Interview with Mel Northover

Interview with Mel Northover

January 19, 2021

Mel is an artist, designer and creative director at Northover&Brown, a multidisciplinary design company specialising in exhibition design, graphic design and animation. She has a wide range of teaching experience leading creative workshops and lecturing for various arts institutes and museums but her greatest passions are drawing and the natural world, which she combines in her personal work.

We were delighted to get a chance to chat with Mel about her creative journey and the role of drawing in her life and practice...

Interview: Matilda Barratt in conversation with Mel Northover.

Let’s start by talking a bit about your background - how did you come to do what you do today? What routes has your career taken? 

I’m sure it’s not unusual to hear a creative say their career has taken many twists and turns! I think when you’re creative at heart and extremely curious about the world you’re always looking for ways to express that inner voice although I didn’t realise this when I started out. When I graduated in the mid 1990’s with a first class degree in visual communication design, I set out with a desire to pursue scientific illustration which I adored as it combined my love of biology and medicine with drawing and painting but whilst highly skilled (we were trained in observational drawing, watercolour and stippling techniques) it didn’t offer a release for the more playful and imaginative side to my personality!

After a few years of successfully freelancing for science and natural history publishers in London and then working as a designer at St Bart’s medical illustration department I started to get itchy feet. I had the opportunity to work for a packaging design studio and this really allowed me a few years to hone both my design and illustration skills. I loved generating ideas around children’s gifts and produced a huge amount of conceptual drawings and illustrated work. I began to wonder whether a change in direction could satisfy my growing interest in the storytelling tradition of drawn animation and film making so I made the decision in 2003 to study character animation at Central St Martin’s at the University of the Arts London.

I really felt at that point that I was in my natural environment, drawing every day, producing traditional animation under expert tuition and developing a love for character portrayal. I worked my socks off, graduated with a distinction, and freelanced again for several years as a character animator initially working in broadcast & children’s TV. I loved every minute and spent several years running family animation and drawing workshops and giving film talks for the Barbican’s creative learning team. I have wonderful memories of working at the Big Draw’s Amazing Space at Somerset House in 2006 - yay! In 2011 I had just finished animating four films for Simon’s Cat, my partner Alison was working as an exhibition designer and it struck me that we could combine all our interests and skillsets and incorporate animated content as a perfect medium for really engaging audiences in an appealing way. This is how Northover&Brown was formed.

[Image: Instagram Mim and Kevin @allinmelshead]

Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to be a designer, or have you always had the creative itch?

There’s that itch again! I can’t say there was a defining moment as such but there has been a lifetime of itching! I think ‘designer’ is a term that can encompass many disciplines where communicating ideas is foremost and I do get a little frustrated that there is sometimes a perception that an artist cannot be a designer and vise versa. I see myself as both. I recall attending a programme of amazingly inspiring D&AD lectures in my 30’s, one in particular with Bob Gill, that made me feel I had only just begun exploring who I was creatively. Looking back it feels like a series of natural transitions, influences, opportunities and risk taking that led me down my path.

You are the Creative Director of a versatile design company, Northover&Brown. Could you tell us a bit about this?

Northover&Brown are a multidisciplinary studio which I run with Alison Brown producing exhibition and graphic design, illustration, animation and photography for a variety of clients and we combine these disciplines when designing exhibitions and audio visual installations for the museum and heritage sector. We’ve had the privilege of working with amazing artists, theatre designers and architects and in incredible spaces. The expertise of curators has opened our eyes to a remarkable variety of subject matter, from particle physics to Neolithic feasting and we’ve been extremely fortunate to have created work for some of the UK’s most popular visitor attractions such as Stonehenge and the Tower of London.

[Image: Walt for the National Maritime Museum]

What are your views on the importance of drawing? Does it play an important role both in and outside of your working life?

It’s vital! I can’t imagine a day that goes by when I don’t draw. I’m often overwhelmed by the feeling of needing to draw, as if it is important to my survival! That may sound a little extreme but the compulsion to draw can be very powerful! I think the physical act of drawing whether digitally or on paper can be so visceral, it really connects you directly to your thoughts and ideas. It’s also inherently human to be able to communicate through mark-making. When I draw it can be anything from conveying ideas to a client, figuring out ideas in three dimensions, drawing intuitively for the art I make or creating characters and releasing the daft ideas that run around my mind that I find amusing. I’m also known for drawing faces on everything…it’s a bad habit, bananas should never be grinning back at you from the fruit bowl!

What are your favourite and least favourite things to draw?

That’s a tricky question because I like to think that I enjoy drawing anything. I love conjuring up imaginative worlds! I grew up in a house full of laughter on a diet of Beano comics, Tom & Jerry, alternative comedy and an appreciation for improvisation. I have a very fertile imagination and there’s always a lot going on in my head. Drawing is certainly an outlet. I absolutely love life drawing and don’t do it nearly enough. It’s so challenging but I find it’s one of the only times when I truly lose myself to the process of observing and recording. It’s almost a meditative act for me, and a wonderful discipline to practice. I’m fascinated by character and often draw people that I find interesting, I recently found myself sitting in the car drawing the supermarket queue. If you look back at the drawings you can see how much I’ve enjoyed capturing the gestures, quirks and expressions at the expense of any leg detail although I’m not sure if legs count as a least favourite as I quite like anatomy of knees!

