Work rated

Jim Davies finds out how a designer’s creative output is affected when a project has to work within a restricted budget

Money may make the world go round, but it doesn’t necessarily produce great graphics. In fact, you could argue that the constraints of shoestring budgets often bring out the best in designers, encouraging lateral thinking, ingenuity and harder-working ideas. When you can no longer afford the gloss of a lavish production or the glitz of a top-flight photographer, you’re it – there’s simply no hiding place.

So perhaps there is a silver lining to the recession. If you follow the argument to its logical conclusion, there should be an inundation of innovative, groin-grabbing graphic design out there at the moment.

Unfortunately that’s not the case. If anything, recessionary times make clients more cautious. They want solutions that are safe and to keep a tighter reign on their suppliers. Projects tend to be commissioned on a cagey one-off basis, which means that the kind of relationships needed to develop challenging work never really get the chance to blossom. And this adds up to work that has all the pizzazz of soggy pizza.

But it needn’t be. ‘What clients don’t seem to realise,’ says John Powner, partner at Atelier Works, ‘is that buying design is a bit like buying shares – when the market is flat you get more for your money. This is the time to be getting your messages across, because you get a much bigger bang for your bucks.’ Navy Blue managing director Geoff Nicol, believes that ‘marque-making’ is only half the story, that an essential part of a group’s remit is to provide advice and consultancy – including where budgets can be allocated most effectively. ‘We need to look at total solutions, to consider what’s appropriate and how to maximise the potential of budgets large or small,’ he says.

Others argue that tight budgets are nothing new anyway, that graphic design has always relied on its ability to make the most of limited resources – certainly compared to its more profligate cousin, advertising. ‘I’m tempted to say all our work is “recession-busting” and always has been,’ says Intro creative director Adrian Shaughnessy. The last time a client walked in and said “money no object”, I had a full head of hair and got asked my age in pubs.’

It’s telling, however, that the most mould-breaking work tends to emanate from non-corporates – galleries, theatres, socio-political organisations, pressure groups, and so on. Just look at Gert Dumbar’s for the Zeebelt Theatre, Paul Elliman’s collaborations with choreographer Rosemary Butcher, A2’s graphics for the Turner Prize. Here, the underlying motivation is experimentation and creative freedom rather than cash, and it shows in the wonderfully intriguing results.

Liz McQuiston’s revealing book Graphic Agitation is packed full of powerful examples of protest graphics, from Soviet political posters of the 1920s, to more recent safe sex and environmental campaigns. Direct to the point of brutality, these designs succeed through the strength of their passion and conviction, rather than the lavishness of their production values.

Clearly, context is all. What’s right for a militant mime troupe in all probability wouldn’t be appropriate for a dyed-in-the-wool City law firm. But there certainly are lessons to be learned, and these leftfield pieces unequivocally show that whatever the budget, there is simply no excuse for scrimping on creativity. The tools and tricks they use can be modified and adapted. A rougher, more crafts-based aesthetic can be an effective means of standing out from the slick, over-polished crowd. It implies a certain integrity and confidence, ‘honesty and simplicity,’ as Ben Parker of Made Thought puts it.

The Apple Mac, of course, has put once expensive, specialist techniques well in reach of the designer. They can manipulate type and imagery at their desks, create patterns, textures and digital effects at the touch of a button. Many designers are accomplished illustrators or photographers in their own right, but rarely given the opportunity to strut their stuff. If a client is enlightened enough, a low-budget project can become a platform for a more expansive expression of a designer’s visual capabilities.

In the long term, of course, trading a decent fee for creative freedom isn’t sustainable. You simply can’t foster a business on that basis. But if push comes to shove, most graphic designers are remarkably adept at making something out of nothing. It’s a skills set developed at college and a challenge (at least once every so often) that they enjoy.

‘The main thing is that the client has got to have a good attitude and faith in you,’ says Intro designer Mat Cook. ‘If they are blinkered and there’s no budget, the whole thing’s just a complete waste of time.’

The Big Issue

Design consultancy: Intro

Designer: Mat Cook

Mat Cook’s cover for the Big Issue, the magazine that helps the homeless, was a deliberate reaction against established editorial conventions.

He knew he didn’t want a moody cover portrait, a hierarchy of coverlines or a ‘dreadful stuck-on pochette’ to hold the free CD, which was being given away that week. Instead, he created a canvas that worked as a coherent whole, a spiral of urgent painted lettering working its way around the casually stuck-on disc. ‘It seemed right to make it feel really handmade and optical,’ says Cook.

‘The aesthetic was determined by the size of the brush and the speed of the painting. I wanted something that was raw, punk, street and instantaneous.’ After a bit of tinkering on the computer with background colour and positioning of the type, he was done.

That week, the Big Issue sold 30 000 more copies than usual. The budget couldn’t have been more frugal. The set fee of £150 was waived.


Design consultancy: Navy Blue

Designer: Kirsten Gracie

Navy Blue made the most of the client’s limited budget for furniture manufacturer Knoll by creating an ingenious multifunctional piece of design.

Through clever use of perforations and folds, a single graphic item worked simultaneously as an invitation, RSVP card, map, give-away poster and envelope.

Aimed at a discerning audience of architects, designers and key clients, the mailer heralded a European launch event for three new lines: a chair called Life, an addition to the Scope range of modular furniture, and A3, a new contemporary unit.

The schematic graphics demonstrate how these products tessellate, each represented by a different colour and icon. The imagery was modified from existing file drawings while a restricted colour palette kept printing costs down. ‘It was a stern test of our creative ability,’ says Navy Blue managing director Geoff Nicol, ‘but the creative solution was born out of pragmatic restrictions because of the budget.’

Towner Art Gallery

Design consultancy: NB Studio

Designer: Ian Pierce

Over the past couple of years, NB Studio has developed a rewarding relationship with the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne. Rewarding in terms of creative opportunity rather than money, that is. Promoting the exhibition Somewhere: Places of Refuge in Art and Life was a case in point.

The show featured 16 very different contemporary artists, much of it video or sculpture work, but none of it particularly representative. Commissioned photography was a non-starter, supplied images weren’t up to scratch, so a striking graphic route (literally) was devised.

‘You can’t afford to labour over these things,’ says Ben Stott, creative director of NB Studio. ‘You have a brainstorm and come up with one idea, and that’s it.’ NB Studio produced a two-colour, silk-screened double-crown poster and an A5 invitation, printed on heavy board stock.

The unmistakable Margaret Calvert typeface was downloaded from the Department of Transport website. Stott says they ‘twisted the printer’s arm’ to die-cut the corners on the poster and invitation free of charge. He maintains that, just like designers, printers like to have small interesting jobs in their portfolios, so it’s always worth asking. m

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