I post today in tribute to Nic Hughes, who passed away three years ago today. I write this because Nic was so much more than just a designer or tutor; to cite him as an inspiration would be an understatement. He had more of an impact on me in than most ever have, or will.
He was an important education to me on first impressions, too. I thought him terrifying to begin with. It was just before Christmas 2010, in the first of my two-and-a-bit years undertaking a Graphic Communications degree at Norwich University College of the Arts. We’d all been ushered in for a big end-of-term course meeting, and upon entering the esteemed final year studio, Nic was right there, unmissable in his trademark beret and jacket-and-jeans apparel, having a debate with a group of students over design decisions, and from the looks of things, most definitely winning. I eavesdropped with mounting dread and thought this was a man who was going to be hard to please. I remember being full of nerves and apprehension when, after Christmas, I saw that he’d been timetabled in to start teaching us, even more so when said sessions arrived, and I saw that ominous beret edging toward me to see what I was up to!
I was right in my assumption that he wasn’t easily pleased; praise from Nic, fuelling that smile of approval, became a fix strove for – you knew you’d truly done well. But I was so wrong about him being scary. He was wonderful: critical, constructive and ever encouraging, Nic could actually tear your work to shreds, but in doing so he would never strike the wrong note; it felt as if it was just a discussion amongst friends. He just wanted you to build and rebuild – iterate was his word. When he questioned your rationale and suggested an alternative, he really just wanted you to go and prove him wrong – he was wise enough to know that he wasn’t always right (though I’d say he was far more often than not). Most of his fellows on the course could have learnt a lot from that.
Talking to Nic quickly went from terror to treat, fear morphed into awe, and soon enough I was discussing my work with him more than anybody else. It seemed a criminal waste to do otherwise. I found it so easy to talk to him, which, being horrendously shy, is something I find very rare and very special. He respected my organisation (I still question this), the fact that I beat him to the studio in the mornings, and that I didn’t waltz off home at lunchtime like most on the course; indeed, I missed my bus home several times because I was talking to Nic about colours or kerning… I didn’t care. You couldn’t leave – his enthusiasm was too infectious and his input too valuable. Nic would make you see differently by citing the most thoughtful references, philosophies and frameworks from disciplines far removed from the realms of design, and showing ways of using these to inform and lift what you were doing. How grateful I am for these exchanges and making the most of them now, knowing what would happen just the next year. They paid off exponentially, too, as I improved hugely thanks to his guidance and shared wisdom – the course leader branded me ‘Disciple of Nic’, which I rightly took as a tremendous compliment!
Above are some posters that I created in late 2011, the start of my second year, in response to a brief asking for three posters – type only, image only, hybrid – centred around a news item. I chose to focus on the moral and physical conflict at the Dale Farm travellers site, and the dilemmas such a situation dealt society. Nic seemed ridiculously engaged by these, ordering me to hang them in the studio and telling me they were “sick… fucking amazing”. He voiced no fears, offered no criticism… after being initially uncertain of them, I was buzzing. It was the most emphatic reaction I’d ever coaxed from him.
That was our last exchange. Upon returning in 2012, Nic had disappeared, we were told due to ill health. He had cancer. There was always the enduring hope in me that he would recover… that one day I’d venture into the studio and he’d be prowling around excitably once more, but sadly it wasn’t to be. He had been diagnosed far too late; nothing that could be done.
I was hit hard by the news of his death, even if it was becoming increasingly inevitable – if I were a disciple, I had lost my leader. I later found out, via my course leader, that Nic had put in a good word for a design job (that I landed) just a couple of months before his death. I was so touched, I couldn’t believe it. Even more owed to this very special man.
Nic’s passing was not only a tremendous loss to all that were touched by him, but also to the design industry as a whole; the students of today and tomorrow, unable to be approached by the beret and unable to become the disciple that I did.
That just seems so wholly unfair.
Miss you, Nic.
1968 – 2012
A tribute and an example of Nic’s methodical practice via the sketchbook can be seen here.
Nic also kept a blog which happily is still online. It’s full of interesting design nuggets, far-reaching observations and a deeply moving, typically eloquent passage about his illness.