Barney Ibbotson on illustration, coping with clients and his passion for all things Mancunian

If you're often in Manchester, you will undoubtedly have seen the work of Barney Ibbotson – a local freelance illustrator and graphic artist whose work has graced many a billboard, sign and window of this fair Northern city.

With over 15 years' experience under his belt, Barney has lent his expertise to the likes of the BBC, Alliance Manchester Business School, Electronic Arts and Manchester School of Art.

His main specialism lies in illustration, with an emphasis on line, pattern, detail, and colour. And his work has been used in marketing, publishing, branding, and advertising, in the form of murals, album covers, animation and motion graphics – you name it.

An avid supporter of Manchester United, and of the city of Manchester in general – Barney is proud to call this thriving (and growing) metropolis home. He's just around the corner from Creative Boom HQ, so we caught up over a brew to talk all things illustration, going freelance, and his love of Coronation Street.

Tell us about your career. How did you get to where you are now?

I found my way to where I am now via a convoluted route, really. I went to University and got my degree, but after that I dithered and procrastinated, drummed in a band, did temping work, which I hated, took part in live doodling nights in Manchester, and hoped somehow that it would work out, somewhat naively.

I ended up eventually getting a job as a designer in a training company where I learned a lot about being a 'real' designer, yet it was pretty restrictive creatively. I pursued freelance projects on the side until my good friend Stan (Chow, of global superstar illustrator fame) asked me to work as his assistant, taking on some of the design and web work that he was finding difficult to cover.

I worked with Stan for about nine months, collaborating and learning a lot, until the perilous economic situation of 2008 meant that he had to terminate my employment over a kebab in Abdul's on Oxford Road. At this point I decided to stick it out and brave the freelance waters on my own. I've been doing it ever since, and it's taken a while to make it work, but I owe Stan a lot because without him literally dragging me out of that job I might not have had the courage to make the leap.

Freelancing can be tough. How do you survive, find work and stay sane?

In terms of survival, I'm lucky to have a very understanding partner who has helped me both financially and emotionally, even when it's looked pretty bleak, I've been finding work through a combination of promoting my work online, and going out and meeting people.

When I first started I'd been out on a limb, isolated from Manchester and all it has to offer creatively - I didn't know anybody in the 'industry' or many people professionally. So I made an effort to go to networking nights and design events and started to build my network of friends, contacts and acquaintances. I also put work forward for competitions and exhibitions, and took part in events that helped to give my work a platform locally and online, in order to get my work seen and to meet new folk. Manchester has a vibrant creative community so there are always options. I often get work from chance meetings with people.

Staying sane is not really a problem if the jobs are coming in. It's much harder when there isn't much work on the horizon and cashflow slows down. One can also develop cabin fever sometimes when working at home. Freelance assignments that take me into a new environment amongst new people help to remedy this.

Manchester Skyline

Manchester Skyline

Manchester Worker Bee

Manchester Worker Bee

Those pesky clients can often be a pain. How do you cope with the difficult ones and still do a great job?

Luckily I haven't had many nightmare clients. It can be difficult when clients don't really know what they want or they don't know how to express what they want. I find that meeting clients face-to-face is always useful as it helps to establish the relationship and it sometimes allows for some on-the-spot brainstorming.

If I'm on a job and the client is frustrating me, by either taking too long to give feedback or dithering, or changing something entirely really late in the day, then I just let it out and have a good rant about them privately, take a step back, and then deal with it professionally!

You've been illustrating for 14 years or so. What's changed in the industry during that time? For better and for worse?

Well, I've only really started picking up more illustrative jobs in the last few years, and I don't really feel like I know much about 'the industry'. I've just found my own clients and done a job for them. I use the term 'illustrator' but a lot of what I do is creating graphics, for many purposes, rather than illustration in the traditional sense.

Something I have noticed is that illustrative and 'doodling' imagery has become very popular and there is much more of a market for it than when I graduated in the fusty pre-internet years of the mid-90s. When I was doing my degree the only options for an illustrator appeared to be editorial work or publishing, and that seemed almost impregnable to a rather hapless, lazy graduate who hadn't really found his direction and wasn't very confident! It also didn't appeal to me greatly. I think things were more London-centric then too, to the point whereby it was stressed that if you weren't prepared to move to London, then you wouldn't make it.

Describe your style

Decorative, elaborate, unrealistic, fun, playful, unpretentious. Lines, shapes, and colours take precedence over narrative. I struggle with narrative yet when there is some meaning to my work it enhances it. It's usually non-fiction though, like my reading material.

"Currently the city of Manchester is growing at a rapid rate so it's an exciting time, and as a result there are creative opportunities and plenty of interesting people to work with. All of this makes for a fascinating, ever-evolving, and inspirational place to live and work."

