Designs on film

It's Tuesday evening, therefore I have decided I am going to write a film. 

It's good to have side projects and entertain the occasional long-term hair-brained scheme. I've been meaning to become the next Billy Wilder/William Goldman/Joe Eszterhas for a good couple of decades now, but I keep getting waylaid by life’s incessant demands and interesting things on the telly. But now it's Tuesday evening; now it's time to get this done. 

I'm not going to just dive in and start typing like some kind of consciousness-streaming maniac. What do you take me for, a television writer? No, I'm going to do this right. Tonight my time will be spent on the necessary preparatory tasks. I'll neatly stack 120 sheets of paper next to the printer, then redistribute said stack into sub-stacks reflecting inciting incidents within a traditional three-act structure. I’ll read about the most appropriate monospace typefaces or perhaps look for old typewriters on eBay. Finally, I'll watch Jurassic Park. You know, for research. 

Only once these preparations are out of the way can I really get on with my screenplay. As the truism dictates, I'll write what I know: a timeless tale of a boyishly handsome young designer making his way in a world that may or may not be filled with dinosaurs. It'll adhere to the traditional designer archetypes that we’re all familiar with from films such as … 

Such as? Think about it: where are all the designers in films? They play an integral part in the film-making process, from pre-production all the way through to marketing, but are designers actually represented on the other side of the camera? 

The answer is a great big, resounding “kind of but not really”. The profession barely exists onscreen. When it does, it's sidelined to a supporting role – a neat little creative job to make wives and girlfriends a little softer around the edges, something to keep them occupied while the men do Important Things. 

In Heat, Amy Brenneman’s life as a designer seems to consist solely of sitting around in an untidy studio all day, waiting for the phone to ring (okay, so that's actually quite accurate).

In Scorsese’s Cape Fear, Jessica Lange’s Leigh Bowden gets a brief moment to explain the logo design process to her daughter, but her vocation is immediately (and menacingly) dismissed by Robert De Niro’s Max Cady as nothing more than drawing “pesky little sketches”. Still, you know what they say: there's no such thing as bad feedback, even if it's from someone who’s probably just killed your dog. 

Both of these were back in the magical days of the 1990s, at a time when design was at least visually interesting for the observer. There were drawing boards and clippings and tools; characters could be coloured by their accoutrements and work habitats. 

As any visiting client or hovering art director will tell you, the day-to-day work of the designer today is an unutterably dull acivity to watch. There's only so much tension you can get out of somebody staring glassy-eyed at a Mac for several hours.

There is one film that puts a designer front and centre, but unfortunately that film is Catwoman. Plonking her in front of Photoshop for a few seconds may be a step up from the character’s more prostitutional origins in the comics, but she's not exactly an icon for us designers to be proud of or aspire to. Archeologists, you have it SO easy. 

This dearth of designers in films is good for me, surely? I could swoop into this void and write the ultimate design film by the end of the week! But no, despite cinema’s ongoing antipathy to my career, there is one film that truly does it justice. It's just that it's a film that doesn't actually feature any designers – in fact the hero isn't even human. 

It's about a rat in a kitchen. It's about commerce versus creativity. It's about nurturing and employing instinct; hierarchical dynamics and collaboration within a creative environment; technique and specialism; the value of mentors and protégés and interns and awards and critics. Brad Bird’s Pixar classic Ratatouille is about nothing less than the act and profession of design. That the whole thing is one great visual metaphor seems rather appropriate. 

Take this for example – it reads like a Design Observer think piece about the state of the design industry, but it's actually a voiceover from the film:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. The bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

How great is that? Damn, that really is one good film (on a par with WALL-E, if you care for the modern sport of ranking Pixar). Of course, now I've thought about it, I'm a bit daunted by the idea of working in this great film’s shadow. Perhaps I'll put the writing on hold for now. 

Never mind, I’m looking forward to tomorrow evening – Wednesdays are when I decide to become a long distance runner. 

Originally published in Creative Review. Illustration by Rob Bailey. Since writing this, Ellen Mercer and Lucy Streule put together the excellent and apt FYI I'm a Graphic Designer video.

