There’s a foreword on Swifty’s website, by Paul Bradshaw, which says something along the lines of, ‘even if you’ve never heard of Swifty, you can bet your life you’ve seen or even owned a piece of his artwork’, and he’s pretty much right on the mark. Since the early 90’s, Ian Swift, aka Swifty, has held his place in the graphic design industry – heralded as the ‘godfather of the sampling generation’ – such is his deep-rooted connection to the game. From his London studio, Swifty Graphix, Swifty has applied his signature touch to innumerous projects, maintaining a primarily hand-drawn approach in a rapidly changing graphic design world. SLAMXHYPE recently caught up with Swifty ahead of a trip down under, to talk about his experience, work, the changing face of graphic design, upcoming projects and get some sage advice on getting away from it all.
Jack Smylie: Hey Swifty, how did you get into the world of graphic design?
Swifty: At the tender age of sixteen I enrolled at Warrington art School (instead of being a rock climber!) and it was there in my second year my tutor Martin Dutton thrust the first copy of The Face magazine in my hand and said, “This is the future of graphic design”. I then applied to do my degree at Manchester Polytechnic because I was also a big fan of Malcolm Garret’s work and Peter Saville’s, who both went to Manchester. At Manchester in my third year, again my tutor Pam Schenk invited Neville Brody to give a lecture. After his talk he looked through all the student’s portfolios (in alphabetical order). Being ‘S’ I was last but one! I walked into the room and the first thing I said was, “I bet you’re a bit bored of all this”, or something to that effect – as I knew damn well he’d had to sift through enough very boring work prior to me!
His ears pricked up and he opened my portfolio, which was full of hand drawn type in the Brody-esque style! He wrote down his number on a piece of paper and said there was a junior position available at the Face magazine and he wanted me! A fairy tale story really. As I got nearer the end of my degree I started phoning, but to no avail – I got to know his assistant quite well, who again was probably getting a bit pissed at my phoning three times a week.
I remember thinking it was all no good and he’d probably filled the position already. It was a Friday evening about 7 o’clock and I gave it one last chance, and Neville actually answered the phone. “Oh yeah Ian – when can you come down and meet the Publisher Nick Logan”. I put my degree show up, put all my stuff in my sister’s garage, packed a rucksack and headed down to London to hook up with my good pal Dave Standley who was at St Martins, to live in a squat in Clapham and started work immediately. Never looked back!
You’ve been in the game for a while now – do you find that the graphic design industry has changed a lot since you started out?
The industry is almost unrecognizable from the days I started out. For one you had no computers, it was a well-paid and well-respected industry. People commissioned you and had no idea how the work was produced. It was a kind of mysterious profession. People would ask me what I did and I would reply that I’m a graphic designer. The response would be “what’s that?” Even worse when I started saying I was a typographer, the reaction would be total confusion. Now of course the computer dominates the industry and our lives in general, and I have to say it’s NOT for the better. Graphic designers are now sub-rated professionals who are being undermined by anyone who’s got a mate with a copy of Illustrator or Photoshop. Yes, to some extent higher up everybody knows you need to call in the big guns, but every day I battle against people who think they know better or have too much of an opinion. The free pitch has all but killed the industry in my opinion; degraded good graphic design to a sub-rate service and has been opened up to abuse on a large scale.
Do you think the Internet has played a large part in the way the industry has moved forward?
Yes – digital technology has made the job easier and of course in reality made all our lives much better. However, it is dangerous! In the wrong hands, and without the right training Internet use and the digital domain can be a very dangerous environment. Young people are now – at the very start of their lives – adopting and embracing this new technology and we don’t really know to what effect. The click generation is an experiment! And we are all part of that big experiment, so we have to respect it and tread carefully. Graphic design of course will always be right at the forefront of new ideas and new movements – that’s what great graphic design is – the reaction to the culture we live in, a reaction to what’s going on around us, what we see, hear and experience. The Internet now is the number one way we experience anything, so in that respect we are living in revolutionary times.
A large part of your work has been related to the music industry – I must say, some of your jazz prints and record sleeves are among my favourites – what’s your connection to this scene?
Even at college I knew I wanted to be a sleeve designer. It was and still is perhaps the only part of the industry where you can have a voice, do your own thing and get a little more freedom to experiment. I suppose I really got into it by literally going out clubbing. I was out three or four times a week, real clubbers don’t just club at the weekend! And I was lucky enough to start designing “Straight No Chaser” magazine, late ’89, which pretty much landed right into that acid jazz scene. They were fantastic times – the early 90’s – very fresh, but with an optimism coming out of the Thatcher years. My output was a few sleeves a week mixed up with enough club flyers. I hooked up with Janine (the flyer queen). She was the original flyer girl for Gilles Peterson, she would flyer 24/7 all around town and her car always had nuff bin bags on the back seat, full of flyers. She promoted and put on famous gigs like Jazz 90, Sunday Afternoon at Dingwalls (which still has a reunion style gig), Thats How It Is at Bar Rumba on a Monday night, the list goes on! We are still together 22 years later with three kids. Through the connection with Chaser, I started doing all the sleeves for Talkin’ Loud and then later James Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax label, which I was very instrumental in helping set up. Music is still my life and Paul Bradshaw, (ex Chaser publisher), is still my mentor and musical enhancer. We are currently pioneering a project entitled ‘Word, Sound & Power’ Reggae Changed My Life, an exhibition celebrating UK Reggae and Sound system culture. The story continues!
Paul Bradshaw from Straight No Chaser magazine calls you a ‘modernist with a nostalgic streak’. Is this about right?
