Ten questions for... Matt Baxter

Ahead of them taking to the WEDF stage, we ask each of our speakers ten questions. From our upcoming talk, Doing Good Design // Design Doing Good, we ask Matt Baxter (one half of Baxter & Bailey) to take the mic.

1. What was the Eureka moment that made you become a designer?

There were probably two or three key moments. What’s the plural of Eureka? Eurekae? Working out how art and design connected in CDT class (Craft, Design & Technology) at school was quite pivotal. I’d always been good at art, but here was this thing (design) which combined aesthetics with ideas in a way that really felt like me. Lots of airbrushed chrome typography, I seem to recall. Around the same time, I figured out that the album covers for my favourite band Pixies were all designed by someone or something called Vaughn Oliver/​Chris Bigg/​v23, which lead me to the University of Northumbria where Oliver had studied some years before. Significantly for me, Northumbria was one of the only institutions that would accept me on the strength of my A‑level art portfolio, rather than requiring a foundation year. I was keen to get cracking!

2. What was the first thing you ever designed?

Professionally, it was a job for the BBC when I worked at Trickett & Webb from 1995. The job was a lovely book about Charles Rennie Mackintosh for schools. It had a screen printed craft board cover, a push-out-and-make-it-yourself clock (including a battery powered mechanism), throw outs, die cuts, external packaging, a slipcase, the works. A real trial by fire, but a huge learning experience too. I learned a LOT at T&W. 

3. Where did you study and who taught you?

See answer one above! Considering that I didn’t even really know what a Mac was when I arrived at Northumbria, the teaching there was invaluable. Shout outs to Guy Henderson, George Gray, Eddie Gainford, Keith Gascoine, John Wolfe, Steve Bland, Sheila Trough, Steve Burdett, Glen Burdis, Sue Peace et al. Most of whom are still with us and working, some of whom are sadly not. Visiting lecturers were always an eye-opener too. Vaughn Oliver showed us a film of him eating a placenta (bloik), Steven Appleby showed us his drawings of rockets and Rik Mayall-voiced animations whilst dressed in tweeds. There was a screen print studio, a hot metal type room, and we each had a desk, locker and backboard that was ours’ for the duration. What luxury.

Northumbria 1995 // Trickett & Webb promotional calendar // T&W team

4. Design heroes? Who influenced you in those early days? And who influences you now?

See answer one above! Everything was an influence in those early days. But especially Tibor Kalman, Alan Fletcher, Vince Frost, Dave McKean, The Chase, Pentagram, Terry Gilliam, Koweiden Postma, Émigré. An eclectic bunch! These days I’m influenced by a much broader range of sources, from peers and pals whose work I love/​envy, to influences beyond the world of design. Like you, I’m a bit of a sponge: it all goes in!

5. Where was your first creative job? What did you learn?

See answer two above! Trickett & Webb taught me loads. Deadlines, thinking under pressure, how to work with clients, how to enjoy the design life, planning, time management. Plus some softer’ things. I was newly arrived in London, so their Bloomsbury office on Marchmont Street was a wonderful place to be based. I went to Paris with them and ate snails and pigeon. A first for me! And I ate my first Japanese meal with them too, though I didn’t let on at the time. Chopsticks were, as you might imagine, something of a challenge for this young northern oik.

Ideas have a habit of occurring when you’re not expecting them, when you’re not straining. You just need to be ready to catch them.

— Matt Baxter

6. What’s your favourite piece of work you’ve created? And what’s your favourite piece of work someone else created? 

One of the first and almost always the last. By which I mean: one of my first jobs at T&W was a calendar, a self-promotional project they undertook every year. Thirteen illustrators (there were two Januarys), screen printed in a gazillion colours throughout by Augustus Martin and stuffed full of ideas, wit, wordplay and graphic fun. The calendar included new work by Ian Beck, Sara Fanelli, Marion Deuchars, Peter Blake, Jeff Fisher, Dan Fern, Andrzej Klimowski and more. It remains one of my favourite jobs ever. And zooming through time right up to the present, my other favourite is pretty much always the most recent thing we’ve done. We’ve just successfully launched a lovely campaign for Goldsmiths University of London which I’m very proud of, and I can’t wait for people to see our development of the Ravensbourne brand identity. It’s a beaut.

7. When you’re stuck in a rut, how do you get creative ideas flowing?

I’d like to say something elegant and thoughtful: go for a walk, or head to a gallery, for example. Which is sometimes true, but not the norm. But the truth is probably a bit more pragmatic: I sit and think or sit and chat and really strain the brain and eventually the sponge might release some ideas. Eventually. It’s probably also true to say that ideas have a habit of occurring when you’re not expecting them, when you’re not straining. You just need to be ready to catch them.

Goldsmith’s campaign by Baxter & Bailey

8. The worst thing that ever happened to you during one of your talks?

Somewhat boringly, I can’t tell you about any major talk disasters as there haven’t really been any, barring the odd technical meltdown. Maybe WEDF will be the first. So instead I’ll tell you a story about a client talk, told to me my a design industry peer who was presenting a new concept to a group of clients. The chief bigwig of the client company arrived late to the presentation which was already underway, sat down mid-talk and remained quiet for two or three slides. Without saying a word, he then slowly held his thumb aloft, rotated it downwards and blew a loud and deeply critical raspberry. Not the sort of feedback anyone wants to hear.

9. The best book you’ve read lately?

I read mostly fiction. After all that brain straining, I need to escape into someone else’s ideas in the evening. I’m currently reading The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius. Ostensibly a book for children, you should give it a whirl if you’re a sucker for globe-trotting, rip-roaring yarns. Its main character Sally Jones — the titular ape — is a real literary delight and quite unique. I’m also working my way through Brian K Vaughn’s comic book series Papergirls, which is a time – twizzling treat. And a rare non-fiction book that I recently read and hugely enjoyed is Into The Woods by John Yorke, which is all about stories, why we tell them, and why certain story structures repeatedly appear throughout films, books and television.

10. If you could have a super power what would it be?

The ability to give shorter answers to Q&As would be useful.

The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius