Remembering Phil Baines

We were saddened to hear of the death of Professor Phil Baines in January 2024.

Phil Baines was one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary British graphic design. His career of forty years spanned curation, graphic design, teaching and writing. Combining teaching at Central St. Martins with a passion for architectural lettering and signage, Phil helped shape generations of designers.

Phil initially studied for the Roman Catholic priesthood in County Durham, although he didn’t complete his theological studies and never practised. It was while working at the Guild of Lakeland Craftsmen in Windermere during college holidays that Phil’s interest and confidence in art grew, leading him to leave seminary school and enrol on an art foundation course. Nevertheless, this formative experience stayed with Phil, the influence of medieval manuscripts, typographic detailing and letterpress celebrated in his work throughout his long career.

Phil completed his art foundation course, then went on to study graphic design at St Martin’s School of Art in 1982, followed by a master’s degree in Communication Arts and Design at the RCA. In 1988 he returned to Central Saint Martins (CSM), as part of the faculty. He was appointed a professor in 2006 and retired in 2020 as emeritus professor.

Phil’s creative practice was based on his belief in the humanist qualities of the English typographic tradition. To his students he preached a doctrine of “object-based learning”, a typically contrarian notion in the age of screen-based and virtual graphic design.

Phil’s print design work included commissions for Penguin, Puffin and Phaidon, RCA, Thames & Hudson, and the Crafts Council. He was also a contributor to Eye Magazine and other journals.

He was especially well-known for his passion for architectural lettering and signage, and was also responsible for designing wayfinding for many contemporary buildings, including the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, and the signage system for Central Saint Martins’ campus in King’s Cross. 

Phil is also known for his collaboration with architects Carmody Groarke working with different materials and surfaces to create three contemporary memorials: one honouring victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami; and two remembering those killed in the July 2005 London bombings, situated in Hyde Park and Tavistock Square.

Phil also wrote books that contributed to the understanding of visual communication, including ‘Type & Typography‘ (with Andrew Haslam, 2002) and ‘Signs: Lettering in the Environment‘ (with Catherine Dixon, 2003)

We also remember Phil’s support for the work of the Sign Design Society. He gave a talk on his work on the three London memorials at the 2018 SDS Christmas seminar, ‘Public typography, lettering and memories’.

Phil’s website Public Lettering remains a valuable and inspirational resource for everyone. As does the CSM Central Lettering Record he co-curated with long-time academic colleague and collaborator, Dr Catherine Dixon.

In autumn ’23 a retrospective exhibition that considered the meaning and possibilities of letterforms through the lens of Phil’s work, ‘Extol: Phil Baines celebrating letters’, was held in London. 

With the passing of Phil Baines, we’ve lost an academic and designer whose attributes were described in The Guardian’s obituary (12 March ’24) as “a scholarly appreciation of letterforms, a deep-rooted respect for materials and a love of collaboration.”

Philip Andrew Baines: born 8 December 1958, died 19 January 2024.