CONTEMPORARY ART SPACE, KALA GHODA, MUMBAI

ACCIDENTAL SWEEPS OF THE HAND

by Sahil Arora 11th May, 2020

Oh! He’s the guy who made the Aphex Twin Logo. Yep, that’s Paul Nicholson. As the creator of the visual identity of one of the most intriguing personalities in music ever, it goes to say that Paul’s story, approach to the aesthetic, and his contributions to culture pique a significant amount of curiosity and interest. Like you, we can fanboy/fangirl over him for that one design. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Paul’s work in its entirety evokes awe.

Construction of the Aphex twin logo

The title of this is a direct quote from Paul during our interview with him. Those words – accidental sweeps of the hand – are so carefree. Let the chips fall where they may. But when you look at the composition of most of Paul’s work, it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than well thought out. Precise. Accidental is haphazard, imperfect, and Paul’s work appears to possess almost scientific precision. Yet, when you dig into the larger process of his creation, a natural fluidity – these beautiful accidents – becomes more apparent.

Tell me a bit about yourself growing up?

If you take ‘doing art’ in its broadest sense, it goes right back to when I was a kid. I was always doing stuff – Drawing, painting, building Lego and plastic model kits, etc. I guess I’ve always had the creative bug. I remember I’d be about 8, customising toy cars with Humbrol paints and in doing so, being able to swap them for better toys. Even then it paid off to be a bit arty.

By my teens, getting into fashion and the way I looked, I started customising clothes. As a BMX kid, I’d cut stencils and spray-paint designs onto long-sleeved T-shirts, creating my own (on the cheap) race jerseys. My first paid design job would be when I was 16, hand-painting clothing for a local boutique, the artwork inspired by WWII aircraft nose art.

The T-shirts and jackets I hand-painted as a kid would be the foundation of what became my career at Prototype 21 and Terratag, primarily fashion brands based around the T-shirt.

UK based pioneering electronic music duo, Orbital, in early t-shirts designed by Paul Nicholson. Circa 1993.

Terratag was wound up at the end of 2012 and I left Prototype 21 in 2015 to become a freelance designer. Going freelance allowed me to focus on design and I now mostly work in music and fashion creating logos and typographic designs, record sleeves and garment graphics.

My work is an amalgamation of many styles and elements, but a consistently strong influence on me has been Japan. My interest, or quite possibly obsession, has its roots as a kid building Tamiya model kits. Christmas morning and the rush of excitement as the paper is torn. Amid the chaos one present stands out: Tamiya’s 1/24th scale Toyota Celica LB Turbo Gr.5. The illustration of a sleek race car set against a pure white background, even as a kid, it reeked of cool. The quality of the kit was second to none and the instruction sheet a work of art in itself. This early experience left an indelible mark and forged a profound love of this Japanese company and, ultimately Japan.

Early Japanese inspirations in Paul’s hand painted t-shirts. Circa 1992.

As I explored more aspects of Japanese visual culture, the imagination, style, and artistry blew my mind. I was particularly drawn to anime, especially the giant robot genre, especially the animated TV series, Gundam. Japan, more than anywhere, epitomised futurism and what better icon for my love of the future than a kick-ass robot. My obsession with all things Japanese grew, although it is a culture I will never fully comprehend. Its influence has permeated through much of my artwork. Not by copying, but from taking the energy, vibrancy, colour and transplanting it within a western context, adding into the mix other cultural references stemming from my love of sci-fi, electronic music, futurism, street art, skate and BMX.

The inspirations are way too many to be able to pinpoint. One that I would say, as a 15-year-old, I got into a band from Leeds called The Age of Chance and The Age of Chance were Designers Republic first commission. So along with a band that excited me musically, those early sleeves that the Designers Republic did for Age of Chance cemented in my mind what I was going to do. Through A-levels, foundation course, and University, I knew exactly where I was going and what I wanted to do – music-related graphics.

