For the last few years I’ve set a short project for my graphic design students to declare what they believe to be a design classic. The purpose of this exercise is for them to think about measurable, objective criteria when judging a piece of graphic design rather than instinctively stating they ‘like’ something. As an educational rationale I’m less interested in what they believe to be a ‘classic’, and am aiming more at getting them to have to justify their opinions using a well reasoned argument backed up by research and a critical analysis. 

In running this project, I’m often asked by students what I think can justifiably be called a design classic, a question that I’ve never really answered. Well, the other night when weeding out receipts and detritus from my wallet, it struck me that something I carry around with me on a daily basis can justifiably be called a design classic: the original Donor Card.


The rounded font disarms what is a direct and to-the-point statement—”if you find this when I’m dead, then go ahead and use my body for whatever you need because I don’t need it anymore!” The colour scheme is deliberately attention grabbing, helping anyone going through someone’s wallet in the unfortunate event of their death to find it as it is immediately visible. The fact that it has become an iconic piece of design, (one measure of something being an icon I would argue is mimicry—just Google ‘donor card’ to see many spoofs and détournements), means that its recognisable form is cemented in a doctor, nurse or paramedic’s mind’s eye. It is certainly distinct from many other cards someone would carry in their wallet or purse.

Death is not an easy topic for everyone to talk about. And while these cards aren’t trying to be over friendly in their styling, as this would diminish the seriousness of the situation, they do make a sensitive subject approachable, which is no easy thing to do—these cards don’t flinch from the reality, but they do offer some hope.

I’ve had the card above for a while now; its tattiness making it look a tired and in need of replacing. But I dare not throw it away as the newer variety are such a poor substitute graphically.


While I’m unsure whether the version pictured above is the most recent version, it is a poor piece of design in comparison to the original. Any mention of death has been relegated to such a secondary piece of information and rendered in a much smaller typeface that it almost appears cursory and timid, as if to say: “let’s not really discuss what this is about”. The off-centred title is visually awkward, not to mention a strange choice when everything else, (except for the NHS logo), is centred. The lowercase characters, along with the drawing together of the words ‘donor’ and ‘card’, I hazard a guess, is an attempt to create a visual identity for the card. But unfortunately this just looks like it is trying too hard and comes across as a gimmick. Finally, the heart symbol is misleading; the NHS are desperately in need of kidneys, corneas, lungs and livers as well as hearts, so it isn’t exactly a fitting icon.

I carry one of these newer cards in my wallet as well, just in case the original isn’t seen as an official declaration anymore, but it can get lost in amongst the array of other cards have, looking more like a store loyalty card by comparrison. This fact, above all the other criticisms I’ve stated above, is the most serious flaw in its design. In contrast, the original had been considered as a functional item—with the words ‘Donor Card’ being prominent at the top of the rectangle. This makes it quickly readable without pulling the card, along with many others, out of its holder by someone searching for identification in an emergency. Below is a photo of how it sits in my wallet, clearly in view and unmistakable.


Completely by coincidence, this morning I received a letter from the DVLA telling me that I had to renew my driving licence and supply a new photograph. On the enclosed from was a box marked Organ Donation where I could declare my wishes as to what I’m happy to donate after my death. These details are then logged on the NHS Organ Donor Register.


I have already signed up on the national register, but this does not make carrying a Donor Card any the less necessary, as in an emergency, and with so many people on waiting lists for an organ, time is of the essence. Carrying something that indicates your wishes is very immediate and can give the go ahead for a potentially life saving proceedure without the need to access an online register, which in many scenarios could be problematic. This reinforces the need for a Donor Card to be designed to be recognisable, obvious and immediate. The original version is all of these.

One other attribute the original Donor Card has is that it serves as a badge of honour. I’m very proud of carrying my card, and I’m happy to prick other’s consciences if they happen to glance at my open wallet while at the till in the Co-op. If it prompts anyone who doesn’t carry a card to do so, then I’m pleased to have played a role in this. The iconic nature of the original design, with its longstanding recognisable typography, has the chance to do this. The later version is anonymous and hidden from sight unless carried in a window pocket in a purse or wallet, and therefore has a much harder job to do and is therefore less likely to be effective.

All these considerations make me declare the original Donor Card a design classic, and I hope that the NHS reconsider the design of the current card and re-employ the stylings of this classic.

This post was written without being able to find out who the designer was of the original Donor Card, nor when it was first designed. If anyone reading this can supply this information, I would be most grateful and will update this post accordingly.


