designboom talked to the british graphic designer matt willey about his recent work and role as the co-founder and senior editor of port magazine.



DB: please could you tell us about your background and how it lead to the work you do today?
MW: becoming a designer has felt like a fairly accidental thing if I’m honest. I hope that doesn’t sound too flippant, but I never set out to be a designer and I’m slightly surprised to find myself here. I’m deaf and was told (by three doctors) that I wouldn’t be able to go to a normal school. I did end up going to a normal school but started late, after working with a speech therapist. I struggled a little and gravitated towards drawing and art, and football; the things I was good at or better, at least, than some of the more academic subjects. after that it became like stepping stones.


I studied art during high-school, and later took an art foundation course at college (which I loved). after that I studied illustration and photography at college (I wanted to paint but wasn’t brave enough) and when that didn’t pan-out I moved across to the only other department in that building; graphic design. amazingly I was employed off the back of my degree show (thank you paula bostock and sarah ritchie!) and I wanted to stay in london – so to start with it was simply a means to an end – until I could figure out what to do with myself. I then wound up working for vince frost as a senior designer and later became a creative director at his london studio. I learned a huge amount from working with vince and I owe him a lot, he has been a mentor of sorts for me I guess.


after leaving frost* I set up studio8 design with zoë bather in 2005 and closed it in 2012 – because I had the wishy-washy and deceptively simple-sounding notion that I could be happier (there was, for the record, no falling out, the studio was doing great) – and I’ve been working for myself since then. still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up.




‘breathe’ and ‘2060’ posters –  produced to raise awareness of the destruction of the amazon rainforest for the US-based charity rainforest action network (RAN). the project was a collaboration with photographer giles revell.












fedrigoni 2010 calendar – a post-it style calendar for italian paper company fedrigoni, with a page-per-day, a colour-per-month and perforated fold-up numbers.



DB: how would you describe your work to someone who hasn’t seen it before?
MW: I genuinely don’t know how to answer that. I’m not keen on the idea that there is some sort of ‘style’ that simply gets applied to a brief, and without that I’m not sure how to summarize my work in any simple encapsulated way. the projects are all different; my description of the independent project would be very different to my description of the tom dixon book. I’ve tried explaining what I do to my mother-in-law – it didn’t work!



tom dixon: dixonary.






DB: what has been the biggest singular influence on your work?
MW: I can’t, in any meaningful or truthful way, point at a ‘singular’ thing or person. life’s just too messy.
I think there is a strange sort of fear that has a constant and necessary effect – but I wouldn’t call that an influence.




independent newspaper redesign
(with the in-house team of designers: dan barber, stephen petch, gordon smith, nick donaldson.)







DB: what’s the thing you enjoy most about print compared to screen based projects?
MW: I enjoy print, a lot, but not in any sort of exclusive way. I think you quite often end up doing more and more of the same because people see what you do and approach you to do that. your portfolio becomes a self-perpetuating thing. if I could wave a wand I would love to design a desk, I’d love to design a shirt (with a very small button-down collar and a pen pocket) but I’m unlikely to be approached to do those things with my portfolio. I have a huge amount of admiration for designers who can diversify and break out of a narrow discipline.


I am interested in ‘screen based’ projects, especially those that have an editorial context. it was very interesting seeing how people grappled with re-appropriating their magazines for the ipad and tablets for example, I think people are still struggling with that. I worked with jeremy leslie and tim moore on the port ipad a few years ago and that process, the discussions it threw up, was fascinating for me, they did a wonderful job on it I think.


print does certain things very well, the ipad does other things very well. it was a mistake people made, I think, presuming they couldn’t co-exist, that the arrival of the ipad somehow spelt the end of print. it’s actually had a really interesting impact, it’s made magazines better, it’s made magazines emphasize the things that print does well, it’s made magazines more magazine-y.



redesign of independent supplement magazines








DB: which project have you enjoyed working on the most so far?
MW: they’ve all been great, in different ways. sorry if that sounds horribly diplomatic! I’m usually most excited by the most recent or current project. the independent newspaper redesign at the end of last year was a wonderful project to be involved in. it’s not often you get to redesign and completely rethink a national newspaper. the past year has been the most enjoyable year I’ve had as a designer, maybe the first I’ve genuinely enjoyed; the tom dixon book, RIBA journal, the four season, YCN magazine, the one cookbook, wired… I’ve genuinely enjoyed working on them all.



posters for the exhibition FIT




DB: what areas of your work or personal development are you hoping to explore further?
MW: I was supposed to spend last year thinking about what to do next but got too busy and really didn’t resolve much on that front. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m excited about this year, despite having no idea what I’ll be doing. it’s exciting having everything up in the air – I have no idea how it’ll all land. I’ve been looking at carpentry courses.





port one  typeface




DB: what do you know now that you wish you knew when you left college?
MW: thinking back, I learned very little at college. I became rather good at drinking and playing pool but not much else. the course didn’t really work for me, but that was probably as much to do with me as the course. I had had such a wonderful time on foundation and wanted more of that, but my degree (at central st martins) was very different. so I’ve learned what little I know ‘on the job’, which I don’t think is a bad way to do it, I don’t regret that at all, but there is perhaps an argument that colleges have a responsibility to point out some of the more practical (‘boring’?) elements of being a designer, the ‘making a living’ part for example. but then if they had I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to it. I suspect there is more of that in colleges these days, I graduated a pretty long time ago.




port magazine covers






DB: what compels you to design and what other compulsions do you have?
MW: I’m not sure I feel compelled to design. I think I feel compelled to try hard, to do whatever I do as well as I can, and I think that same compulsion would apply if I had wound up being a bricklayer, a commis chef, a carpenter or a sign painter.


my role (if it can be called that) in port magazine (aside from designing and art directing the covers) involves sitting around in pubs and restaurants with my great friend dan crowe, who is the editor of port, eating and drinking and talking about ideas, writers, things we like. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a compulsion, it probably doesn’t, but it’s something I enjoy enormously, I get a huge amount of pleasure out of that.



elephant magazine



matt_willey_interview_17  18






DB: do you draw often and do you think it’s important to be able to draw as a designer?
MW: I do draw. not as much as I used to and not as much as I’d like. drawing is important to me but I know designers, very good designers, who don’t draw. I think too much design starts and ends on a mac. it’s easy to see why, the mac is an extraordinary tool, but I think some of the more interesting work involves thinking and working away from the computer.




YCN magazine






DB: what do you do to keep your ideas fresh?
MW: I worry a lot and I work hard.


DB: do you have any superstitious beliefs?
MW: nope. theories and rituals and habits, but no superstitions.


DB: what’s the last thing that made you say ‘wow’ ?
MW: I said wow this morning at a picture my son had drawn of a ‘big humongous sea creature’.