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Interview with Ben Olins from Herb Lester

Interview with Ben Olins from Herb Lester

It's been a while since we first launched our designers and makers interview series, but hey, we started a business and then decided to move it across the ocean so I think we get a break here 😉

We are however pleased to share more about the inspiration behind Herb Lester, the fine folks who create our lovely illustrated travel guides. One of the founders, Ben Olins, speaks with us about their creative pulse, where you might find him should he ever tire of the UK and what keeps him going when the going gets tough as an entrepreneur.

What originally interested you in travel and design?

The way things look has always been important to me, that goes for most of us probably. I like looking at buildings, shop signs, botanical gardens, parks, train stations. So I suppose where the two meet is that through travel you sometimes get to see things that are different and fresh. Not always, travel introduces plenty that’s hackneyed and hideous – that stuff’s everywhere. The other part of it is that I enjoy old books, magazines and travel guides. Back when photography was more expensive, that type of publication had to rely on great design and illustration. That’s something we took a lot of inspiration from.

Copenhagen Travel Guide | Haus of Nomads

How did you come up with the idea to create an illustrated pocket guide?

Our first publication, which was in April 2010, was a guide to places to meet and work. We had no office, so it was a response to that. Quite quickly we realised the potential of the idea and the format, which was a single sheet of A3 paper, printed on both sides and folded to a very portable postcard size.

How do you choose the next destination for your guides and how do you get it all accomplished? 

It all begins with what appeals to us: places we’ve visited and like, places we’d like to visit, or places friends have recommended. The angle is about trying to look at familiar things from a slightly different perspective, not for the sake of novelty but as a reminder of what makes them special.

We always get tips from people in the places we’re writing about, and from friends and acquaintances who’ve visited. The process we go through is similar to what most people do before going away, just on a larger scale.

Herb Lester Cork Board of Inspiration

What’s your criteria when deciding which locations go into a guide? Considering the size of the guides, it must be hard to keep them so concise!

That’s the hardest bit. We always think of the reader and ask ourselves if their experience of the city will be improved by visiting these locations. Is it worth their time, money and effort?

What’s the first thing you do when arriving in a new place once you’ve left your bags where you’ll be staying?

I usually want to eat and take a while to get my bearings.

New York Travel Guide | Haus of Nomads

Which places have you visited, but always find your way back to? What intrigues you about them?

I like big cities, places that are unknowable. So let’s say New York. It’s an obvious choice, but it’s always exciting. And even as so much of the good old stuff goes, there are still places to find. I love its crudeness as much as its sophistication – I’m one of a select group that relishes the subway stink.

Politics won’t enter the question here, promise, but if you had to move out of the UK tomorrow but weren’t allowed to go to a predominantly English speaking country, which country would you choose?

Possibly Spain. For the food, the people, the climate. And Spanish is a lot easier to learn than Portuguese.

Los Angeles Travel Guide | Haus of Nomads

How did you find the locations you’ve highlighted through your Old LA & New York guides considering there must be locals who aren’t even aware of some of these hidden gems?

With the map How To Find Old New York, that took a lot of research – just hard work. On How To Find Old LA, we commissioned Kim Cooper. She’s a native Angeleno, a passionate conservationist and a great writer. We really couldn’t have found anyone better suited to the task.

Our new book Brooklyn Mom & Pop is in the same vein, covering traditional businesses at least 30 years old. That one was written by Jon Hammer and Karen McBurnie, who are in New York and did the considerable legwork for us. Like Kim, this stuff is important to them – they want it documented and they want people to patronise these fine places, as do we. We’re very fortunate to have found such great, likeminded people to work with.

Herb Lester Office - Travel Guides

In times when more and more people use their devices to do practically everything, why do you think people still buy paper travel guides when they can have it all in their phones?

Phones and devices are great at providing information on the go but they don’t look attractive, they’re not good for long-term planning and they certainly aren’t a souvenir. There’s still a market for paper, for us at least. 

You guys recently launched an App for London. Why did you decide to create this? Do you plan to have a section in the App for every location you have a guide for? Are you reticent that people will choose the App over the original paper guides?

Since we began people have requested an app. You have to give the people what they want. We’re adding more cities now – Lisbon, Barcelona, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Austin, Edinburgh should all be live by the time this is up– and more will follow. I don’t see the app as competition for the guides.

Rome Travel Guide | Haus of Nomads

What do you appreciate most about the work your designers do to create the feel of the travel destinations you highlight?

Working with designers is one of the best things about doing Herb Lester. Our briefs are usually quite open, so to see the response to that is always a thrill. We’ve been so lucky to work with a lot of exceptionally talented people.

What is the most exciting thing that has happened since you founded Herb Lester?

I was pretty happy that Florence Fabricant wrote about our new book in the New York Times a few weeks ago.

What keeps you going as entrepreneurs when things get tough?

To be honest, it feels a bit like a film where the path behind you is being consumed by flames. The only way is ahead.

Herb Lester in flight over London

Great insight, Ben, thanks for speaking with us!

Ready to go traveling now? Check out our selection of Herb Lester travel guides.

Photos courtesy of Herb Lester.

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