Stamp Duty

With clients ranging from arts organisations and film directors to the Royal Mail, Mike Dempsey has shown a flair for simple, timeless design over his impressive career. Kate O’Donnell meets the award-winning graphic designer as he marks 10 years of his consultancy, Studio Dempsey, based in Bowling Green Lane

Mike Dempsey’s CV is dazzling, so garlanded is it with prizes, awards and high-level recognition of merit. The email sign-off for this 10-time winner of D&AD awards includes the words ‘Mike Dempsey RDI’. That’s Royal Designer for Industry, bestowed by the Royal Society of Arts on a mere 200 cross- disciplinary designers and creatives at any one time.

Dempsey’s fellow Royal Designers include Thomas Heatherwick, John Pawson and Vivienne Westwood. It’s illustrious company and he has made the most of it, producing a series of podcast interviews, RDInsights, with his fellow Royal Designers for the RSA’s website. “I couldn’t resist recording the design journeys of so many great designers,” says Dempsey.

It’s all a long way from his northern, working-class roots. “Aspirations were very low,” he says. “This was an industrial town where everyone worked in factories.” Dempsey left school at 15 and walked straight into a job as a fitter’s mate, then the kind of solid trade expected of school leavers. But the animation- and Walt Disney-obsessed Mike wanted more.

In desperation, he got on his bike and headed for the local technology college, where he joined a course on calligraphy and “fell in love with letter forms”. Later, he joined an evening class in layout and photography and discovered graphic design. “I thought: this is what I want to do,” he says.

Dempsey met someone who ran a small design studio where he learned to draw, line, and paste-up. “That was my ‘college’,” he says. In the evenings Dempsey re-designed book covers he didn’t like and rang up book publishers to show them his work. That led to a job as a typographer and from there to art director of Heinemann. “That was my first really good job. I had finally got on the ladder.” 

The ladder led to 10 years in book publishing, then 27 years running a much- admired design company, CDT, before setting up in Clerkenwell on his own (it’s his London base too). “There’s no one else in the studio; just me,” says Dempsey. “I wake up every day and think: this is terrific.”

That bike episode was telling. Instead of waiting for clients to come to him, Dempsey went to them. The numerous stamps he has designed – one of his David Bowie ‘Great Albums’ designs has recently been re-issued – came about because, he says, “I managed to see the assistant design director at the Royal Mail.”

Why stamps? “Stamps have always been a passion. Making them work is an art because you have to have a real reduction. If I can find areas that I love then I will give a lot more.” For Dempsey, this includes film (hence title sequences for Ridley Scott and Louis Malle), acting (he has done a Stanislavski method acting course himself), culture and music.

Arts clients have included the London Chamber Orchestra, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Opera House, Southbank Centre, Royal National Theatre and English National Opera, for which his logo design – the ‘e’ and ‘n’ representing eyes, the ‘o’ representing a mouth open to sing – remains iconic.

Does it take long designing logos? “It can be agonisingly long or brilliantly short,” he says. “For ENO I went to some productions and was astonished at what the human being can do. I found myself drawing a face and a mouth and then eyes. That came really quickly. I have always thought that logos should be simple. It was a dream situation.”

But even this past President of D&AD has had knocks. When his new- look identity for the Department of Culture, Media & Sport was leaked to The Sun, the paper roped in a child to draw its own version.

The lack of appreciation for creative ideas, and insinuation that anyone, including computers, can produce creative work for free, makes the otherwise mild-mannered designer steam. Even he has been asked to pitch for free. “Ideas cannot be generated by computers,” he says firmly. “They are generated by people.”