The Original Prop Designer – Exclusive interview with Ruth Winick
Ruth Winick worked as a Graphic Artist in the first Harry Potter films and is the original creator of some of the most iconic designs from the Wizarding World. We had the chance to interview her about her work, her inspirations and more.
If you visited the Warner Bros. Studio Tour after April 2019 (one of the top attractions for tourists who go to the United Kingdom and an obligatory stop for any Harry Potter fan who can afford to travel there), you may have noticed that the café store is shaped after the Chocolate Frog package, a classic design for any Harry Potter fan. What you possibly do not know is that it was created by Ruth Wallington (credited as Ruth Winick), an Irish designer who worked on the first two Harry Potter films as a Graphic Artist and is the author of iconic designs that were featured in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and then they were re-used (with minor modifications) throughout the whole series.
Ruth’s story starts in Ireland, where she studied Production Design for Film and TV at Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design in Dublin. “I worked in the film industry in Dublin for three years as a Graphic Designer, my first film was Spacetruckers starring Dennis Hopper. My aim was to work in the film industry in London but at the time I did not think I had enough experience”, she remembers. Then she decided to go to Australia to gain some experience before going back to London a year later. “Within a week of moving to London, I had a job on Harry Potter. I had arranged an interview with John [King], one of the Art Directors. The timing was perfect as they had just started to crew. John looked at my portfolio of work and said he would be in touch. He said that while I was there I should meet Stuart [Craig] the Designer. I showed Stuart my portfolio and he told John to give me a job!”. She started work as a Graphic Designer on Harry Potter shortly afterwards.
She hadn’t heard of Harry Potter before (probably because of her stay in Australia in the previous months), but after getting the job she read it and was immediately hooked. “I loved it”, she remembers.
And then she was assigned to work on the design of objects that would become a trademark in the Wizarding World. One of them was present in one of the most important moments of the series, when Harry Potter and Ron Weasley began their friendship. We are talking about the Chocolate Frog Cards and their package. “Stuart [Craig] drew the shape of a pentagon and said I should think classical. So I looked at Gothic architecture and played with shapes to make it fit in the shape of a pentagon”, she says, and adds: “I thought that the wizards on the cards should appear behind ornate gold frames like the walls on the staircase at Hogwarts with their names underneath. I also wanted to incorporate dark blue sky and stars to make it magical. Stuart loved the design”, and so did all the fans. In fact, the pentagon design is not mentioned in the book, and it was a movie invention, but it fitted the idea of the Wizard Cards so well that it is hard to imagine them in a different way.
Another item that makes its introduction on that scene and was designed by Ruth are the Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans packaging. “I wanted the packaging to have a British seaside feel and be fun to open. The red stripes are inspired by the traditional Punch and Judy puppet shows. I loved making up crazy ingredients for all the sweets on the sweet trolley even though they would not be seen.” she recalls. The designs were shown to and approved by Stuart Craig, Production Designer, and Stephenie McMillan, Set Decorator, who loved them. And of course, the very same J.K. Rowling, who “came to see the sweet trolley when it was finished and ready for the first day of shooting” (she was along with her young daughter that day).
But perhaps the most important prop of which Ruth is the author is The Daily Prophet, which was vital to move the plot forward in the first film, informing of the break-in at Gringotts. The magical newspaper evolved throughout the movies, using bold fonts and a more modern design, although Ruth’s style was used until Prisoner of Azkaban.
When consulted about the inspiration, she says “I looked at some modern typography books and ways to use text to form shapes. This was the basis for the design of the newspaper. I also looked at gothic fonts and in particular decorative initial letters from medieval ornamental alphabets for the first letter of each article.” The fonts used in the newspaper were not the only trait that defined that design – also the shape of each article, not following the normal standards: “I wanted it to have a magical feel and look. The first letter of each article was a decorated letter. I wanted lots of swirls and the paragraphs to make their own shapes with the words. If I remember correctly, after the newspaper was printed, I drew little squiggles by hand on the words of the headlines to make it feel even more magical. I also designed a crossword which couldn’t be done which I thought would be fun!”
The newspaper is also interesting to look at behind the scenes for the small details and fun word plays that it contains, which sometimes can’t be appreciated on camera. That came from Ruth too: “I had the idea of making the Daily Prophet a fun magical newspaper. I enjoyed making up the headlines, for example, ‘Oldest Wizard turns 755’ or ‘Unfortunate broom flyer hit by a muggle helicopter.’ I remember writing a few lines at the beginning of each article even though they would not be seen, using made up names and stories”. Of course, she couldn’t decide every text, but she had a bit of freedom: “I had to follow the script for the specific headlines that would be in shot on the Daily Prophet but not all the other headlines had to be approved as far as I can remember.”
Today, Ruth runs a small business called Hello Ruth, where she creates personalised photo gifts and origami greeting cards. She is already working on the products for the Christmas season (their Christmas press show is in July “so I need to have everything designed, made and photographed before then”). Apart from selling on her website, she also sells her products on notonthehighstreet.com.
Twenty years have passed, and Ruth definitely left her mark in the Wizarding World. Not only through her design skills, but if you ever get the chance to take a very close look at some objects you might be able to see a reference to Ruth in some recognizable wizarding items. Her name can be seen within the articles written for the Daily Prophet as Rufus Winikus or even on the label of the bone growth potion SkeleGro bottle as Rubens Winikus.
Her designs have made an impact on children from all around the world, children who watched a movie about a wizard boy and dreamt of reading that magical newspaper and eating those incredible candies. Her work reached unknown corners of the world, and of course, she feels “proud to be the original creator of the Daily Prophet, Chocolate Frog and Bertie Botts.”
You can (and should!) follow Ruth on Instagram as @helloruthuk, and visit her website at www.helloruth.co.uk.
Thanks to Felipe Gabriel for his collaboration on this piece.