— Logo created by British graphic designer, Alan Fletcher
— Story by Ben Thoma (VC’04) & Karla Burger Cushman (VC’04)
As Visual Communication students, we came to expect that amazing experiences could happen at any time. Whether it was on one of our New York city trips or a surprise guest for critique, we knew that there were no ordinary days in the VC program.
The annual study abroad trip to London was no exception. Because it was open only to rising Seniors, each trip would be reported back to underclassmen with such excitement; it became a legendary sort of experience. Visiting design studios and advertising agencies. Sipping drinks with calligraphers and sitting in the studio of design icons like Alan Fletcher. It all added up to the trip of a lifetime.
That last experience—visiting Alan Fletcher—was held in higher regard than all the others. He wasn't just an illustrator or a designer. He was a visionary thinker. He wrote a definitive resource for the creative thinker, "The Art of Looking Sideways," and had been awarded every prize coveted by the artistic community. Meeting him would be like a young musician meeting John Lennon or an author sitting down for absinthe with Shakespeare.
I don't recall everything about the visit to his tiny studio. What I do remember is more about the space than anything. To get there, we went through a small back alley. It was more like a driveway, but many attached cottages shared it. It wasn't at all what I expected to find in a major metropolis. It was tiny. And the walls were white. It was filled with little bits of his career, but also his musings. A scribble here. A cut paper silhouette there. I'm not sure, but I think it was his home as well.
And there we were — about 25 of us, jammed into his matchbox workspace. He had an assistant who tried to organize us and then when he was ready; we joined him upstairs (see the portrait to the left).
Ray and Alan sat on chairs, and the rest of us on the floor. I think Ray liked the idea that we were at Alan's feet. We were students at the hand of the master, and there was reverence in it that way. And I recall thinking that we acted that way, too. We had always been trained to be ready to ask questions, but I don't recall any of us being brave enough to start the conversation. Oddly, I don't remember mustering up the strength to ask one myself. Too many self-doubts about saying or asking the "wrong" thing, I suppose.
When our time on the floor was up, we headed downstairs again, and Alan offered to sign books. I forget who it started with, but what he ended up drawing quick illustrations for each of us. Alan had a very distinct drawing style, and his handwriting was even more unique. We found ourselves instantly transformed into children, asking for horses and muscle-men sketches. There was a giddy reception to each quirky interpretation that Alan would make to one of our requests. I resisted the urge to ask for a sketch. I felt like we were treating this design icon more like a sidewalk artist or sideshow.
This natural urge to resist the popular path has generally led to my best stories in life, and this would be no exception. You see, even though I knew I didn’t want to be seen as demeaning Alan by asking for a sketch, I also wanted to ask him for one. The difference was I wanted my request to mean something. No, to be meaningful.
So, I waited for everyone else to have their turn, and when it was time to go I approached Alan and asked him if he would consider doing one more sketch. I wanted him to sketch a raven. But this illustration wouldn’t be for me. It would be for someone else. A new initiative at our school. A letterpress facility called Raven Press.
In hindsight, it might have been a rude thing to ask, because I was asking one of the most sought-after graphic designers in the world to create an identity for our unknown, tiny effort to revive a dying production craft.
He responded by saying yes, but he would require me to organize through his assistant. So we exchanged information before the entire class left the studio. I had to be a bit sly about it, as I didn’t want Ray or Bill to know anything about it. Honestly, it is a cool idea, but this is one of those things that can also get you in trouble. This would be something of a gift for them. For the trip. For teaching. For caring enough to make these sort of experiences possible.
I like to imagine Bill or Ray scolding me for hanging too long in Alan’s place. For overstaying our welcome or being disrespectful of their generosity. Maybe that happened. Perhaps it didn’t.
But what I recall next was somewhat of a miracle.
Alan’s assistant had given me a fax number and asked me to send a note detailing the project so that Alan could read it and respond. It was 2003, and the Internet existed—albeit in seedy Internet cafes—but he wanted a fax. So, I drafted a handwritten note and shared it with one of my closest classmates, Karla Burger. She had been chosen to have dinner with Alan, and I respected her design talent more than anyone else in our class. Was I crazy? Was this scrawled out note going to work as the brief for the world’s best designer? What else should I tell him? And most importantly: where were we going to find a fax machine and how would we know how to use it? Between country codes and calling cards I barely knew how to call home to say hi to my girlfriend.
Well, somehow we faxed it. And somehow we got a response back from Alan’s assistant. We were to come by the studio to pick it up on a specific date. Holy shit! He was going to do it. And we were going to be able to see him again. But did it make sense? Did he understand what it was all about? Was it going to be something that we wanted to use for Raven Press?
I recall feeling a lot of anxiety and excitement. We were worried because we had to pick it up on one of our final days in town and although we knew where to go, getting there and back would be hard undetected. Somehow, we found ourselves again in that tiny back alley. And this time it felt different. We were now a step above those students who had flocked there feeling green and in awe. We were clients now. We were there to collect a contracted piece of work. Despite this feeling of pride, we were still nervous about seeing Alan again. We didn’t have the safety of the group. Imagine our relief when we discovered that Alan wasn’t even there! His assistant handed us a manila envelope. We thanked her and we were off. We had it. We had an original Alan Fletcher mark right there in our hands.
I don’t think we could have waited until we were back at the flat to look and see what was inside. Besides, this was a secret. We couldn’t show anyone until we were back in Delaware. Karla and I snuck a peek on the underground. We carefully opened the envelope and pulled out our treasure. It was sandwiched between two pieces of wax paper to protect it—like a nest.
There sat a little blob of ink, with a thin penned outline of a beak and two wire-like legs. There was a white sticker over the body with an asterisk sketched in the center—an eye. And that was it. It was this perfectly hatched baby raven.
Not only had Alan read the note, but he understood enough to create a mark that represented the youth, the experimentation, and whimsy of Raven Press. What had always been a mature, Edgar Allen Poe-inspired raven in my mind, suddenly was a quirky, youthful, black bird. It was perfect.
We tucked it away never to open it again until we were back in the States. I recall feeling worried that something would happen to it during our journey. I was even more anxious to check on it and chance fate to a gust of wind or spilled drink.
When back in the States, I did sneak it out long enough to scan it in the student Mac Lab so we could project the image of the logo to the entire Visual Communications program at our monthly gatherings. I’m pretty sure that no one, especially Ray or Bill, knew that we were going to present Alan’s mark that day. I was a bit nervous about their response. What if they had been tirelessly working on their own? What if they didn’t like it?
Well, there was nothing to fear. Ray was so overwhelmed that he kissed me—an act he would only repeat on one other day: my wedding day. So, yeah. It was a big deal. I felt proud for seizing the moment and seeing it through. I felt proud to have contributed something that meaningful to the program and the teachers who would launch me into my career. I felt proud that I had been worthy of the time spent on Alan Fletcher’s floor.
The following year (2004) on our annual first-Friday-afternoon-of-VCUK we again visited Alan. This time we wanted him to write Raven Press for us so we could include it with the logo when beneficial.
Just below you can see a 00:50 film of Alan writing the words. The video was taken with one of the first Nikon cameras that would record video and was limited to 3:00 segments.
And just for fun of it and because I can, a selfie of Ray with Alan.