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Interview with Jim Smith

Illustrator Jim Smith has a more subversive sense of humour than most. When he was fresh out of college he landed a client by the name of Puccino’s and turned their branding into a joke. In a good way. Here he explains what can happen when you’re given complete creative freedom and there’s a sense of anything goes.

Who is Waldo Pancake?

I was cursed with the most common name in the world. It’s the name banks use on chequebooks in their posters. So when I came to get a website it’d already gone. The next logical name was Waldo Pancake. I’m pretty over it now.

What’s the story behind the ‘fake products’ on your website?

The fake products are a way of commissioning myself to do amazing jobs. Like my Bad Ideas range – it’s just loads of ridiculous inventions like Bogeynose, a machine that picks and cleans your bogies ready for eating. I got to design the machine, do the logo and add some marketing spiel. There are also my fake Japanese posters – I went there on holiday and loved not being able to read anything, just being able to enjoy the posters purely for what they looked like. So I made some fake ones. It takes you out of the real world and the only limitations are the ones set by you.

Did you always want to be an artist?

I always pictured myself at a big desk with pots of pens, designing something. I did the posters for my school fairs when I was young and considered myself ‘class designer’. I have a schoolbook with a story in it where I wander around the classroom criticising all the other children’s work on the walls. Then I get to one of mine and admire it. I do the same thing now, but on the internet.

Where can we see your work featured?

Mostly at Puccino’s coffee shops. There are about a hundred of them in the UK in stations and high streets and one in Italy. I do all their cups, napkins and sugar sachets. I also do the cartoons for the M&S kids food range and the Barry Loser book series.

What artists do you most admire?

The ones who just keep going forward, changing slightly every time.

What’s distinctive about your pictures?

I can see all my influences when I look at them – Andre Francois, Ronald Searle, Ralph Steadman, Saul Steinberg, Jean Jacques Sempe (all cartoonists), soft drink packaging from the 1980s… Slowly it’s kind of become my own style, and I suppose that’s what’s distinctive about it – it’s like me.

Your designs can be irreverent and cheeky – are you like that in real life?

I’m not sure cheeky describes me. Maybe sarcastic. Although heading towards cheeky. But not running around knocking people’s hats off. More standing in the corner talking to one person about everyone else in the room.

What was different about the Puccino’s commission?

They took me on for three months after I left college and just said, do what you want. I sat above one of their stores in a little room and knocked out hundreds of big colourful drawings. The store was being built around me and when it was done the pictures went up on the walls. Then they needed little ads for the local paper so I wrote those. My stuff grew with the company – it’s very different now, as is the company. I think it’s probably rare that so much time is allowed for a brand to grow organically and messily. There’s a strong sense of what it is now, but at first it was a case of anything goes.

Can you describe the thinking behind the designs?

Everything at Puccino’s should make the customer do a little nasal snort laugh. As time’s gone on I’ve stripped down the designs so that they’re pretty simple – sometimes just a statement with a capital letter and a full stop. I wouldn’t have dared do that at the start – I’d overdo everything. Now it’s about one clear idea per item, or wall, or side of a product.

Why have they been such a success?

It’s rare that a company has the confidence to be self-deprecating – and some of the stuff they let me get away with is considered daring. Personally I don’t think it is. Everything is so safe and there’s really no reason for it. Luckily not many other people have done it, so we stand out.

What medium do you prefer to work in?

I like the look of black pen on slightly off-white paper. I use a dip pen and ink for all the Puccino’s drawings and used to write the slogans with a black marker pen, but I now have a typeface that I like to use. When I’m doing my own stuff I use watercolours and coloured pencils and felt-tip pens and anything else that’s in my pots. They don’t have to be top of the range – it’s what you do with them that matters.

What would be your dream commission?

I’ve always said designing a Coke can and doing a New Yorker cover, but only if I could do exactly what I wanted.

How do you work?

I sit at my desk and knock stuff out. Or go for a walk or a cycle ride to get new ideas. My studio is in my flat in Vauxhall, London. I’m surrounded by lots of objects and books and plants.

If you hadn’t been an illustrator, what would you have been?

I’d like to work in a big woodframe greenhouse.

What’s on your drawing board?

At the moment I’m enjoying writing little stories about when I was a kid and putting them up on my website with drawings. I’ve also just designed an iced tea label for a new drinks company in New York, which is a bit of a dream job – when I first visited NY as a kid I came back with a suitcase full of soft drink cans (you’ll understand why if you read my little stories).

Worst thing about earning a living as an artist?

People asking whether you’re going to chop your ear off.