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Spark Magazine


Carl Sims reminisces about his early days in design when design was pure artistry and short skirts were making a debut. “Design can be beautiful, it can be fun but it also has to answer the brief!”

Archive Articles

Autumn 1999, Spark Magazine



Carl, now an independent consultant helping agencies grow and flourish, has been a Generator team member, client and mentor. His design career has seen him help in building a number of organisations as well as working closely with Generator on such projects as our re-design of the Dyno Group brand identity.


The old boy looks back.

by Carl Sims
From the Autumn 1999 issue of Spark Magazine

If asked for the most vivid memory of my first days at work I would say – the mini-skirt. I know this has nothing to do with graphic design – but apart from being a fond memory for me, it will allow you to guess just how long ago I started in the business.

I was young with the foolish notion I could draw – even more foolish was the belief that I could do so for a living! However, the Careers Officer (yes we actually had a Careers Officer) decided differently. I suppose it was a difficult concept for the poor old fool to come to terms with – somebody who wanted to draw for a living! Anyway, to his credit he arranged three job interviews; i) as a window dresser, ii) as a saddle maker and iii) as someone who puts up posters.

Now even at the tender age of sixteen I had enough sense to realise he had, with a flash of incompetent brilliance, completely missed the mark. Nonetheless I did finally get an interview at Ley Dower & Associates, a commercial art studio in London’s West End. I deliberately refer to ‘West End’ because it meant something then.

The interview must have gone well – I was offered the job! “When can you start?”. “Well, I’m just about to start my school’s summer holidays for six weeks…”. “How about Monday?”. “Fine”.

I knew there were art schools around then – I did actually know somebody who went to one – Slade I think. But for most of us we simply started as ‘messengers’.

What a wonderful title to have. I don’t think I ever carried a ‘message’ in my entire ‘apprenticeship’ – I did however carry a very large black art bag (now called portfolio), stuffed full of artwork, which was as cumbersome empty as full. Often on a windy day I would find myself on an involuntary flight around the back streets of Marylebone.

You may have noticed I worked at a ‘commercial art studio’ – not graphic, design, or simply ‘studio’ but a commercial art studio. It consisted of a variety of strange but wonder-fully talented people, and I suppose looking back it was their talent that left me as much awe struck then as it does even now.

Despite this they were not so aloof as not to play the occasional prank on an unsuspecting junior – like sending me down to the post office to get my ‘commercial artist license’.

My early days were spent delivering artworks, emptying water pots (invariably out of the window), tidying the studio, making large paper planes to throw off the roof, going to the sandwich shop about a dozen times a day and dare I say it, going to buy cigarettes for the ‘artists’.

The studio had about twenty staff; ranging from lettering artists to retouchers, illustrators to layout men, typographers to paste-up artists and a gaggle of increasingly unruly messengers.

And in truth they were all artists, most without art school training – just an apprenticeship served in a studio simply learning from others. Retouchers who used a fine air brush with a clattering DeVille Bliss pump and whose work was so immaculate that you really did need to hold it up to the light! Illustrators who could produce work in ink, gouache or even Magic Markers and often without any reference. Paste up artists who could amend 6pt type with a scalpel, a tin of Cow Gum and still produce accurate spacing. And of course typographers who could turn a napkin scribble into a wonderful type layout, set in hot metal and to fit perfectly, even down to the last tiny word.

Without doubt the most amazing art I ever encountered was performed every day by lettering artists. To see perfect lettering created on a sheet of fine line board was a magical experience. Wonderful shapes, beautiful curves, and extraordinary detail staged completely by a steady but delicate hand, produced with a paint brush and no white paint was pure artistry. The art wasn’t just in the execution of the piece, although this alone was incredible – it was simply that the lettering did not exist until the artist invented it. They did not reproduce existing typefaces – what would be the point? Every single piece of lettering they produced was unique. They were inventing typefaces/styles on a daily basis! Each piece of lettering captured the mood for which it was required. Whether it was one word or a collection, be it for ads, brochures, posters or packaging – it was perfect – it had to be.

I suppose the fundamental difference today is that ‘lettering’ is often found to fit the mood – whereas back then the lettering was always uniquely designed and skillfully produced to fit the mood.

The love of this truly wonderful and creative art helped me enormously, particularly when I entered into typography, and has stayed with
me ever since.

However, I often find today a growing disrespect for the laws of typography in its purest form. A lack of understanding regarding the simple art of letter spacing.

It simply isn’t enough to label this as ‘modernity’. If the fundamental logic of the ‘rules’ is not adhered to, the art may be lost. For there will be no-one to teach it because no-one will understand it.

But finally, I remember a particularly hot day when a lettering artist was absorbed so much by the creation of his masterpiece that he actually nodded off! Brush poised barely millimetre (or six-teenth of an inch as we would say then) from his glorious piece of art which had taken days of painstaking work. We hovered around him wondering what to do. If we woke him he would surely smudge the work and a lettering artist then was so proud he would have started all over again in order not to use any correcting white paint. At least twenty nerve wracking minutes passed, when he simply opened his eyes, yawned and carried on exactly where he left off as if nothing had happened…  (are you out there Barry Gates?).

Carl Sims has, in the past, been a director of Design in Action (DIA), helping build the consultancy from 30 to over 100 employees, both creative and suits. He has now opted to run his own project management company Carl Sims and Associates working regularly with Generator as a consultant and client. Together we have undertaken such jobs as the complete identity overhaul of the Dyno Group (which incorporates the better known DynoRod). Carl’s approach to design and marketing is much in line with the attitude of ‘spark’, design can be beautiful, it can be fun but it also has to answer the brief!


Spark Magazine


Do you remember being 14 years old? Picture yourself in a classroom at school during the lesson you least understood. Remember your frustration at having no idea what the teacher was talking about?

Spark Magazine


Do you remember being 14 years old? Picture yourself in a classroom at school during the lesson you least understood. Remember your frustration at having no idea what the teacher was talking about?

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