[Image: Personal work - Arboreal Connections]

And what do you do when you’re not creating?

When I’m not working I’m walking! I’m a great outdoor enthusiast and hike all year round. I’ll often head off to wild camp on top of a mountain or spend a weekend photographing wildlife. I’m a keen naturalist and spend a great deal of time observing and recording the natural world. I’m fascinated by everything and since I can remember have always immersed myself in nature! When I can’t get to the mountains, my favourite habitat is amongst the trees in a broadleaf forest, it’s where I feel most at home, regardless of the weather. During the first lockdown it became the inspiration for a series of drawn works I made around the idea that everything is connected. I’m extremely interested in woodland ecology and the importance of biodiversity in our wild spaces and have a particular fascination with mycorrhizal fungal networks! They form the basis of the food chains that sustain nearly all life on land and are truly amazing! Their role in the communication between trees is fascinating and only recently beginning to be understood. I think their importance has received growing attention this year as people have turned to nature to help alleviate the stresses and anxieties that Covid-19 has brought.

And how have you been coping with these past months of lockdown and restrictions?

The work pressures and travel restrictions and anxieties that the pandemic has brought have definitely been a challenge. Although we live in south London we’re close to a nature reserve which has been such a tonic when travelling further afield hasn’t always been possible. It’s also been an extremely creative time personally as I’ve been able to develop my own artistic work, probably best described as digital collage inspired by the natural world that combines photography and drawing to convey ideas around the environmental connections that sustain us. I’ve also enjoyed sharing new character ideas and stories with simple emotional resonance on social media, it’s been lovely to engage with a new audience on Instagram and feel like I’ve helped bring a little light relief to others. 

[Image: Personal work - Arboreal Connections 06]

Our Big Draw Festival theme this year explores humans' relationship with our living environments and ecosystems, encouraging drawing as a means of positive activism. Why do you think that art and design are so good at engaging people in important and often difficult topics?

There’s great power in that two-way conversation between artist and audience. When we’re moved by a work of art an emotional, often physical connection is made, and whilst we may all react differently, encountering great art is a shared experience that not only challenges our perceptions but can bring people together from all walks of life and from across all kinds of cultural differences. Drawing is a potent tool in these conversations and good art and design can help us understand different points of view and ultimately help us look at the challenges we face in new or unexpected ways. The increased dialogue around our relationship with the natural world will I’m sure remain the focus for artists for the foreseeable future - and rightly so.

What do you find most rewarding, as well as most challenging, about your work as a designer?

It can sometimes be difficult if asked to drop certain elements from a large design project, you invest a little of yourself when these ideas are born and developed so letting go can be a real challenge for me! When ideas don’t come easily, being up against a tight deadline can be a nightmare of course, but to see an idea on paper become reality with very little deviation from what you had hoped it could be on the other hand is always hugely rewarding. To work closely with a team who are putting trust in you to deliver your creative vision is also extremely rewarding and seeing the public engage with your work in a positive way is extremely humbling.

[Image: Banquetting House building wrap for Historic Royal Palaces]

What would your advice be to those interested in design? What sort of challenges or opportunities await the industry’s future generation of creatives?

The pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on the arts and although the future of some museums and heritage spaces is uncertain there will undoubtedly be a continued effort to help bring our amazing collections and heritage to the public in innovative ways and perhaps it’s an opportunity to build stronger bonds with the communities in which they sit. Many, if not most, are already successfully using digital platforms to engage and connect with their audiences and as visitors begin to return there will be so much potential for technology to help designers create innovative user experiences.

In terms of young creatives starting out I think the shift to home working has opened up further opportunities for making and sharing creative content online and there’s already a host of thriving communities of artists and designers connecting through social media and supporting each other at a more local level outside the major cities. I still think arts education needs greater support, the idea that time spent drawing or painting should stop at a certain age in favour of academic pursuits is outdated but in some places persists. Science has proved that drawing not only enhances mood and concentration but it improves coordination, memory recall and critical thinking skills which all enrich learning. I think these ideas are slowly being embraced, there is already an explosion of creativity out there and as we move forward post covid this can only help the industry.

The best advice I can give to someone starting out is to try and foster curiosity about everything! To be an effective communicator you might need to think outside the box. Take an interest, record what captures your imagination and ideas that excite you. Who do you admire in the industry, who does it well? Whether your work needs to stand out from the competition or treat the subject matter with great sensitivity you’ll need to be able to generate ideas so chew the problem over, turn it upside down, try and approach it from different angles. If the ideas don’t come, go for a walk, take a break (I’ll go and sit in another room with the iPad and draw the monster that lives under my bed) then come back to it. Relevant and original solutions come from really interrogating the problem you're trying to solve so give yourself the time to explore it. And draw! Don’t commit to launching Creative Cloud until you've scribbled down all your thoughts and ideas, nothing should be off limits. Draw the monster that lives under your kitchen sink (I’m pretty sure it can’t just be me that has them in every room). Thinking will always outweigh sitting in front of a computer screen trying to make things look good or on trend, ideas will soon come if you give them a chance.

Thank you Mel!

Follow Mel on Instagram to keep up with all of her latest creations: @allinmelshead

To find out more about Northover&Brown, head to their website here, or follow them on Instagram here.

Registrations are open for The Big Draw Festival 2020: A Climate of Change! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.