Phil Carter on making long-lasting marques

July 27th 2017

“The best design we’ve done – the F1 logo in 94, for example – we would still do it in the same way and of course, that logo is still in use today.”

Phil Carter is a preeminent British graphic designer. He established Carter Wong with Phil Wong in November, 1984. For over 30 years, the partnership developed world-class, iconic, enduring identities for some of the world’s leading brands, including Formula One and Walls Ice Cream. Phil is also a prolific illustrator, rarely separated from a sketchbook and something – anything – to mark people, places and the movement of time.

Who influenced your early design philosophy?

“Originally I wanted to be a car designer, and I was told that to do so you had to go to Art College. I was certainly influenced by my tutors, our tutors were fantastic, however graphic design is what it was all about for me… Alan Fletcher was one of the best, a great illustrator, and the work he did at Pentagram was some of his best.”

You are a prolific mark maker, seemingly almost possessed to draw. Do you see this as a gift or a curse?

A gift. I keep a sketchbook by the bed and have got used to noting down ideas in the dark now which is usually enough to remind me of an idea when I wake up in the morning. Better this than running out of ideas during my waking hours.”

Would you say your mark making is experimental?

“Yes, I try and do different things, and that’s all part of the experience. I think I do end up drawing in the same way in the end, because it is like a signature. When I’m out I will try and challenge myself, sometimes giving myself 5 minutes to draw something and the result is always very different than if I have time on my side. I still believe that when I draw something, I start to understand it better. I drew a scooter yesterday evening, and by drawing the engine, I feel I gained a better understanding of how it works. I am observing every little bit of it, so I learn a lot.”

Do you take your observational skill through into Identity Design?

“Completely, that’s what it is all about! Not being confounded by a mac or the limitations of what it can or can’t do. Freehand I can do anything and occasionally draw with my left hand as I have to concentrate a lot more. I believe an ability to draw is fundamental to design.

I like crafting things and not accepting the limitations of a Mac which can be the norm in today’s design world. I like to create an identity by drawing first before moving on to the computer with a resolved idea of what I am trying to achieve.”

To what degree is your formal design work accidental, experimental or intentional?

“It has to be ordered, I am working with a client using their money and I owe it to them to do a good job. I can’t always be experimental with their projects unless we’re given totally free rein and then present ideas but no more than three and preferably one.”

Howies wardrobes, 2002

“Things like the packaging we did for Howies was a lovely project because it just blossomed. We would start one part then the next just followed through. They believed in what we were doing, they had the foresight to work with creative people and just let us get on with it.”

Do you think that in the digital world, the skills traditionally used to make marques are increasingly redundant?

“Yes, it’s possible. You do see it – even moving into the Art World there is more and more digital work. There are possibly less people working in the traditional way of mark making because digital is more beguiling, people are doing things which have a gloss and veneer, that are very different to what you can achieve by drawing or painting.”

Does this mean that marques are increasingly ephemeral?

“Actually, I think it’s always been the case. I have a book somewhere of ‘World’ Logotypes and Identities. Phil (Wong) and I reviewed back it in 1989; we pulled it apart because about 50% were what we call brush pen solutions. It was a big thing in the 80s; you had so many logos that were done with just a few strokes or lines… and where are they now? They didn’t have that enduring quality.

Particularly with an identity you want to do something that is watertight for the next 10-20 years at least; of course, they might need a tweak; but some of the best examples we’ve done – the F1 logo in 94, for example, we would still do it the same way and of course that is still in use now.”

F1 logo, 1994

How did you design the F1 logo?

“I have to be honest, it was one of our designers, quite young at the time, who had the idea. We wanted to capture that energy and excitement of Formula One and we’d been playing around with the ‘F’. Then there was the realisation that with a little bit of manipulation, we had the left half of the one. The lines of speed formed the other half of the one.  Even my wife only spotted the one in the logo 4 years ago; I now keep an ever-expanding PDF of people who have only just spotted the one after 20 years!”

What do you think makes it enduring?

“After 2 or 3 seasons, the marque became established. People now know it and it’s one of the most recognised brand symbols in the world. It doesn’t need changing – it still does exactly what it needs to.”

Do you try to make identities that will be enduring and sustainable? Is it a conscious decision?

“With an identity, yes of course. For one of our first jobs in ’85, we made a logo with the three initials of the gallery within a circle in a very abstract manner suiting the organisation. Every time I saw it, I would say to myself, “that still looks good, it still works.” They eventually changed it last year, I’m sure there was a good reason.”

Have you ever had the opportunity to defend any of your marques against being changed or do clients just do it anyway?

“We did an identity for a company in Sweden, a nice little logo of a crab. I was really pleased with it. It’s been in the industry 15 years. I went over there last year and they had changed the packaging and whoever came in to do that changed the logo, as designers like to do. That actually broke my heart as I remembered the time and energy that went into making my design concept work 20 years ago.”

New Coke can design, 2016

 Is an enduring identity something that is outside the realm of fashion?

“I would like to think so yes, I haven’t necessarily worked in a fashionable way, especially with the marque we try to create something that will still work in 10-15 years time.”

But design goes through fashionable changes?

“And sometimes, there’s definitely nothing wrong with that! If you take a look at Coke, what they have done more recently is perfect. They’ve taken away all the clutter off the can and stripped it right back to basics.”

Joe Carter

You have started a new design studio with your son, Joe Carter. What is it like to work together?

“It’s incredible. We design in different ways. Joe is the more logical of the two of us. I tend to flow with an idea and Joe sometimes challenges me if I try to change something. He’ll ask, “why?” and I might say, “because we can!” Accidental experiments meet a reasoned approach. Actually, it works really well and I feel very lucky. I sit opposite him and sometimes think, “I created that!”

Footprints for SEVEN FEET APART, 2017

Thank you to Phil for taking part in this Pioneer Interview and to both Phil and Joe for the work they have done for SEVEN FEET APART so far. We love our footprints and the fact your Sevens are still covered in ink stains!