Interview: Michael Peters

The man who designed the signs of our times

By Simon Round, February 5, 2009

For most people, airport departure lounges are not the most joyful places to spend time — merely the prelude to a holiday or a return home. However, Michael Peters recently had one of his most satisfying moments as he waited to catch a plane from the south of France.

As he wandered through Nice airport, he saw an aircraft taxiing towards the terminal and felt a sudden surge of satisfaction. He explains: “It was an Aeroflot plane. I had designed the new livery for that airline. Then I looked around the duty free shop and there were bottles of Johnnie Walker — I designed that too. Then I looked up at the TV attached and noticed the Universal Studios logo — another which I had designed. I gave me an immense feeling of excitement that with this pair of hands and half a brain I had helped to make those things.”

Peters is happy to acknowledge his role in developing a British design industry which he feels stands comparison with any in the world. Such has been his influence that a fully illustrated book, Yes Logo, has been published, featuring some of his most iconic contributions to post-war commercial design.

While Peters is passionate about design, he is also committed to business. His company, the Michael Peters Group, was floated on the stock exchange in 1983 and was, for a time, massively successful. “We worked out a few statistics when we were researching the book. In the 40 years I’ve been in business we have employed nearly 4,000 people. I grew the biggest design firm in the world. We had something like 6,000 different clients.”

Peters, an ebullient 68-year-old with a passion and enthusiasm for life of a man half his age, speaks from his West London home, which is also the base for his new company, Michael Peters and Partner — the third he has set up in a career which has spanned four decades. He is clear about what gives him the greatest sense of achievement in his life. “What gives me the greatest buzz is the idea of creating a wonderful piece of creative work and seeing it become financially successful.”

The example he gives to illustrate this process is a surprising one, however: Icesave, the Icelandic bank which crashed in late 2008, leaving thousands of British investors scared that they would lose their money. However, for Peters, the formation and marketing of the bank summed up everything he stands for. He explains: “It’s a campaign which was phenomenally successful. The client wanted to call the company Landsbanki Direct. I was convinced it should be Icesave. From a blank piece of paper we were able to sketch the idea, persuade the client in Iceland to go with it and grow it tremendously in the space of 12 months.

“Of course, the collapse of the bank was very sad but in the end the investors got their money back. It doesn’t alter the fact that Icesave is seen as the finest bit of branding in the sector for 20 years.”

Peters also recalls with huge pleasure his association with a politician who was herself not averse to a little controversy — Margaret Thatcher. When Peters was approached by the Conservative Party to redesign its logo, he insisted on one thing — that he work with Thatcher herself. “I think she will ultimately be remembered as one of our greatest ever prime ministers, so I felt very privileged to have the chance to work with her.

“There had for many years been a torch logo for the Conservative Party. Mrs Thatcher wanted something new. I came back and I told her that she was in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. So I did a whole load of new sketches in which the torch was redesigned — held by an arm.”

Thatcher was sold on the new, more dynamic design, but she had one reservation. “She thought that the hand looked too masculine and asked if I could make it more feminine, which I did. She was a wonderful person to work with — a very quick learner.”

While his brands have been consistently successful over the years, one could not point to an identifiable Peters style. The demands of commercial design mean that he has to adapt his style, chameleon-like, to each project. “There are a number of considerations. To use an analogy, you might go to an architect and ask him to design a house for you.

“He would ask you whether you like modern architecture or traditional, whether you had a big family, whether you needed a garage for your car and how much you had to spend. Well, it’s the same with me. It depends on whether my clients want me to design a brand from scratch or whether the brief is to evolve something. Sometimes a brand just needs recrafting, like the BBC logo. I wouldn’t throw it out — that would be commercial suicide. With that logo I just made the lettering more elegant to replace the clunky style they had before and then introduced a bar of colour underneath each letter.

“It was a similar brief with Universal Studios. We won the job against 16 American branding agencies. We were the only non-American firm and I felt immensely proud — this Jewish boy from Luton on his way to Hollywood. In the end we researched the history of the brand and decided that we did not want to change it dramatically.”

He may have taken on one of the world’s most glamorous brands, but Peters’ career started inauspiciously at the Jewish Board of Guardians. “I hated school and got only two O-Levels. But I always loved art and design. When I was at the Board of Guardians, they sent me to a famous German designer, Arnold Rothholz. I was his assistant for a while.”

From there he went on to the London School of Printing, won a scholarship to Yale and learned his craft in America before, with an acute sense of timing, returning to Britain as the 60s began to swing. “I worked with some great people — David Puttnam was my boss and I also worked with Charles Saatchi and Mick Jagger.”

If the 60s was exciting, as he led British design from a cottage industry to a prominent place in the post-war world, the early 90s were a contrast. His publicly quoted company, the Michael Peters Group, collapsed spectacularly. “We were the darlings of the stock exchange but then we made a mistake. We bought a firm in America which turned out to be a fraudulent company. The British banks stood by us but the American banks stabbed us in the back. It was hard — the press piled into me but with the support of my family I came through it.”

In fact, Peters founded a new company, Identica, in 1992 and some of his best and most profitable work was ahead of him. Peters has always loved working for the drinks industry; one of his biggest commissions was to redesign the Chivas Regal brand — a job that took him four years.

But his greatest challenge came when a Russian businessman asked him to create a new vodka. “The last thing Russia needed was a new vodka, but this guy wanted to create a best-seller. So I said, ‘Let’s make the most expensive vodka in Russia.’ We called it Russian Standard. Here, standard means ordinary, there it means outstanding.

“The most expensive vodka was $4 a bottle at the time. I suggested selling Russian Standard for $16. They have a gift-giving culture there and people equate expense with quality. So I designed a beautiful bottle based on a bell I saw in the Kremlin — it took three years. Now, we have the best selling vodka in Russia and the logo is famous. The owner of the brand is a dollar billionaire eight times over.”

Peters gets his rewards in a different way. “Yes, of course I am very well remunerated, but if you ask me what my greatest joy is — well, that is to go to Tesco and just see the bottle on the shelves.”

‘Yes Logo — 40 Years of Michael Peters Branding, Design and Communication’, is published by Black Dog at £35

Last updated: 2:58pm, February 5 2009