Swifty: “Our’s was an underground scene, which wasn't Brit pop or the Spice Girls”

Identity-shaper for Straight No Chaser, Talkin’ Loud and Mo’Wax, Ian Swift reflects on three decades of graphic design

If destiny exists, it is written cruelly. As a 15-year-old in Merseyside, Ian Swift thought of joining the army after his dad. But then his dad died – like his mother had when he was seven. The event shattered his life but remade it in a new shape.

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When he was a child, Swift was obsessed with Action Man, Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds. He also loved to draw with his childhood friend David Standley. As teenagers, Swift got more into outdoor activities like climbing and scouts, and their artistic output was reduced to decorating school bags with the 2 Tone logo, or those of the Jam and Wigan Casino’s Night Owl.

His best mate hoped they would become artists. “I remember pleading with him to go to art college,” writes Standley in the recently published Swifty Funky Typo Grafix, which is the first book about the Swift – filled with a wealth of graphics and first-hand accounts from friends and clients.

Standley’s prayers were answered. The loss of his dad made Swift decide to move to Manchester Polytechnic, where he scored a placement at Malcolm Garrett’s studio Assorted Images – who, in the mid-1980s, were designing artworks for Culture Club, Duran Duran and Simple Minds.

Shortly after, Standley moved to Central Saint Martins in London and Swifty tagged along. He got a job at The Face after impressing art director Neville Brody at a lecture in Manchester. A position at sister magazine Arena then Brody’s new design studio followed suit.

When Swift left The Face, he found one of his most fruitful relationships in Paul Bradshaw, founder and editor of Straight No Chaser magazine. Swift eventually became its art director , then designed for contributing writer Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label, in the 1990s.

Swift then forged the visual identity for James Lavelle’s Mo’Wax label and set up his Studio Babylon in Ladbroke Grove. In the early 2000s, Swift’s graphics appeared in TV shows such as Smack the Pony and Peep Show. Today, he continues to make flyers, album sleeves, logos and fonts, as well as his own art. He and Bradshaw are even planning issues 98 to 100 of Straight No Chaser, which should come out later this year.

When I was a kid, I always playing with Action Man; which lead to my interest in camouflage

Having made flyers for Jocks & Nerds, Swift’s influence here is undeniably big. It is therefore an honour to catch up with him for the release of Swifty Funky Typo Grafix.

 Was it therapeutic putting this book together?

For a little while but then it became a mission – it took the best part of two years. At first, it was just about going into the loft and digging up the old artwork. I put two big chests up there and, over 25 years, filled them up. I felt like a miner going through them.

Were there things you dug up that felt really special?

Yeah, a few. There were photocopies with the scribbles on the sides – more interesting than the finished artefact. It was about seeing how I got there. All the logos that never got chosen looked better than the ones that made the grade.

After I sorted the archive, I sent Brad [Paul Bradshaw] off to interview people. That was a task in itself. Futura 2000 took a year to pin down because he was so busy. Neville Brody was another difficult one to get hold of.

There's a lot of quotes from Brody in the book.

There is a whole chapter dedicated to the 'Brody Years'. I couldn’t have done this book without these people. I didn't just want it to be me rambling on. I wanted other people's stories.

Brody was really great because he didn't hold back. I love some of the stuff he said: ‘Naive kids from Manchester who didn't know what London was about.' I couldn't have put it better myself, really. 

My work needs to be within context – especially the 1980s and 1990s. All the kids reading this will have no idea what life was like pre-internet or during Thatcher. They won’t know how graphic design worked before computers. So, we had to build the narrative.

When you walk around east London, do you feel its roots aren’t well recognised?

Yes, the 1990s became a forgotten decade. I thought those years were incredible, a roller coaster ride. That was when I got hooked into the culture of the city and started to make a name for myself with Straight No Chaser and Talkin' Loud.

