5 Minutes with... Tony Brook AGI
Creative Director / Spin
LBB > At Spin, you make thoughtful and emotive responses to your clients’ needs. All of your responses are bespoke and can be applied to different media. Talk to us about what’s made you so successful, and how you’ve developed since founding in 1992?
TB > I designed record sleeves for a long time but that wasn’t really what I was trained to do, or was interested in. I was trained in conceptual design. I was more concerned with coming up with intelligent thoughtful responses to problems and, equally, aesthetic responses - it’s a balance between the two. I set up Spin with the express purpose of broadening out the design that I was doing. Designing record sleeves is a bit like eating chocolate every day, it’s enjoyable but after a while you want some vegetables. There was a lot of politics in designing record sleeves - dealing with the management and the label gets really messy. Also it didn’t seem appropriate for a thirty something year old to be doing any more. As I was walking into work at Virgin Records one day I bumped into Iggy Pop, one of my great heroes. It struck me as we passed in the doorway that we were both too old to be doing this (he’s still at it!). After that I made a conscious decision to move on.
Spin gave me great licence to do anything. I set it up with my wife, Patricia, who had a background in fashion management. We made an express decision to exist for two years. We were still doing record sleeves and after two years I resigned most of the clients and moved to a larger studio. The first major client we had was Diesel, which wasn’t a bad start. I was interested in interactivity and the possibility of motion really early on and I started making little interactive maquettes. I showed them to someone at Diesel and they loved it. They employed us to do a big DVD to launch ‘55dsl’, their sportswear range. Levi’s saw what I’d done and were interested, and Nike followed. After that, it started to have a life of its own.
I was still interested in motion, so we made an animated typography and film. I showed it to someone from Mother advertising agency, who mentioned to Channel 4, who hired us to make an identity for them, then MTV, then More4. At the same time I was still doing the corporate identities for galleries, and cultural institutions - I have really broad interests. We have worked for some huge brands: Whitechapel Gallery, V & A, Rose Theatre, D&AD, British Council, Design Museum, Publicis for Renault. I like working on a range of projects. I’m delighted to work with a major brand but I’m also happy to work with a small start-up company. It’s stimulating. I like the different challenges and the versatility of it.
We are still a small company, but I don’t see any boundaries, there is nothing to stop you if you have a great concept and can create a strong visual response.
LBB > When you approach a brief, what is more important the effectiveness or the creativity?
TB > They are the same thing, if you get it right. If we have one strength, that’s what it is, delivering on both levels. I don’t get any satisfaction from delivering something that’s beautiful, but nobody shows up. Success can be counted in different ways, it can be sales, but it can be how many people turn up to the party and, more importantly, who turns up.
In terms of design, if you have something that’s strong, memorable and effective, that’s where you want to be. It’s not a case of compromising, i.e. making something that’s beautiful but useless.
LBB > You’ve won many awards, including several D&AD pencils. What importance do you put on awards and winning them?
TB > That’s interesting; we’ve actually stopped entering awards for many reasons: They cost a lot of money; you are talking to yourself, your own industry; and the world has changed. The measure of success now, for a young designer, is for your work to be mentioned on a blog. For us it’s the same.
I’ve won a lot of awards and that’s great, but I looked at the amount of money we were spending and thought, ‘is there something more meaningful we could do with that money rather than putting another pencil on the mantelpiece?’
We came up with the idea of creating a series of papers for distribution that would be rather inexpensive to buy. The second paper we did was a reading list for graphic design students. I contacted around fifty graphic designers from across the world to contribute - great names in the industry - and produced this fantastic paper, which sold well. It felt great. Like we were helping the design community, really giving something back.
LBB > You are a regular lecturer and external examiner in Dublin and LCC (London College of Communications). What does teaching bring to you personally, and to the company?
TB > I get to talk to students about their work. It’s exciting, like giving something back, trying to help the students and encourage them. I think the most effective way of teaching is, for example, our three month paid internship. We have maybe two people at a time. They can come from anywhere in the world, and learn more with us than they ever did in their four years at university. They have, hopefully, gone on to do great things. We started this programme because we couldn’t take on all the young talent we were seeing but we at least wanted to give them a break.
