It might not be right, but these things inspire and that's better than just pitching an idea that they’re probably expecting and will get from other studios. Our clients appreciate this process, and we enjoy it too.
TO: At a larger studio, I guess these things can be brushed under the carpet.
PC: Yes, lots of people don't take risks, as they just want to do their job with the least fuss. But for us we embrace risk, otherwise we don't have work to show. We try to challenge every possibility. We’re a small studio so can take these risks and see what happens, good or bad. Also, we’ll only sign something off if we are both happy and the client is happy. The main thing we share is a common goal - it has to be the best we can do.
Our clients are coming to us for something different. For example, one of our first jobs was for Norwich University of Arts. I was honoured to receive an honorary doctorate a couple of years ago, but their certificate looked as though it had come straight out of a photocopy machine. For a creative university, it just didn’t seem right. I got in touch with them and discussed our ideas and we got the job.
The idea we settled on took a lot of time to work through, but the first question we asked was, “Why are these certificates always in A4 format?” We thought ok, what would you want to keep or put on your wall? How could we make it more visual and celebratory? We thought, “What about a poster?” We eventually designed an A2 poster that folds from A4 that includes the largest foil block that the printer had ever created. It all came about from looking at things differently and not simply accepting the norm. The uni loved it and we’ve heard great things from the students too.
TO: Lets go back 30 years between the two of you. How did you start? What made you want to be a designer?
PC: For me it was a given, my dad was in the printing trade; he was a very good painter, as was my mum. Subsequently, my elder sister is an art teacher, my brother an illustrator and my younger sister a textiles designer. Now most of my nieces and nephews also work in the arts, from filmmakers to graphic designers. Joe has followed suit and Caitlin [Phil’s daughter] is also in the design business.
I wanted to be car designer. It never happened in the end but I knew graphic design was for me. It was interesting back then as you had to decide - do you go down the Fine Art route or Graphic Design (or Commercial Arts as it was called back then). It was difficult because I liked both. I took the Graphic Design route but at the same time dabbled in Fine Arts and in my spare time always made things; I painted and created. Now I feel it’s even more of a divide. I did a workshop at the university in Norwich the other week, which essentially was based around making and using their hands to get them away from the computer. By lunchtime they were saying, “This is brilliant!” They felt free.
JC: It's a shame that the process now seems to be: read the brief, look on Google, find some references, put it in a folder and print it out.
PC: That is one way of doing it, but nothing beats looking through objects, crafting things with your hands, collaging and painting to seeing what you come up with. The students felt liberated. They seemed to buy into it and I left feeling inspired by some of the work they created.
At my university I met people who were art designers, painters, car designers, photographers. I told the students to keep in touch with everyone they meet because in this industry everything overlaps. I went to the Royal College of Art with silversmiths, sculptors...it was brilliant. I used to go to their studios and draw them or watch what they were doing. We want people to come to us because we have fresh ideas and will look at each project with a new set of eyes, rather than just copy a job we have done before.
At the moment we don’t have work on our website as we’re too busy to be honest - fortunately we seem to be doing OK without it! Instead we have a weekly piece called Shared Content. Every Friday we write about an object or something that we have in the studio. We would rather a client find our site and read this and think, “They sound interesting”, and get a feel for how we think about things and see the world, rather than just see our previous jobs. Also, you never stop learning as you research the piece you are writing about. We take it in turn each week and we love it writing it. Even if we are super busy we make sure we sit down and do it. It’s a healthy discipline. You can then take that knowledge to your next project. I love learning and that I get to do this for work.
JC: As a designer you surround yourself with things: books, objects, artwork and old packaging. We might have had some of the items for years but you always learn something new about them.
The other factor is the people we work with. We are part of the project and invested in it. We aren't just doing a set job, but realising the client’s ambitions. They have chosen us and their openness allows us to be creative and free to try new things.
TO: And Joe, did you always want to be in design?
JC: Now looking back I can see that as a child the way in which my mum and dad looked at their work and life was instilled into us early on, and that had an impact on my life. It's odd growing up with parents who don’t have jobs that look like jobs you see in the news. But it wasn’t always a must, my mum always made me think about other options (for some reason working for the BBC was always mentioned), but at school everything I did seem to focus around art and creating.
I left school knowing that design was what I wanted to do, although my school wasn’t interested if you're weren’t going to Oxbridge to be a writer, scientist or politician. Saying that, during my time there I had some great Art teachers and a wonderful History of Art tutor. He taught me the theory and history of art, design and architecture for A-Level with an amazing passion and was an absolute inspiration in his field. It was really strange when I went to university and most people didn't know the references I thought were common knowledge. I feel incredibly lucky in that respect.
My Art Foundation year was also great. It made me think about all elements of design, not just graphics. You were a fashion designer, sculptor or architect for a day. It made you think about all of the elements that make up design. One minute you were making puppet shows, and then book covers and then looking at specialist typefaces. All of these things helped me get to where I am now. I'm very pleased that I took this route and I love doing what we do.
TO: What inspires you now?
PC: Everything and anything…
Instagram: I’m 60 years old and I’ve struck up conversation with two artists. One in Brazil and one in the United States. They make beautiful work and inspire me every time I see their latest post. I get them early in the morning when I wake up and it gets me inspired to create in the day ahead. I’ve never met them and probably never will. We’ve started a conversation from one side of the world to another and we are going to swap some art, which is brilliant. Other people’s work is so inspirational and fires me up. Then there’s second-hand book shops, Chiswick car boot sale, antique shops, museums and galleries.
