Genuinely, there are few people whose work over the years I have admired more than that of Chris Mitchell. I’ve enjoyed it for its precision, consistency, refinement and transcending timelessness and, in simplest terms, utter beauty. The list of top notch agencies who have Chris in their little black books is remarkable and his work has won countless awards for the people who commissioned him.
If you’ve never stumbled across the name before, the quickest glance at his website www.epicicons.com and you’ll soon recognise swathes of it ~ beautiful elements from beer packaging you’ve drunk, or crisps you’ve eat, or Marks you’ve been struck by. Prolific and of the most supreme quality, his style is synonymous with craft, process and exhaustive pursuit of perfect ~ “every line has to earn its place”, he says. Smart and stylish. We’re extremely grateful for Chris taking some time out to speak with us and talk about how quality matters and how design and illustration have always been bed partners…
DJ: Tell us about your early career, has your career panned out the way envisaged?
An early key experience was working as an illustrator/visualiser for leading London packaging design companies before the days of computers. Working alongside designers, lettering artists, art workers for print, screen printers, model makers, structure experts and photographers gave me a clear appreciation of their specialist craft value. I also developed a good understanding of the design and production processes from idea to print.
Learning the intricacies of the different illustrative styles, techniques and art mediums was also a highly formative time for me. One positive consequence of this was that my early work for some years was very diverse. Much later I realized the scope of what I was doing was too wide to really make my mark. Although I was versatile, a characteristic, which always kept me working, I felt I needed to find my niche, something that would sustain my interest and provide value for many years to come.
So while I did not specifically map out my career, the brand work I do today is a natural extension of those early years and is a direct link to my desire to find a niche that would best utilise my acquired brand knowledge. I also wanted to have a greater degree of control over the processes that guide my work in order to better help shape the outcomes.
DJ: So was it by accident or design that you became the go-to guy for most agencies?
As it happens neither, I would like to think just consistent high-quality delivery. For as long as I can remember I have only ever wanted to do the very best I can. Looking back, it feels like a lifetime of hard work whilst seeking out opportunity along the way.
Demonstrating that you can work efficiently and effectively within a trust alliance that delivers obviously matters. Knowing your business, having a technical appreciation of the importance of wider brand issues and the ability to interpret and deliver on what can be a complex brand design brief is also key.
I have found myself sitting on some rather hot seats at times, whether that’s been to create an identity for a new global drink or major sports brand, a city, a state or government body overseas. However, I need this sort of pressure to keep me focused and to stretch me. These sorts of projects are reputation builders.
Naturally, building a large and diverse client following comes with some effort!
DJ: In your formative years, did you have a mentor, did you receive any advice that particularly stuck with you along the way?
Starting out, I was very fortunate to work under a brilliantly talented individual called David Judd, sadly now deceased. As founder of London design agency, DJPA, he had all the drawing talent you could wish for. He utilized this to best advantage in the presentation of his design ideas. Being a very skilled visualiser was just one of his many attributes. He instilled in me the value and benefit of perfecting drafting skills as a fundamental for longevity in this business. He once said: ‘If you are skilled in drawing, you are in the best position to take on just about anything the industry can throw at you’.
Associate brand lettering designer, and friend Chris Weir, has continually proved to be a great support to me. We have worked on many successful joint projects where his specialist craft lettering skills have had to blend in harmony with my illustrative brand work. Lifelong friend, Matthew Wernham, a global brand and communications director, has helped provide a complementary perspective to my own brand awareness. Over the last six or so years especially, their respective inputs have been invaluable and educational.
There were others of course, who have helped influenced me and made an impression on me. I should also respectfully mention here an early business partner, Adrian Hooper, a talented visualiser and designer, always hard working and consistent. Tragically, he died young of a brain tumour.
DJ: Your illustrations have become incredibly enduring, forming many well-loved identities and iconic packaging during your career. Of all, could you single out one or two that you still find particularly satisfying or fondly stand out?
It would have to be developing an early Tiger Beer illustrative brand icon, (I much improved the margue 10 years later) with thanks to the London based global design group Design Bridge. Tiger started a new road of discovery for me. At the time, in my opinion there was much conflict, division and misunderstanding in many quarters of the industry about the merits, divisions and boundaries between illustration and design. I always thought it was unnecessarily distracting to take such a general view. Through my work on the Tiger Beer project, it quickly became clear to me that illustration and design naturally go hand in hand with one another. Each skill empowers the other, which in fact is especially true in my work now.
DJ: To the trained eye, it’s easy to spot a ‘Chris Mitchell’, how did you refine your style to become your own?
I felt illustrative brand icons and corporate logos could appear more crafted, stylish memorable and functional if given the chance. I wanted to put the same care into their creation as a lettering artist would put into their work. Basically, I wanted my work to sing, to engage and project personality, much as beautifully crafted sculpture often does. The suggestion of light and use of negative space helps give dimension, drama and focus. The craft of negative space is very important in much of my work; it gives balance and simplicity and utilizes the background space and colour to best advantage.
By nature, showing an established style does attract similar-style commissions, so a particular approach can be perpetuated. I will always however adjust style if the brief dictated it. Interestingly, I will be adding some self-discovery jobs to my folio site soon, hopefully to stimulate new interest and to raise the bar further for both myself and my clients.
DJ: Given the huge number of identity designs out in the market place, how do you ensure your original work is not copied?
Given the profile of the brands I work on, it is important my work is protected and then policed. In most cases the brand owners present my artwork for Trade Mark registration.
Whilst all work will influence trends, obviously deliberate hybrids of original work appearing in the market place is not appropriate for many obvious reasons. Importantly, the practice undermines the originality of the original piece, often so important for brand ownership.
Hybrid or copied concepts passed off as original ideas can also be regarded as foolhardy. Respect and appreciation of the original ownership can be lost in the artwork process leading to very serious copyright consequences later.
In my own original work, I make sure there is clear distinction between every brand icon I develop and create. It is not in my or my client’s interest for me to copy features from one of my designs and then apply it to another.
Unfortunately, although thankfully rare, I have seen abuse of my work by others, where legal proceedings have followed by the brand owners.
It is in all parties’ interests that hybrid designs or copies do not appear on the market place so legal contest can be avoided.
In summary, we need to keep craft skills alive so the temptation to create hybrids from sourced work never becomes that first and easy option, especially where budgets are restricted.
DJ: What processes do you go through during the exploratory stages of a commission, how much refinement do you generally need before you’re 100% happy with a finished article?
The brief must be crystal clear in my mind. If a clear brief is not forthcoming, I will develop one with the client. I may provide very quick sketches to assist communication in this process. An informed overview of the whole project, including brand projection, target markets, usage, print materials and so on, at the outset, is obviously very important.
I like to work as efficiently as possible because the task ahead can be a difficult one. Depending on the start position, the exploratory stage of a commission can be quite challenging. An idea may come quite quickly. Alternatively, I may need to dig deep for inspiration, as I do not generally have the luxury of time for ideas just to drift in. Loose thumbnail ideas are generally sketched down quickly initially just to focus minds on the merit of the idea.
Whilst I must be enthused about the direction my work takes, at the same time I have to be objective and critical in a constructive way. Becoming too emotionally attached could blinker my thinking and irritate my clients. Stepping back at times to see the progress afresh is helpful.
I never like to short change on the final artwork. I never work on the basis that something will just have to do, as expectations are high!
DJ: To my eye, there is a stunning purity and a refined balance to your work, how are you able to express so much realism in what appears to be the minimal amount of strokes or detail?
Once I have completed a line sketch that best answers the chosen route, developing and refining the marque is a stage process of careful consideration. Every line has got to earn its place. The realism you refer to comes from the early drawing preparation and final crafting in such a way that allows your mind to fill in the spaces to complete the picture. Focus point, balance and rhythm are naturally key ingredients to any thought-through design.
DJ: You’ve worked with a veritable smorgasbord of great agencies, both large and small from all over the world – can you tell us about the processes working with clients in refining a brief and then solution?
First off I have to consider who my commissioners are, as expectations on development process may differ from each, depending on their knowledge base.
With my more experienced clients the development process is more of a team effort. I generally conform to the tried and tested methodology for engagement that creatives appreciate and understand. The ingredients, in order are: the brief, thinking, exploration, development, refinement and final execution.
It is crucial to ensure that the thinking part of the process is done at the right time in order to help keep to time and budget. The process is not a neat linear one with each step being completed consecutively; but trying to treat it as such provides a discipline, which ultimately helps to keep everyone on track and focused.
With all clients, it is important to keep the development process efficient and focused based on a vision that is imaginative, engaging, relevant and functional that which best answers the brief.
If a client has lost their way, I may advise against producing too many alternative options on the assumption that volume counts. This thinking can perversely make it even more difficult to find a way forward. If the client does not have confidence in their brief, it may need refining or rethinking.
