Design for life 

24 May 2004

Dave Jeffery talks with Alan Scragg, a leading designer at Southern, TVS and Meridian.

Where did you train in graphic design?

I went to Wolverhampton College of Art. I finished at college in the summer of 1976. Then came 10 months when I was looking for work, while I was living with my parents in Birmingham. I wanted to go into animation mostly back then. I was writing off to endless people, none of whom showed much enthusiasm. I suppose my portfolio can’t have been good enough. I’d get endless “Thanks, but no thanks” letters, if they bothered to actually reply at all.

I actually did go to see two animation companies. They didn’t give me much encouragement but actually I think that that was rather a good thing. They were all such strange, mad people. They must have been to be dabbing the same bit of cel paint onto the same cel week in week out. They were all odd. Mad. That’s scary, wild-eyed mad.

How did you break into television?

I saw an advertisement, and wrote off for a job at Southern Television. I did the interview, and I was told I didn’t get the job. Then I got a call a month later from the Head of Design, offering me the job – and I said I’d think about it for a couple of days and get back to them! I was on £3.50 a week dole and I said I’d think about it!

Apparently they’d originally offered the job to a man from Thames, and for one reason and another he backed out and stayed at Thames. So they then offered it to the other student in my year at Wolverhampton who’d specialised in animation – Ole Nikar. However, the union stepped in and said that the company couldn’t offer a job to a foreigner if it put a Brit out of work. This put the tin lid on it for Ole, who always thought the British had it in for him. He got on the ferry to Helsinki and about the second he stepped off it he was offered the top job in Finland’s biggest ad agency. So I was third choice. Story of my life! And it all started from there.

What was your first job at Southern?

My first big job was a programme called “Whizz Kids” and featured lots of adults dressed up as kids. Anyway, I did a lot of animation on that – the titles and so on. So that was my first job at Southern. But it wasn’t my first credit.

My first credit was for Runaround. Kids had to run up channels and stand in front of the correct answer. All that text on the boards was cut out by hand and stuck on boards. It was done like that because there was so much to do in a short time. It was a dead handy skill to learn as you are learning to create characters. Basically you had to try and get as many characters joined up to each other as you could. That made it easier to stick them on with SprayMount. I also used to draw the pictures that they sometimes used instead of lettering for picture questions.

John Hayman was the original designer on that. Later it was Bill Gammon. Tim Edmunds was the producer. He went on to form Media Merchants, the producers of Art Attack, after the demise of TVS. It was through working in Art Attack that I first met someone who was interested in presentation and became aware of the interest people have in the subject – Nic Ayling, the producer. He has a huge interest and collected stuff.

Anyway, we used to have a huge table, about 20 foot long by 5 foot wide when they were setting out roller captions. Completely necessary. It’s amazing to think about the amount of space that graphic design needed back then. Particularly when you’re hunched over your PC all day!

Did you really use Letraset to rub down letters onto caption cards?

Yes! We did really used to use Letraset! When I started at Southern, back in 1976, there were two type transfer systems – Letraset and Mechanova. They were the two that you had to choose from. That wasn’t the only way to get type onto a caption card though. When I arrived, in 1977, we also had a Mesely press. It worked by heat transference. We would put characters onto a rack, and they would get heated up and pressed onto a sheet of foil. On the other side of the foil was a coating (normally white) and the heat released onto the back of the foil would transfer the coating to the caption card. So basically we used to be “ironing” a caption card. That was a bit before my time – it was usually in a cupboard by the time I arrived (bloody big cupboard, mind) but that’s the way they used to do things before Letraset. It was used a lot in the 60s. Bit like a “John Bull Printing Set” if that means anything to you – we’d typeset the letters and then iron them on!

A lot of lettering on the older caption cards I’ve seen seems to have been painted by hand.

Yes, there was a lot of hand typography in television. When I arrived there were 2 blokes out of the department of 7 who were middle aged, and they were brilliant at it. I learnt an awful lot about hand typography from them. That was an excellent training in logo creation as you learnt how characters relate to one another. Invaluable.