How Pinterest simplified, compartmentalised and scattered the web


Cutting and pasting and streaming and tweeting – all distant metaphors that have taken on their own meanings. My life on screen is one of appropriated verbs, relationships between words and actions that would have made little sense not so long ago. One recent addition to this gibberish-to-my-dad lexicon, to my daily routine: pinning.

Without me noticing, Pinterest has become a central part of my working practise, an essential tool for gathering source material, inspiring images, curiosities, ephemera. Anything that might one day be useful research material for a project ends up pinned to one of many sub-categorised boards. It's a means of giving clarity and order to what would otherwise be lost in chaos. It's useful.

But it’s more than just sensible, productive mood-boarding. There is also an addiction – a bizarrely irrational one at that. Pinterest satisfies the urge to collect.

But then collecting teeters over into hoarding. Every website is a potential harvest of pins, whether they'd be useful or not. Why exactly am I amassing this digital pile of science fiction corridor designs? What am I ever going to do with hundreds of images that have nothing in common other than the fact they all prominently feature yellow? Am I ever going to receive a brief that calls for dozens of photographs of that guy in York who dresses up like a Stormtrooper? Do all these boards have any real value, or are they just detritus from yet another online habit?

A quick survey of my friends and peers reveals I'm not alone in this compulsion. Pinterest has finagled its way into the lives of millions. This wasn't supposed to happen. It was a fad. It wasn't going to last. It was a flavour-of-the-month thing; another startup craze for the media to build up and tear down; an excuse for some pseudo-intellectual Harold Pinter puns. It …

It's still here.

There were initial concerns about intellectual property ownership and who could store what where and how – those were addressed easily enough. Once the initial hubbub died down, it became apparent that Pinterest was actually a very smart, very useful new corner of the web.


On paper, the idea behind it seems restrictively basic: it’s a place to bookmark images, nothing more. And for most users, myself included, that's how it's used. But the beauty of a good platform is in it's susceptibility to creative misuse. Pinterest’s rigid hierarchy of user/boards/pins has proven to be an incredibly flexible sandbox for all sorts of brands and publications – basically anyone with a decent flow of visual content (i.e. 90% of the web).

For example, Esquire's 24 boards capture the essence of the magazine – women, cocktails, suits, food – and frees it from the pesky shackles of context. Pantone oversee a predictably garish explosion of colours, with a lot of emphasis on their annual colour of the year nonsense (this year: Radiant Orchid; Flamingo’s Dream was robbed). Random House prove that if there's one thing more satisfying than good book, it's a nice photograph of a good book. All images thrown to the masses to be re-pinned, re-boarded, re-whatevered.

It was put to great effect by Michelle Obama in the run up to Him Indoor’s 2012 re-election campaign. She (or rather, her staff) didn't bombard followers with any old pins – everything that went up was carefully considered. The boards had a very particular story to tell, values to sell. Candid family photographs, a few favourite recipes, behind the scenes images from the campaign trail – all contributing to a much bigger image. All of this content could've lived on a regular website, but within the Pinterest environment, the message could be shared and spread with ease.

Also offering a fast-web alternative to their understandably vast and unwieldy website, embraced the more immediate pinboard approach. When refracted through the Pinterest kaleidoscope, the visual content is more manageably distributed. When you divvy aspects of the universe onto distinct boards – the Moon, comets, Hubble images, etc. – it become so much easier to explore.

The nature of Pinterest is ideal for those walking the line between personality and brand. Why just be an actor when you can be a style guru or design maven? For instance, Jessica Alba is a keen pinner of parenting and DIY recommendations, while Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle publication, goop, is a natural fit for the network. The profile description proudly asserts that the couple of thousand pins have been “curated” by Paltrow. Professional curators would no doubt balk at this over-simplification of their art, but it's just another misappropriated verb, the illusion of productivity. It'll do until we've come up with a succinct catch-all term for finding and grouping and sharing and procrastinating and pretending to be adding something new to the world when all you're really doing is regurgitating.

