Mike Paisley – Designer Soapbox

Mike Paisley

Mike Paisley

Mike Paisley loves simplicity, making things and tinfoil gadgets. We first met when he was involved in Throwawaylines, a wonderful project which treated rubbish like royalty. Mike is a Design Director at The Partners, where he’s solved brand and communication problems for clients as diverse as LV=, eBay, Allen & Overy, HSBC, Penguin and Richard House Children’s Hospice.

Here he talks about design and his love of words, and why he’s started to make geodesic domes out of old bits of fence.

What does your day job involve?

Aside from making the occasional round of tea, I’ll usually be working on or overseeing a number of projects in any given week. It might be working with the strategic consultants and design team to create the visual identity for a brand, based upon the underlying strategy and positioning. Or with the design team on briefs relating to more specific pieces of communication – like a brochure of some kind, a poster or a website or app. Typically these will be for bigger organisations but in amongst these bigger jobs we also work on some smaller projects. Sometimes these are more creative on paper, in that the solution is less constrained by scale and politics, or perhaps it’s just simply a more ‘fun’ industry; pharma versus cake making for example. We try to maintain a balance between the big and the small and make the most of the opportunities in each, regardless of scale or constraints.

What do you love about your job?

I like solving problems – fixing something that doesn’t make sense, isn’t working or just doesn’t look right. That’s pretty much what we do and the problems come in all shapes and sizes. I also like not wearing a suit, and not ironing a shirt.

Learning about new things is also a nice by-product of the job… from James Bond to diabetes, friendly societies and the Magic Circle for example. Working with interesting people is good too, both those at work and those we collaborate with, such as film makers, animators, illustrators, typographers, photographers, and of course writers. It’s great when they enable you to create something better than you could on your own. Or they help realise the idea in a way that surpasses what was in your head. That’s always particularly nice.

What are your favourite projects outside work?

Taking type for a walk: Mike's favourite student project

Taking type for a walk: Mike’s favourite student project

As a student I particularly enjoyed a project called ‘Taking type for a walk’. I took a walk around where I grew up (in a suburb of Glasgow) and noted memories along the way. A typographic central narrative mapped out path and the memories surrounded it in the form of little typographic anecdotes. These featured landmarks like the Big Dipper – a hill where we used to sledge, or The Burn – home to the Death-slide and the arena for Kick-Start and two-man hunt. Some parts are better than others and there are things I’d change from a design point of view, but it captures memories from a past, which is now 17 years and more behind me. I’m especially glad I did it now and I enjoyed the play between writing and designing. The writing was central to the setting of the type; writing more or less, or changing one word to another all had knock on effects. So there was a fair bit of wrestling between the two.

I also enjoyed taking part in Throwaway Lines last year, an exhibition inspired by scraps of paper discarded in the street, collected by Andy Hayes, a friend and old colleague. It was lovely to work like a student again, finding and gluing things together ­– a chance to use my hands in a literally more hands-on way. And also work with words and a story in a more direct way too. The Throwaway Lines website has all of the stories and frames, including the story by Kate Baxter about ‘Robert’, inspired by the scrap of paper here.

For the Throwawaylines project, Mike created a frame using old type blocks

For the Throwawaylines project, Mike created a frame using old type blocks

The whole idea of taking care in the making of things provides the central discussion/premise of a book I’m reading at the moment too: The Craftsman by Richard Sennett. In it he investigates the pleasure and value in making something well and proposes that that, in itself, is a reason to do it in the first place. I don’t seem to have the time to do that very often, which is something I’m keen to address, especially given the fleeting information hits of the digital world and how I’m finding that’s changing my appetite for single-focus concentration.

Why did you originally want to be a designer?

I’d always gravitated towards drawing at school and I enjoyed Art, English and History. I think I knew that things were designed to some degree but I certainly didn’t know that ‘graphic design’ was a thing, I just enjoyed drawing, and simplifying things. Somewhere in the middle of my schooling I was sat down in front of BBC micro and a careers questionnaire. A little while later a dot matrix printer noisily prodded out ‘graphic designer’ in the number 1 position. So then I knew there was this job called a graphic designer. I found out more about it and it sounded quite good. That focused me a little and a few years later I applied to art school.

