Henry Miller's Eleven Commandments

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to "Black Spring".
  3. Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can't create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don't be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. ConcentrateNarrow downExclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Boyhood reading list

Boyhood is quite unlike any film I've ever seen. If you've seen it, you're no doubt a little bit obsessed and want to know more about it. A good place to start is with the Boyhood FAQ, but it's also well worth having a dig through this lot:

Robinson Crusoe etc.

I've only just discovered that the full title of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is:

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates.

Books just don't have interesting, ludicrously detailed titles any more, do they? Tis a shame. Anyway, nice to see York get a mention in there.

And so to work on a new cover …

 

Hayao Miyazaki on the curse of creative regret

From Hayao Miyazaki's Turning Point 1997–2008:

Making films is all about — as soon as you’re finished — continually regretting what you’ve done. When we look at films we’ve made, all we can see are the flaws; we can’t even watch them in a normal way. I never feel like watching my own films again. So unless I start working on a new one, I’ll never be free from the curse of the last one. I’m serious. Unless I start working on the next film, the last one will be a drag on me for another two or three years.

And with that, Miyazaki succinctly describes the ongoing state of mind and primary motivation of every creative person I know. Forever on a loop of perfection, disappointment and determination. 

Grand Budapest Hotel reading list

Going through my latest collection of reading material stashed away in Pocket, I notice I have rather a lot of stuff related to The Grand Budapest Hotel. So I thought I'd share: 

In the Wild

I've been led astray by curiosity and an inability to understand the perfectly logical inner-workings of Melvil Dewey's mind, and now I don't know where I am or how to get out. I've been eaten by a library.

All I wanted to do was find a book I'd worked on a few months back. It had a low print run (a beyond-niche title; it's an avant-garde experimental book on avant-garde experimental music), so the publishers couldn't spare me a copy. But that's not going to stop me getting a look, feel, sniff of it! I've created something, I've contributed some tiny pixel to the world, and I want to see how it fits. On my computer, the book exists without context or use. It isn't alive until its been set free, having to fend for itself at the mercy of the readers.

So outside I went, far from my desktop, far from the publishers and the proofs and the printers, to find my book cover. Outside. In the wild.

At least, that was the plan. It turns out that the wild doesn't always do what you want it to, and is unwilling to just offer up any old book you fancy without messing you around a bit first. Stupid wild.

Trousers on, hair sort-of-brushed, my safari started in the bookshops of York. Or rather shop. Even though our little city has an enviable abundance of second-hand and specialist bookshops (one sells nothing but books on trains and/or the old testament), none of them are likely to stock my particular bounty. Which is a shame, as I'd rather been looking forward to JR Hartleying my way around town. I'll do that one day. Looks heartwarming.

So into Waterstones I popped for a frantic/nonchalant rifle through their shelves. I hunted high, I hunted low, I pestered the staff, I spent far too long getting distracted and tutting at the silly sub-genre-ifying of fiction (“cosy crime”, good grief). But my little paperback ego-boost was nowhere to be found. I consoled myself by sitting in one of their standard issue Randomly Located Comfy Leather Chairs, chuckling a hearty chuckle at the new Tom Gauld book. I left moments before I was asked to.

Wandering the streets, trying to furrow an idea out of my brow, the obvious finally struck me: an academic book, a book for academics. The university library would have it! By jingo, I'm right! And so off I popped, ever so proud of my incredible skills of deduction. And now here I am.

And … my book isn't. Not on the shelves, not on loan, not on that little trolley of books that haven't been put back yet. I've looked all over the place, in music, arts, geology (damn you, Dewey), but the trail has gone cold. There is nowhere else to look, not today.

It's okay though. I know my little book is out there, somewhere, living the dream. Right now, some chin-stroking avant-gardeners are probably sat huddled in a dimly-lit, wood-panelled room, waving my book around while they argue over who'd win in a fight: Alvin Lucier or John Cage. Hopefully one of this party has actually read the book, but hey, I'm not the author. I'm content for it to simply be used as a gesticulation wand.

My printly progeny will throw itself into my path one day, maybe years from now. Right now, here I am, trying to figure out where they put the exits in this bloody library.

