Meet Only One Mono, The Graphic Designer Behind Manchester’s New Wave Of Musicians

Words: Kamila Rymajdo
All artwork: Only One Mono

Music from Manchester has been making waves for a good while now and the recent runaway success of IAMDDB has paved the way for a slew of other rainy city musicians to get their due recognition. Much like the self-coined ‘urban jazz’ singer, they’re putting visuals at the forefront of their artistry, and 23-year-old Only One Mono has fast become their go-to designer.

Responsible for the icy typography for IAMDDB’s most recent cuts “Conjuring” and “G.A.F”, as well as cover artwork for dozens of artists including Beats 1-endorsed rapper Tobi Sunmola and Complex favourite Abnormal Sleepz, Only One Mono has not only created a cohesive veneer for the city’s burgeoning rap, trap, and grime scenes, but also amassed a body of work reflecting Manchester’s duality—a city still anchored in the strong lines of its Industrial Revolution architecture, but also one brimming with the vibrancy of its cultural diversity and economic prosperity. Her preference for sharply contrasting two-tone colour palettes convey the city’s often arresting combinations, such as the intensity of the Curry Mile’s neon lights and the cool hues of a typical Manchester sky. 

With work now coming in from the likes of P Money, Dappy, and Sian Anderson, Only One Mono’s distinctive style is reaching ever-wider audiences, but she’s firmly rooted in her hometown for the time being, where TRENCH caught up with her for a get-to-know chat.

How did you get started in graphic design?

After college, I set up a Tumblr page and started going through music tags and saying: “Can I do your artwork?” Basically, I was just messaging people on SoundCloud, on Twitter, sending them emails all day, every day.

When did start feeling like you were getting somewhere?

Because I get excited about the smallest things, it felt like I was hitting it off straight away, from when I started in 2015. I didn’t really care who it was or how big they were—it was more the fact they were letting me do their stuff. I had no experience. I had no clue what I was doing. I had the most basic Photoshop skills and I was just smashing YouTube videos, trying to figure it out. So it felt like I was achieving from the get-go. I remember the first time I got paid, I ran downstairs and was like, “Dad! I just got £20!” [Laughs]

What was that for?

It was for an amateur rapper from America doing their own little thing; I think he’d recorded [the album] on his phone. It was my first cover with a tracklist and it was one of them really generic Lil B-type covers, so his face was in the sky and it was a landscape city. It was so bad, but I was buzzing at the time. I thought it was amazing.

How did you connect with the Manchester scene?

100% of my connections were made through social media and word of mouth. I came into contact with [Lost Culture creator] Andre Lance on Twitter and he was already friends with Two4Kay. From there, I met Sleepz and Sleazy F. Everyone collaborates so freely; when you meet one person, it’s inevitable you’ll connect with more.

Have you considered working with artists from other genres?

I’ve found that other genres are really tight-knit in the way that they already have people doing that stuff or they have somebody there saying, “This person is going to do it.” But with the Manchester scene, once I found my way into that circle, everyone was really welcoming. Also, I think a lot of the demand has had to do with the competition. Once one person does something very well, it’s like: “Okay, I’ve gotta do a sick thing as well.” I think everyone’s at a point where they’re trying to take it to the next level. And it’s thanks to a lot of background people like [IAMDDB director] KC Locke, bringing industry level visuals, providing that quality.

Whose style have you been influenced by in your artwork?

I know it’s a really obvious thing to say Andy Warhol—but he’s the guy! That singular imagery of the off-kilter revolver is what I always wanted to do. Actual art but simple, accessible, mainstream, not anything exclusive. I also really like Joe Perez, who designs for DONDA, Bryan Riviera, and Travis Brothers.

How do you ensure each work is original?

Whenever I try and make a cover, or create something, I shoot it myself. I don’t use two of the same thing in any of my artwork that I’ve done.

When Manchester artists come to you, do they want to communicate that they’re from here?

Yeah, the thing about Manchester is everyone is very proud to be from here. Even if they want to go back to some more authentic roots, or somewhere else they have ties to, they still like to show that they’re from here.

How does Manchester inspire you?

I think it’s important to show where you came from so, for me, when I’m doing personal things, I only ever wanna do what I know.

How does it transpire in the work?

The Hacienda print, for example, with the yellow and black stripes, I do a lot of that in my personal work. And I’m doing a project called The Bee’s Knees and it’s a set of portraits of who I think is the best in Manchester at the moment, and a part two where it’s behind-the-scenes people. The cover for that is going to have honeycomb print, so from the name to the artwork to the people, it’s all about Manchester.

In terms of the Manchester artists who you’ve worked with, what projects are you most proud of?

I’ve got a few but for different reasons, so the first one would be The Meditape Two with Abnormal Sleepz, purely because it was an amazing project and for me it was a turning point for me in my design work. Anything that I’ve done with Tobi Sunmola—he’s just so open to what I wanna do, but not in a way where it’s like, “Oh, just do what you want.” The third one would be Stef Smith’s Swear Down Not Lying, because that’s my first physical CD and we designed every part of it, not just the cover but also the tracklist, the inside. For the cover photo, he was stood on some rocks in the middle of this river in Bury. He’s got a chisel and a hammer in his hand and inside, when you open it, there’s rock on the left and it says Swear down not lying, like he’s chiseled it out so it makes sense to the cover. The CD bit looks like grass and when you take it out, it’s like you’re peeling the grass away. We put a lot of effort into thinking how we’re going to make the whole thing cohesive, rather than just have a tracklist, a picture, and a blank CD.

Are artists from Manchester more likely to take creative risks?

From my experience they are. They’re a lot more inclined to agree to shoot in unusual locations, maybe because they live locally and that allows us to be more creative. Maybe there’s also this Manchester thing, where the art is ingrained in the people.

How assertive are you about your own vision when you’re collaborating with musicians?

It depends who it is and what the project is. If it’s something I really care about, then I’ll really push it—I’m not gonna lie. Although it is their work, it’s also a reflection of me as well. Like with Tobi, we worked very collaboratively but I was going on about this photo for time, saying, “This is the one!” [for City of Dreams] and he was like, “I’m not so sure about it.” I knew he didn’t want to do it but I kept pushing it and it worked out to be what it is.

How do you ensure cohesion across so many different projects and very different artists?

I consciously, constantly think about it. So a lot of the time when I make things, I’ll send them to my friends first and say, “What do you think about this?” Sometimes they’ll say, “It’s good, but it doesn’t look like you’ve done it.” So then I’ll go back and rework. It’s like, when someone makes beats, each track sounds different but they have the same way of doing things, so I have that: I open my files the same, I set up my rulers the same, and I experiment with photographs pretty much in an identical way. I’d like to think that if the logo wasn’t there, you’d still tell it was by me.

You’re a woman working in a male-dominated scene. Have you come up against any problems?

Everyone has been really welcoming but what’s funny about that is a lot of times, people actually assume that I’m a man. I’ve met people before in the flesh, sometimes even people that I’ve done work for, and they’ve been like: “Oh! I thought you were a boy.”

What do you do when you’re not working?

I go out, I like to relax at home, and I ride my bike.

Posted on March 27, 2018