It was an eye-opener but the estate was a bit rough; there were burned-out cars and drug dealers

The story has not been told properly. Our’s was an underground scene, which wasn't Brit pop or the Spice Girls. That was how I liked it but I guess that's also why it gets overlooked. It was 20 years ago, so things start coming around again. You look at the style now, everything’s up for grabs.

The MA-1?

Yeah. That was our uniform, taken from Ray Petri’s buffalo look. The problem with the internet is there is a lot of duff information out there. People think they know what they're talking about because they read it on a website but it isn't the proper picture. You need books like this to really visualise the lineage.

One thing I enjoyed in the book was the section by your mate David.

Yeah, my childhood.

You nearly joined the army.

That was one of my paths. My dad was a military man. In the war, he was a ballistics expert and a tank expert for the Royal Engineers. In later life, he worked for the Ministry of Defence.

As Dave says, we were always into art. It was his dream for us to both go to art school. But my dad couldn't really see a future in the arts. Graphic design didn't exist in those days really. At school, you had no idea what it was. So he was pushing me into the military.

I was up for that because I was scouting and into outdoor pursuits. It seemed quite good, like a logical progression. When I was a kid, I always playing with Action Man – which lead to my interest in camouflage.

But then my dad died when I was 15. That was my reset day. It was my sister and brother who persuaded me to go to art college because I didn't really know what I was going to do in life. That's the interesting thing about my life; twists of fate have made me go certain directions.

What was London like when you first moved there?

That was 1986. I moved to London with a rucksack on my back and £20 in my pocket. I went to live in a squat with Dave, who was at Saint Martins college. It was a 1920s/1930s council estate called Poynders Gardens in Clapham. It was an eye-opener but the estate was a bit rough. There were burned-out cars and drug dealers. You could easily get mugged if you didn't have your wits about you. 

A lot of Northerners, and a few Irish, had come down to London to squat, so we had this community. That was quite a mad world. It was just pre-acid house. By 1987, you had the second summer of love and E. That changed the dynamic quite a bit.

I was working at The Face, where the style was very much the Ray Petri buffalo look. I came from Manchester and was still into the Smiths and Joy Division, so I still had that rockabilly style. I looked a bit odd walking into The Face but it didn't take me long to fit in.

You were squatting when you became assistant art director?

Yes. That was interesting because all the other squatters were at college, had some building job or were just on the dole. The squatters were a bit freaked out when I turned up because I was this guy who worked at The Face – which, along with i-D, was ‘the’ magazine. The fact that I was in this squat while having a high profile job was weird.

Was it hard to do?

It was alright. In those days, you would have six months to a year before Lambeth council could evict you. There was never the possibility of turning up at home and not being able to get in.

There was a point where, after Neville, you were hoping to become art director at The Face. Would things be different if you got that?

Possibly, I might have stuck it out a little longer.

So you were already looking to move?

Yeah. Aside from Neville, my big influences were Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville. They were two designers from Manchester who worked in the music industry. I was desperate to design record sleeves and didn't want to get stuck in editorial.

So I left and worked for Neville. By that point, he had set up his studio in East. He had a big roster of clients. We were doing record sleeves, as well as logos and apparel. In those days, if you only had magazine designs in your portfolio, you wouldn't get music jobs. So designing a few record sleeves through Neville, with my name on the back, was a great step because it got me in with the record companies. You need that initial break.

What was special about Straight No Chaser?

Well, they were the first mag in the country to use Apple Mac computers. At that time in the late 1980s, I had bought one. It was one of those Mac SEs and cost £1500. It had a nine inch black-and-white screen.

The magazine had that fanzine look to it. I got involved in issue four, so it was new. The thing about The Face was that it was always going to be Neville's baby – even if I had been art director and changed the look. I needed something I could call my own. That's what Straight No Chaser became.

Also, the first time I met Paul Bradshaw, we got on. Here we are 20 years later and there isn't a day that's gone by where we haven't spoke. It was a match made in heaven I suppose.