Neil Gower’s Surprises

Posted inDesign Inspiration
Thumbnail for Neil Gower’s Surprises

Faber & Faber’s 50th-anniversary edition of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies

You know when you get an e-mail from a stranger who’s coming to town and wants to visit your studio? Those e-mails that you typically delete? Recently, I received one that hit my soft spot: the designer claimed to be a fan of my bottle-cap collection. I had to meet this guy.

Neil Gower is a strange mix of soft-spoken and overcaffeinated—humble and polite, but just a tad jittery. (He spoke of recently getting over a bout of caffeine poisoning, so I’m not kidding about the coffee-achiever thing). I liked him instantly, and knew this was someone I’d want to keep in touch with, bottle caps or no bottle caps. And then he showed me his portfolio.

The U.K.-born Gower’s body of work spans multiple eras of design history and a plethora of styles. It is filled with whimsy (and is just plain wonderful). Gower’s common thread is combining words and images into a cohesive whole.

The colors in his gouache paintings are bright and playful, and each piece that he flipped through on his trusty new iPad made me itchy to see the real deal, or at least a nice, juicy print. And then he pulled a print out of his bag. Neil Gower, my new BFF.

Above and below: some of Gower’s covers for the arts magazine VivaLewes. Left: June runs to the lido somewhere between Miro and Picasso. Right: a Matisse-esque window open on high summer, the objects on the table reflecting the contents of the magazine

Left: the Garden Issue in bloom. Right: a Winsor McCay/Alphonse Mucha/Chinese lantern mash-up steers clear of Christmas cliche.

Left: a collage of lively cut-out paper and fresh colors for the Health & Well-being Issue. Right: a celebration of speed recalling the 1930s linocuts of Cyril Power

“A project will always start with repeated postage-stamp-size pencil thumbnails in notebooks,” Gower says. “At such a small scale, these enable me to assess tiny variations in how the basic shapes of the elements and words sit within the available space. I can then develop the most viable arrangements into larger, more formally drawn pencil outlines for presentation to the client. These might often be accompanied either by a set of swatches or a sample section of the design.”

He continues, “Because I work in a wide range of styles, I have to be open to using different media. So gouache, watercolor, acrylics, colored pencils, and inks all find their way into my images. However, it is gouache that I tend to use most often, because it lends itself so well to replicating the finish of the images and printing techniques from which I draw inspiration. The excitement of laying down and combining flat, matte areas of color never fades!”

Gower has developed a particularly enjoyable relationship with an arts/local-interest magazine in his hometown of Lewes, called VivaLewes. He has produced many covers for them, free of charge, in exchange for a completely open brief and the chance to let his hair down with things very few “proper” paying clients would allow. “One of the distinctive things we’ve devised is that the magazine doesn’t have a masthead,” Gower says, “so I can make the title an integral part of each design. Nor does the magazine have cover lines, so I try to include (often enigmatic) visual references to the contents within the image that might only make sense to the reader once the issue has been read. It surprises me how many people are aghast at the notion of working ‘for nothing,’ but besides the sense of contributing to and celebrating my community, I end up with very effective portfolio pieces which, in turn, never fail to generate other work in the same enjoyable vein. In addition, of course, the body of work has grown to the point where we can sell the images as prints and canvases, which does generate income.”

Gower’s enthusiasm for the work itself is humbling, particularly as I experience myself as increasingly cranky. And he wasn’t just in visiting-polite-overseas-guest mode; Gower was genuinely jazzed (or maybe it was the coffee thing). “I cannot stress enough the importance of scaring and surprising oneself creatively,” he says. “The day you stop experiencing that is the day you should give up.” Truer words were never spoken.

He says, “I like the idea of starting with a hunch that something might work, or starting with several pieces of reference, such as a type style, a printing technique, and/or a painting that could be combined to form something new. It starts as a kind of magpie collection of bits and pieces but ends, I hope, in something that is new and more than the sum of its parts.”

Hand-painted covers for Gower’s Italian sketchbooks

Italian sketchbook spines


You might also enjoy the book Illusive: Contemporary Illustration and its Context, now on sale at