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Bob Sanderson's photo

Bob Sanderson

We interviewed Bob Sanderson for our September 2011 YouSpeak magazine. Here is the full interview:


How was your time at Doncaster?

Yeah it was great. I had some really great tutors and a really good class that year. The year above were great too and they were applying to universities in London and elsewhere, so it gave me good insight into that.


What were your aspirations?

Well I initially went to the College for work experience because I didn't want to go to an office or anything like that, so my career advisor organised for me to come to the College and spend two weeks at an art school. And I loved it. I started going out and listening to music, reading magazines and there was a guy the year above me who did work for MTV - I hadn't ever heard of anyone working for them, so it was very exciting.


So then you went to one of the most famous art schools, St Martins, what was that like?

That was huge. I was blown away. It was a little bit of a risk, because if I didn't get in, then I would have been stuck, but a guy that I knew the year before had got in, so that gave me lots of encouragement. Even just going to interview was so exciting. There were people there from all over the world and it was so creative. The portfolios were really good. It wasn't graphic design by numbers as such - people were planning on doing their own thing you know. People had photography-based portfolios or more art based, and that was cool.


Now the fees have tripled, do you think it is vital that people go to university in order to have a career like yours?

It is difficult to say. I know people that haven't been to university and are amazing. I know people that have been to university and are amazing. It is a personal preference. I think the thing that helped me the most was moving to London, seeing lots of new things. There's a quote somebody said "you've got to practice for 10,000 hours at something before you're any good at it" and university gives you the time to practice. If you're aware of what you're good at, you can try and make it perfect, and pick up on the things you're not so good at. I think you can be doing that in Doncaster too, but you need to be going places as well and seeing lots, because that’s all part of the 10,000 hours thing.


So you think it's not so much going to university, but just being open minded and trying out lots of things?

Well I think that's a massive part of it, but perhaps the two are linked.


Our timetable was literally to pick up a brief, go away, then come back and show the tutors what you've done. The St Martins way was to encourage you to get out there for yourself and find museums, meet people, find new printers and so on. We had to be very independent. We were really encouraged to get out there and make things happen, and so I think if you've got the mentality where you don't go out and see things or whatever, then it won't happen for you. And I think this is why you see a lot more St Martins students setting up their own studios.


Apart from intuition and independence, are there any other skills you need to make it in design?

Well it depends on the level you want to get to. A lot of people left St Martins not knowing how to use a computer. I didn't have a computer until my final year. On the course we all made a lot of stuff, and it was only at the very end I realised I had to put all that into a form that can be reproduced. I guess creativity and the ability to experiment. But then again it depends what place you want in graphic design.


Not everyone is cut out to run their own studio and that's not a bad thing. There are a lot of great agencies out there that are a lot bigger and you are a piece in a bigger picture.


It's a difficult one especially when you leave school, some people know what they want to do and some people don't. Really, I think you just have to find out what you're good at. That's the trick.


To experiment?

You've got to have that personality where you really go for it and try everything. And that is one good thing about university - you get to try everything and you should because there's no other time when you can do that.


You kind of can if you're not at university, but I wonder how easy it is. I mean we were given three years to mess about. I don't mean messing about without a structure, I mean I was messing about with design and typography. Sometimes I wish I'd done things differently, but then again I'm glad I didn't. I wish I'd talked more to some of the tutors at university, I probably didn't appreciate the information they were giving me. I wish I'd listened more…


So when you graduated, you went straight to Amsterdam, how did that happen?

I was lucky enough to be offered a job on the back of my degree show. I was given a plane ticket and a location to meet my employer and I just left! I honestly did not know what to expect. It was mental. I suppose that wouldn't have happened if I hadn’t have gone to university.


You moved back to Sheffield. How important is South Yorkshire to your creativity?

Well I think it is a lot more relaxed than places like London, but the inspiration isn't directly from Sheffield. This is our base and I work pretty much like I did in Amsterdam and London. It's a great place to live really.


So you don't feel like you need to be in London to make it?

I think you have to got to go and do stuff before you settle down, travel. I think it is good to have that experience, that information and cross reference to be able to use before you settle down. I think you need to be inspired by different things all the time in order to create new things.


