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
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
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
So when you graduated, you went straight to Amsterdam, how did
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
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
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
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
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
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
Tell us about the Cutty Sark Sessions. The logo is
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
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
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…