Creative convictions – teaching design to prisoners

Jon Daniel goes to HMP Coldingley – site of the innovative Barbed project to teach prisoners about design – and conducts one of most unusual design presentations of his career.


Jon Daniel outside HMP Coldingley
Jon Daniel outside HMP Coldingley. Image by Andrew Williams

Well, I’ve done some design presentations in my time, but never (knowingly) to an audience comprised of burglars, armed robbers, fraudsters and murderers. Yet that’s exactly in whose company I found myself, one misty autumn morning this month. I have to say, it was delightful.

I was at HMP Coldingley in Surrey, thanks to an invitation from an old friend and fellow creative comrade, Andrew Williams, who in a previous incarnation was a highly regarded advertising, fashion and editorial photographer.

Now, in his newly appointed role as a design tutor at HMP Coldingley, Williams is responsible for helping to rehabilitate the prisoners by teaching them various design applications and creative skills which might assist them in landing a job in the creative industries when their time is served. It’s a daunting task to say the least, but one that Andrew has seized with relish.

A design studio in prison

October is Black History Month in the UK, and in a bid to provide the prisoners in his class, (many of whom are sadly, but not unsurprisingly, from mainly African-Caribbean backgrounds) with an alternative to the customary American Civil Rights-themed subject matter, Williams invited me to speak to them and share my background story and journey from boyhood to manhood which led to a career as a designer and art director in mainstream branding, advertising and visual communications.

Home to just over 510 prisoners and located in Bisley, Coldingley was opened in 1969 as a Category B training prison and then re-designated as a Category C training prison in 1993.

It has interesting historical links to design. Not only do the prisoners engage in creating and producing artwork to satisfy outside commercial interests, but some of the prisoners were responsible for designing the actual brand identity for the prison too.

Designers at the Barbed studio
Designers at the Barbed studio

A charity called The Howard League for Penal Reform actually ran a real design business in the prison between 2005 and 2008. Called “Barbed” it was a graphic design studio and was the first ever commercial enterprise to be set up in a UK prison.

Barbed was established to make a profit for the charity. Prisoners were paid real and fair wages for the work undertaken – on the same scales as full-time Howard League staff. They also had the same entitlements to annual leave and access to support as Howard League staff outside prison. They even paid tax and National Insurance. The design work was managed by a supervisor who was not a member of the prison staff and prisoners were treated as employees.

Before being recruited to work for Barbed design studio prisoners undertook interviews and the Howard League selected people they wanted to work for their company. Barbed was a real working environment in prison.

Print shop screen printing workshop. Making fire escape stickers.
Print shop screen printing workshop. Making fire escape stickers.

David Allen of Wolf Design was the Barbed studio manager. He recalls: “The more I worked with the refreshingly inspirational team in Barbed, the more I realised that a shiny studio does not make you creative!

“Perhaps passing through ten locking doors and gates to get to a studio that has a view of grey fences topped with razor wire helps the mind explore…”

Allen adds: “Re-offending is a major problem, so especially towards the end of a sentence, more needs to be done to occupy creative minds and help prepare prisoners for the outside world.”

No computers inside

So, back to my visit. Armed with nothing more than a notebook and pen, (all mobiles, laptops, or any data-carrying device of any sort cannot be taken in) I entered the prison with a certain trepidation.

I must confess, the thought of being mistaken as an inmate rather than a visitor, and therefore kept in there, did cross my mind. But I relaxed once the “Visitor” badge was firmly affixed to my attire.

It was my first ever visit to a prison, so I had no idea what to expect, but the first thing that took me by surprise was the fact that all the prisoners were wearing their own clothes.

Ordinary looking people – serious crimes

Clearly I have been affected by watching too many prison dramas, as I half expected them to be all wearing orange boiler suits and shuffling along together with chains around their ankles. But there is something almost disconcerting when you find yourself suddenly in a room of seemingly ordinary people – some of whom have been locked up for some pretty serious crimes.

However, it does mean they are not “marked out” and this can positively inform how they act when they are addressing other people, who are not prisoners, but working within the prison system.

To say I was nervous to talk to them would be a complete understatement, as they were literally the hardest audience I have ever presented to. But I was genuinely struck by how patient and attentive they all were to the showreel of work I shared with them, and deeply touched and humbled by the applause they gave me after certain pieces.

Plans for the outside

The biggest compliment I was paid was the fact that, when we stopped for a break, several of them stayed behind to interrogate me and ask me questions.

The questions they asked were insightful and they were very keen to talk about their own ideas, which they planned to explore when they were finally released. It’s incredibly exciting to hear them talk about what they want to achieve when they get out.

But this was also tempered by concerns of the challenges and hurdles they will face in order to realise their dreams. God knows, its hard enough if you haven’t got a track record, never mind a criminal one.

Behind bars for 29 years

There are some prisoners who have been there since 1986. If like me, you are old enough to cast your mind back 29 years, just think how much has changed in that time. The world outside today would be almost completely unrecognisable to the one that you had left behind. It’s a sobering thought.

When it was time for them to leave, they all shook my hand and thanked me. Andrew had warned me earlier not to shake the hand of a particular prisoner, as he was notorious for having such a powerful grip. Let me tell you, he certainly did not disappoint, as I gritted my teeth and grinned through an experience that felt as if my hand had been slammed in a door several times.

And finally, after the presentation, Prison Radio, which gets broadcast nationally, across all the prisons, interviewed me.

Cell windows of C wing. HMP Coldingley
Cell windows of C wing. HMP Coldingley

In summary, I can honestly say that it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my years as a creative professional. It has caused me to reflect on my own background – where just being in the wrong place at the wrong time might well have ended me up in the same place as they are now. It’s left me with some personal convictions of my own.

  1. A duty to not let this just end here, and to be able to offer any practical help or guidance I can to any of the prisoners who may seek me out on their release.
  2. A determination to explore how I can use my industry experience and contacts to bring together a wider network of support.
  3. A desire to see how creativity and design can really change people’s lives by offering a window of opportunity for those with the passion and dedication to seize it.

To do nothing after a day like this? That would be a crime.


Special thanks to Andrew Williams; Andrew Aitchison; David Allen; governer Eion McLennan-Murray, education manager Sue Price and all the staff and prisoners at HMP Coldingley for their help and support with this article.

All photography, apart from Jon Daniel’s portrait, by Andrew Aitchison.

Jon Daniel is a London-based independent creative director, designer and curator. For more information visit his website at or his blog at

Hide Comments (5)Show Comments (5)
  • Toni Batey October 30, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Wow, what a moving article. I really hope design helps these men to make a fresh start in life.

  • Matt Johnston October 31, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    I agree with Toni. Very interesting and inspiring story.

  • Jose Carlos Conde Acuaviva November 1, 2015 at 8:08 am

    It’a really inspiring story. Thanks for sharing!

  • Lorna Hamilton- Brown November 1, 2015 at 9:31 am

    Great Article. Very inspiring. Keep up the good work.

  • Caroline King November 23, 2015 at 6:11 am

    I work at HMP Erlestoke teaching graphic design and I can tell you, it is a very rewarding job especially when you spot real talent!

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