A brisk scroll through their poster gallery is all it takes to fall in love with Don’t Panic. You’ll find the delicate leaves and ladies of Beat13’s Lucy Mclauchlan curling around the effortlessly iconic work of Neville Brody. A jumbled page of Jon Burgerman’s quirky characters jostles with the cult simplicity of Blue Source’s ‘Save Us’. It’s design heaven.
But for any undiscovered artists out there drooling obsequiously into your coffee cups, there’s still a wedge of pie left for slicing. Razor-sharp showcase for the icons of the design world they may be, but Don’t Panic also have a self-declared passion for the underground.
It’s a case of digging up artists with the vision and ability to ‘define a scene’ – then thrusting that talent into the hungry hands of a young, urban, media-savvy generation tired of being fed corporate spiel through a straw.
But releasing artwork back into the scene that inspired it doesn’t have to mean slapping paste on a wall in the dead of night, or peppering the pavements with flyers to be trampled under clubbers’ party feet.
Don’t Panic’s distribution system is revolutionary. By bundling together a medley of selected flyers and freebies with a sought-after poster in a sealed, collectable pack, they can deliver the seemingly impossible: ‘Something for nothing, to the unreachable – people who stay out all night.’ Forget fly posting and get work straight on people’s bedroom walls.
‘Our main thing is the packs, but we also publish content on the site,’ explains Joe Wade, who co-directs the company with Nick Agah. ‘Our posters have been going for five years now, and we’ve had big illustrators: Pete Fowler, before he was well known; Banksy, Pentagram and Blue Source to name a few.’
‘The other important part is that the posters showcase unknown talent,’ he goes on. ‘We either pick people we’ve heard about, or they ring us up, or we go round degree shows. Our posters are always about issues. People feel strongly about issues.’
Despite promotional links with big brands like Playstation, Don’t Panic’s editorial independence means they can use design to hammer in some hard-hitting and subversive points. ‘We’re ok as long as we’re not saying anything too politically incorrect, or promoting something evil,’ is Joe’s take on it. ‘Really, we can say what we like. And we do.’
This Issue’s issue is ‘Image Is Everything’, which includes Dr Parsons’ ‘Foetus Factory’, a mass-production line staffed by unborn babies: ‘The world’s first sweat-free sweatshop! Because we don’t have sweat glands yet… Available in a clone high street near you, trendpig!’
Don’t Panic can be culture-jamming satire at its best, and political messages range from the clean symbolism of ‘Peacetol’ – a white dove blended with a firearm – to Maaike Van Neck’s complex ‘Malidict[at]or’, which presents synonyms for each word in one of Bush’s anti-terrorism speeches, introducing shades of grey to his simplistic rhetoric.
Every fortnight 70,000 packs are distributed to the most cutting-edge venues and events in London, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and Brighton, proudly showcasing – as their manifesto puts it – both ‘emerging artistic talent’ and ‘established masters of the arts.’
Obviously for this scale of free distribution the cash has to come from somewhere. Corporate advertising is inevitable, but not to the extent that values are compromised: ‘We won’t have stuff that’s completely incongruous with our ethic,’ insists Joe. ‘We often link with charities and organisations that invest in certain causes.’
Local promoters across the five cities can get their oar in alongside national campaigns to keep things fresh and relevant. And underlying it all is this commitment to up-and-coming talent.
‘If people are doing something interesting, but have no money, they can come in the pack,’ Joe declares. ‘We work on a sliding scale: corporations need to be there to get the money in, but we’ll offer space cheap or free to independent promoters or individual art projects.’
Much of their work lends itself well to the poster-caked walls of studentville, and Joe readily admits the connections are there. ‘We have a good relationship with the University of the Arts London,’ he reveals. ‘Students do work experience with us; a couple of them designed our website, and lot of our posters are designed by students.’ Next year even sees them running a design competition between the London College of Communication and St Martin’s College.
If you’re not tripping over your own toes in your frenzy to get involved, perhaps you should be. Even as we speak, Don’t Panic smooth out their crisp new schedule for 2006 – and it’s blank. Sooner or later they’re going to need 24 new designs. ‘Inexperience is no barrier to making a contribution,’ is Joe’s open invitation. So for all you promising new photographers, illustrators and designers, there’s no cause for alarm.
This article was published in the November 2005 edition of Blowback magazine