‘I hate drawing curves, I’m crap at them’ – a Q&A with Phil Cleaver

Prof. Phil by Brian Grimwood, drawn live in a lecture at the School of Art & Design at Middlesex University, London

Prof. Phil by Brian Grimwood, drawn live in a lecture at the School of Art & Design at Middlesex University, London

I’ll confess that doing author Q&As is one of my favourite parts of this job; it’s a rare opportunity to stop fretting about the painstaking business of creating and selling a book, and simply kick back and enjoy getting to know your author a bit better. So I was looking forward to asking Professor Phil Cleaver, author of What They Didn’t Teach You In Design School, a few questions, and finding out a little more about the man, his career, and his design philosophy – and I wasn’t disappointed. This interview runs a little longer than most, but it’s well worth your time and packs in more thrills, spills, tears and deep thought than any other posting on this site to date…

What made you decide to become a graphic designer? If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been? 

This story starts at a young age. I left school at 16 years old with an A-level in Art, which I got 2 years earlier than normal, Pottery grade A and not one formal academic qualification. I am severely dyslexic. It’s my superpower. but in those days you were just referred to as thick, stupid etc.

My parents sat me down to have a conversation about what to do with me and my life, It was one of those conversations where you just sit there and are discussed about as if you weren’t even there.

Mum started, ‘He has a God given art for getting into trouble, and he can only do two things, cooking and art. He can’t go into cooking as he can hardly speak English let alone learn French. [In that day and age, to be a chef you had to speak French, that was the language for any restaurant kitchen worth its salt then.] That only leaves art’. Dad said that, ‘he should learn a trade, so at least he will have something to fall back on as the chances of him earning a living as a commercial artist [the name of a graphic designer in those days] are very slim.’ My mum retorted, and this was the only time I ever heard her swear, ‘you could throw that little bastard into a sewer, and he’d come up smelling of roses.’ Dad replied, ‘You’re right.’ So I started my journey to art school.

Your life is rather straightforward in one respect if you can only do one thing, ‘art’, since there is no other choice. You just go down one road and whatever happens, you keep going, because there is only that one road. I always thought that being creative is not just a talent, it’s a way of being, I just turn up to work and get on with it.

It was tough starting out, but I have always been true to who I am and my attitude was one of not walking away from a problem but facing it head on whilst using what little common sense I had.

To answer the last part of the question – probably, a cook.

When you first started out in design, what was it like working for Alan Fletcher at Pentagram?

When I was a junior junior [yes I was the junior to Alan’s junior designer] at Pentagram in 1977, Alan Fletcher used to walk around his team, and without saying anything help himself to one of his assistant’s cigarettes in front of them.

No one said anything. After a while of this he came to my desk again. As his hand reached down to my cigarettes, I chirped up, Either pay me more money so I can buy more fags or F off and buy your own. A small smile crossed his mouth and ever since then we got on very well together. Alan Fletcher was the most kind hearted designer I ever met; however busy, he always had time to talk to anyone in design, whatever their level. I got a phone call from him. ‘You owe me a favour. Would you design a book for Phaidon?’. So started another long term design game.

Alan Fletcher sadly died, and a little while later I got a call from Bernard Dodd, an ex-Phaidon editor whom I got on very well with, explaining that sadly our friend Karl had very bad liver cancer and was in a hospice. That people don’t seem to like talking with people who are dying and would I ring him up. We know he would love to hear from you, and unlike all his other design friends you are one of the only ones we know who wouldn’t bottle out. Karl was the Art Director at Phaidon working alongside Alan. He re-explained, ‘when you get cancer most people stop phoning you up’;  I knew this, having had a young assistant who had gone the same way.

I phoned Karl up and asked if he would do me a favour.  ‘Sure, but you know where I am?’ he said. ‘Yes that’s what gave me the idea, well, when you get to the other side, can you say to Alan Fletcher that Phil Cleaver sends his regards.’  Karl broke into a long fit of laughter. It certainly broke the ice about Karl’s demise.  We spoke a few more times and sadly he went just a few days before Christmas.

I had thought, I can imagine Alan smiling upon hearing Karl give him my regards, saying ‘only bloody Cleaver would have worked out how to do that’ from the other side. I realised I had missed a trick; I should have got Karl to wish him a very Happy Christmas from Phil’.

After your time at Pentagram, you founded your own agency, where one of your biggest commissions was creating the mark for “VISA”, one of the most recognizable visual icons in the world. Can you share the story behind this identity project?

I first worked with Jan Staël von Holstein at Wolff Olins; a master in the field of branding. He was running his own branding business, called Staël. He phoned me up and said ‘how do you fancy redesigning one of the world’s most recognizable brands?’

‘You know me Jan, just let me loose.’