Alanis Morissette, of The Nineties Sure Were A Long Time Ago fame, has gone the other way. She curates nothing but herself: here are her videos, here are her press shots, her feet, her own inspirational quotes. The few pins that don't originate directly from her adhere to the angst-ridden poster child image she perfected all those years ago. One wonders if her board of recommended self-help books (”you can become your own loving parent!”) is meant to be a joke. Perhaps it's ironic. 


It seems that there are as many ways of using Pinterest as there are people. Perhaps these ersatz websites go some way to explaining my infatuation with Pinterest; they satisfy a sticker-book, gotta-collect-them-all mentality. Plus, with barely any visual customisation opportunities – you can change your profile pic and your main board images and that's about it – there's a calming uniformity and to it all.

Pinterest offers a unique paradigm, the idea of “curation” taken to its extreme. It is a network of exploded content, shattered into equal chunks, constantly being rearranged. For better or worse, it is the web reigned by beautiful entropy – simplified, compartmentalised and scattered.

Of course, by the time you read this, those words will probably mean something completely different.

Originally published in MacUser. Photographs borrowed from the most splendid Present & Correct. Find my pins here

Developing design skills with Lego Architecture Studio


If I'm being perfectly honest with you, this really doesn't feel like work. I'm in my studio and the problem-solving/creative-genius node in my brain is throbbing away nicely. I'm definitely designing, there's no doubt about that. It's just, well … part of me is very aware that I'm on the floor playing with Lego.

But I assure you that this is work. It’s an important professional skills development training exercise opportunity somethingorother, that's what it is. You see, tucked away all alone in my little studio, away from regimented staff development courses and – shudder – team building away days, I'm responsible for setting my own learning agenda. Sometimes, I even like to speak to myself in corporate training lingo, just to make it a more authentic experience. Today, for example, I am quite literally, in a very real sense, thinking mindfully all of the way outside the comfort zone box. A box of Lego. 

The box in question doesn't have a picture of a fire station or a spaceship on it, as you might expect; oh my no, this is proper grown-up Lego. The box is big and serious and says "Architecture Studio" on the front. It even comes with a book full of architectural case studies by proper architects who use architectingly long words. This isn't kids' stuff, this is for ages 16+.

Okay, so maybe I've got a couple of decades on that, but what's inside the box is undeniably the stuff of slightly-pre-middle-aged designer dreams. This is proper design business – you can tell, because it's all pristine and white. A blank canvas of 1210 pixel-bricks, plasticky chaos giving puppy-dog eyes, desperate for order. All it asks is to be made into homes and towers and cityscapes and basically be imbued with some sort of considered, creative, rational thinking.

And so here I am, building and playing and desperately rooting around for a flat two-by-three. I realise I could do all of this with any old pile of bricks (and that's what they are, bricks – never, ever say "Legos", or I will look for you, I will find you, and I will give you an incredibly stern glower), but it feels right to have some set aside specifically for this task. There are other spare bricks scattered about the place, waiting to be stepped on in the dead of night, but they've all been claimed for. I've tried explaining Le Corbusier's Five Points of Architecture to my son, but he remains unconvinced by such dogma. He rarely incorporates pilotis or roof gardens into his stacks of drool-encrusted Duplo, and won't let me teach him the error of his ways. So unprofessional.

But how exactly is this skills development? Well, I'll have you know that there are lessons to be learnt from sprawling out on the carpet and sticking brick to brick. Lesson one: good grief this carpet is horrible up close. Lesson two: pins and needles sets in really quickly these days. Lesson three: by golly it's nice to be making stuff out of actual stuff for a change.

Rather than cursor on screen or pencil on paper, today I'm creating using my hands on pointy, feely, clacky bits of three dimensionality. Atrophied senses, neglected every day under the glare of the Mac display, are getting a good work out. I can feel the things that I'm designing. It is, and I love this word, haptic. There is an abundance of hapticity. The sheer hapticitude of it all is so invigorating!

