Brian Webb is standing on the roof terrace of the Pill Box in East London. It is here, on the top floor of a renovated Victorian pharmaceutical factory, that his design agency Webb & Webb has its studio. From the creative districts of Bethnal Green, Webb and his colleagues create award-winning design for prestigious UK customers such as the Royal Mail, London Transport and the Tate Galleries.
While Webb gazes out at the 360-degree view of the British capital, he describes his latest commissions. First, the cover design of the adult editions of Harry Potter at the behest of Bloombury Publishing. Second, a graphic identity for Ian Fleming, with the task of capturing more than just the author’s most famous character, James Bond, but rather the author’s entire personality, style, wit and Englishness.
“My assessment criterion is always ‘I wish I’d designed that.”
It is not only London’s skyline, Harry Potter and James Bond that Brian Webb has his watchful gaze on. He also chairs the jury of the Student initiative, the design competition for students that Iggesund Paperboard runs together with Earth Island Publishing and the Heaven Company. In the competition, students from leading English design schools are given realistic industry briefs in fields such as packaging design. One aim is to create a link between education and working life. Since Iggesund joined the project, another purpose has been to familiarise the students with Invercote and help them understand the importance that their choice of materials has to the designs they create. Webb has been involved in the project since it began 12 years ago.
More information: Iggesund Academy and the Student initiative
“I’ve chaired the jury since the first edition of the Student initiative,” he explains. “It’s a fun job because the briefs are realistic and the students always deliver at a high level. Since Iggesund joined the project two years ago, there has been a greater focus on packaging design, which I like because it’s something I’ve worked with a lot myself over the years.”
His own career began in the 1960s. About the same time as a certain John Lennon left Liverpool Art College to play with the then totally unknown band The Beatles, Webb was discovering his own passion for graphic design at the same college. After graduating he moved to London and co-founded the design agency Trickett & Webb, whose commissions included designing packaging for Marks & Spencer and Boots and graphics for prestige brands like Volvo Cars and British Airways.
“We first designed the tenth anniversary covers of the Harry Potter books, which was the first time they had been designed as a set. Our aim was to design a classic set of children’s books, and that’s now known as the signature series. More recently we were asked to rework the Harry Potter adult edition too. We worked with the Andrew Davidson wood-engraved illustrations that we had already commissioned for the paperback edition, recolouring and designing them into the larger hardback format.”
When the agency’s other part-owner, Lynn Trickett, retired in 2003, Webb instead founded Webb & Webb. The agency continues to work with some of the biggest British brands and has won hundreds of awards for its design. Looking back on his career, though, he does not single out any of these awards but rather the fact that he was able to realise a dream from his student days.
“While I was at college every student’s dream was to design the London Transport posters, which I was lucky enough to end up doing eventually. That’s definitely one of the highlights of my career, along with the first postage stamp I made for the Royal Mail.”
You’ve had an outstanding career in graphic design. In your opinion, what’s the definition of great design?
“If there were a definition I would bottle it and sell it. Great design is something that instantly connects with your brain, and then sneaks up behind you to tap you on the shoulder before it hits you in the face. That’s when you know you found something great.”
“We developed a brand identity that could be taken beyond the 007 mark and into licensed products as well as written and audio books. The new identity celebrates Ian Fleming the author. It depicts a ‘Doctor Bird’, with Fleming’s signature running through. The bird relates to his home in Jamaica and when we discovered that the Doctor Bird is a national emblem of Jamaica, it seemed an appropriate image.”
Is that what you’re looking for when you asses the students’ work for the Student initiative?
“Yes, and my assessment criterion is always ‘I wish I’d designed that’. If it hits that nerve it’s usually a good job and good jobs tend not to be that difficult to find in the Student initiative, as the standards are quite high in the competition.”
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Talk us through the process of jury work. How do you go about finding the best entries?
“The jury gets together in December to find the winners, which are presented at the awards in January. All entries are laid out on tables so we evaluate the overall standard of each brief. Then we walk around the table to have a closer look, before we sit down and flag up our potential winners. From that shortlist we select the best ones and, unlike most other competitions, if we think the work deserves it we have joint winners and runners up too.”
Brian Webb joined the winners of the 2015 Student initiative in a visit to Iggesund in March 2016.
What did you make of last year’s competition, the Student initiative 2015/16?
“The students’ work with the Student initiative 2015/16 was really excellent. Since Iggesund became involved we’ve seen some very good packaging entries. In my opinion it’s important that the students learn what will happen when their design lands on the paper early in their careers. I’ve done loads of packaging myself on Invercote over the years and I’ve learned that it performs great when you put ink on it.”
What are your expectations for the Student initiative 2016/17?
“The briefs this year include packaging – surface design, structural design and editorial design – so it should be good. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the students’ work and hopefully I’ll get that feeling of being slapped in the face with great design again.”
TEXT JOHAN ÅBERG PHOTO PER TRANÉ