I’d like to continue teaching, but perhaps set something else up outside the current education system. Perhaps a postgraduate scheme...
LBB > And what do you think about the current government apprenticeship scheme?
TB > Yes, I think it’s a good idea. Our scheme is an apprenticeship, in a way. The only downside is we can’t employ everyone; I want to keep Spin relatively small as a core creative hub. We were thirty-six people at one point and as numbers increase, something gets lost. You end being a manager rather than a creator which didn’t really suit me. The contemporary model for a studio that works for us is a core creative hub and then collaborative relationships with creatives outside. This set-up works well for us. It means we can work with a range of people with varied skills from all over the world.
LBB > With regards to your publishing ‘The Unit Editions’, how important is a physical print to you?
TB > I like books; I like the feel of them. But to chop down a tree you have to have a fairly decent reason. If you go into a shop, you see thousands of magazines that could sit beautifully on the web, or your iPad. I think if you are going to chop down a tree, make a beautiful object out of it.
Books are great as an object - the smell, touch. They are fantastic pieces of technology. They don’t break when you drop them and they don’t run out of battery. A fantastic Dutch writer called Frederike Huygen said, “as long as there are graphic designers, there will be books”, and I think that’s true. There is a romance and history about the book that is not going to go anywhere. But if I was a student today I wouldn’t want to cart them all about in my bag, I would want them in digital format. When I go to book fairs and see the thousands of books I think, ‘do all of those need to be printed?’ I’m excited about digital, we are involved in it and we are designing a new book to become an app, but I like both. I don’t have a problem with either. There are unique aspects to both.
LBB > You were admitted to the Alliance Graphique Internationale in 2006, the professional club of leading graphic designers and artists. Twenty years since Spin’s founding, how does this recognition feel and what does it mean to you?
TB > It was, and still is, incredible. That was never on my horizon at all. I heard about the organisation at college and as far as I was concerned it was the Mount Olympus for all the great graphic designers. For a graphic designer, or for me, personally, it is as good as it can get. I am now greatly involved in the committee.
LBB > Yes, the list of the rest of the committee is a complete who’s who of advertising isn’t it?
TB > It is. I was with Paula Scher (an American graphic designer, illustrator, painter and art educator in design) in Hong Kong last week - it doesn’t get any better than that, it’s fantastic!
LBB > Do you still enjoy what you do?
TB > Yes, I love it. I keep thinking, ‘should I be thinking about doing something else’? The thing about graphic designing is you end up knowing more about other peoples’ business than they do themselves. You end up having conversations with people that they would never have with anyone else, not even their friends or their partners. Some graphic therapy goes on when you are working with someone; it’s a unique relationship you build up. You can end up doing strange things like walking round a factory, looking at bizarre things. It’s stimulating and so interesting, I have no ambitions to do anything else, and I find it really exciting.
LBB > What’s been your favourite work in the last 12 months out of Spin, something that’s really resonated within you?
TB > That’s a really tough question. I co-curated a show with Margaret Cubbage (curator) at The Design Museum called ‘A Graphic Odyssey’, focussing on the work of Wim Crouwel. My house is pasted with posters of his that I have collected. I have gone from lying on my bed staring at his posters, to making a major exhibition of his work. And now I’m good friends with Wim - that’s beyond my wildest dreams, it’s ridiculous!
We were also asked to co-edit an issue of Print Magazine from the States.
We have also just done our first title sequence with Steve Reeves at Another Film Company. I was so flattered when he asked me to do it. Dan Flynn (a designer at Spin) and I produced it. I hadn’t had an opportunity to do a title sequence before - I would love to do more of them.
It’s been a great 12 months!
LBB > What is 2012 looking like for you?
TB > Right now it’s looking really busy, which is how I like it, otherwise I get bored. Lots of books, and some really nice jobs I’ve been working on for the past few months. Lots to do!