Your work is really diverse. Is there any thing that you wouldn't do?

Never say never. Even if you get the worst brief in the world and think you can't turn it around. Sometimes they're the most rewarding. I like to come up with a beautiful little answer to a difficult brief. We enjoy trying to think about it with a different slant to everyone else.


Tell us about the spirit level bubble man.

We were doing a project for Nike. We were in contact with a place that was producing plastics and mouldings and we met this guy that was making spirit level bubbles in this amazing factory and we thought we could do something with that. This is often the way we work, by collaborating with people. And this is how our idea for Nike formed.


So there isn't really a dominant style in how you work?

We tend to keep things quite simple, but that is not to say it's swish. We just prefer not to overcomplicate things.


We noticed a few projects in Japan. Are you inspired by Japanese simplicity?

I may well be. Again, going back to when I was at St Martins, there were a lot of Japanese people studying there. I am definitely inspired by Japanese rituals. The tea ceremonies and how they wear their clothes. Even just going to a Japanese restaurant at uni - I couldn't help but be inspired by it.


By hand or digital?

I try and do a lot of things by hand first. The typefaces always start in this cutting and pasting format which I started doing at St Martins when I didn't have a computer. Simplistic shapes cut from magazines. To me, it has a little bit more personality and texture to it, but that's not to say that it's always the best way. I do enjoy the immediacy of the computer and how quick it is to use. I have a space where I do more of the art stuff now and I'm trying to more work like this. I am working on bigger collages at the moment.


Tell us about the Cutty Sark Sessions. The logo is beautiful.

We were working with Devil Fish in London for the Cutty Sark sessions, which are a series of live events planned for cities across the globe. We just put loads of ideas together. We found ourselves looking at a beautiful image taken at night from the sea onto a lit up skyline made up of dots of light but no form. This echoes the same effect at gigs with the stage lighting. We were really chuffed with the outcome. It feels quite whole. The concept is simple, but we'd never done anything like that before, so it was quite challenging. I'm sure the bits we didn't use will inform another piece of work in a few months time.


How does working for yourself compare to working for someone else?

For me I could never go back.


Because I'd worked in other studios, I knew which way I wanted to push things, and this fuelled me to set up my own practice. I didn't want to have a house style, I didn't want to get stuck doing the same thing. I wanted to be able to make film, make art, design fashion, make furniture, and I wouldn't have had the freedom to make those decisions back then.


Because you don't have a house style as such, how do you go about getting projects with all these big names?

We're lucky really, I'm not too sure. We talk about these big agencies, but inside, these big agencies are real people like us and they are like-minded. It is great to be part of something bigger - I'm not saying everyone needs to run their own design studio, because there are some very talented people working for big companies and running their own projects.


But we've been very lucky in working for the big names. They come to us with quite an open brief and we are happy to take the project right through to the finished artwork.


We are often coming up with solutions to things and it is really rewarding work. This is why it is important not to get bogged down in the graphic design side of things and to be much more open minded with a different way of looking at everything. Especially with the last few projects where it hasn't been majorly graphic design focussed. If it is about music, then we need to work with people with music knowledge. This is why some of the big people are great to work with, because they give us really open briefs.


Do you need to be good at drawing?

Well I can't draw. One of the best experiences I had was in the first week of Saint Martins in a life drawing class and the life model was a lady who was born without legs. We were told to draw differently. I drew the lady with legs. It wasn't a great drawing, but it made people think. I did a whole series where I drew different things instead of legs. This taught me about drawing. To me, drawing isn't about epic pencil shading, it is about imagination.


What was the thinking behind the Yutaka clothing label?

I'm not massively into fashion, but I do like nice clothes. It was born out of the concept of how people perceive a logo. We wanted to create a shape that had no preconceptions, no big brand. So we came up with a brand new shape without a loaded story.


The project was really a vehicle to collaborate with other people. We ask them to interpret the shape and get a different take on it. After a while the shape would become recognisable and then the next design would completely shatter it. I like that process. We're not interested in a what’s hot now logo but a long term beautiful image where people can look back in 100 yrs and recognise the beauty. This is my way of rebelling…

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