I ended up studying at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, firstly doing a year’s general course, where we did a bit of everything – from life drawing, sculpture and drawing and painting, to animation and making chairs. It was great fun, aside from the crits and suddenly feeling less than confident surrounded by all these other people that could also draw, in many cases better than I could. Then I specialised in graphic design for the next three years. Making it out into reality in 2000.

What was your first job?

Junior designer at The Partners. My college was showing at New Designers and Jack Renwick, who was a designer at The Partners back then (going on to become Creative Director until a few years ago), came along with Dana Robertson to see our stand and her old tutors. I got talking to them, they liked my work and I got an interview off the back of that. It was luck, really, that Jack had gone to my college and came to visit the stand. She’s got a lot to answer for, in a good way.

Jack Renwick, aka Wonder Woman, talent spotted Mike

Jack Renwick, aka Wonder Woman in her Twitter profile, talent spotted Mike

How did your career develop from there?

I’ve been at The Partners for about 13 years now and have worked my way up over time. It’s changed a lot since I started, when David Stuart and Aziz Cami still stalked the floors like benevolent/malevolent uncles depending on whether things were going in the right direction or not.

In terms of my role I think the biggest change for me has been moving from being a doer to an overseer, with more responsibility. I like trying to see the bigger picture and it’s great when the designers you are working with come up with good ideas. But for me personally, it’s important to maintain a balance, to not lose touch with the design skills I’ve taken quite a long time to develop.

How has the business changed?

The business has evolved from being a graphic design business to becoming a branding agency. So not just tackling specific communication problems (an annual report, a website, a poster etc) but rather getting to the heart of a business’ brand, and then figuring out how that manifests itself in actions, behaviours and its visual and verbal expression. The specific communication needs/briefs are still there but we often work on those as part of a bigger project involving the brand. The constant over my 13 years here has been the focus on ensuring that the work is always based in good thinking and ideas.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you like to have been?

I’d either be a sportsman of some kind, probably a footballer… a portraitist, or a writer. However, if there was a job that involved doing a bit of everything and getting paid for it, then I’d probably be that.

What do you enjoy about working with words?

Words are very important to the way I approach design, either to organise thinking or to capture an idea or the source of an idea. Though semantics are always a challenge, words hopefully allow you to be more precise and certain in what you are communicating – both in discussion around the work but also in defining the core thinking on which things are built.

Where writers are concerned it’s great when they can take the seed of an idea and build it into something far bigger or just bring to life the idea that’s been in your head. I always enjoy it most when someone you’re working with buys into the idea and you feel that it’s not just a job for them – that the result really matters to them too.

Mike's currently reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

Mike’s currently reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

What do people get wrong about you?

I can appear quite serious, and a bit meticulous or considered/logical in the way I approach things. But I also like playful ideas and being silly. I like playfulness generally. That’s part of the pleasure of life, being silly, running with a silly idea and using humour to get through things in that typically British way. I think it can also be a mechanism to free up the mind a little…

I saw a documentary recently called The King of Nerac, exploring the artist David Breuer-Weil, his personality, background and his work. I particularly liked how he described this imaginary kingdom (Nerac) where all of his ideas or streams of thought are worked out through ‘Nerakian’ artists. Of course they were all him, but these personas took pressure off the ideas and allowed him to explore without fear of too much judgement. Some of these artists stayed with him for just a day, others for a year or more. He does a little Nerakian (one could say silly) dance at one point, then stops, looks at the sky and describes what he can see. It’s much like a child might describe their imaginary game-world. That little dance opens a door to a part of his brain unshackled by the controlling instincts of the adult mind. I think in some design/designers you do find that powerful juxtaposition of childlike playfulness and the rational problem solver.