So, yeah, I would say they inspired me to do the work I do. But out of respect, I’ve always tried to work as much as possible without being influenced by the Designers Republic. They have always been a design house that motivates me to push myself because so often they would put some graphic work out and I’d be like, “Shit. That’s so good. I’ve got to try and work to that standard.” The Designers Republic set a high benchmark, which I’ve always aspired to and which pushed me to work to that level of creativity.

The Designers Republic was more about the ’90s. Pop Will Eat Itself, The Orb, Sun Electric, stuff like that. They were all just amazing pieces of graphics. Recently though, no one in particular. I’m just broadly into stuff. I am forever trawling the Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram, so it could be anything from art, architecture, photography to pop-culture junk, hazard warning signs or aircraft markings. Anything visually interesting is an influence.

When I was growing up, this is pre-computers, I was always drawing and even through university ‘by hand’ was how everything was done. It wasn’t until my third year, that the design department even got computers. At that point in time, the computer suite was made up of only six Apple Mac Classics, which I’m guessing arrived late in 1991. However, these Macs were for all three years; 90 students. Being in the third year we got priority, but there were so few machines getting access was hard as hell, so in all I maybe only got six hours max. And they were slow… I was trying to do type on a curve and a good chunk of those six hours was just trying to do that one function.

WHAT WAS STUDYING DESIGN AT THAT TIME LIKE? A TIME WITHOUT COMPUTERS, OR WHEN COMPUTERS WERE PERHAPS JUST BEING INTRODUCED?
I READ THAT YOU ALWAYS SKETCHED AND DREW AS A KID AND THEN DECIDED TO STUDY DESIGN FORMALLY AT UNIVERSITY AS WELL.

My youth and all education was old-school. It was pencils, pens, paper. However, even though I have had computers since ’93, the old tools still play an important part in the way I design now. In part, it is the familiarity and what I’m comfortable with, but I also think that there is a different process at play as opposed to when you go straight to a computer.

A lot of the time the forms I tried to create are not necessarily geometric or perfectly balanced. So by sketching, I’m getting more of the feeling I’m after because the hands move a lot more intuitive with a pencil than when you are moving nodes around with a mouse.

And the very nature of working on a computer is it is a vectoring device. So you tend to find that things are on X and Y axes and you’re aware of the verticals and horizontals and the diagonals. So straight away it limits you. You become more clinical when you design.

Whereas with a pencil it can be a lot more organic and things happen. It could just be an accidental sweep of the hand or as you are raising back you suddenly see something that you didn’t see before. So there’s that chance element. It’s that more flowing freedom that you get with a pencil.

What’s good, obviously when you take it into the computer, and you start to look at it in a bit more detail and realise, “Oh well if I just twist this clockwise by a degree or two, it’s actually on the 30,” and then that balance is off with, “Well, if I move this on the other side, it’s a perfect mirror image.” So you start to discover things in your pencil drawing that you weren’t aware of, that you were drawing.

Certain, geometric balances come up and it works well that way. Sometimes you will twist things to make them geometric, but then other times you just leave it as it is. So it might not be perfect, but it works

Logo constructions by Paul Nicholson

Culturally too though, there have been massive changes, most notably down to the emergence of the internet and social media. I know when I was in my teens and twenties, you kind of went out of your way not to be liked. That was the whole point of being young dumb and full of cum. It was an attitude very much rooted in the things I was into; Not being a cog in the mainstream machine. I would gravitate to individuals or groups, activities or bands because I didn’t want to be part of the greater whole. One of the issues I have with social media is the very premise to be liked. People go out of their way to be liked. It turns a lot of the rules that were around when I was young on its head.

What I like with Instagram is I put stuff out there and people can like it or not. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t care, because still within me is that attitude from my youth where you can take it or leave it, but if you don’t get it, fuck you! You are either too stupid or too boring to give a shit about. It’s not like I’m attitudinal, or giving people a hard time, but this is what I do and I have neither the time nor inclination to bend to consensus or try and follow this year’s trend. As much as I’m aware of certain shifts in design, whether it be Vaporwave or David Rudnick or whoever’s hot right now, I won’t even touch it. Furthermore, when I see that there are trends I’m more motivated to go in the opposite direction. I am more motivated to NOT follow and NOT be liked.

