David Ellis and Andy Altmann, two of the three founders of the legendary London studio, tell Mark Penfold why it works to play the wild card.
Why Not Associates is different. The company doesn't have a single guiding philosophy; in fact, it specifically tries to avoid theorising about its work. Instead, it embraces change.
Once dubbed 'the wild boys of typography', the Why Not Associates team's work has evolved and diversified over more than two decades. Print, motion, identity, installations, books - their work has long been a prominent part of the visual landscape. As such, the company has done much to define how we think about graphic design.
And all this while maintaining a reassuringly down-to-earth enthusiasm for the day-to-day work of design. "I know it sounds kind of mad not to have a plan or a vision," says studio co-founder Andy Altmann, "but we just want to do interesting things. I think clients realise that, and that's why they employ us."
Computer Arts: Is there a particular style of work that Why Not Associates is known for?
David Ellis: What we do is quite broad.
Andy Altmann: I think we're probably one of the broadest, if not the broadest, in terms of what we do. We do direct TV commercials as well as work with artists to put stuff in the environment, along with branding, editorial and traditional print. We kind of cover everything.
The only common denominator is typography. I still think of us as typographers, even though the animated ads we just did for the army contain no typography at all.
DE: But we apply the principles of typography to what we do. It has to do with space, positioning and composition. That's how we learned - from type.
CA: What is it that particularly attracted you to type?
AA: My mum caught me staring at the HP sauce bottle when I was about seven or eight, and asked, "What are you looking at?" I just said, "Somebody's got to [design] that, haven't they?" I notice it everywhere I go. There's something in you that makes you fascinated by words, and I still love it now.
DE: It's the power of language, really. Images can be pretty powerful, but images and text can be much more. I think that's something we've always gravitated towards: the power of language, and using it in new ways.
AA: We've been lucky enough to play with typography in film, in the environment and on paper. But our grounding was on paper. Even at college, we were interested in artists that used typography, such as Ed Ruscha and Barbara Kruger.
DE: I think a lot of that comes from seeing people who aren't trained in typography use type, seeing the kind of freedom they have. There's a kind of craving for how naÃ¯vely powerful that can be sometimes.
CA: How did your broad approach to working stem from that?
DE: I think we've always been quite gung-ho about just believing that if you've got good ideas and a good sense of design, you can apply that to all kinds of media. That, and having the balls to say, "Yes, we can do that". Then we go away from the meeting and find a technician that can help us to achieve it.
CA: You set up Why Not Associates on leaving the RCA. Did you ever consider working for anyone else?
DE: There didn't seem to be that many UK companies that we held in terribly high regard. There were some others in Holland and around the world, but at that time [in 1987] British design companies were the likes of Fitch and Michael Peters: they were very big and seemed rather bland compared to what we were doing.
AA: That's when graphic design became a proper industry. We were rebelling against that, really. We wanted our work to look like we had done it - not like it had come out of a factory.
CA: What kind of plan did you have when you set out?
AA: There's this Spike Milligan quote I keep dragging out. When he started the writing agency with Eric Sykes, they had a sign above the door that said, "We don't have a plan, so nothing can go wrong". We've never planned anything more than the next day.
I know it sounds kind of mad not to have a plan or a vision, but we just want to do interesting things. I think clients realise that, and that's why they employ us. We're like the wild card.
CA: You seem very comfortable with the idea of being the 'wild card'
DE: I think that's happened to us quite a few times. We get included on a list of people pitching for a project as a slightly leftfield choice. Then, more often than not, we come up with something that not only works, but is quite different within that market place.
AA: We're also seen as a safe pair of hands now. Someone like the Tate - if they have a difficult show, such as Henry Moore, how can they put it in a different light? They might not give us the more rebellious show; they'll give us the more problematic one.
CA: What are the projects that you feel really made your name as a studio?
DE: The first projects that really got us noticed were probably the Next Directory and a set of postage stamps celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Queen's accession to the throne. Both projects were successful for us as they managed to combine our own contemporary slant on typography with being relevant and apt for their target audiences.
CA: How has your work evolved?
AA: I think our work has changed more than most. When we first came out, all the design magazines labelled us as 'the wild boys of typography' and this kind of stuff, because our work was a bit mad. But over the years, we've worked on much simpler concepts; we've just worked on the purity of an idea and not let anything else get in the way.
DE: I think we've just grown up a bit. We've got that rebelliousness out of our systems. It feels like we get more of a buzz out of solving a problem than doing our own thing. There was a time in the early days when we were desperate to express ourselves, and I think that has shifted into being excited about getting it right.
AA: We're graphic problem solvers. Having said that, I still have the need to do my own projects which are purely self-indulgent. I need to do that as a kind of outlet, but I also love doing incredibly simple jobs.
We sold the idea of a white square to the equivalent of BBC2 in Brussels. It was like the emperor's new clothes - "Your new logo's a white square!" You just think, "Have I got the balls to do this?" But it just felt really right, and worked really brilliantly for them. If you think about that compared to the first work we were doing after college, it's just so far apart.
CA: But getting it right means a great deal of research, doesn't it?
AA: The great thing about being a graphic designer is that you're learning something all the time.
DE: You get thrown into a world you know nothing about, and you have research it every which way and immerse yourself in it for the duration of that project. So you get taken off on these little journeys that you never even anticipated.
CA: You've stayed as a small studio - why is that?
AA: The only way we would have grown would have been to bring in another partner to do marketing, and we've never really wanted to do that. The work is the important thing.
DE: We don't really enjoy going to meetings or doing the management side of things. And it seems to me that the bigger you get as a company, the principles end up going from one meeting to the next - you're not being designers but being businessmen.
AA: At the moment, there's six or seven of us full-time. That's a nice little family unit.