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Martin Lambie-Nairn Remembered by his D&AD Peers

Martin Lambie-Nairn, the co-creator of Spitting Image and the branding expert behind the Channel 4 logo, died on Christmas day 2020. 

The designer began his career at the BBC in 1965, and worked as a graphic designer at several broadcasters and production companies including ITN, where he designed the graphics for the Apollo space missions, as well as the company’s logo. In 1976 he set up his own studio, which was renamed Lambie-Nairn & Company in 1990. The Channel 4 ‘blocks’ logo is perhaps his best-known work, although Lambie-Nairn also created a groundbreaking 30-second CG advert for Smarties. Other high profile projects came during his time as consultant creative director at the BBC, where he designed the iconic BBC Two identity. Lambie-Nairn went on to work at several other studios including Heavenly, ML-N and Red&White.

Here, D&AD peers pay tribute to the inimitable branding expert and former D&AD President. Michael Johnson, of Johnson Banks, recalls an early encounter with Lambie-Nairn’s “bulletproof logic”, and Mike Dempsey – the former D&AD president who awarded Lambie-Nairn his D&AD President’s Award – remembers the late designer’s innate affinity for communication.

Mike Dempsey, Martin Lambie-Nairn: Small, but perfectly formed

The things I remember most about meeting Martin for the first time were his height and his broad, welcoming, beaming smile. A smile that instantly drew you into what was a warm, charming, friendly man. He was one of those people who, for the time you were with him, made you feel like you were the centre of his attention – none of that looking over your shoulder to see if there was someone more important to head off to. Martin was never like that.

I had not realised that he had spent his early life at the Spurgeon Orphanage, Birchington, Kent, in the 1950s. That may be a clue to his ability to embrace people so immediately. Many orphans spend their days waiting for someone to want them, love them and make their lives meaningful and real.

I am not going to record all of the astonishing work that Martin created over the decades because, well, if you are a designer, you should know! The fact is that he changed the landscape of television branding around the world and was the key driver in getting ‘Spitting Image’ on our screens. But for more of his brilliance, just flip through any D&AD annual between the eighties and the noughties and you’ll find out just how good he was. When I was president of D&AD, back in 1997, I had no hesitation in selecting Martin for the President’s Award, for both his work and his qualities as a human being.

In 2010, on the invitation of the British Council, Martin, Michael Wolff and I went on a weeklong lecture tour of Mexico. There was a kind of mix-up at one of the venues where we were to appear. We arrived to discover that it was not a normal lecture space but a boxing area, with seats on all sides, filled with very noisy young people. We were each expected to give our presentation while moving around the boxing ring, with an interpreter simultaneously speaking in Spanish from a commentary box. We looked at each other nervously, trying to work out who should go first. Martin volunteered, and his small figure climbed the steps and he walked into the centre of the boxing ring.

Through the booming PA system, he said: “Good evening. Thank you for coming. I feel like I’m going to be executed!” A huge laugh followed, and he went on to give a fantastic presentation. It was in Mexico that I got to know and observe Martin first-hand, as well as witness his extraordinary ability to draw people in – you could see how immediately everyone loved him. It reminded me of that scene in the Wim Wenders film ‘Wings of Desire’ where, in a university library, students are scattered around, intensely studying for their exams. Behind each one stands an angel with a hand placed gently on its charge’s shoulders, quietly helping them along. I always imagined that Martin, a deeply religious man, had one of those angels standing just behind him.

Martin was never one of those geeky designers who got their rocks off by dissecting typefaces in the archives at the St Bride Printing Library. He didn’t need any of that – he’d rather practise on his bagpipes. He had a healthy disregard for much of the world of design, especially those individuals who just want to tell everyone how brilliant they are. Martin had a quiet confidence based on accumulated knowledge and a laser-sharp mind, giving him the ability to untangle complexity – something that he relished. When working on the overall brand of the BBC, he often travelled to small local stations to explain why they had to lose their homespun DIY logos. Martin treated the head of each little radio outpost just the same as the BBC bigwigs at HQ, like Michael Grade and Alan Yentob. That was Martin’s magic: he genuinely knew how to communicate with people. A great asset for any designer.

On a deeper level, Martin had an important connection with his faith and his local church; I think this had a lot to do with his humility. Martin may have been small in stature, but he had a big heart and was witty, warm and funny, with an overflowing generosity of spirit. He left us on Christmas Day – there’s a gentle irony in that. He was one of God’s children. I know that all those he touched will miss him greatly, as I will.

Michael Johnson, Remembering Martin Lambie-Nairn

Martin and I first met in the mid-nineties. 

We were both speaking at a student event. I was only a few years into self-employment and was nervously catastrophising over my over-full carousel of underwhelming projects. 

Meanwhile Martin had brought precisely ZERO slides. He simply stood up and told stories about his work. Even then each of his projects were firmly embedded into our collective psyche and each illustrated his tell-tale traits of unnerving simplicity, bullet-proof logic and compelling creativity.

And as we now look back over his milestone projects, from the ground-breaking computer graphics of the Channel 4 launch to his reinvention of the BBC ‘2’, to the ever-moving BBC1 balloon, those three tenets hold every time. 

He had a laser-like ability to cut through the noise that inevitably encircles big branding projects. Twenty years ago his researchers discovered that mobile phones were becoming as essential as house keys or a wallet. Now, for many of us that’s pretty obvious – albeit not obviously useful. But for Martin this propelled a creative ‘jump’ into the other essentials of life – water, food, oxygen – which in turn inspired the 02 brand. When asked to help out on HSBC’s brand, he simply took the vast and seemingly unwieldy problem back to his kitchen table then returned days later with the obvious solution. Simple, logical, creative. Do you see the pattern?

Of course the danger to ideas as reductionist as these are the committees who judge them – hardwired to meddle and muddle, to complicate, not congratulate. So Martin’s other great skill was his ability to stand up, take the flak and charm people into submission. He would proudly tell me tales of facing up to hundreds of BBC staff who wanted to pull him into tiny pieces because of his creative suggestions. As with Wolff and Olins, Fletcher, Minale and McConnell, Martin was part of a generation that learned to survive, even thrive in the boardroom – and showed us all the way.

Like many greats, he was instrumental in nurturing the next generation through the various iterations of Lambie-Nairn companies, still teaching into his seventies, still inspiring others as he did with Fluck, Law and Spitting Image. He was also was miles ahead of many others in describing his work as ‘brand identity’ – a term now universally acknowledged decades later. And the work itself is often timeless. Channel Four? Still in use 40 years later. 02? Approaching its 20th birthday. Even the recent BBC2 refresh harks back to what Martin began in the nineties.

His mantlepiece must have been splendid – a ‘black’ pencil for Channel 4 and multiple yellow pencils for his BBC work. In 1991 he was D&AD’s President, then received its highest prize, the President’s Award, a few years later. But in characteristically ‘Martin’ good-humour he once admitted to me that he was glad he’d been President relatively early – because it ‘didn’t involve much actual work back then’.

And that happy, story-telling Martin is the one I’ll remember most. He once told me about a key Channel Four presentation when they were down to the last two. Up against a much bigger and long-established competitor, his fledgling company plastered the room with ideas to demonstrate their hunger and desire to do the job. 

He even told me that they put ideas on the ceiling. Now it turns out that he MIGHT have been stretching the truth there, just a little bit. But, for the sake of a great story, and a great man, I forgive him.


Illustration courtesy of Brian Grimwood

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