It was going to be one of those big jobs that only came along a few times in your career. There were a few reams of analysis to read, folder upon folder of different cards from around the world and a very large American manual. It all boiled down to the fact that they wanted a stronger brand mark, but in exactly same size space.

I did this job with a friend and brilliant designer Vyv Thomas – one of the most intelligent designers I have had the fortune to work with, we first met at Pentagram in Alan’s team. We realized the answer to the brief was to redraw the word mark VISA. I drew VIA and Vyv drew the S – I hate drawing curves, I’m crap at them. We brightened the corporate colors and presented it to the client’s representative Danks at Jan’s office in London.

After going through the presentation, Danks said, ‘Do that again boys, you’ve pulled two rabbits out the same size hat and I can’t see how you have done it.’

What we had done was redraw the type, enlarging the word mark, and reducing the two color bars top and bottom and brightening the colors; it looked a much bigger logo in the same space. We had showed it without the bars just as a word mark but this was a step too far at the time, it was too big a jump.

The amount of secretiveness surrounding this job was huge, and we had to sign several large confidentiality agreements. We could not tell anyone we were doing the job, or we had designed it, and the public was not to notice the brand upgrade.

The funniest thing was the USA lawyers. It cost over a million to register the copyright worldwide, let alone replace twenty-five million details on shops word-wide.  The lawyer was phoning me up, ‘I can’t tell the difference between the old and new.’ So after a few phone calls where we both had black and white prints of the mark in front of us, he finally got it. We also had to align other VISA-owned marks to the new logo, and we did a Plus and Electron brand refresh.

That might be your most ubiquitous design. If you had time to rescue just one piece of your own work from a burning building, which would it be?

I have a 20 x 30 inch poster which is hand-rendered, wall to wall type. Hand-rendering is when you trace over a specimen of a typeface at the correct point size, as you want it to appear once it is typeset and printed. It creates a hand-drawn visual of what the final typeset and printed piece will look like. It is then sent to the typesetters were a compositor [someone that sets type, after a seven year apprenticeship] then typesets it to your visual layout. The poster is then printed from this type.

When I started work at Pentagram my wage as a junior designer was £35, and it cost £35 to set and repro 1 line of type. The only way to show clients, in those days, what their letterhead would look like, what the font [typeface] would look like, was to hand-draw it. This practice of moving letter by letter as you trace over your chosen typeface is a useful way to understand and get to know a typeface. Once you get to know a typeface intimately, which can take some years, it becomes an old friend. It’s the skill of a typographer to get a typeface to sing.

The poster is a continuous list of famous women’s names of the twentieth century. It fills over three quarters of the poster, in Marina Script, a Stephenson Blake font, cast in founders type, a much harder type than monotype which was designed to be melted back down for recasting. It shows the ending characters, which the typeface had for the last letter of certain words that are ending in e, r, s and t. At the end of this pattern is Women, hand-drawn large, in red and in Caslon typeface. This would have been in wood type as metal only goes up to 72 pts in height, and after that, type was made for large sizes in wood. The line of information with dates of this exhibition and The National Portrait Gallery’s address runs along the base in one simple line, also in Caslon.


This took me 2 all-nighters to hand-render as it was a pitch for the job I was going for after I finished my day design job. All-nighters was the term given by designers for working through the night with no sleep then continuing on with the next day’s work. I hand-rendered the poster with a 0.2 mm rapidographic pen on kodatrace [a harder form of tracing paper]. When you stand back to look at the poster you can notice the weight of the type at the top of the poster is slightly heavier than at the base. This was because as I drew each name, working down the poster, I gradually wore out the nib of the pen; making it thinner and finer. It hangs over the fire place in the studio conference room. This is what I would grab if the building began to burn.


30 years ago I was actually in that situation.

Our studio, near Old Street Roundabout in the East End of London, was on fire. We had the top floor of an old and very small warehouse. It was above a series of workshops. It was a French polisher’s for the cabinet trade [a very old East End profession] that went up in flames. The back window of our studio became a wall of flame. I stopped work at the drawing board – reluctantly, as we had a very tight deadline on a job that day – and I ushered the two female colleagues out, down the eight flights of stone steps in the stairway, and out into the alley way. It was a very small street called New North Place off Scrutton street. It looked like a back alley, not even a street, just a place.

We had been working on a series of books where the artwork was extremely complicated, and having produced our own rub down lettering, we were having to spend weeks producing the artwork of this instructional new way of learning to play the guitar. In those days all artwork was produced, overlaid, coloured up, marked up [all by hand] and then given to the printers. They then placed this under a camera and shot it to create film from which to make lithographic printing plates.