At this point I, it’s not like I have an agent. I’m not affiliated to any studio. To get noticed I play the game as much as I can, but ultimately I just post stuff on Instagram. Sometimes I’ll get a favourable reaction. Sometimes I don’t. But it works. I have people contact me and I constantly have projects on the go.

ALSO, DID A FORMAL EDUCATION IN DESIGN HELP SHAPE AND MOULD YOUR AESTHETIC AND WAY OF LOOKING AT DESIGN?

With hindsight, I would say that my art education was quite a broad stroke.

On Foundation (pre-University, one year course), I studied graphics but, possibly due to a lack of creative discipline, my tutor felt strongly that I should pursue fine art. However, sticking to my guns, I was accepted on to the graphic design course at Kingston-Upon-Thames. Initially studying illustration, I switched to graphic design midway through the second year. By my third year, an interest in fashion was having a great influence on my work. So much so that for my final project I was working and producing garments and print designs. The project took inspiration from manga, utility clothing and protective gear from sport, workwear and the military. I also screen-printed designs on T-shirts.

Suffice to say, I drifted a between disciplines and strayed from the requirements of a graphic design course. As a result, when setting up my final show the head of the course admitted that due to the fact I had not stuck to the set projects, she would mark me down, even though she could see I was a hard worker with passion in what I did. So, Kingston gave me a third, but I took a wealth of research, concepts and ideas, many of which would see their way into future projects, especially Terratag.

In general, I would say that I have always picked up on things early and have been aware as trends emerge. For example, I have had several T-shirt brands and I see the T-shirt is often a trend starting point; The first identifier of a shift in fashion. Due to its low-cost and ease of customisation, it will always be at the forefront. With this in mind, you can see why the T-shirt became my canvas. For me the T-shirt is about making a statement; it should be said loud and proud. Without an impact, a T-shirt is just wallpaper. So, yeah, I love the ‘WTF!’ factor, a design sensibility that runs through my work. I don’t do subtle.

As a designer, I wouldn’t say that I have a singular or defining style. If you take a company like the Designers Republic, they have a very strong visual identity, and anyone going to the Designers Republic is seeking their stamp; that look which is uniquely Ian Anderson.

Whereas I try to approach every project with a blank slate and let the idea be the starting point. So for me, that’s where it gets exciting is that you’re starting from quite an obtuse angle. You’re not coming from the comfort of “This is what I do. This is my style. Take it or leave it.” It’s more one of trying to find a unique response to a set of circumstances.

Because I do not actively approach or contact people it is safe to say that when I am invited to work on a project it is because of that person already at least some designs I have created. This is a great starting point in so much as people are specifically after my approach. Obviously, as with any designer, you read the brief, ask questions, determine what is needed and make sure everyone is on the same page. With this understanding, I begin brainstorming and start putting down ideas, giving a variety of possible directions. Through feedback and fine-tuning, you work your way toward the final design.

I’M CURIOUS ABOUT YOUR INFLUENCES GROWING UP SINCE IT WAS AT A TIME SURROUNDING SUCH FORMATIVE YEARS FOR DANCE AND ELECTRONIC MUSIC. YOU’VE PLAYED SUCH A CRITICAL ROLE IN SHAPING THE AESTHETIC OF THAT CULTURE, APHEX, WARP, PLANET MU AND SO ON, WHAT WERE YOU EXPLORING BEFORE THIS MOVEMENT IN THE LATE 80’S EARLY 90’S?

I got very much into music from a very early age. So we’re talking ’78, ’79. I was probably a little too young to get punk because I’d have been six when punk came out. What I did get into was the ska revival of the late seventies. It was the first time I got passionately involved with music and, importantly, my love for record sleeves and the way that bands use logos. From an early age, I was really into logos and was drawing them everywhere. I remember as a 10-year-old with a biro, drawing the Specials and Madness logos onto my rucksack. It is a defining moment and even now music is a major part of what I’m into.

