In the midst of putting together another volume of Typograph.Journal and running a hugely successful typographic competition with entries from designers across the globe, we discuss what it’s like to balance passionate practice and professional practice with acclaimed Brisbane-based graphic designer, Nicole Phillips.
“As you can see my print pavilion is a working space,” Nicole says unabashedly. In a space about the size of an extra large shipping container, Nicole’s collection of printing presses are lined up in a row, standing bold like soldiers awaiting their orders. While each press has its place, it’s Nicole’s collection of prints, inks and other accoutrements that make her studio a typical designer’s menagerie. The walls are constantly changing she muses. A mix of her own print errors and printed collateral from other printmakers she admires and respects are set on display as a source of inspiration. “It’s scruffy and a little shambolic but works perfectly for the creative play and experimentation I use it for. Each time I clean up in there I start to feel a little awkward in the space until I get an optimal level of creative chaos,” Nicole beams.
Set in a lush garden oasis, Nicole’s studio-cum-shed strikes the ideal balance between indoors and out. Two sets of doors allow natural light to flood in, and the smell of grass and suburban greenery give the space a typical back yard Australiana feel. “Working in a shed in your garden can present some challenges, and the space has recently flooded and begun leaking with recent rain events so we are in the process of making some structural changes and reconfiguring!” While it’s a long narrow space, Nicole says that functionally it works quite well. “The tools and inks are located at the top end of our garden near the paperstocks and guillotines, and the presses and type run down both sides of the space towards the house,” she explains.
Nicole is completely self taught and learnt how to operate each press and print process largely by experimentation, trial and error. “My collection of presses grew organically. Not because I was trying to collect – or hoard –” Nicole chuckles, averting us to the fact that her collection has become a passionate obsession. “But because each press does something differently. They each have a functional strength the others don’t have.” Among smaller printing, book and nipping presses, guillos and foilers, it is the larger presses that command full attention, and as such they all come with their own names. “Yes, I personify my presses and my type!” Nicole says with great happiness, and exults in explaining each one. Nicole has eight in total.
“Reamy and Calvin are the two largest guillotines. I try not to play favourites but I use Calvin almost exclusively for cutting. He is a 1901 Chandler and Price guillotine. Albert is my 1872 Harrild Albion. George is my Gordon old-style platen, from between 1867 and 1869. I do most of my printing on these two presses. They are hand and foot powered and I am totally engaged in the making process when using them,” Nicole says. “I have Vince, a mid-century Advance press and Sergio, a 1910 Saroglia proofing press.”
“Milo and Harvey are the two big gents down the end. Milo is a v45 Miehle from the 1930s and Harvey is a 1960 Heidleberg windmill platen t redball. Milo is great for tabloid style newspaper printing and Harvey is all about precision and speed. I don’t print on these two presses very often at the moment because they are better suited to larger run and commercial letterpress style printing, which is not what I do, but they are still very useful to have.”
Type, print and publishing intrigued me from a really young age.
Nicole Phillip’s obsession with typography and printmaking began when she was just a kid. “While growing up in New Zealand my dad worked for the New Zealand Herald Newspaper. Type, print and publishing intrigued me from a really young age.” With an insatiable appetite for books and getting her hands dirty, Nicole found that she naturally drifted more towards the problem solving, interpretation and challenges art presented. “I was a bit of a tom-boy and had no interest in dolls and “girlie things” so I would build forts and damns outside and take my books,” she says. “As a child I knew I wanted to work with visual language in a creative, imaginative and challenging way. My academic path and subsequent career all stemmed from that.”
As time went on and Nicole grew older, she started doing work experience for book, magazine and newspaper publishers, and also started taking art and photography courses in her spare time. This helped to mould her practice and shape her outlook on design. “In the late 90s I took a course called ‘Camera and Darkroom’, which taught me that art was more about the process than the outcome,” she says. “That concept still informs all of my design, print, publishing work today.”
At Auckland University of Technology Nicole studied a Certificate in Design followed by a Bachelor in Art and Design where she majored in typography and book arts. While she was studying, Nicole worked in the fashion industry, but was constantly looking for a break into book-work. “In my final year of studies I wrote my dissertation on the history of book design and production,” she says. “My paper was published and the thinking well received, which enabled me to start working as a typesetter and book designer and transition from fashion to publishing as a career.”
Later, Nicole moved into the architecture industry, and while passionate about her career, Nicole felt that it was getting the best of her and the long hours were beginning to take a toll on her wellbeing. Nicole had been longing to buy a press and had been monitoring secondhand machines to see what was on the market until she finally found one she loved. “In 2009 I made the leap to buy my first letterpress machine as an antidote to corporate design, client constraints and computer time,” she says. “The intention wasn’t to start a collection, or a business, or to do anything other than give me a creative outlet to get my hands dirty and play with type. Within a month I had two presses and was cutting back time at work to get inky at home.”
It wasn’t soon after that Nicole began to feel that her creative pursuits and her growing press collection needed her full focus and attention. With the encouragement and support from her husband, Nicole resigned from her salary position as an associate director at a design studio to start working on a business plan that enabled her to play and experiment with printing, publishing and self-initiated design. “By October 2011 I had a business plan sorted and was gaining some traction with consulting work when I caught my right arm in one of my presses. It took five months of rehabilitation to recover and so business plan number one went out the window,” Nicole says, almost with a hint of nonchalance.
Her practice is still a work in progress, and business plan number two is a little unconventional according to Nicole. “It is based on a symbiosis of passionate and professional practice,” she explains. “In my professional practice (Nicoleap) I design multipage documents for clients and collaborators on commission. In my passionate practice (Typograph.Her) I curiously explore the relationship between visual and verbal language.”
My passionate practice, I believe, makes me a better, more engaged designer…
Nicole’s working week is split between the two practices. “My professional practice is typically three days per week and I usually run with a backlog of at least six to eight weeks. Because this is client focused my professional practice schedule does fluctuate a bit to accommodate project timelines,” she explains. “My passionate practice enables me to research, write and produce self-initiated work for the design community. My passionate practice, I believe, makes me a better, more engaged designer for my clients when consulting. It’s really important to me I achieve balance between both streams of practice and this is something I work really hard at. Even though there is no external client for this work I am still really disciplined with the hours I put into my printmaking, publishing and creative research. I work two to three days a week on my passionate practice and I map out six to 12 months ahead what projects, concepts and learning outcomes I want to achieve with that time.”
While Nicole’s role is to realise other peoples’ projects, her personal projects have allowed her to focus on her design process rather than an outcome, external influence or trend. “My self-initiated work is much more intuitive and I allow time to be inspired and to learn throughout the process. I guess this is why I value my passionate practice,” she adds. “It’s totally self-indulgent time built into my practice every week, but my clients do see a benefit from it as, I believe, it improves my creative fitness for my client work.”
Following on from the success of Typograph.Journal volume one and two, Nicole is busy putting together volume number three. The journal contains expressions about design theory, practice and process, and is filled with visual research and ideation, conversations and a series of tools to encourage creative confidence and continued learning within the creative community. “In my passionate practice I am really excited about Typograph.Journal and have been humbled by the positive feedback that industry volumes’ one and two have received so far. I was really very nervous about the launch and the project generally but I am proud of what I have achieved with the publication. I am currently working on volume three and it really is a pleasure to be working on something I feel so passionate about.” And what about her professional practice? Nicole is equally excited for a few upcoming book collaborations. “I feel very fortunate that my business model is enabling me to realise these dreams and live the stuff I love!”