But there is also a reassuring familiarity to it all. As well as the fact I've been building with Lego since the 1970s, this white mountain before me demands the sort of thinking that I would normally apply to a book cover. It’s about mass and density, repetition and rhythm, scale and texture. Lego is nothing but a collapsed grid, an undiscovered pattern hidden within a very particular set of constraints.

Exercising that discipline down here on the floor today will inform how I utilise it up there at my desk tomorrow. Doing things the same way every day is only useful up to a point – it can easily become a self-perpetuating treadmill of bad habits and tired technique. Play demands imagination, and rewards trial and error with joy; play prevents stagnation; play is good.

So yes, here I am, hard at work. Squeezing new life out of old skills, seeing things from an architectural perspective, rebuilding synapses to enhance my cognitive approach to design.

Also, I've just built an awesome spaceship.

Originally published in Creative Review. Lego Architecture Studio now available from Amazon. This post was originally titled “I am a Lego architect, they call me a Lego butcher” but I think I'm the only one that knew what that meant.

New forms in film poster design

As posters move from the printed realm to the digital, how are their designs being influenced by new forms such as social media and gaming?


A few years ago, posted 8 Actors Who Look Exactly The Same On Every Movie Poster. I'm easily distracted by a nice short list, so was drawn in by the blatant linkbaiting. But as well as providing a few chuckles, it flicked some little switch in my head and changed the way I perceive posters.

It wasn't so much about actors pulling their particular actor faces, rather the repetition in the design. Tom Cruise's nose must be shown in profile if at all possible. Jackie Chan's fist is always bigger than his head. Bruce Willis will invariably be tilted to the right.

And now I'm always on the lookout for these patterns, tropes, the ebb and flow of the cliché tide. For example, I now know that any film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel must have a side-on shot of the male lead clasping the female lead's head in his hands, and be about to kiss her, and preferably they're being rained on, or at least near a body of water. Why do I know this? Why do I need to know this?

What intrigues me, is that somebody does need to know this. These trends don't happen by chance, it's all very deliberate. People make these decisions. Film marketing relies upon familiarity and the reassuring comfort of homogeneity: You liked that? Well this looks like that. Watch this!

The art of the film poster has changed considerably over the last decade. It used to be that a poster was, in rather simplistic terms, a big printed thing that you stuck onto a big solid thing. But now all of that has changed. Think of the posters you've seen recently. How many were actually traditional ink-on-paper-on-wall? Chances are that most of them weren't posters at all, not in the traditional sense. They were merely jpegs; rectangles of marketing real estate on one of the many screens in your life.

The fact is that "poster" doesn't mean "poster" any more. Although the basic purpose (get bums in seats) remains the same, the divergence of print and screen sizes has changed the whole idea of how film posters are designed. These days, posters are pasted into tweets as much as they are onto billboards. Complex illustrated tableaux simply aren't going to cut it any more. It makes sense that designers are looking to other digital lexicons for the most appropriate visual language to satisfy this multitude of formats. And this is where we find new patterns emerging.


There are few pieces of design I love more than Akiko Stehrenberger's poster for Michael Haneke's Funny Games. An extreme close-up of Naomi Watts, her eyes full of panic. It reveals little about the story, everything about the character. It's about bringing the performance and the appeal of the star right to the very edges of the poster. There will be bleed.

Just a few years ago this was quite a radical design. Now, it's one of many. If there is a star, their face will be there, front and centre. Big faces are big, and it's easy to see why. These head-shots allude to the social network profile pics we see every day, and are often seen at the same scale. A simple portrait of a star fixing your gaze is still an incredibly powerful image, even if it is a thumbnail. Blue Steel goes a long way.

You don't even need to have the title of the film on there. In many cases, it's deemed less significant than the tagline, which will be plastered across the star's face in as a big a type as is possible without completely obscuring them. If the web loves something more than mugshots, it's soundbites. Everything looks like an Ed Ruscha painting now.


Rather poetically, one of the best examples of this approach is for a film about the person who made us all look like this in the first place. Neil Kellerhouse's poster for The Social Network has Mark Zuckerberg effectively imprisoned within his own profile, gazing out from behind a cage of text.

