The designer who graduated from The Designers Republic school of hard knocks to draw up his own hugely successful studio discusses useless diplomas and the glory of print with Mark Penfold.
Michael C Place has always been of a decidedly independent mind. In 1990 he left his design HND without graduating, convinced that the world of design was changing in ways his tutors had not grasped. Having played an important role in defining the dominant aesthetic for electronic music at The Designers Republic throughout the '90s, Place felt the need to take his increasingly sophisticated vision into new territory. Sometimes minimal, always elegantly modern, the founding of Build in 2001 saw Place develop his practice in the areas of branding and identity work, successfully mixing creative integrity with commercial viability. Computer Arts asks what it takes to walk that line.
Computer Arts: What were you like as a kid?
Michael C Place: I am the youngest of the Place clan, with three older sisters. I was quiet and kept myself to myself. We grew up on a farm in North Yorkshire (my dad was a pig farmer, my mum a nurse), and when I wasn't playing around on the farm I was painting - mainly heavy metal band logos and records sleeves on leather or denim jackets for people at school. I was average at school; I liked geography and maps, maths, art and technical drawing. I was good at athletics but hated 'sport'. I got really into BMX, which turned into an interest in music, which turned into a love of graphic design.
CA: You didn't pass your design HND. How did that affect you?
MCP: It didn't affect me at all. I knew that the course I was on really wasn't geared up for the type of design work I ultimately wanted to do - record sleeve design. The tutors at Newcastle were from a different era. We were rapidly heading into the heady days of the Macintosh computer and I found it at odds that they wanted to teach us lettering by hand. Of course, I realise now why that was actually quite useful, but at the time I thought it was madness. I also thought that it was all about the work in your portfolio and not what qualification you had. I still think that.
CA: What were your hopes when you arrived at The Designers Republic in '92?
MCP: I was happy to be back up north, that's for sure, after a year working with Trevor Jackson down in London. I did a placement at tDR when I was at Newcastle and really enjoyed it, so I sort of knew what I was in for and was up for the challenge. I really just wanted to get my head down and do good work. I got thrown in at the deep end - one of the first jobs was a sleeve for The Step's 'Yeah You!' and I remember being in on the Saturday marking up the sleeve for colour (this was pre-Mac) and bricking myself as I didn't really know what I was doing. It was a tough environment at times, very blokey, you just had to give as good as you got or you were ripped to bits. It was a lot of fun; hard work, long hours, but good. I really liked the attitude.
CA: What were some of the high points for you at tDR?
MCP: Various bits of work, really; going to New York for an exhibition we were in, being in books, designing for artists that I was a fan of, meeting Malcolm Garrett - just being part of something that felt special.
CA: When you set up Build, what were the founding principles?
MCP: First and foremost to do the projects I wanted to do, and to be really honest to only work when I wanted to - though that part hasn't really worked out. It's all about the work at the end of the day, but I also really enjoy the whole process: meeting clients, presenting work, doing the work. At tDR we didn't do all of those parts - it was just the doing of the work, mainly - so it's hugely rewarding and something we both enjoy. The founding principles were very basic: do good work for good people and have a good time doing it.
CA: You have said that you think of yourself primarily as a print designer. What is it about print that has held your fascination?
MCP: It's a really exciting part of design. It still gives me goosebumps. There's the obvious tactility aspect, but there's also the permanence of creating something that I really like. It's committed - there is no Apple Z. It's also something I know really well and it never gets boring; there is always something new to learn, something that you haven't seen before. There are infinite possibilities.
CA: Design for music was an important part of your development. Do you do much music-related work now? And how do you feel about the designs for music these days?
MCP: We do the odd bit here and there if it's a band or label we like. I still really enjoy it but I'm more excited by identity work nowadays - in my opinion it's where most of the good work is being done. But I think there's some good design for music out there being done by some good individuals.
CA: How much of your work goes on outside the computer?
MCP: My work always takes place in the initial stages outside of the computer, in the form of ideas and notes in various sketchbooks or on scraps of paper. I do most of my thinking either on the way to the studio, in the studio or while doing the washing up (and sometimes whilst asleep). I think it's really important to do a large proportion of creative thinking away from the computer.
CA: Your work has been exhibited internationally. Do you see yourself as crossing the divide between commercial and fine art?
MCP: At one time I think I did, and we still do a fair bit of exhibition and self-initiated pieces. But I'm really enjoying the commercial side, which, as a commercial studio, is what we do best.
We talk a lot about the 'Michael C Place' work and the 'Build' work, the 'Michael C Place' work being the more art side and Build being the commercial side. We feel it's important to separate the two wherever possible, but the two also feed into each other.
CA: Do you have many interesting personal projects on the go at the moment?
MCP: We are just so busy doing client work that we don't have the time at the moment to really consider personal projects. That's not to say we don't have things in the pipeline though.
CA: What do you value most in the design that you consume (rather than that which you create)?
MCP: Something different.
CA: Is there any other job you'd really like to try your hand at but haven't had the chance to?
MCP: I don't think so. I really do believe I have the best job in the world.