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Waterstones tote bag

In 2014 I was asked to create a design to become Waterstones' standard brand tote bag.

The idea was to have something that was stylish and particular to the company's identity, which was also broad enough to appeal across demographics.

The company had recently commissioned an external printmaker, David Pearson, to create some localised totes tying to some of our key locations, and so my brief was to use a style that tied to this black and white, graphic woodcut look.

More implicitly was the sense that the totes of Daunt Books had become incredibly popular and something of a style icon, and that Waterstones could get in on the same action.

It was an interesting challenge, particularly in that last part. My feeling was that the kind of of cache upon with the Daunt Books bags' popularity was founded on wasn't available to Waterstones. As a small chain aimed at a particular kind of customer Daunts had a 'cool' value with Waterstones, as a national chain, never could. I felt the answer was to tap into the 'cool' of reading and books rather than rely on our name alone.

I liked the idea of bookshelves, since it's an image that is quite pattern-like and graphic. I started out with a very literal version of a Waterstones bookshelf. That obviously didn't convey much warmth or energy, so next I tried focusing in much tighter and featuring particular book covers.

I liked the idea of spelling out the Waterstones name in book covers, but it wasn't an idea that worked for a tote where the name needed to be instantly recognisable.

The bookshelves were lacking in interest of atmosphere still, and that's because what brings that to a real bookshelf is all the details of design from the books. I couldn't reference particular books too closely: older, out-of-copyright books might be all right, but they would give the shelves and old-fashioned feel. But new book would soon feel dated themselves.

So I started playing with trying to create the idea of book covers without getting too precise. In the rough on the far right above, there are some obvious specific references but I was using them as a starting point, interested in how far I could abstract these without losing the sense of 'book cover'.

The upper management liked the direction but wanted not to include 'face outs' - i.e. books with their covers facing cover-out from the shelf. The shelf needed either to represent a shop shelf or a home shelf. A shop shelf had to be very neat, and that wasn't visually interesting. So it should be a home shelf - and people don't have face-outs on their home shelves.

So I finalised the design based on these notes. Taking away the face-outs to leave only spines potentially made the pattern a bit samey, so I added in lots of details to bring that variety back in. Books stacked horizontally, left spayed open, leaving diagonally, and I included a few little non-book objects.

Essentially this design matches my own home shelves where I like to mix up the ranked spins by doing exactly this. In particular, the little model bus is something I have on my bookshelf, and I also made is a number 38. I've long been personally fond of that bus route, but it also has relevance for Waterstones: it's the bus route that attends our flagship shop at Piccadilly.


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