People also think I’m not lazy, but I am. The reason is that if I do something I tend to want to do it well, so my laziness is born of an unwillingness to commit to doing a job properly. Often I might not bother to start something because if I get started, it’s going to be involved and I don’t think I have the time. So I often umm and ahh over what is the best thing to procrastinate myself into.

What’s your favourite gadget?

I do like gadgets but I live vicariously through my brother’s gadgets and inventions. He is forever making things and usually his gadgets are items re-purposed to fulfil a new function.

His Hamleys is Maplin and his box of toys when we were growing up was a cardboard box with wires and plugs in it. One gadget from our childhood that sticks in my mind was an under-doormat, pressure-sensitive burglar alarm, fashioned from tinfoil, amongst other things. It worked surprisingly well.

Mike loves gadgets

Mike loves a gadget. Current favourite: the minirig rechargeable speaker.

More recently he’s enjoyed telling me the temperature of all manner of household items and surfaces with his infrared digital thermometer, which is of course shaped like a gun. And also demonstrating how he has power over most of the lights in his house through remote-controlled light switches. He’s also working on some kind of RFID-based system so that he can open the garage door without getting out of the car or leaving the house. I love the way he approaches things and I’d love to work with him on a project one day.

My favourite gadget is a little rechargeable speaker, called a minirig. Its size belies its sound quality (and its volume). It lasts about 50 hours on a charge and it follows me around the flat/garden as I work on things.

What’s your favourite place for creative inspiration?

I like the combination of space and sunlight (though not so bright that it makes white paper too bright to look at), so sitting in a park on a bench with an expanse of sky around me would be good. But as I can’t think without writing or drawing, I’d need a big table too. And so maybe some animal-shaped paperweights… perhaps a squirrel and a hedgehog.

Who’s your design hero/heroine?

I’m most drawn to design that makes a difference and solves a problem, not design for design’s sake (or perhaps designer’s sake). The things that you use every day that make your life simpler.


Detail of Max Gill’s Wonderground map

Harry Beck’s tube map, predictably, is a great example. It serves its purpose beautifully, and I really like how its influence has been introduced on bus routes. The principles it introduced and the observation that geographic accuracy was actually a hindrance have been hugely useful in design of this kind, something I’ve appreciated many times when I’m trying to find my way around London on the buses or night-buses.

On the flipside of this though, I also really like the work of MacDonald ‘Max’ Gill (Eric’s brother). He created the Wonderground map. If Beck’s map solved a usability problem, then the Wonderground map is almost the polar opposite. It’s richly illustrative and choc-full of amusing hints about the people and stories behind the places. It captures the reason why you might want to go to these places and was designed to keep people amused while they waited for their trains, a very different purpose. I like that the design problem can be wildly different and require very different answers.

What are you doing now?

Mike's latest design: a garden geodesic dome

A garden geodesic dome: one of the projects Mike’s working on

Around two years ago I started working four days a week to create the time and energy to work on other projects. Right now I’m working on a number, one of which is making geodesic domes. It began with a friend’s observation that most fruit cages are weak and ugly. He’s always loved geodesic domes and lots of construction mechanisms exist but they are typically a little Heath-Robinson or highly engineered and hugely expensive. He had some old chestnut fence-posts on his allotment, so we set about making a dome and trying to resolve an affordable system that makes them relatively simple and enjoyable to construct. It’s been a fascinating process so far. Our intention is that they could be used for all kinds of purposes – a fruit cage, arbor, chicken run, aviary, butterfly sanctuary or, my favourite, as a children’s den. I’d have loved one as a child (maybe even now), probably with an old parachute draped over the top…

What’s next for you?

Going to four days is an opportunity to figure that out. Ideas are wonderful things, but a brilliant idea that goes nowhere or simply stops a little beyond the endorphin hit it gives you, is less valuable. The hard bit is making something actually happen and all that entails. So right now, I’m enjoying making things, allowing myself to fail, and seeing if a few ideas can make it beyond the page into some sort of reality.