Inside Story: Martin Lambie-Nairn – King of the idents

Lambie-Nairn, now 62, began his career as a graphic designer in the Sixties. He joined the BBC as a “temporary holiday relief assistant”, then went on to work for ITN and London Weekend TV (LWT), where he honed his skills creating graphics for the current affairs programme Weekend World. He set up his own company in the mid-Seventies and his big break came in 1982, when he designed the pioneering ident for a fledgling Channel 4. It was to have a profound effect on both graphic design and advertising on British TV.

Lambie-Nairn and his company went on to design a series of phenomenally successful idents for the BBC, where he worked as a consultant creative director. In the Nineties he helped to revitalise the image of BBC 2 with ingenious and unpredictable logos that were talked about as much as some of the programmes. For these idents, he forsook computer animation in favour of traditional camera methods. In the latter part of the decade he designed and built the famous red balloon used as an ident by BBC 1, which aimed to capture the idea that the channel gave a view of what was happening all over Britain. His company’s services have been sought by media companies from the US and Norway, among others.

Channel 4 (1982)

“There was no brief: we only knew that this was a channel that was going to go out and commission programmes independently and then draw them all together. So that gave us the idea for the logo: a patchwork of disparate elements coming together to form a whole. We heard of computers in America that took up the size of a large room and could produce the images we needed, so we went out there. The result was based on a classic shape: an elegant 4 that is also an elegant patchwork. Nowadays nobody would look twice at it, but back then it had a magical impact.”

BBC2: first series (1991)

“BBC 2 was perceived as a channel for 75-year-old men with Labradors and Volvos. We wanted to reposition it. Our idea was that every time you came to a junction between programmes you’d see a different version of the logo. We wanted to make beautiful things. What happens when you chuck a tin of paint at a figure 2? You get a wonderful image, abstract and slightly aloof, mainly because we used darker colours. They had an electric effect: they started to be discussed at dinner parties. Within six months the channel’s old image had disappeared.”

BBC 2: second series (2001)

“This is from the second batch of logos we did for BBC 2 some years later. They wanted to broaden their audience and keep the logos in line with new, lighter content. It dawned on me that the solution was to change the designs from inert objects into characters, which were warm and could entertain. I insisted this one have arms, because that’s what would make it act ? you could do it without eyes, a nose and a mouth, but not without arms. You always know you’ve got something that works when you can do 15 storyboards an afternoon. I like its cleanliness, humour and warmth.”

TV2 Sporten (2006)

“A Norwegian company told us they were launching a sports channel but didn’t want any silhouettes of sports people. We thought that if ever there was a nation that could cope with something a bit ‘out there’, it would be Norway. We recorded a football-sounding crowd, but the clients decided they wanted a shout at the start of it. I had to go into the studio and give a great scream, which you can hear at the start of it today. It’s sheer aggression. It’s brave, edgy and completely different to anything else in its sector. They even play it before football matches in Norway.”

The Business Channel (2007)

“They wanted to position the channel so it would be a more general mix of everything, not just another Bloomberg or Reuters for city slickers. It was more about the entertainment side of business, and we had to get this into the mind of the audience through the logo. Our aim was to bring a bit of humour and warmth into the junctions between programmes, so we devised a set of characters that dealt with business-related things in a humorous way and animated them. We made the logo extremely simple, and stole the pink colour from the Financial Times as a reference point.”

The History Channel International (2005)

“They needed to unify their identity, and have one solution that would work for all cultures, from Japan to India, and would cover all their subjects, from crime to war. We devised a series of films that all had the same theme, but different pictures depending on the subject. It had to appeal to literally everyone, and I think we succeeded ? it’s now going out in 100 different countries, so they sure got their money’s worth.”

BBC 1 Balloon (1997)

“The BBC is in every part of the country and every corner of the world, and we wanted to illustrate that by using a globe. The solution was a balloon, which moves by itself. I wanted it to act like a flag, visible against water, land and sky. When we tried to shoot this one, in Scotland, it rained for two days, and when the balloon eventually launched the bloody thing flew the wrong way. So we decided to computer generate it and take the shots we wanted separately. Most of them were built like that, but this one was done for real. It is one of my favourite pieces of work.”

Hamlet (1984)

“This was specially designed for Channel 4 after they’d had a row with their union and couldn’t show any normal adverts. Up until that point, computer animations were all rather cold: there was no wit in them. So we asked traditional animators to design it, and it proved our point, because it was the first-ever funny piece of computer animation. It was very famous in the industry and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The blatant cheek and wit came through really well. What I like most is that we challenged the status quo, and came out with a real result. We suspected that it would be unfunny if it was done purely on computer, and in the end got something that was the basis of what Pixar later went on to perfect.”

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