I’m forever scouring YouTube and Bandcamp and SoundCloud for new artists, new labels. It’s something that I’ve never given up on. I’m probably finding more artists, labels and musicians now than at any time in my past. The volume of material being produced is astounding. I think with the scope now of digital downloads, it does mean that there’s a lot more experimentation. So for me, it’s great because the more progressive or cutting edge a musician or a label are trying to be, the more scope I have to push what I do. As a designer, there is an avenue through music where I can put stuff out that is as uncompromised as possible.

I like to start every project with a blank page. Experimenting and trying out ideas has always been my motivation. This is also part of the reason that I can’t create a singular style, or stick to a certain way of working. I soon get bored with it or it’s like as soon as I’ve created something I want to move on and try something different. It’s like a process of creating and destroying. As soon as I’ve got something down, it’s like “Okay, onto the next thing.” So you take successful things, like the Aphex Twin logo. I couldn’t simply just keep creating stuff in that style but it wouldn’t be something I would enjoy. My impetus and motivation are to keep finding new ways of working and always pushing myself.

At the moment, I work with a couple of small record labels who give me quite a lot of creative control. So with each of these labels, I’ve found ways of working, which from the outset, was just something I fancy doing. So somebody will approach me and in my mind I’m going, “Oh, I’d like to try photo-bashing, creating spaceships out of various bits of photography and images that I find.” And in having that opportunity, I’ve had so much fun working in that way. However, my projects in many respects are more difficult. Each step is an internal dialogue trying to make sense of a lifetime’s passion, inspiration and half-formed concepts. With no client dictating the direction or theme of the work, the numerous directions and multiplicity of ideas can sometimes grind everything to a halt. Two projects I am working on now are on a grand scale in so much as the aim is to be a visualisation of contemporary modes of communication taking on board aspects of slang, acronym, jargon, code, linguistics and the impact of social media, interconnectivity and mass consumption of image.

WHAT MUSIC, MOVIES, BOOKS ETC.. WERE YOU INTO? 

I won’t go into the whys and wherefores. Here’s a list in no particular order:

Lego, Tamiya, Chris Foss, Vangelis, Art of Noise, Erik Jones, Warning Signage, Cabaret Voltaire, Sat One, William Gibson, Apocalypse Now, Richard Rogers, Masamune Shirow, Bladerunner, Cocteau Twins, Akira, Boards of Canada, James Roper, Patrick Nagel, Katsuya Terada, Filip Hodas, Roy Lichtenstein, Brian Eno, Zaha Hadid, Kraftwerk, Tadanori Yokoo, Love Missile F1-11, Focke Wulf, Delta, Tenmyouya Hisashi, Sophie, Public Enemy, Chris LaBrooy, The Designers Republic, Hajime Katoki, Full Metal Jacket, Kurt Vonnegut, 3A, LFO, Duster 132, Aphex Twin, Sukhoi, Izmojuki.

LASTLY FOR NOW, WHAT’S ON YOUR PLAYLIST DURING THE LOCKDOWN PERIOD?  


These are very unusual times that we live in. Certainly nothing this big has happened on a global scale since World War.

2. How long this will last, what is left when it is over and to what degree ‘normal’ life will return, nobody knows. I think we can’t return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem. I hope collectively we embrace what has happened and build something better for all mankind.

As far as a playlist goes, I wouldn’t say that I have anything in particular that I have set aside to play, but a few highlights of musicians I have recently discovered or rediscovered would be; Sophie, Portishead, The Specials, Ghostemane, Squarepusher, Human League, Marc Acardipane, Cocteau Twins.

Music continues to be major part of my life.

Can you tell us about your current and future plans?

Drawing, designing and creating.

With Number 3, I aim to consolidate all my experience into something more cohesive, unique and instantly recognisably as Nicholson.

Not available for landscape mobile