Although every project has a different starting point, in all cases I develop a chosen idea from a well-drawn sketch. The sketch remains the point of reference to my design thoughout its development.
At the end of the day, if the project is worth doing it’s worth doing well, especially given the relatively small investment required for high craft, compared to the much larger distribution and production costs normally attributed to the launch of a new branded product.
DJ: Once you’ve crafted, refined and signed off on an illustration then handed it back to the client, are you able to divorce yourself from the job or do you still feel a sense of protective attachment to it and how it is then applied?
Naturally, I am disappointed if I see my work poorly utilized, or if the chosen route is heavily compromised. I would be very concerned about craft standards if without my knowledge, a third party ever adjusted my work. Fortunately it is very rare for a client to do this without allowing me to do it for them.
Poor execution of the final design product can happen, but if there is nothing can be done, I try to be mindful of where my responsibility ends. It has to be said I see some fantastic use of my work.
DJ: What sorts of projects do you find the most rewarding or exciting?
Generally, the bigger the brand the bigger the challenge to meet market expectations and therefore the more exciting it can be. Although it is fair to say that they may not, at times, be the most interesting of jobs, as by nature, they can be restrictive because of the respect that needs to be given to their equity value. I do enjoy projects where I have greater freedom, where results are perhaps not so hampered by market research and end clients are in a key position to be decisive. My job is much more engaging and rewarding, when working with a visionary team, which fully appreciates craft investment and which provides constructive, clear, reliable feedback.
DJ: Has your working process evolved over the course of your career – are you finding inspiration in new places?
The industry has gone through a great change in my working life, principally as a result of computer technology. Although I now work mostly with a digital pen, I am conscious not to let technology dictate style to me – the digital pen is just a tool to me, as is a pencil. Digital vector line that allows crisp hand crafted line to be printed at any size is a facility I would have only dreamt about in previous years.
I discovered new ways of working when an illustrator friend and skilled digital enthusiast encouraged me to work digitally. I soon realized this not only gave me a whole new set of creative opportunities, but it opened my work up to a wider audience, endorsing the belief that I should specialize.
Everything I have done to date has contributed to where I see myself now, so in short, yes; I would say that it’s been a steady evolutionary process, a long learning curve.
I am continually inspired by what I see around me. I do however, not limit my interest to just other creative’s working in my field of expertise. In fact, a piece of sculpture beautifully crafted or nature’s best can take my breath away and stimulate endless ideas. It is important to me that my work appears fresh. I am cautious of following fashion trends, as my work has to have some longevity.
DJ: Who do you see as today’s standard bearers of marque of design and craftsmanship?
It has been a privilege to work with many of the most experienced and respected brand design houses in the world. The list of the talented individuals is long and it would perhaps, therefore, be wrong for me to identify just a few. However, those standard bearers work across the spectrum, from large international agencies working on major corporate brands to small niche businesses. They vary immensely in terms of their sector, turnover and service, but they all have a couple of things in common – an incredible pride in their brands and a desire to evolve and improve.
Regarding craft, my interest is actually not just in today’s talent. We can go back hundreds or even thousands of years and see great work. Marques, symbols and logos have been with us for a long while and have been inspiring people for centuries. The benefits and purpose of an identity logo/marque has not drastically changed, the transportation of it has.
DJ: Do you still get a buzz from seeing your work ‘out there’?
Absolutely. When the marque is utilized beautifully, I am very pleased, not just for me but for the client, too. Conversely, if my work is poorly used, I see an opportunity lost, not just creatively, but the lapse can be very costly to the client, given the importance of the work.
DJ: How do you see the future evolution of this form of craftsmanship – how closely do you think design and illustration will stand hand in hand?
I have never separated the two skills. For me they do go hand in hand. However, illustration as a craft skill is key. For the future, if we lose drawing skills in our industry – and consequently the ability to craft – there will be a dumbing down of standards and we will reach a point where there will be too much onus on just meeting tight deadlines and budgets. It is not too extreme to say I have a real fear we will lose the ability to see, judge and communicate craft standards as effectively.
High craft does not generally delay work. Poor communication and judgement does. The industry will always require decision makers of value.
DJ: You’ve said the individual skill requirement for design and illustration could be more closely linked and utilized more as a united skill base. Could you expand on this?