(The modern confusion of text hierarchy can lead to odd situations where the tagline becomes the most important identifier for audiences. For example, somewhere between big screen and small, the title of Edge of Tomorrow has been entirely sidelined in favour of "Live. Die. Repeat." The film has become a bumper sticker.)

While some faces are pushed right up to the lens, other are turning away from it completely. The centre frame, almost silhouetted, back-to-the-camera motif is everywhere right now.


There are comparisons to be made with Caspar David Friedrich's 1818 painting, Wanderer Before the Sea of Fog, but the real influence here is Lara Croft's bottom. With years of third person gaming under our collective belt, we are now so accustomed to the visual language of Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto that we think nothing of seeing protagonists from this perspective. Give audiences a hero they can get behind. Literally.

But to completely obscure the star of the show is a risky move, and it shows a lot of confidence with audience's recognition and loyalty to the franchises in question. A big comic book costume helps. Turn Batman around and he still looks like Batman. Turn Benedict Cumberbatch around (as on the Star Trek Into Darkness poster) and all you're left with is Benedict Cumberbatch facing the wrong way and looking a bit lost.


The Cumberback™ seems to work though, as it's found its way onto one of Empire Design's posters for new Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. On another, he's facing the right way and we get a big close up portrait (complete with intrusive tagline). All bases covered. Perhaps this sort of campaign is the best approach for all those walls and screens: try a bit of everything.

These trends will pass, but the era of the poster as a simple printed artefact is definitely behind us now. Soon we’ll be squinting at Bruce Willis leaning on our watches.

Originally published in MacUser. See also: Rob Alderson on the death of the printed poster. 



This is incredible. Myself and the wife and the boy have managed to juggle schedules in such a way that we now have a week off. I'm not entirely sure how we did this. Sorcery may have been involved, souls bartered, something dark and unnatural that will one day tear us asunder. But hey, a week off is a week off. 

And it's not just a regular week off, watching Columbo and painting our toenails – we're going on holiday. I've heard whispers from other freelancers that such a thing is possible, but always assumed it was an urban legend or perhaps a meme I didn't understand. Yet here I am with my lovely family, on a train bound for Keswick and peaceful lakeside frolics. 

Not travelling with us today: the computer, the inbox, the admin, the reading, the writing, the tweets, the pins, the job. For the next seven days, I am not a designer. 


Oh now this really is very nice. I don't know why we don't do it more often. The rental cottage is delightful, the sun is shining, the scenery is … I mean, it's all very … did I … did I turn my computer off? It'll be okay, won't it? It's not as if it'll just burst into flames without me there. But now I think about it, did I send that email with the thing about the thing? And what if I've received an urgent and meaty brief that needs immediate attention? Was my last pre-holiday tweet inadvertently massively offensive? Did that invoice get paid? Ack, what the hell am I doing all the way out here in the middle of this damp nowhere, ignoring my livelihood? 

I shouldn't worry, I'm sure it's all fine. Maybe tomorrow I'll just check up on things.


Just. Just is a snake of word. Could you just do this one job? Could you just pop in for a meeting? Sir, could we just have a word about the airline’s dress code? Just has no place being on holiday. Just should've stayed at home. And yet here I am, pacing the shores of Derwentwater, waving my phone around to get a half-decent reception so that I can just have a quick look at my inbox. 

This professional itch is taking far too long to scratch, and there’s only so many rocks I can precariously perch upon. In my head I can hear the computerised mantra from Duncan Jones' Moon: searching for long-range comms … searching for long-range comms … signal failure on long-range comms. The view from Friar's Crag is all well and nice, but if I can't get a steady 3G signal then damn it all to picturesque hell.


The Pencil Museum! Cumbria may be one enormous phone network oversight, but if anything can distract and bring joy to a wandering designer, it's a critical mass of stationery. Pencils! The world's biggest pencil! Colour pencils! Espionage pencils concealing tiny maps! More pencils! An enormous and horrifying pointillist portrait of Chris Evans made of nothing but pencils! Pencils!