Paul always has a brilliant way with words! Yes it’s a kind of modernist approach or postmodern approach – everybody kind of has their own slant on the subject. For me, my life is intertwined with deep-rooted thoughts of nostalgia. I suppose my father had a great deal to do with it. He was a very eccentric man – a Punch and Judy man and magician in his spare time. It was a strange obsession. He was devoted to his craft and did kind of want me to continue in his footsteps. Also, I grew up in a time before ‘Star Wars’ – as kids we played ‘war’ in the playground and had grandfathers and uncles who would continually talk about the war. I think it’s just part of my make up that makes me very nostalgic. Then in the early 90’s when I started sampling and appropriating in my own work it resonated with my own nostalgic thoughts. A strange attraction to ‘old’ things and old ways is still what makes me tick. I used to say ‘you have to know where you’ve come from in order to know where you’re going to!’
Am I right in suggesting that there is a lot of ‘London’ in your work?
Although I’m a Northerner at heart, I have lived in London since ’86 – I couldn’t work anywhere else. I’m a converted Southerner. My accent has all but disappeared, in some ways, yes, my work is very ‘London’ in that it’s my home and I still get a portion of my work from living in London, but my pragmatic approach and outlook is still very Northern. I’m very proud to have grown up on Merseyside – it’s an area rich in creativity and history and I had a great childhood growing up in that area.
Music seems an obvious inspiration for you and your work – what else inspires you as an artist?
The list is endless, but I suppose the main ones from the art world would be Pop art in general – British artists like Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton. From the USA: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauchenberg, of course Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock. More art like Ben Nicholson, Barbera Hepworth – I love the St Ives Scene in the 50’s in general. Dada artists like Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Hosch and Roy Heartfield. Fluxus as well. On the graf front: People like Futura2000, Seen and Mode 2. From the design world: Malcom Garret, Neville Brody, Peter Saville, Saul Bass, Reid Miles, Paul Rand, Barney Bubbles, more obscure stuff like Sister Corita, skateboard graphics from the 70’s and film posters from the 60’s and 70’s. UK TV programmes – in particular anything Gerry Anderson – I have a respectable collection of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Space 1999, UFO toys and collectibles – that’s the stuff that boyhood dreams were made of! I could go on and on!
You’re also a prolific font creator – where did this fascination with typography stem from?
Got no idea – like I touched on earlier, my father was a very interesting guy – who never really, I think, developed his true creative potential. He would always be making something and of course he sign painted all his own magic and Punch and Judy stuff. I always drew as a kid, and when I ended up at art school my tutors very quickly – and myself too – realized I was pretty good at combining typography and image. It just stemmed from there. It wasn’t until the Neville Brody years that the industry opened up with the advent of “Fontographer’ version 1 (which was a bitch to use), but did enable people like myself to suddenly ‘have a go’ before it was a closed shop. Again, I just developed what my heart told me to do, there was no real master plan – never has been!
Do you still try and maintain a hand-drawn approach with your typefaces? And design work in general?
Yes. The hand drawn element is a vital part of my everyday experience. It’s the heart and soul of my work, the lifeblood. It gives me the rawness, the energy, the texture, all the things that I’m obsessed with. I have a small table in an extra addition now to my shed which is purely for drawing, just a simple desk with trace pad, cutting mat etc. The scanner is of course my next weapon and third the computer itself. The combination of the old ways fused with the ease of the digital domain is the secret to my work, nothing new really, nothing special, but I think a lot of designers forget about the craft of graphic design.
Can you shed light on any upcoming projects/shows you have planned for the near future?
I can honestly say the last two years in some ways have been the hardest for me. With the economic downturn I’d be a liar if I said it hadn’t affected me. In these times of hardship we have to diversify and almost turn our hand to anything to survive. But this year I have seen a distinct revitalization in my work and interest in my career with the things I’ve done. Its 22 years since I set up shop in a run down area of London called ‘Hoxton’, look at it now! I’m as busy as ever now with commissions coming at me from all angles. The one area I’m very excited about as ever is my own projects. I have teamed up with Paul Bradshaw (ex Straight No Chaser publisher) whose musical knowledge is vast. We are in the process of getting arts council funding to put on an exhibition entitled ‘Word, Sound & Power’ Reggae Changed My Life. It will be a touring exhibition of photography, memorabilia and design. I will be the graphic facilitator and Paul is curating it. Both of us are off to New Zealand next month with the British Council to do a 3-day workshop in Auckland, and the task is to produce a fanzine without the aid of computers. Again it’s about the heritage that we both have now, it’s about exploring and re-looking at the old ways before computers. It’s going to be a mad experiment – I’m really looking forward to that trip. Also in NZ I’ll be speaking at ‘Semi Permanent‘, which is the main creative conference in Australasia and we’ll be doing a little show at the local music hub, Conch Records, who have a new area in the garden ready for some Swifty wall art. And both of us will be spinning some ska, rocksteady, roots and dancehall in the evening! When I get back, at the end of May is the ‘Art Car Boot Fair’, always a regular treat in the Swifty diary – get down there for some bargain prints and bits of art. Then in June I’m off to the Lake District for some hill climbing with my family – another great passion of mine – can’t wait for that. All in all its going to be a mad next few months what with my daughter taking her GCSE’s and my eldest son is part way through his A levels. In the summer I head off to Dorset with my youngest, Spike, and get some quality time in camping – bush craft style – another thing I’ve always loved since a kid. It’s essential sometimes to just get away from it all and just get back to basics, no computers, no Internet, no phone signal. Get a fire going, camp under canvas and experience the simper things in life. It’s essential for our souls that kinda stuff… I would recommend it!