In the studio was the final artwork for two volumes of this book, which consisted of over a year’s work and was worth a small fortune. I thought ‘Oh bollocks, I can’t see all that work go up in smoke.’ And much to my assistants’ horror, I ran back into the burning building, which was billowing black smoke out of all the windows. I ran up the flights of stairs – thank God, they were in their own bricked-in stairwell. I then dived into our studio and started to collect all the artwork together.

The phone rang.

So I answered it. No answering machines in those days and I hate to lose a job. I said ‘Sorry we are on fire. Can you please ring back later?’ I slammed the phone back down on to the receiver, and continued to gather the artwork. The smoke was beginning to get thicker and it became harder to breath. So I found a blanket from the sleeping platform above me, wet it, and as I placed it over my head the phone rang again.

I picked up the phone. ‘Hi Phil, it’s Howard Brown [former Pentagram partner]. I just rang you to chase that artwork. Are you on fire?’

‘Yes we bloody are.’ I said ‘And I’m trying to save your artwork, so get off this phone and let me do it.’

‘Oh – OK then, I thought you were joking as normal.’

‘No, this is no joke’, I said as I coughed with the smoke getting thicker. My brain cut in at that point. ‘What are you doing answering the phone in the middle of a fire. Fool, get the hell out of that burning building.’ With the blanket over my head and clutching all the artwork in two hands, I ran down the flights of stairs and out into the street. My assistants were in a right state. I had been gone for over 10–12 minutes, and they were convinced I wasn’t coming out alive. One was in tears and they had been screaming for me to get out as they watched flames, as well as smoke, begin to billow out of the windows. The fire engine, which could not fit down the street due to the narrowness, had just arrived and there were people everywhere. One of my assistants was screaming at me ‘How stupid can you be! Nothing is worth your life. Why did you do it?’ with tears running down her face. I hadn’t realised the anxiety I had caused as they stood outside for that long watching this building going up in flames. ‘I’m sorry.’ I said. ‘I knew I would be alright, it’s my own turf. But I shouldn’t have stopped to answer the phone twice. That was stupid.’ She just looked at me with complete disbelief.

‘You answered the phone twice!’ she screamed. Under that verbal attack I was walking backwards holding the artwork. I chirped up I think you’re in shock. Shall we nip to the boozer for a quick one? It will steady the nerves.’ The boozer was called Old King’s Head, but I had the feeling that my head was on the block.

I don’t quite know how to follow that – usually the “burning building question” is entirely hypothetical… To change the pace a little: what do you think is the appeal of visual/graphic design and why does it appeal to you?

The ability to visually enhance a piece of communication. To communicate in a visual way that can transcend language, solving complicated problems with wit.

I love solving problems, coming up with ideas that carry the essence of the message that needs communicating. I look at things in a different way, I see typography as visual abstract art, organised in a pure logical way, perfectly balanced.

The appeal is best summed up by a very apt quotation from The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura.

Words cannot voice his delight, for the eye has no tongue.

Can you explain your motto “See things differently” as a graphic designer?

I look for the truth in the work and in the brief, what is the correct answer to the communication problem I have been given. The essence of what I learnt is to analyse the brief, and the client, to the extent that you get agreed in writing a set of criteria that the design had to answer, a set of benchmarks, then it was not about what the client likes, it is only about whether the design work answered the brief.

Once I got the client to agree to the brief, we both have the same ground rules to judge the creative by. It is something they can’t get out of. Any communication, design work, words etc are judged by the client and the design team against this set of qualities. It is therefore not in any way about personal taste, likes and dislikes, but does the work actually answer the qualities and the brief – or doesn’t it?

You resolve a job in this analysis phase of a job. You can’t solve a problem if you can’t define the problem.

Examples of this are throughout my work. Whilst trying to solve how to design a symbol for a Modern Art Gallery in Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, the client insisted upon wanting a symbol, ‘I know the power of symbols to help build brands and although nearly all art galleries are typographic solutions, we are only going to show modern art, and a symbol is a must have’.

Not an easy brief, how do you do a symbol for that? In desperation late one night, I went to the car to get the road map out and looked at the city map. I need to see things visually. I then saw that the main roads of Edinburgh resembled the shape of a dog. These main roads became their symbol. There is also the shape of a pig hidden in the road map. I went to bed happy and in the morning thinking, Can I sell this one it’s a goody, I realised I did not know were they were located in Edinburgh, in a bit of a panic, thinking if there near the back legs I’m in trouble that will blow this symbol out, with relief I found they were located on the dog’s nose.

On another job I had to look at the word ‘belief’ the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true, and I had to get across that not all beliefs are true, and many are distorted. I saw within the word belief the word lie.

Phil – A heartfelt thanks for answering our questions and whetting appetites for the book!



For more great advice on how to be the best designer you can be and master what they didn’t teach you in design school, check out Phil Cleaver’s book, What They Didn’t Teach You In Design School, available now at MyDesignShop.com! Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later.