Talking about the old days, I’m interesting in whether you were designing for Black and White. In 1977, did you still have to bear in mind designing for Black and White tellys? What sort of things did you have to do to make sure the colours were OK?

Yes, of course designers had to consider black and white when producing their art. It’s the kind of thing you learnt over time from the senior designers. Anytime I was unsure, I could have a quick chat with a studio cameraman and set up a caption on a caption stand so I could check on the monitors in the gallery. But, normally, we would give it the ‘squinty eye test’. Look at the artwork, squint and if the colours ‘blended’ then they wouldn’t work in black and white. Try it yourself (as Neil Buchanan would say!)

What was Southern like to work for as a company. All that blue and white made me think even as a kid that they must have been a very Tory company!

They were! I remember on local election nights, sitting there colouring in the whole map blue! I think there were only two spots of red, if you were lucky! John Rider was the Head of Graphics at Southern/TVS until 1992. (The Head of Graphics at Meridian is Ian Carley.) John had been at Southern from the beginning. I learnt a tremendous amount from John Rider.

Did you used to make end caps at Southern?

Yes, we made end caps. Presentation jobs – menus, etc. were Letraset-ed for the whole week on Friday. Someone would draw the short straw and get the job. It would take slightly less than a day in all. A bit boring really, but you could listen to the radio, look out at the river and you only needed to wake up to check the spelling – as graphic designers can’t spell!

Was that the worst job?

No! That was doing maps! I was so bored! The maps were silk screen printed for “Coast To Coast” in two colours on to “Kingfisher Blue” paper. Then we had to put Letraset lettering on a transparent plastic frame that would go over it. We’d then put the lot on a 12″ x 10″ mount board so it could be shot. I had four years of doing those! The map of the region went from Portland Bill to Kent, and went up as far north as about Peterborough.

The map itself was A1 size, and we had to pick a 10″ by 8″ area that contained whatever we needed to show for the particular story. If we needed to show a river, we’d have to paint it on by hand! Some bright spark at Letraset had invented “Letraline”, which we could rub down to create roads. We had different thicknesses for A-roads, B-roads and dual carriageways, and we even had double blue Letraline for motorways! You would have time to prepare about two maps per bulletin, as the reporters could only tell you around lunchtime what they would need for the evening bulletin.

What else did you need for “Coast To Coast”?

Cartoons (not animated – single frame) were very popular. Particularly for “Southern Reports”. The very first one I did is still up on my wall. They needed something to illustrate an item on cowboy builders, so I had to draw a bulldozer smashing into the side of a wall. That was the very first thing I did at Southern.

I’ve seen some original Southern slides. How were things transferred to transparencies?

We had a local photographer over the road from Southern, who would put stuff onto slides for us. He had a camera set up and would do it all for us. We’d send the artwork over to him. It was something we could have done in-house. In fact, I don’t know why we didn’t. Probably cheaper or something.

Who designed the Southern Ident, and where would it have been animated?

I’ll have to ask John Rider, as that would be before my time! We did have a rostrum camera in the department, but I suspect that the ident would have been done in London. We used to use a company called “National Screen” for that sort of thing.

I love the use of the Venus Typeface. It’s very fashionable again now.

I’ve always used it. I never stopped in fact – I always wanted to keep it going. Other designers keep telling me how fashionable it is these days, but I tell them I never stopped using it!

Did they pop down to Debenhams to buy the Southern clock?

No! The clocks for TV were extremely high quality. The clocks had to tell the correct time over a long period. Back then television companies thought it was important to give the public the correct time. So not Debenhams, no! They weren’t quite atom clocks, but they were the next best thing. There would be special suppliers that would make this sort of thing. The clock was stuck in a Cox Box, which could add, electronically, one or two colours to a black and white image.

Who designed the TVS ident?

John Hayman, who designed all the TVS idents.

What was it like during the changeover from Southern to TVS?

It was a wonderful thing to be working at the graphics department at Southern Television as it became TVS. In a way I was the new generation. Now at Meridian I’m the older generation. The thing about back then was that it was a fun place to work. It was like being at college again – we were all being very silly. We would bend over our drawing boards and pretend to be trying to draw a straight line aged 90 – it was a job for life back then, and we thought we’d die at our drawing boards! There was expenses, overtime, overnights. It was such a good deal. We were all naïve and stupid!

