Tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up and study?
I am Canadian. I was born to an English mother and Canadian father in Windsor, Ontario, and spent the first 10 years of my life there. At 10, I moved to the village of Wool in Dorset, a county in southwest England known as Thomas Hardy Country. Wool is surrounded by approximately 50,000 sheep, rolling postcard hills, thatched cottages, and is only 3 miles from the breathtaking British coastline – and I hated it (I have since grown to love Dorset, but what do you know as a kid).
After secondary school, I enrolled in a two year government program developed by Margaret Thatcher called the Youth Training Scheme (YTS). I should step back here and mention that a very important discovery happened for me at around 12 years of age. I was introduced to hip hop and its culture. This is important because for a kid trying to forge his own identity, I found an inescapable world of possibility in graffiti that to this day in my career still has importance to my work.
YTS was really an apprenticeship course. For one year, I did four days a week as a paste-up artist (junior designer) followed by a commercial lithographic printer the next year. The extra day was spent in a college program called Design Based Activities. My time as a printer proved to me that I wanted to be a designer so I came back to Canada and spent two years at St. Clair College in Windsor. I have been working as a graphic designer in Toronto since 1993.
What is Hambly & Woolley Inc?
The corporate line about Hambly & Woolley (H&W) is simple really: We are a medium-size multidisciplinary design studio built on strong conceptual design solutions, long-term business relationships, and excellent service and client management. That said, when you come inside, we are a studio of personalities and passions. We are design focused, and of the 13 people in the company, nine of us are designers. Bob Hambly and Barb Woolley founded the company with a studio philosophy at its core. They both attended art school and were inspired by the collaborative and critique-based culture of their programs. This is a philosophy that still guides our process today.
You’ve been with H&W for a long time. What is it about H&W that keeps you there?
The open-door dog policy! Actually, to use that analogy, I have been with H&W for a dog’s life really. I was out the other night with a designer that is a bit younger than I am. We were talking about the industry and he mentioned having been at the studio where he works for seven years. Seven years, he claimed, was basically a millennia in design career terms. I have been at H&W for double that amount of time! I mentioned above that H&W is a company of personalities and passions. This is mostly why I am 14 years in.
As Hambly & Woolley’s Creative Director, I firmly believe the best creative work comes from the inspirations of the world and the people that surround you. At H&W I am, and have been, surrounded by creative thinkers that help me focus, expand, question, laugh and change every day. These are also people that I like. I am surrounded by staff and designers that are also foodies, readers, photographers, drawers, embroiderists, cyclists, hockey coaches, travelers, museum junkies, artists, gamers, painters, music-nerds, collectors, parents, film-buffs, sneakerheads and typography-nerds. These are the designers that make our work but these are also the people that INSPIRE our work.
Do you have a favourite project/piece you’ve worked on?
It is a bit of a cliché to say that my best project is the one I haven’t done yet, but the moment that belief changes is the moment I need to step away. I have the very fortunate position of not really knowing who will call us to work on a project, and that keeps our studio excited. We did a project last year called Bees. It was different for the office as it was self-authored instead of our usual client-led projects. It was a great opportunity as it allowed our office to work together as a larger collective.
There have been a couple of clients that I have built relationships with that have resulted in some of the most fulfilling work of my career. Probably my favourite logo that I have designed, possibly ever, was for a company called Bridegable. It was a created name but when it came to designing for them, and their sister company Bridge Factory, it was clear. The initial B was turned and became a Bridge and the F from Factory was turned to form a Factory. That typographic play happens rarely and I was happy to embrace it.
Fifth Town Artisanal Cheese Co. was a great project too. They were an independent cheese producer that we started working with almost from their inception. Not only did we see the development of the physical dairy and cheese lines, but we named the company. We were involved in all aspects of their growth. We designed their visual identity and electronic marketing, designed the packaging for all their SKUs, and even created a cheese diary. We don’t always get to be as deeply involved in a company’s business decisions but if we have this kind of access then the work becomes even more meaningful.
What is your own personal design process?
My process is actually fairly straightforward really. I think about things. I don’t mean that to sound like no one else thinks, or that it’s a new idea, but I need time to really absorb a project. Does that mean weeks? No. It just means I need time to sit and consider the scope of possibilities. That can be done while just drinking a coffee sometimes.
I come from an upbringing of sketching too. I was raised in England by my uncle who was a professional woodworker and designed furniture. He was always sketching. It was intriguing to look at how ideas start to shape. My obsession with graffiti meant that I was always drawing letters. This has always informed how I think through a project. When I approach a job it always starts on paper. I generally start writing first; I think about the words and how they communicate metaphors or concepts, and that turns into drawing. A pen and paper are about free thinking. I keep all my sketchbooks. They are my archives. They are spaces that allow me to keep all of my thinking over the course of a project. I also share my sketchbook with my daughter sometimes. I will be working through a job and a drawing of a cheetah or a flower will appear on a page. That is pretty inspiring.
What / Who inspires you? Why?