TO: Joe, inspiration for you?
JC: I must admit I’m getting a little bit of Internet fatigue. Before design blogs and Instagram you weren’t constantly reminded of what all your peers were working on every ten minutes, presented in the ideal way that social media does. It puts pressure on you and you're always trying to achieve work that matches your heroes.
I love when you’ve not gone looking for design or inspiration but when it falls into your lap…a map, a street sign, a menu or a train ticket. Design that functions, not just used to sell things. I have filing cabinets of stuff that people throw away…carrier bags, napkins, invites. All very inspiring. Our first post on Shared Content was a little padlock case made from card. Most people would have thrown it away, but we loved it.
On trips away, you find stuff all the time. You get to see things differently in other cultures. We’re always looking for items that will help with a project and hopefully that sets us apart from other studios. We bought an electric typewriter for £25 the other day because we wanted it to be real type rather than type from a computer for a project. We didn’t want a standard typewriter font so we got a word processor that has a few more type options and it’s changed the whole project. It's given us a tool to play around with and the outcome has been perfect. It needed it to look like it had been recreated. We needed to find a rubbish photocopier, so we found ourselves trawling the streets of SW14 trying to find an old photocopier, going into all sorts of places from chemists to the local library. We ended up in the library explaining to the librarian that we need to turn up all the dials to make it as bad as possible. Everyone thought the process sounded long-winded but it turned out exactly how we wanted it to.
PC: We tried to create exactly what we had in mind, and it was great fun. It’s a good sign when people laugh at your requests.
JC: We were smiling as we walked back to the studio with the prints in our bag. I think people thought we were mad. It cost us £35 to achieve the outcome we had hoped for. The mix between the word processor and the photocopier gave us the desired end result. Again, it’s the beauty of working in a small team, and for ourselves, that means we don’t have to make the same compromises that you might have to because of time or budget in a bigger company. Sometimes we don’t have a shared view and that’s an added challenge, but actually helps give us the idea or focus we needed.
PC: Never forget the client, they have to be 100% happy and comfortable with the decision.
TO: Who would you like to employ to your business…a designer, sportsman or comedian?
PC: I’d like to have Picasso here for a week.
JC: And for me, Ai Weiwei. They probably would never be compared, but both would try their hand at anything and go in different directions. You wouldn’t know what they would do or what to expect. That’s the beauty in their skill. You love them for their brain and they would go off on tangents. That then would affect the way you think, which is fantastic!
JC: We are both fascinated by Stephen Hawking [since our interview Stephen Hawking has sadly passed away]. Just to listen to him and hear what he would have to say would be so inspiring. Learning new things and learning things from people who don’t do the same job we do.
PC: Part of starting Carter Studio was that we wanted to do self-initiated projects, for when we have time and can afford it. Things we can get out of our system and extra projects away from working with clients.
One of the ideas is a cycle hat (or ‘casquettes’) book. As far as we know, no one has done a book about this subject. After a little bit of research we found this guy in northern Holland; he doesn't speak English and has one of the biggest collections you will ever see. We’ve been in touch with him through a Dutch friend and he’s open to us using his collection. The idea is to produce a book in the style of beautiful pressed flowers. Most cycle hats are throwaway, and we would scan them with all the creases and folds and marks. The idea is to take the scanner over to Holland and scan his 2000 odd hats, and to meet him and chat to him with the aim of making a beautiful book from his collection. It might be tricky and there isn’t really budget for it, but we will find a way. There is no compromise at all then, because we’re doing this for ourselves and it will be fun.
JC: I’d love to have [hat collector] Hans in for a week. Although we don’t speak Dutch it would be fascinating to hear about his collection and you know he has lots of other things that we would love to see and talk about. He’s a positive person, the sort of person we love to work with, I know that sounds simple but it’s not always the case. You want people who get on the journey with you and are open to ideas. It might be difficult but if they are positive and open then it rubs off on you and you know this is a project that is going to have everyone behind it.
TO: Now to a question I have asked all of my guests - a question about London. What are the bits you love best about London?
PC: Recently, when my niece and nephew came over from America I took them on the foreshore of the River Thames. It is amazing! They couldn’t believe what they could find. Just near the Tate Modern when the tide is out. If you’re lucky, you can find Roman coins, dice, clay pipes. You can find these items, and it's free. Items over 400 years old, for free! Once you’re down on the river, right down, it's a wonderful feeling, with London all around you. It has the most wonderful sense of peace and tranquillity. It really is a lovely way to spend an hour or so…
JC: Apart from the obvious attractions in our great city, I would always say the greenery on this side of London (South West). Having Richmond or Bushy Park on your doorstep, and space to cycle around, is brilliant. We are lucky to have great parks in London and this is all only 15/20 minutes from the hustle and bustle of the city. Lots of people don’t know it’s here and it's a very different feel to Peckham or Hackney (where I used to live). The great outdoors is good in every way to take time to think and get ideas.
PC: The other week I was on the viewing balcony of the National Portrait gallery with my sketchbook and did some drawings of the sights and it still fills me with pride and excitement that I live in this city, even after all these years. It’s he best city in the world!
For more information on Phil and Joe, visit Carter Studio's website.
Interview and images by @OdellsStudios