Things got fantastically better when TVS took over. The trouble was that by the late seventies Southern had forgotten that they were there to make television programmes. They were so complacent. They only woke up when the franchise process began, and they pumped in money and people to make programmes over and above Jack Hargreaves in his shed.

James Gatward wanted TVS to be a network player, and struggled with this for his entire time at the company. Therefore the mid-80s were the golden age of television in the South. All three Southampton studios were always running. Nowadays, one of them has just been closed to be used as a scenery store! Stars were there too. It really felt like television rather than what it is now.

The people I was working with were very talented. And we’d get up to things like designing our own paper hats at Christmas! We’d all walk down to the canteen looking silly. We were only really appreciated by the film department, which was the only other silly department in TVS! Good times. But I personally think that Southern were totally complacent.

What sort of work were you doing at TVS?

Well, there were cel animations shot on a rostrum. I’d animate things like brain synapses for “The Real World” – I would airbrush onto the cells to get a more illustrative look – a bit like the graduated fills you now use in Flash. I’d also do a lot of cut out animation. That was always popular. The thing about film is that you have to think. Nowadays you can just bash away at something through trial and error. Back then, you did used to have to think about it. You had to wait for the film to come out – a bit like with your holiday snaps. And, just like with holiday snaps, sometimes you’d be disappointed and other times you’d be over the moon. I found that interesting. I did a lot of back lit animation on rostrum too. But cut out animation was a favourite.

I did used to enjoy designing [presentation] slides for programmes and what have you. However, slowly standard slide design formats crept in, which spoiled the fun a bit. Christmas was always the best fun. There was always something interesting needing to be designed at Christmas.

When did computers start coming into graphic design at TVS?

TVS was a little behind London, the main reason for this was investment. The first Quantel Paintbox we bought was £120,000! Before we bought it, there was a lot of stone age grumbling (from me included) about the expense but we all used it for a couple of hours and went “Oooh, that’s quite interesting!” We did have a couple of Amigas too – we had a guy who would use those for stuff for a couple of years before realising they were a load of rubbish and giving up. So we started off with Paintbox, then two years later my brother (who’s in the computer business) gave me a computer to run a typesetting package for the PC. It was awful to use but it worked. Then a Mac was bought for the department. Nowadays, we’ve mainly got PCs at Meridian, though there are some Macs. We have two people doing 3DS Max. I tend to use Corel Draw for my design work, which I’ve used since almost the first version. It’s on Version 11 now! I used it because you couldn’t get Adobe Illustrator for the PC nine years or so ago. It can be flakey, but I find it superior to Illustrator. I’ve never had a Mac.

Who redesigned the TVS ident when it went all computery?

When Greg Dyke came down, he ordered a relaunch. John Hayman redesigned his ident and came up with the glassy chromey thing.

I preferred the original TVS design. I seem to remember a filmed version of this ident on “Mary O’Hara and Friends”, but my friend Rory tells me that all the versions he has are interlaced (50fps).

Yes, the original TVS design was an interesting design. For the ident, there was a model made originally that was shot on film. So there was this version. But then DVEs were coming in about this time, so there was a version made electronically that was done using DVE. So there was one version with a rostrum camera that was shot on film, and another that was done digitally.

If you were having to design something with a lot of TVS logos in, how would you get the proportions of the logo right? You couldn’t be given a .cdr file back then! Did you have a drawing to work from? Were there style guides back then?

Yes, there was a style guide that was produced by the ad agency working for TVS (I’m sure I’ve got one in my attic still). That gave us type styles and usage, kerning and leading etc.

In the graphics department though we had prints of the logo in colour and black and white in various sizes – just a case of cut and paste and paint out the white edges. Rollers used to look like patchwork quilts, but once the blacks were ‘crushed’ you’d never know. Otherwise we just did it all by eye. I could stick a name super on a piece of 12″ x 10″ caption card and only be a millimeter out at worst (you try telling the kids nowadays and they won’t believe ya!).