This is a really hard question because I could fill a book about inspiration. My family is an easy one. We are a family of talkers. My wife keeps me on my toes and has taught me to never get too far into my own head. My daughter is interested in a lot of things, and I find that she challenges me to look and question the world as I did when I was a kid. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from being a husband and father is to consider everything from all sides of a problem. The client across the table, one of my students at OCAD U, or my son – all have their own thoughts, opinions and baggage that are important to understand as it helps to widen and deepen a conversation. I have colleagues and friends that I look to for inspiration. Game designer Ben Rivers and I bounce raw concepts off each other, and that helps to have a trusted sounding board. I have a friend named Liisa that I only talk to once a year but she was a massive part of me coming up. Frances Chen, our Design Director, amazes me daily. She is quite honestly one of the best graphic designers I have ever worked with. She thinks differently than I do and that can help disrupt my own comfort. She has been a massive part of my career. I guess all of that comes down to the classically cheesy and simple answer that people inspire me.
What do you make of the Canadian design scene?
Before I arrived in Toronto I really new nothing about Canadian design, even though I had been back in the country for a couple of years. In the beginning of my career, I was a victim of the grass-is-always-greener syndrome. I looked at the work in D&AD, Print, Creative Review and Communication Arts to see what everyone else was doing in the world, and it would surprise me if I saw a Canadian in there. It took me a good few years in the city to even fully know my own community. I have seen Toronto’s design scene become as textured as the multi-cultured citizens that live here. I am in love with the fact that we can sustain one- two- and 30-person companies. There is great work being done by studios like Monnet Design, Blok, Also Collective, Biography, Underline and Chad Roberts. They produce work that I am excited to see and I find as awe-inspiring as our international counterparts. Then to expand and see what is being produced across Canada in really amazing. Montreal has always produced great work, and through companies like Paprika and OrangeTango, now the world sees it too. Vancouver has a tight scene that is incubating some vibrant young firms, and to see WAX in Calgary is fantastic. We have been a notoriously humble country. I think now we can see we are creating thoughtful, impressive work.
You love typography. What aspect of it sets your heart racing?
It is the root of visual communication. Through a series of geometric shapes, a brush stroke or a pen scrawl you can tell the world anything. Whether I am drawing graffiti forms, thumbnail sketches, typographic formations or full letters, it still makes me excited that I can create instant connections. What really gets me excited though is the endless amounts of unique work being done worldwide. There is such vibrancy and originality in typographic composition everywhere and in all languages. It can be minimal, crazy, hand drawn, controlled, abstract and beautiful. It just doesn’t end. When I talk to my students at OCAD U in Experimental Typography I can make direct relationships between Tschichold, Fletcher, Venezky, Scher, Hiorthoy, Mysercough, Frere-Jones, Lustig, Stavro, Ezer, Bubbles, Fella, Apeloig, Sych, Hische, Greiman, Sowersby, A2/SW/HK, Brockmann and back again. It all connects regardless of history, geography and culture.
Outside of design do you have any other passions?
There are a few things that I am really interested in. I escape into books and contemporary painting for inspiration, but the driving force behind anything I do has always been music. As I mentioned above I was pulled into a love of hip hop from an early age and I have always loved music in general; there isn’t really a genre I don’t have at least a passing interest in. I will say however that my pure passion lies in techno.
Now I need to mention here that techno as a sound gets beaten up by outsiders. It gets lumped into the discussion about drugs and added to the EDM pile as well by non-listeners. It is that UN UN UN UN music to some or fax machine music to others. Techno is as wide ranging in its practitioners as jazz. It goes from ambient to abstract to full club tempo. When I listen to artists like Theo Parrish, Basic Soul Unit or Efdemin it can change my perspective, get my head spinning and allow me to conceptually push my thoughts. It’s funny, it wasn’t until I wrote this out that I noticed the parallel with typography and type design. Why do we need another techno track? Why do we need another typeface?
Any advice for young designers starting out?
I recently had a group of students come to the studio and interview me for a professional practice project. This happens from time to time and I am happy to sit down with them as I think it’s important to remember how hard the hustle of looking for a job can be. They dance around the question but this is generally the one they want to ask the most. I have four pieces of advice.
- Get out and meet US.
Most students don’t understand that you need to know your community, whether you see yourself working in Toronto or New York or Halifax. The students that we generally go to first for an interview are the ones we have on our radar. So e-mail and see if a designer you respect has time to meet you and talk to you. Bring in a portfolio that is in progress and listen to the answers and comments.
- Interview us as well.
This is the hardest thing to do but remember that even though you need a job to gain experience you are also looking for a positive entry into your career. It’s a waste of the designer’s and the student’s time if you aren’t engaged in the company. Ask us what our process is. Ask us how we see you fitting into our studio. The more questions you ask the more of a chemistry you build between you and your potential employer.
- Love what you do.
We notice when you are passionate about the work in your book but also about the work that maybe is just for you. I have a zine that I put out with a friend of mine once in a while called Blinky Lights. It is for me but I use it to build passion into my daily work. Those passion projects are the ones where we can hear the love in your voice.
- Stay curious.
This is a word that has been analyzed like crazy by Bob Hambly. We all have levels of curiosity in something, be it typography, music or literature. I believe that the strongest work comes from the strongest research. I have found over the years that the most interesting part of my career has been to learn about my clients, to get to know who they are and why they exist. How do they fit in the world? What do they do and how is it better or different than their competitors? Curiosity brings a wider understanding of the world and that helps us all grow.