While relatively few people have probably heard of Tangent, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone who has even passed through Glasgow is unaware of the creative agency’s work.
It’s writ large across the Met Tower building overlooking George Square, where the huge “People Make Glasgow” hoarding has been in place since the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The Tangent touch was also visible that year throughout the Games’ various venues in what’s known as the “look programme” – the style of the banners, pictograms, tickets, maps and all the other dressing that became symbolic of the event.
There has been talk that the enormous pink billboard – said to be the largest city centre civic message in the UK – could come down as part of the Met Tower’s redevelopment, but for the time being it remains in place for the eighth year running. It has spawned numerous iterations – “People Make Glasgow Greener”, “People Make Glasgow Vibrant”, “People Make Glasgow Enterprising” – seen throughout the city.
David Whyte, who co-founded Tangent in 2005, said the ability to re-imagine the branding has made it a “great job” for the studio to be involved in.
“We designed it purposefully to be quite stripped-back,” he said. “That vibrant pink colour that stands out in the urban environment, the big block capitals, the fact that it’s quite solid and it’s quite identifiable – that has meant, I think, that everybody has really taken ownership of it, which has been great to see.
“It really has withstood the test of time. That’s one of the jobs in the studio that we’re really, really proud of.”
Raised in Kilsyth, Mr Whyte grew up with a passion for art that led him to study graphic design at the Glasgow College of Building & Printing. There he met Tangent co-founders Andrew Stevenson and Steven Waldron.
Mr Waldron remained with the company for a few years after moving to New York, but eventually left in 2011 to pursue other career opportunities in the US. Since then Mr Stevenson and Mr Whyte, the company’s sole owners, have been the driving force behind Tangent’s eight-strong team.
Both being from North Lanarkshire, Mr Whyte said he and his partner were of a similar mindset when setting up the business.
“We wanted to do things our own way,” he explains. “It was very organic – there wasn’t a huge plan behind it all.
“The idea was there were certain types of design and types of projects that we enjoyed doing, and we thought to ourselves well, we’ve got a better chance of doing those things if we start our own company and set our own direction.”
That direction is driven in large part by the desire to make a positive impact on society, Mr Whyte said, which led to Tangent working on several sustainability projects during the run-up to the COP26 conference. The studio is also currently involved in the Glasgow Alliance to End Homelessness, a coalition of charities, housing providers, social care partnerships and Glasgow Council whose aim is to eradicate rough sleeping in the city by 2030.
As a small studio with no particular ambition to grow substantially larger, Mr Whyte said he and Mr Stevenson are instead focused on projects where they hope they can have a “big impact”.
“If you think of branding you think of commercialism – that’s pretty much what comes to people’s minds,” he said. “But these design and branding strategies can work for all kinds of things so it’s quite interesting to take that in a different direction.”
With much of the studio’s revenue generated from work around public gatherings, the lockdowns of 2020 inevitably took a toll.
At one point Tangent was facing the prospect of 80 per cent of its income being wiped out, most of which by the possible cancellation of its largest project to date, the Dubai 2020 World Expo. During an initial four months of confusion, its owners “toughed it out” using the furlough programme and managed to ensure all staff received full pay.
The first project to come back onstream was the Edinburgh International Book Festival, whose organisers decided to push ahead with an online version of their event. Soon after confirmation came that Expo 2020 would be postponed rather than cancelled, putting the business back on a steady footing.
Currently running through to the end of March, Expo 2020 has given Tangent leads on other international events to pursue.
“I remember sitting down with Andrew and the thing we thought to ourselves was that the pandemic was highlighting that a lot of the stuff we were already doing was going to be valuable,” Mr Whyte said.
“We were doing all these things that were civic and social, we were doing festivals – I think these things are even more important now. The idea of people being able to come together, you just know that people have missed all of these things, so we were always pretty confident that the stuff we are doing is valuable.”
What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
The one holiday that always sticks out for me was India, I travelled across the country with my wife around 15 years ago. We went on a month-long trip, but only booked the first night’s accommodation, so the whole thing was a real adventure. It was a massive culture shock and a proper assault on the senses – there was so much going on all the time. A brilliant country and the type of experience that really sticks with you.
When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
Looking back I think I always wanted to do something in the fields of art and design. I really loved drawing as a kid, and my family were the type that praised every crummy wee thing I did so I got a lot of encouragement! I actually regret having never gone to art school – I started working straight from college and missed out on the whole art school experience.
What was your biggest break in business?
Our biggest break was definitely being selected as lead creative agency for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. The event’s organising committee set an open brief to design the pictograms for the event, so any studio could put their name forward. We were a relatively unknown agency at the time but John Donnelly, the director of marketing, put faith in our work – we’ve always been indebted to him for taking the risk. It went on to become a huge springboard for Tangent.
What was your worst moment in business?
There’s a Tangent legend about “The Great Flood” – in the middle of delivering a major project the water tank in the attic above our studio burst, the ceiling collapsed, and all our equipment was wiped out overnight. It was a major upheaval and we had to explain the situation to all our clients to get extensions on timelines. Everyone was really understanding, but it was a pretty stressful time – for six months we were decamped to a tiny temporary space to try and sort everything out while the studio got renovated.
Who do you most admire and why?
I’m in awe of stand-up comedians in general – the nerve and ability to get up on stage alone and take a whole crowd with you takes something special. I particularly admired Bill Hicks, an American stand-up who excelled in really dark but passionate social commentary, and from an early age I really loved everything he did. He had his own really distinct voice and would point out how absurd and back-to-front society was.
What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
I’m currently reading “The News: A User’s Manual” by Alain de Botton. He defines a society as becoming modern when the news replaces the function that religion once had, and points out that we don’t, as a society, really understand the impact the 24-hour news cycle has on us.
I’m listening to a lot of Parquet Courts at the moment, an archetypal post-punk scuzzy guitar band from Brooklyn. They’re due to play the Barrowlands this year which will be a must for me – my favourite band at my favourite venue!