Did you ever get bored of all the Clearface Gothic typeface TVS used to use?

Not really – at least one didn’t have to worry about choosing a font. It was only used to re-enforce the brand anyway.

What was it like when TVS lost it’s franchise?

I think it was for the best actually. TVS had over bid – they’d bid £64million, whereas Meridian had bid £43million. The franchises were supposed to go to the highest bidder, but then that turned out not to be the case. TVS would never have worked bidding that much – if they had won on £64million I wouldn’t have wanted to hang around to see what happened. I think the other problem that TVS had at franchise award time was that it was drifting. There was no leading light at TVS to give the company guidance anymore.

However, just before that happened the graphics department (which by then included Maidstone) employed a guy who was very keen to get on. He suggested to the management at TVS that their graphics department could become a money earning area. So in came “Original Graphics”, and a London office was opened. The middleagers, the people that I had learned so much from, all got binned (albeit with a healthy redundancy package). And that happening had numbed us for what was about to happen to TVS. This fantastic time we’d had at TVS and Southern was obliterated overnight by an idea of making a profit centre. All those mentors went. I was glad to get out of TVS.

What did you do after TVS lost its franchise?

I was self-employed from 1992 until 1998. When TVS went boom everyone went freelance and could pick up a few crumbs from Meridian or the BBC. I had a very healthy client list. Then a big slide went on – freelance producers and directors went back to being cameramen again! All these small production companies folded again. So I was doing television, print work, cartoons. I was very busy – initially there was a lot of money sloshing about.

I knew Neil Buchanan from his TVS days and Tim Edmunds from Southern so I ended up doing a lot of work for them. As it turned out Tim and Neil’s company were across the road from The Foundation and so I ended up doing a lot of work for them too. Eureka, Finger Tips, Brilliant Creatures, that sort of thing.

I can’t believe the things that freelance design houses get up to. One company charged a client I work for £500 for a “specially designed” font. That’s a scam! Pretentious London design house nonsense. I design fonts in Fontographer for clients as a matter of course as part of a design. I wouldn’t dream of charging for them. It’s part of the design.

You then went back to work for Meridian. What was that like?

Trying to get Meridian to spend £10 was impossible! Mind you, funnily enough, Meridian were better than Granada.

What did you think of Meridian’s sun-moon logo?

I didn’t like it. Too fussy – almost childish. I thought it might be difficult to work with as a logo. Didn’t like the colours. Cheap and no class (very ITV). The centre of the logo isn’t the centre of the face. But hey, it’s memorable. Looks bloody silly on the side of the building, but that’ll be covered up with luxury flats soon anyway. [A part of the car-park at the Southampton studios has just been sold for development]

You’re work is currently being seen on Art Attack (amongst several other programmes). Designing for an art programme must be fun!

Yes, it’s a perfect job. Worked out well. Logos themselves always subtly change over time, and this is a good example. Dave Tasker designed the original logo in plasticine. He’s a “throw a bucket of paint at the wall and see if you get anything interesting” type of designer, so a logo out of plasticine is very him! I worked with Dave’s design and brought it forward.

Eureka TV was a nice job too. I worked on a concept with Ian Carly. Then Ian worked on that concept and came up with a design, and then I took elements from Ian’s design and came up with a web design. Sadly, the site has now been moved into BBCi, which is very limiting to design for [as the page weights are so strictly controlled – 85K for a home page and 65K for all other pages]. Web design seems to becoming more and more a part of what I do, and I’d like to expand on that if possible.

Who did you rate or do you rate in television design?

Bob Cummins (BBC), English Markell Pocket (ex BBC), John Hamon (TVS), Graham Young (Headline and First Post).

And the future of television in the South?

There’s only really the sports department here at Southampton to give us any work. And the site here is land reclaimed from the River Itchen. It’s a prime building site. It would be worth millions to a property developer. I reckon they’ll move to a shed somewhere soon and broadcast from that. It’s a multimillion pound site, our site.

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Sunday 19 May 2024