This week saw the first exhibition in London by UCS Ipswich Graphic Design graduates. Titled We Are, the exhibition was held at The Coningsby Gallery, and was a deliberate attempt to try and buck the trend of the morale sapping rigmarole of New Blood, New Designers and Free Range graduate exhibitions, where by thousands of graphic design students compete for attention all at the same time of year and all under one roof. Notably at such events, those from the design industry tend to seek out the courses they already have contacts with, and rarely spend time looking for new talent from emerging courses. What successes come from this first UCS solo exhibition this week are as yet to be seen, but as this was the first of its kind for our students, it was a bit of a trial run and will hopefully develop over the coming years.

It appeared to inspired current first, second and third year students, who we took up to the gallery at various stages this week. And during a very busy period for current final year students as they are in the middle of writing their dissertation proposals and completing course work, they are also preparing for their International Design Auction which will help to finance any such ventures for them in 2014. The ‘We Are‘ graduates ran one last year, and raised nearly £2000 for their end of year show and London exhibition, and if the lots that are coming in so far this year are anything to go by, the 2013 auction is likely to raise a lot more money. There is signed work from Stefan Sagmeister, Tom Gauld, Jessica Hirsche, Milton Glaser, Armin Vit…I could go on, (and on, and on). While in London on Monday to catch the We Are show, current students even managed to find time to visit Margaret Calvert to pick up her 3 donations to the auction, (as well as accept her hospitality of tea and biscuits).

International Design Auction 2013 is being held at University Campus Suffolk’s Waterfront Building in Ipswich on 27 November at 17:30. Check out the lots on the  students’ website for the auction, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter for up to date information.
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To start the new academic year off with a shot of inspiration, we took all Graphic Design and Graphic Illustration students at UCS to GRAPHICS, the Romek Marber exhibition at The Minories in Colchester.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarber’s influence on British Graphic Design can not be underestimated. His most famous work was for Penguin Books, particularly their crime series, producing many of the iconic green covers utilising photography, collage and drawn imagery to full effect to capture the title of each book he designed for. He also famously designed one of the grid systems that Penguin used for many years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmong the covers on display was also his rationale behind the layout. As the exhibition literature states: “Romek Marber’s work often communicates in a clear and direct manner that is bought by combining a stripped down use of colour with well defined formal structures within which text and image are framed. A sense of pragmatism and design that grows out of necessity in terms of delivery of message results in an efficient visual imagery that wastes nothing but at the same time appears to leave nothing out.”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome of Marber’s typographic work balances a tightrope between experimentation and reductive modernist austerity, clearly influencing many designers working today. In fact, the covers he did for The Economist only look dated because of the mastheads—Marber’s type explorations themselves could grace many contemporary magazines and certainly wouldn’t look out of place on Bloomberg Business Week.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd this film title sequence could be mistaken for some of the experimental and fluid graphic illustration coming out of the UK at the turn of 21st century by the likes of Dávid Földvári et al:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGRAPHICS exhibition is highly recommended, and runs until 25 October: details here. Thanks to Cydney and Kaavous at The Minories.

While in Colchester, and with the Firstsite Gallery a stone’s throw from The Minories, we also took the opportunity to take a look at the Xerography exhibition that is on there. This celebrates the role of photocopying in art, from the 1960s through to the modern day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis show has an impressive list of 40 contributors, and naturally for graphic design students, the more graphic and book orientated work seemed to appeal the most.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Hockney’s were particularly good and of interest to illustrators:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd I was really taken with this mail-art piece by Eugenio Dittborn:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe show is mixed enough for something to appeal to everyone, although I doubt that there would be anyone who would like everything that was on show. But despite its breadth, the one obvious omission for me was the lack of graphic design. For an exhibition which is tied together by the process of using a photocopier to produce work, this seems like a massive black hole. For example, there are no punk era fanzines such as Mark P’s Sniffin’ Glue which helped to define the aesthetic of an era. This form of instant publishing also helped to introduce some to a career in graphics, such as Terry Jones. There were also no rough and ready record sleeves, whether by the likes of practicing designer Linder Sterling or by the many unknowns who embraced the Do It Yourself nature of punk in 1976/77.

Omissions aside, this is a worthwhile exhibition to go and see, especially if you can go when the Marber exhibition is still on at The Minories, as the juxtaposition between the two makes for refreshing contrast. Xerography runs until 10 November, details here.

Thanks to Sue Hogan for the student talk.

Claire and I have just returned from a holiday in the very untouristy Lincolnshire. We visited two years ago, knowing nothing about the county, (read a write up here), and decided to pay the delightful county another visit this year after scratching our heads wondering where to go for our summer break.