Wishful thinking perhaps! As an example, given the UK creative industry is quite large it has had the ability to accommodate specialists. In my mind whilst this has many positives given the high standards found in the UK, it has obviously, by nature, pigeon holed people’s skills for the benefit of ease of commission, risk assessment and employment choice.
Today there is great emphasis on ideas people and drawing is not valued in many quarters as a skill as highly as it once was.
I still believe multi skilled individuals have their place and a lack of drawing skills can restrict designers’ ability to communicate visual ideas efficiently. As an extension to this, illustration can at times be overworked to compensate for a lack of design structure. It’s good to remember that before computers, drawing was much more prolific and a whole industry was built up to meet demand. There were armies of visualisers who were commissioned to develop creative ideas. The best were highly skilled draftsmen who could draw many subjects with few reference points. Effective design composition was generally instinctive for them. Added to this, other disciplines such as art direction, were also populated by many individuals with some ability to sketch, so the skill was highly developed across the industry and shared by many.
DJ: Design in education is hot topic at the moment. How important do you think it is to pass traditional craftsmanship and techniques onto the next generation?
The tools and techniques of the craft trades have always changed. Especially today though, time spent learning to operate computer design software has diminished the time available for learning craft skills such as drawing. Inevitably, there is a price to pay. The benefit of sketching is the immediacy with which it can articulate original thought. It remains the quickest way to communicate ideas, completely unrestricted by having to source and edit other material. Too much time can be wasted by having to corral pre-existing material via the computer. Modern technology allows us to edit extremely effectively but let’s not weaken the ability to create. The sketch is the end result of a creative mind, a passionate heart, a skilled hand and a critical eye to communicate an idea.
Where education can play a pivotal role is to teach people how to develop an understanding of the importance of this as a communication tool and then to empower them to achieve it. These said, new technologies give us great potential to do more and I embrace them where I see relevance to my work. Thankfully, drawing as a craft skill is now no longer restricted by medium or platform and should now be as important as it has always been.
DJ: Do you have any advice for young illustrators trying to make a break-through into the industry?
Whilst illustration has always been a tough industry to get established in, it is fair to say it is tougher now for a number of reasons. Working with computers allows designers to present more design options in a shorter space of time. As a result budgets and time lines have been squeezed. This is an issue for the illustrator, as high craft still takes time. Craft may not always seen as a must have by some as it can be perceived as the difficult option that presents an element of risk in terms of delivery satisfaction. So, against this backdrop, I offer the following advice.
- Talk to as many people as you can in the industry. Each will have a different view, which will help build a picture of what the industry is looking for. Too many students come out of university/college ill prepared for business life.
- Respect the industry’s best – we all have a lot to learn from them.
- Don’t isolate yourself early on, there is plenty of time to make your mark. A lot will be asked of you if you are going to last.
- Be prepared to change your spots.
- Don’t let technology dampen your core drawing ability.
- Know your market and know yourself. Your business, if you are freelance, is you, pure and simple.
- Develop a talent for listening. This is important whoever you are because in our world before you start on a commission, you will always need to send the brief – once digested and interpreted – back as you see it for confirmation.
- When some success comes, never believe at any point in your career you know it all. That day any progress stops. Every day is a learning experience; study and work at your craft.
- Think long term and build progressively – short cuts rarely work in the long term.
- Above all though, enjoy! Illustration is a wonderful asset to the creative industry.
Other things to keep in mind – Do you have good personal communication skills? Are you self motivated? Are you disciplined? Can you pick yourself up to deliver when all seems lost? Can you think imaginatively about how you are going to court clients? If this is not you, you will need a cushion of help to set you on your way.
DJ: How do you relax away from the office?
I like to get out in the fresh air away from a desk. Most of my early life I engaged in outdoor pursuits, generally on the water. My spare time now is mostly spent with my wife, son and dog on our rather old sailing yacht, moored not far away.
I have been fortunate to visit many different countries and have seen some extraordinary sights. On these trips, I get great pleasure from visiting art museums and exhibitions that have allowed me to view some outstanding beautiful historical and modern crafted work.
Work as always is near all consuming, when I am not working on a commissioned project, I spend some of my ‘spare’ time as an associate to other business ventures, which allows me the freedom to apply my branding and creative knowledge directly.
Thank you for your time Chris, a genuine pleasure to talk to someone whose craft and care I have admired greatly for such a long time. You can view more of Chris’s work on his website – www.epicicons.com
VIRGIN AUSTRALIA ~ Hulsbosch, Australia.