Who or what are your influences?

There are so many! As a kid it was video games, comics and cartoons, football kits, maps, packaging, early TV computer graphics. Then in school and college I started to enjoy colourful Post-Impressionists like Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Lautrec, and Art Nouveau graphic artists such as Alphonse Mucha, who emphasised the flat graphic qualities of an image.

I then discovered HR Giger, Moebius, and Hundertwasser and was inspired by their imagination and fantasy. Keith Haring was also an important influence in that he made me realise that simplicity and an individual hand-drawn style can work for you. Thematically I'm inspired by architecture, cities, science fiction, machinery, history, science, and nature.

What's your work setup look like? Where do you work from? Tools, gadgets and gizmos?

I work in the second largest room in the house, which is my home studio. I have a MacBook and a monitor, with a Wacom tablet; an old iMac which I can't update so I use it as a music machine. Felt-tips, fibre-tips and crappy paper, layout pads, scanner, A3 printer for creating my own prints.

You're based in Manchester and are known to love it. What is it about this booming growing city that you like so much?

Have you got a few hours? I could easily bore you with its historical and cultural significance...but instead I'll sum it up in a few sentences. It was the first industrial city and this shaped the place for years to come. Visually this manifests itself in the architecture; warehouses, canals, bridges and archways, especially in areas like Castlefield and Ancoats.

What makes it interesting for me is seeing how the vestiges of those dark sooty industrial days have been reinvented, re-purposed and juxtaposed with modern buildings and infrastructure. There is also an incredible history of scientific innovation, social change, music and sport, which includes such gems as the first programmable computer, atomic theory, suffragism, acid house, and graphene.

Project for Alliance Manchester Business School

Project for Alliance Manchester Business School

Skull City

Skull City

Any notable projects you're proud of? Tell us what you did, describe the process you went through... and the outcome.

I'm pretty proud of an animation I completed recently for Alliance Manchester Business School to mark their 50th anniversary. Working in collaboration with production company Mocha (from Liverpool of all places!), I storyboarded, illustrated and directed the animation, based on a poem by Manchester poet Tony Walsh (aka Longfella), who had also been commissioned by the business school.

It covered Manchester's history and contributions to the world and was aimed at selling the school and the city to potential students. Luckily Tony's poem was rich with Manchester imagery and ideas, so it wasn't too difficult to get the ball rolling. On a professional level it was a challenge to take the project from initial rough concepts through to a finished four-minute film, wearing different professional hats, whilst keeping both Tony and the AMBS happy! Luckily both were happy with the result.

We first discovered you via the window display at new Manchester agency, Flow. Tell us more about that fine project...

The brief was to come up with some designs to cover the windows of Flow's new premises on Lever Street in Manchester. The studio is set on a corner at ground level so the client wanted something that would signal to the passer-by what was going on inside the building, as well as brightening up the studio space. There were five windows, each with two long, thin panes.

After chatting with the client for a while and showing them some old work, I suggested creating a themed piece for each pane, designed to look like stained glass. Between us we came up with a set of words which summed up the nature of his business and I set about translating those into compositions. I used a uniform line thickness, and made sure that most of the design was symmetrical, apart from the odd detail. I tried to maintain the look of stained glass by connecting the elements together and keeping a decorative flavour to it all. I also kept to a restricted colour palette.

The client was very pleased and the windows have had a lot of praise and attention. The business next door also noticed the windows and Flow won some work from them as a result, so it makes me very happy knowing that my work has had a positive effect on their business. I really enjoyed the job and it's one of my favourite pieces to date. I've also attracted a lot of attention from the job so it's worked out very well!

Project for Flow Creative

Project for Flow Creative

Project for Flow Creative

Project for Flow Creative

Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us

Ermmm...I'm a Coronation Street fan? Hardly that surprising but I'm not that exciting, haha!

What was the best piece of advice you ever got? Who told you that?

Oh that's tough. I usually get advice and it goes in one ear and out of the other, so I can't really remember much! I've been given all sorts of advice but the words: "Don't jump through hoops for anybody", constitute pretty good advice.

They were actually the words of Mani from the Stone Roses as he interviewed my bandmates and I for a TV show many years ago. In terms of my occupation it makes sense, especially when clients ask you to work for free or for much less than you are worth. Then again, I've sometimes jumped through hoops for people because I've wanted to help them, and ultimately it was mutually beneficial.

Finally, what three pieces of advice would you give to aspiring illustrators trying to break into the industry?

Don't jump through hoops for anybody! No, not really. Here are three which I think have been relevant to me: Keep going, work hard at it and develop your craft. Be interested in the world around you and get out into it. Talk to people! Have faith in your own uniqueness.

Check out more of Barney's work at

Thanks to photographer Rebecca Lupton for the lovely shot of Barney!


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