And do you know what's particularly brilliant about the Pencil Museum, aside from the pencils? The wifi. I don't know if it technically constitutes loitering, but we've certainly dawdled in the gift shop for longer than is considered acceptable, leeching as much broadband as possible. Sure enough, important emails have appeared. Important emails that I can do nothing about. Never mind, I'm on holiday and I've got souvenirs that I can doodle with. 


Cheese. Mostly cheese.


Somewhere, somehow, another email crept through. Maybe I crossed a ley line or something? Anyway, I've been asked to chip in on a quick vox pop thing for a design website. Quick is almost as evil as just, but I have this unbearable need to please. Fortunately, whilst getting well and truly lost in the wilds of slightly-outside-Keswick, we came across a nice little cafe with the holy trinity of coffee, wifi and Victoria Sponge. It's another slight deviation from the plan of a week away from work, but I simply couldn't live with myself if I left a pop un-voxxed. I'm not a monster.


Homeward bound. It's been amazing, but work seeped into the rest and play. Only now, travelling in the wrong direction, do I feel completely distanced from all those things I was meant to leave behind. When we get in, maybe I'll pop online and book us another holiday. Just a little one.

Originally published in Creative Review.


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Expect to be distracted by concrete, dinosaurs, modernist toys, magazine design, comics, scotch eggs, fatherhood, urban sprawl, holes, inky smells, stationery, difficult art, umlauts, aquatic robots, spaceships, Lego (never "Legos"), abandoned places, Fincher, Kubrick, Spielberg, cities, wilderness, more dinosaurs, fonts, etc. 

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Jurassic Park and effective restraint

With Jurassic World fast approaching, the Onion AV Club has looked back at the original film, with an interesting article comparing Jurassic Park the book to Jurassic Park the movie. It argues that the latter succeeded because it shifted the focus from the adults to the kids, both on the screen and in the audience. Basically, fewer spilled intestines. 

JP artwork by Sam Wolfe Connelly for Mondo.

JP artwork by Sam Wolfe Connelly for Mondo.

One interesting little fact pops up In the piece: of fourteen minutes of dinosaur effects in the film, only four are CGI. For a film that is considered to be a major turning point in computer effects, that's rather astonishing. Just think how pixel-laden big films are these days, barrages of computer effects that just blur into noise. Four minutes. 

At the time of its release, a lot of fuss was made about the film's revolutionary CGI. Given how well they stand up two decades later, it was of course justified, but all of that hype detracted from how Spielberg was using those effects. He wasn't playing with the latest toy just for the sake of it (a bad habit that contemporaries such as Robert Zemeckis, George Lucas and James Cameron have fallen into); he only used CGI when it was absolutely necessary. There's a whole lot of model work, animatronics and puppetry in there too – it's the blending of it all that makes it work. Using the most appropriate effect to get the shot to tell the story, that's all that matters.  

And those shots are used with incredible restraint. Technical difficulties on Jaws taught Spielberg how to be economical with effects and spectacle, and that really pays off in Jurassic Park. It could've just been shot after shot after shot of dinosaurs dinosauring, but it isn't. Rather than show you the great big awesome thing every time, Spielberg points the camera the other way. He's more interested in showing people responding to what's occurring off-screen. It's about combining action with reaction, and keeping the story focussed on the characters rather than the events. 

(This approach pops up in numerous Spielberg films, most notably War of the Worlds. It isn't his greatest film, but it's a masterclass in concealment. There is enormous, terrifying action throughout, but we're not allowed to look it. We hear it, we glance at obscured reflections of it, we see the aftermath of it, we watch as people watch it. The entire film is a call to our horrible, horrible imaginations. Of course, this is all very apt – the invaders ultimately succumb to an unseen enemy.)

To delve deeper into what Spielberg was doing on and off screen, it's well worth tracking down the fantastic The Making of Jurassic Park. I'm surprised it's not back in print – it deserves to be expanded and given the chunky, hardcover treatment of the recent Star Wars making-of books. 


Jurassic World hits cinemas on 11 June.