John Spencer is an award-winning graphic designer and creative director, and founder of virtual consultancy Offthetopofmyhead. He invents names, designs logos, creates graphic and language identities, and conjures up campaigns.
John collaborates with some of the most talented and experienced people around and brings together the best team of freelancers for each job. They work together remotely using the latest technology.
— The Logo Creative™ ✏ (@thelogocreative) May 30, 2018
John has worked with many high-profile organizations including Campaign to Protect Rural England, MS Society, Ramblers, Royal College of Nursing, Royal Exchange Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, The National Archives and University of Cambridge
Offthetopofmyhead waves the flag for instinct and imagination. It’s about the sheer joy and excitement of doing things that haven’t been done before.
The Logo Creative – Hi John thanks for agreeing to take part it’s great to have you on board.
John Spencer – My pleasure. I’m loving your interviews. Great names!
The Logo Creative – What was the turning point in your life when you decided to become a designer and how did you proceed?
John Spencer – I did my foundation course at Plymouth College of Art. My father was an artist and that’s what I wanted to be. But my tutors often described my work as ‘graphic’ and reckoned I’d make a better designer than an artist. They encouraged me to think about doing a graphics degree at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication. I hadn’t thought about being a graphic designer and I was curious. I went for an interview and a look around the graphics department, and it was love at first sight.
The teaching at Ravensbourne was inspired by the Bauhaus. The spirit of modernism flourished there and it influenced a new generation of designers who emerged during the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Ravensbourne has had a huge influence on my work.
The Logo Creative – What does your day consist of?
John Spencer – Every day’s different. I’m very hands-on so I’m often working in my studio. But when I’m not, I’m out and about drumming up business, meeting clients or chatting with associates about our latest jobs. Or I may be fuelling my imagination with visits to galleries, museums, and events. Sometimes you do things just because you can.
The Logo Creative – What was the first logo you ever designed?
John Spencer – My first logo was for the National Jazz Centre which I designed in 1983. It would have been in London’s Covent Garden. The National Jazz Centre had massive celebrity support and held glamorous fundraising events, including a gala evening at the Royal Albert Hall which was attended by Diana, Princess of Wales. But the project was bedeviled by financial mismanagement and loads of money went missing. It never opened.
The Logo Creative – What is your favourite logo you have designed?
John Spencer – I’m often asked that question. I’ve got a few favourites which include my handprints logo for Survival, the global movement for tribal peoples, and The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund’s signature logo. But I usually single out the work I did for The National Archives, one of the largest and oldest archival collections in the world.
The National Archives is a complex organisation. In their creative brief, they explained that they hold UK government and state papers from the eleventh century to the present day, that they’re responsible for their preservation and on-going selection, and that they make the collection available to everyone. They described themselves as the national memory and the protector of democracy through open access to information.
In a nutshell, it’s the place where history meets the future. And those words inspired a logo that’s made from the coming together of two very different letterforms – one ancient, the other modern. It’s one of my favourite logos because it shows that language and design are indivisible.
The Logo Creative – What is your favourite logo of all time?
John Spencer – The logo for the Victoria and Albert Museum which is the world’s leading museum of art and design. It was designed by Alan Fletcher in 1989 And Herb Lubalin’s Families logo which he designed in 1980 for Readers Digest. I love them for their verbal and visual interplay.
The Logo Creative – Can you describe or give us an overview of your logo design process?
John Spencer – I don’t often design just a logo. Usually a logo is part of a rebrand which includes the creation of an entire graphic and language identity. Good design begins with honesty, asks tough questions and comes from collaboration and trusting your intuition. Design isn’t something I do to clients, it’s something I do with them. My process begins with getting to know an organisation and getting to grips with what it does, how it does it and why. That helps me to define what needs to be done before I go through a tried and tested, step-by-step process to find the best way to tell their story. I’ve been a designer for a long time and my experience helps me zero in on the ideas that have potential and not waste time on the ones that haven’t.
Process is all. It’s the heartbeat of creativity.
The Logo Creative – In your opinion regarding logo design pricing do you prefer working on a fixed rate or customer budget and can you explain why?
John Spencer – I don’t have a fixed rate for logos – or anything else for that matter. All jobs are different and some are more complicated and difficult than others. I work to a budget which I agree with my clients before I begin work. That way, nobody’s in for a nasty surprise later. I have a day rate which I multiply by the time I think the work will take. But my clients aren’t really paying for days, weeks or months of my time, they’re paying for years of experience.
The Logo Creative – How long does it take to complete the average logo design project from start to finish?
John Spencer – An identity can take anything from a month, if it’s small and straightforward, to around six months if it’s a more complex job, particularly one where a lot of people need to be consulted.
The Logo Creative – Are you a MAC or PC User and is there a reason for your choice?
John Spencer – I’m a Mac user and have been since the late 80s. Phil Cleaver, who was my business partner at the time, bought one. It looked like fun so I bought one too. I’ve never fancied using a PC – they’re just too ugly.
The Logo Creative – Which software do you use frequently?
John Spencer – I use Adobe Creative Cloud. I design with Illustrator and I use Acrobat for presentations. I also use Photoshop to crop and resize images but rarely for anything else. A lot of my associates are technologically better than me so I’ve a good ‘safety net’ when I need it.