Interestingly, last time we visited, we commented on it feeling so unspoilt and un-gentrified, that it was probably reminiscent of the north Norfolk coast of 30 years ago. On our return journey back to Suffolk, we drove via the Norfolk coast, from Hunstanton to Cromer, which only served to reinforce this feeling—the difference between the two areas could not have been starker, and not just because of the amount of Volvos on the small country lanes. No, the most telling thing of the gentrification of north Norfolk was the signage. It is almost as if the entire north Norfolk coast has been branded by one design firm working to a single guideline with the area steeped in Farrow & Ball’s muted grey/greens and grey/blues, while upper case Gill Sans seems to have become the official typeface of the coast line. Upmarket eateries, gift shops and watercolour exhibitions all bare these hallmarks of ‘good taste’. I’m inclined to believe the National Trust marketing department has taken over the entire coastal district and marked it out as a middle class haven of national interest. (Sheringham and Cromer seem to have been left out of this gentrification process and there is a very clear visual divide as you pass by these bucket & spade and candifloss lower brow destinations).

In comparison, the visual language of Lincolnshire retains its vernacular, being a complete mixture of professional and amateur attempts at signage. Its historical typographic heritage is unashamedly on display, and as such, comes across as unpretentious, honest and down to earth. There is no typographic cleansing going on here, and long may it stay that way.

Find below a few typographic treats that caught my attention as we explored the Lincolnshire Wolds. More photographs to follow on Flickr—I’ll provide a link here when I’ve fully trawled through my memory cards.

Lincolnshire Co-op

Unfortunately this building is no longer a Co-op, there being a newly built store round the corner: Horncastle

The people of Spilsby are rightly proud of their new Co-op, enough to write graffiti welcoming others to the store.

The people of Spilsby are rightly proud of their new Co-op, enough to write graffiti welcoming others to the store.

To the train station in Market Rasen, on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds

To the train station in Market Rasen, on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds

Mareham on the Hill directions to a tiny chapel on a hillside behind a farm. We would have missed visiting the beautiful and picturesque church were it not for this sign. (Click on photo for more information).

An old pub and post office: Louth.

An old pub and post office: Louth.

Beautiful old school house in Spilsby.

Building ties as letterforms: Old Bollingbroke

Building ties as letterforms: Old Bollingbroke

Many Lincolnshire churches  had semi-circular graves. this one in Market Rasen had moss growing on the stone carving creating a living, growing  typographic memorial to the dead.

Many Lincolnshire churches had semi-circular tomb-stone graves. This one in Market Rasen had moss growing on the stone carving creating a living, growing typographic memorial to the dead.

Ghost typography on a building in Louth.

This restored building in Louth has had the original signage thoughtfully restored as well.

This restored building in Louth has had the original signage thoughtfully restored as well.

The Anderby Creek Cloud Bar, where no trip to Lincolnshire would be complete without a visit to both the bar, commissioned by the Cloud Appreciation Society, and to the miles of gloriously sandy dog friendly beaches that after 6pm are devoid of people.

A big thank you to Michael at Winklebag for a very enjoyable day last Saturday getting to know how to use an Adana Eight-Five press, and to Claire for organising this day as a Christmas present.

Photos of my adventures here

Previous Dubdog post about Winklebag

Winklebag website


Next weekend I’m cashing in a Christmas present from Claire—a day at Winklebag Press in the middle of the Suffolk countryside. There I hope to learn how to use an Adana ‘Eight-Five’ letterpress tabletop printer, also a present from Claire.

For my inky day out, I’ve artworked a new title for my Songcard project, (switching Helvetica for Univers in the process as Winklebag have limited typefaces), in honour of our 10th wedding anniversary.

Photos of my progress will follow after next week.


After seeing Adam Ant live last night, I thought it was appropriate to refresh the Prince Charming Songcard I first created in 2006.

A big thank you to Michael Dobney for showing Claire and I round the rather wonderful Winklebag this Sunday, a very small letterpress set up in the heart of beautiful Suffolk countryside.

After reading a post I wrote here a while ago about a ‘printing for all’ workshop at the Museum of East Anglian Life, where he also volunteers, Michael got in touch and invited us out for a visit.

Winklebag is a rather inspiring set up, particularly for an ex-printer like myself, and I am now itching to conjure up a job I can put through there. Watch out anyone who commissions Dubdog in the near future, you could be going down an inky route.

It was doubly interesting to see a small tabletop Adana press, which I’ve been reading a lot about recently for my archive blog of old print and type advice books: The Small Letter. Below is an illustration of the Adana “Eight–Five” from the “Beginners Guide to Design in Printing” by Leslie G. Luker, (an Adana publication, as many of them seem to be).

Once again, many thanks to Michael for his time, coffee and chat. Check out Winklebag’s website here.

Saw this interesting For Sale/To Let sign in Ipswich yesterday. I’ve often seen adverts painted on the side of old buildings—faded through the ages and now referred to as ‘ghost typography’—but never an estate agent’s pitch. The ‘out of register’ effect is particularly intriguing.


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