What do the Queen, Audi and Eric Morecambe have in common? They’ve all played a part in the glittering rise of Why Not Associates
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From Audi to Royal Mail, and Grace Jones to the Victoria and Albert Museum, Why Not Associates’ client base is as varied as the kinds of work it does, making it one of the most highly respected design agencies in the industry. Since it sprung into being in the mid-80s, the studio has aimed to blur the boundaries between different design disciplines, which is why its history is chequered with everything from book design to motion graphics, architectural installations and branding.
Why Not’s approach stems from the passions and beliefs of its original founders – Andy Altmann, David Ellis and Howard Greenhalgh. All three were students at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, with Altmann and Ellis sharing a passion for typography, while Greenhalgh was always more interested in motion graphics and video, eventually going on to create a career for himself making music videos for the likes of the Pet Shop Boys as well commercials for clients like St. ivel, Samsung and the BBC.
From the beginning, all three knew that they didn’t want to follow conventional graphic design careers – chiefly because there was no one in the UK they really wanted to work for. “You could walk out of Central St. Martins and straight into a job in Covent Garden, working for one of these companies designing wine labels that looked like wine labels,” says Altmann.
“It was at this time that graphic design was something of a new industry, and they were trying to make it an industry and give it some kudos as an industry, and I was rebelling against that,” he continues. “It was really soulless design – you couldn’t tell who had done what. There was no personality in it. It just seemed incredibly bland to me.”
Instead, work started to come to them: a chance meeting by Greenhalgh with a “mad hairdresser” from an American cosmetics company saw the trio take on the design of its magazine; which was followed by a graphic design gig for then start-up fashion retailer Ted Baker. Why Not Associates’ first real big break, though, came in 1992, when Royal Mail commissioned the studio to create a series for stamps commemorating the 40th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne.
“Once we got over the initial shock of ‘why are they calling us? Have they seen our work?’ it seemed like such a mainstream commission. And, at that time, our work was at its maddest, in a way,” Ellis recalls. “Once you’ve decided that you’re not going to make the Queen DayGlo and have a corgi sitting on her head, it needs to be regal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a nostalgia trip. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be contemporary. It was supposed to be the Queen at a particular year in the 90s and it should look like that – it should look like a piece of contemporary design.”
The success of that first Royal Mail commission set Why Not Associates on the path that it continues to follow to this day: producing highly distinctive design work that helps makes its clients stand out from the competition. To see why that’s the case, you only have to look at some recent work Why Not Associates has done for the launch of the Audi Q3.
Why Not was asked by global advertising agency BBH to create a series of short ‘bumper’ ads for the car, which appear at the beginning and end of each sponsored TV programme. The brief was to create something that combined function in an elegant form, so Why Not came up with a typical typographical solution. As you watch each 3D animated bumper, elegantly crafted calligraphic text magically appears on key parts of the car’s body, parts and interior, perfectly matching the brief set out by Audi, but done in a clever, engaging and unusual way.
Another recent studio project was the creation of its ‘Comedy Carpet’ on Blackpool’s promenade. Conceived by long-term Why Not collaborator Gordon Young, ‘Comedy Carpet’ is a 2,200 square metre art installation, containing hundreds of jokes, one-liners and monologues from over 1,000 British comedians, with each one set out in granite using over 650,000 individually water-cut letters and set into concrete. It was Why Not’s job to do the research and come up with quotes that they wanted to use, as well as to decide on the typography and style of the piece itself. There were also plenty of other considerations on the £2.6 million project for the team to consider: “Working with Russell Coleman and Andy Sawyer, we had to find out how we were going to fabricate this thing. We did lots of research into cutting granite, how you set it in concrete, how it survives the elements when you set it beside the sea in the north of England, how it will last 100 years, how it’s resistant to graffiti or damage – all of that stuff,” says Ellis. “But we also had an inspiration point, which was the classic music hall poster and the vernacular typography.”
Altmann and Ellis have both been touched by the overwhelmingly positive response to the work, which has been something of a labour of love for both men. However the irony of the idea that Why Not Associates has created something that’s designed to last 100 years isn’t lost on Altmann. He got into graphic design in the first place because of its ephemeral nature: something he saw as a way of rebelling against the more permanent structures created by his architect father.
The permanence of ‘Comedy Carpet’ also has a lot of similarities to two other Gordon Young and Why Not Associates collaborations: a bronze typographic memorial celebrating British comedian Eric Morecambe; and ‘Flock Of Words’, a 300m typographic pavement walk in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire.
Why Not Associates’ love of comedy is a recurrent theme throughout both its work and in its offices in north London, where portraits of Ken Dodd, Tommy Cooper and others line the walls. While researching the phrases to use in ‘Comedy Carpet’, Altmann also discovered a quote from Spike Milligan that he believes could equally apply to Why Not itself: ‘We don’t have a plan so nothing can go wrong.’ He laughs: “I feel like we should have that above our door.”