The Logo Creative – What is your favourite style of logo design? And why?
John Spencer – I don’t have a favourite style. I don’t think style is very important. What is important is the quality of the idea and what it communicates about an organisation. A logo’s style comes out of that. It is what it is.
The Logo Creative – What is your daily inspiration when you design?
John Spencer – American painter and photographer Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work”. I’m with him.
The Logo Creative – In your opinion what’s the best and worst part of your job being a designer?
John Spencer – The best part is the opportunity I’ve had to work for extraordinary people. I’ve worked for all sorts: go-getting campaigners, ingenious manufacturers, lionhearted managers, madcap performers, mindboggling technologists, mould-breaking mavericks, philanthropic financiers, visionary policymakers.
The worst part is losing a credentials pitch (I never do creative pitches) to a design agency that later comes up with ill-conceived and badly-crafted work that’s nothing like as good as the client deserves.
The Logo Creative – Who is the most inspiring person to you and why?
John Spencer – I’m inspired by a lot of people but particularly the inventors of everyday things: tin can, photography, electric motor, cement, postcard, catseye, rubber band, radio, postage stamp, full English breakfast, telephone, light bulb, bicycle, Meccano, television, chocolate bar, World Wide Web, Post-it note, in vitro fertilization. You don’t have to be ‘a creative’ to be creative.
The Logo Creative – Who is your favourite graphic designer and why?
John Spencer – The late, great Alan Fletcher. He was a pioneer of the British graphic design industry. His work fused modernist clarity with an irreverent pop spirit. He believed that design isn’t a thing you do, it’s a way of life. He managed to combine commercial success with wonderful creativity. He was a truly inspiring designer and thinker.
The Logo Creative – What’s your favourite design quote?
John Spencer – One of my favourites is Bob Gill’s message to his children in his book Unspecial Effects for Graphic Designers. ‘Dear Jack and Kate. This book is for you. I hope it might show you that the ordinary things, which you pass every day, can be so much more interesting and entertaining and surprising than you think. If you look hard enough.’
The Logo Creative – In less than ten words what is graphic design?
John Spencer – Graphic design is about making sense of things.
The Logo Creative – What steps did you take to start your graphic design business? Did you have to make any sacrifices on your journey?
John Spencer – I was invited to join a small design partnership that was already up and running. The business evolved enormously over twenty-five years but I quit in 2012 to set up virtual consultancy Offthetopofmyhead. I wanted to work in a more flexible way than conventional, studio-based consultancies. Now I bring together the best team of freelancers for each job rather than make do with employees just because they’re at a loose end and need to be kept busy.
I’ve never had to make any big sacrifices but there were times I had to work long hours when I’d much rather have been with my family.
The Logo Creative – Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you would have changed early on in your career?
John Spencer – I’ve no regrets and I wouldn’t have changed anything in the early years. But I would have chosen the people I worked with later a bit more carefully. Most were a joy but one or two were troublesome.
The Logo Creative – If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
John Spencer – Design should inspire people to think about familiar things in new ways and show them things they’ve never noticed before – things that are often right under their nose. Never be afraid of the obvious. It surprises most of the people most of the time.
The Logo Creative – What’s the most important piece of advice you have received as a designer that’s helped you?
John Spencer – When I was a graphics student, I did a month’s professional practice with Alan Fletcher at Pentagram. I’ve a vivid memory of my portfolio assessment. It was Plymouth boy meets the father of British graphic design. He looked, he listened and he said, “You’re just pissing about”. It wasn’t so much a piece of advice, it was more a piece of his mind. It was a bruising encounter with the reality. I owe him a lot.
The Logo Creative – What would be your advice for new logo and graphic designers?
John Spencer – Creativity without boundaries is pointless. Constraints define what we do and how valuable it is. Being creative is all about coming up with ideas that have intrinsic value. Our work is a means to an end – we’re the blue-collar workers of the art world. Embrace constraints. Think inside the box. You’ll be surprised how liberating it is.
I have no idea what the future of graphic design is but I do know that it’ll be unrecognizable in twenty years from now. So be open-minded and resourceful, and grab every opportunity that comes your way.
Time Flies When You’re Having Fun
The Logo Creative – Your book, Time Flies When You’re Having Fun has just been published. You’ve described it as an A to Z of idiosyncratic letters. What’s the story behind it?
John Spencer – Time Flies When You’re Having Fun is all about the relationship between language and design. I’ve been intrigued by both the appearance and meaning of words since I was a graphics student and discovered a book called Watching Words Move by designers Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar. Their aim was to “…explore the evocative potential of words and vividly express their meaning”. I love Watching Words Move because it’s what graphic design’s all about: crystal-clear and expressive communication.
I’ve always put words at the heart of my work. Time Flies When You’re Having Fun brings together 52 characters from some of the logos I’ve created over the years. It’s an A to Z of idiosyncratic letters. And I’ve made them into a typeface – just for fun.
We were very lucky to get a signed copy of John’s new book for us to enjoy. We loved the book that much we just had to do a review of it and share it with the design community and I highly recommend you get yourself a copy!
You can read our review of the book here to see more screenshots and insights.
learn more about John Spencer | offthetopofmyhead.co.uk
Also published on Medium.