Q&A with Eileen Owens
As 999 celebrates 35 years in the design business, we finally have the perfect excuse to put Eileen, our longest serving member of staff, in the Q&A hotseat.
Not only a talented artworker and much-loved member of the team, Eileen is the living embodiment of 999. Having worked for the agency in its pre-1982 incarnation (the 202 Design Unit on Bath Street), Eileen has seen what it takes for an agency to survive over three decades. And, in true agency style, she was always at the top of her fashion game as you’re about to find out.
When did you join 999 Design? Do you remember your first day?
I joined over 37 years ago when I was just 16 (and Bill was only 26). I'd spent so much time in the school art department the careers officer suggested I try for a junior artworker role under the Youth Opportunities Programme. I went for an interview and landed a job as a ‘YOPper’ earning £22.50 a week (see below). I was nervous on my first day but I looked the part in my stylish Chelsea Girl jacket, pink floral skirt and matching tie that I'd made in 'Fabric and Fashion'.
Everyone was lovely but one of the finished artists played a prank on me when he pretended to slice his finger with a scalpel and splashed red ink around the studio. Sadly my beautiful new jacket was in the firing line.
What was agency life like back in the 80s? Did you work hard and play hard?
Yes! I remember once working on a Reebok catalogue and leaving the studio at 3.30am with Bill who dropped me off at my mum and dad's, saying, ‘I’m sorry Eileen, but I’m going to pick you up at half seven tomorrow’. Mum thought it was absolutely ridiculous. That kind of thing happened all the time when we had to get everything ready to go to the printers. We could easily be there all night.
As for the parties, we went to parties all the time. Back then, photographers, ad agencies, design studios, typesetters, printers – everyone would throw parties. There were loads of design studios and ad agencies around Glasgow and we all had some amazing nights out together.
How has technology changed your role as a finished artist?
In some ways it’s much easier. Nowadays, if I’m asked, for example, to put a 2mm border with a rounded corner on a piece of artwork, I can do that by pressing a few buttons. Before desktop publishing, you’d use a sheet of CS10, rub down your letraset corners and draw the lines with rotring pens, using slide rules and set squares. Creating that final artworked product was a tricky task but I loved it. I was happy when I got everything perfect. I was good at that.
As for typesetting, to create a block of copy, you’d have to count every character and space in an average line, count all the lines and multiply that by the number of characters. When the typesetters delivered it back to you, you would carefully slip the elastic band off the rolls of paper to see what it looked like. It was always a terrifying moment! You’d literally be praying to God that the copy would fit. Everything took a lot longer but it was a real skill.
What’s the story behind your modelling work for brands like the Co-op and Reebok?
The Co-op was looking for a model to appear in their newspaper ads and posters for the St Ivel range of low-fat yoghurts, cheese and spreads. In those days, Richard had a pile of modelling cards that we both looked through to find a model who looked ‘healthy and natural’ as per the brief. They were all busty and blonde (Carol Smillie was one of them!) and Richard looked at me and said ‘do you not fancy having a go?’. The next thing I was in a swimsuit in front of a photographer. I was so embarrassed but the Co-op loved the photos.
I was in a full page ad in The Daily Record and on huge posters outside all the Co-op stores in Glasgow. I used to pass one on my way to work on the bus and hoped nobody would recognise me.
My granny used to stand outside the Shettleston Co-op and tell everyone, ‘that’s my grand-daughter’, she was so proud. After that, any modelling jobs that came up, I was whisked off for a photoshoot and was lucky to work for Reebok and John Wilson’s Continental Quilts.
Did you ever get into trouble at work?
I got into trouble lots of times but one occasion does stand out. In the Bath St days, one of the artists, Kieran, had to work through his lunch break. We were four floors up with access to the roof, so I decided to play a trick on Kieran. I made Bill’s brother, James, come up and lie across my legs while I dangled over the edge to wave at Kieran through the window. James was terrified as he hated heights. Kieran saw me waving at him but he didn’t seem to find it as funny as I did.
When I came back down, Bill and Richard called me into their office, they both looked very serious. They told me they weren’t insured for that kind of thing and they'd rather I didn’t hang upside down off the building.
When I got married years later, my wedding gift from John Gahagan, the illustrator, was a watercolour of the buildings I could see as I dangled from the roof on 202 Bath St.
Is there any work you have done that you're particularly proud of?
When I was a junior finished artist, a new client was looking for a logo and brand work. The designers were putting together logo ideas for the presentation. I had some time to spare so Richard suggested I have a go at a logo. In those days, all our concepts for clients were mounted on a board. Richard went off with his presentation case to show our ideas to the client.
As always, the designers waited for Richard to come back to find out which logo the client had chosen. Richard threw my board down in front of me announcing that the client had picked mine. That was a bit of a shock to the design team but I was delighted! The same logo is still going strong today with a slight colour tweak.
Do you have a favourite memory or funny story from your time at 999?
One of the funniest stories I can remember was when Bill came into the studio and said: ‘right everyone – can you check to see if your artistic licences are up to date please?'
I wasn’t sure what he meant but one girl looked worried and said she definitely didn’t have an artistic license. Bill told her that she’d need to get a form. In fact, four other designers said their licenses had expired so Bill sent me off to the post office to get the forms.
When I got to the front of the queue, I asked the lady behind the counter for five artistic license forms. She looked in every single one of the drawers behind her but had to give up, disappearing through the back to speak to her manager. A man in a suit walked through a few minutes later and said, ‘I think someone is having you on pet.’
I was mortified, but I had to go back up to the studio where everyone asked if I had the forms. I pretended I knew it was a joke all along but they were having none of it!
You and Sheena have worked together for over 30 years. What’s that like?
Sheena is more than a work colleague. She’s pretty much part of the family. She’s always there to listen and always there to help and I couldn’t ask for a better work colleague or friend. She has been involved in just everything, whether it be my children’s homework when they were young or my wedding day when she made the favours and decorated the end of the aisles with flowers.
What were Bill and Richard like to work for back in the day?
Bill and Richard were a great double act – a bit like Morecambe and Wise. They were (and still are) funny, clever, fair and trustworthy. I’ve always felt happy and secure at 999 and it’s down to them.
Sometimes they were a bit wild. Richard could blow up if things weren’t going right and you’d have to run for cover. Bill was more of a party animal - always playing guitar and singing. They’re really good, fun guys.
What is it about 999 that made you never want to leave?
The people. They do change a lot but they are just magic. Past and present included, they are what makes 999 a special place for me. I love all the parties and socialising. Another thing I love is the view of the November sunsets from the Trinity Towers windows. They’re stunning – the most beautiful sunsets.