FROM Pulp to MTV, Sheffield designer Nick Bax’s graphic design has fed the way we see the world, as Star reporter Rachael Clegg discovers.
NICK Bax could walk past any of us on the street and we wouldn’t have a clue.
Yet his designs have defined popular culture since the late 80s.
While we may not know Nick Bax from Adam, we’d certainly recognise his art - most famously, the ‘Pulp’ logo.
Now Nick runs his own design company, Humanstudio, whose clients include the University of Sheffield and MTV.
His design HQ is itself an aesthetic feat - a Georgian-fronted house with an industrial back.
“This is the oldest surviving specially-designed cutlery factory in the world,” says Nick, “It was built by a man from London who moved his whole family into the cutlery works, which is why this part looks like a house.”
Humanstudio occupies the living quarters of this nugget of industrial history, now known as Globe Works.
Today, Nick sits in Humanstudio’s foyer against a backdrop of slick art publications, a huge canvas made of floppy discs, various arty toys and a cabinet adorned in punched-out text. Beyond him is the work room, which is dominated by a huge table with two rows of huge Apple Macs, around which five designers beaver away. Adjacent to them - and somewhat at odds with the white walls - is a door plastered in graffiti and artwork, one of Sheffield artist Kid Acne’s creations.
But it’s from artwork like this - not graphic design manuals - that Nicks draws inspiration.
“I don’t look at other graphic design for ideas. I’d rather go to an art gallery - I love what I do and it is my life. For my holidays I’ll go to art festivals with my wife. Everything I do in some way informs my work,” he says.
Nick started his career as a graphic designer almost 20 years ago, after graduating with a degree in the subject from the University of Essex.
Even before he finished college he won a Royal Society of Arts award for his work, though by this time the young designer already had a job.
In the late 80s, before graduating from university, Nick landed a job at a design company in Sheffield.
But while glamorous, Nick’s career’s also a hard-earned one. There were no fancy gap years in India for Nick.
“I had a job while I was studying and then eventually I had the chance to work in London, in 1992 I was scouted by a music industry design company so I took the job and ended up working for a record label designing album sleeves.”
That record label was Arista, whose managing director was a young Simon Cowell.
“He was very young but even then he was running a label and was very ruthless. He had a henchman that would come and represent him, his right hand man. And though we spoke on the phone I never actually met him in person.
“He had people like Sinitta on his label and I don’t think the artists got much of a say in the artwork. They probably didn’t have much of a say as to what single was going out.”
Though entrenched in the commercial pop world, his design job was still artistically liberating. “You’d do what they wanted for the front cover, but nobody cared about what went on the back so that’s what I’d put all my efforts into. I’m very proud of some of those back covers,” he laughs.
But after several years of living in London, Nick decided to return to his native South Yorkshire.
“I realised how much I loved Sheffield - I was spending all my weekends up here and I was loving the music scene so I came back. I’m from Maltby in Rotherham and as a kid we’d come to Sheffield on the bus and arrive at the Hole in the Road, I remember getting off the bus and coming up through the escalator and feeling like we’d arrived in this massive city - a bit like New York.”
Nick got a job with Designers Republic in Sheffield, a home-grown outfit which did the artwork for bands and artists - among these was a then little-known and off-the-wall act called Pulp.
“That was the first job I had when I moved up to Sheffield,” he says.
“It was so weird when the logo became big and Pulp really took off. I remember going to see them at the Arena and there were Pulp mugs, Pulp T-shirts, Pulp everything and it was very strange.”
That logo not only became Pulp’s branding, it also came to define Britpop as both an era and a musical movement.
“I saw the same font on a ‘Best Britpop Album Ever’ and that made me think about how it may have had an influence.”
Nick also designed all the Supergrass artwork. “It’s here,” he says, pulling out an elaborate press pack, which includes an astro-turf backed book and X-rays of the entire band. Even now, and even after years travelling the globe with his work and a long stint in the capital city, Nick still holds Sheffield in as higher regard as he did as a child. “It’s funny, people always say to me ‘are you sure you don’t work for the Sheffield Tourist Board?’.”
And he’s still working with music. His design team at Humanstudio has created graphics for MTV and visuals to accompany DJ sets from Sheffield electronica pioneers the Black Dog as well as dance record label Dubfire.
And despite the Mac-laden design room, Nick’s still an advocate of the good old-fashioned sketchbook.
He pulls out some from his ‘other room’ - a front office that serves as his ‘museum’. “Here are some of my old sketchbooks,” he says, picking out some designs. Among the infinite sketches is what looks like an HRT patch. “It’s amazing what you take inspiration from - it can be anything.”
NICK BAX FACTFILE:
Nick worked with Arista in 1992-1993.
Nick designed the Pulp logo in 1995.
That logo was reused last year for Pulp’s reunion tour.
Humanstudio’s clients include MTV, Swatch, the University of Sheffield and Dubfire, a dance record-label.
Founder Nick Bax was previously a director of The Designers Republic, is a visiting lecturer in design & visual communication and a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts.
Globe Works was built in 1825 as a cutlery works.
Nick also designed Supergrass’s logo.