Never mind. I'll just wait for a search party to find me. In the meantime, I'll explore the treasures in this labyrinthine concrete bookcase. Everywhere I turn, there's something I wasn't looking for that's worth finding. There's the satisfying heft of the quarto art books, more effective than any gym equipment; drawers full of curious old maps charting the muddy veins of WWI trenches across Europe; modern art monographs, their lustre undimmed by half a century of sticky fingers. It's probably for the best that I didn't lose myself anywhere near the science fiction shelves – I could spend days poring over those covers. I may not be able to admire my own handiwork today, but this is a lot more fun.

Now that I'm part of the process, I see all of this differently. A forest of books, each one a designer, sat idly wondering whatever happened to that one cover they did that time.

-

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Creative Review.

Finding Colour

"You're at work, aren't you?"

Technically, no. I'm actually sat at the dining table, nursing my daily coffee power-up and shovelling porridge into myself and the baby. But yeah, the wife is right as always: I'm not really here. I'm staring at nothingness, in my head, working. That spot in the middle distance, that's where it's all happening.

Far too late last night, I called it quits on a book cover I'd been working on. Something about it just wasn't coming together, and no amount of eye-rubbing or desk-tidying was helping. Even sticking the Social Network soundtrack on loop – usually a good way of shaking the cobwebs loose – failed to get me out of the creative quagmire. So to bed.

It turns out that sleep was actually quite useful, certainly more so than staying awake indefinitely (must remember that for future reference). Whilst fading from robot-dinosaur-dreamspace to breakfast, I figured out where I was coming unstuck: the colours are off. The problem isn't solved yet, but at least it's identified. And now I can't stop thinking about it. It's sat there on my desk, incomplete, just a few metres from the kitchen. Come on, brain. Think. Finish your oat-slush and think. Colours.

The thinking behind the design as it stands doesn't particularly help. There's usually some element that helps to inform colour choices – something in the text, the concept, imagery. There'll be a seed of something. Not this time, though. It's pretty much entirely geometric and abstract and … well, seedless.

Perhaps it's right under my nose. How about a delicate blend of porridge hues? Or a cheerful greyish-brownish coffee tones? Maybe not. I would turn to my ever-loyal Pantone 549 mug for inspiration, but I've already taken advantage of that particular muse one time too many. Sorry, tealy-blue, but it's time we spent some time apart.

No. Sod it. This is going to involve me getting up, getting my trousers on and heading out into the sunshine. It's time to resort to that most valuable of design stratagems, a technique that dates back to the earliest practitioners of graphic design: a bit of a walk and maybe a nice slice of cake.

-

"Are you taking a photo of your Victoria Sponge?"

Yes and no, the wife, yes and no. I am pointing my iPhone camera at the undeniably photogenic slab of niceness, but I'm not taking a photo as such. There's more magic to it than that. It's more like I'm stealing its soul. I'm Kuler-ing it.

Kuler (reviewed in the last issue) is Adobe’s latest brilliant toy, an app that instantly plucks colour schemes from the world around you. Point your camera at absolutely anything – a Victoria Sponge, a lemon torte, perhaps even a mille feuille – and it'll produce a five-colour palette that you can save, name and export for use in any other Adobe app. It takes a bit of getting used to, and 99% of the sets you save will turn out to be useless, but it really is a great little tool.

Of course, having to hold up an iPhone and point it at things becomes a little tiresome after a while. What I really need is a Kuler HUD before my eyes, constantly scanning the world for chromatic wonderments. Imagine if it was built into something like Google Glass? Although of course, it'd have to be significantly prettier than Glass – cutting edge it may be, but ugly is ugly. No, the dream is a device that smooshes together all the best bits of Kuler, Glass and some chunky Wayfarers. Oh my yes, that needs to happen.

Unfortunately, that idea is the only fruit of my outside wanderings. My slice of cake has been eaten and had all the colour sapped from its spongy soul. I'll head home and continue my quest there … and maybe pen a lengthy proposal to Adobe, Google and Ray-Ban.

-

"You're spinning. Again. I'll go sort out the washing."

Spinning. Yes. Mmm-hmm. Leave me now, I'm having a creative moment on my spiny chair. Kuler has opened my eyes to the vast spectrum of potential visible everywhere. You know the stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey (or rather, that bit in The Simpsons when Homer sits in the massage chair)? That's how I feel. Before today, the world was in colour. Now it's in COLOUR.

There’s colour aplenty visible from my little workstation. Just a quick spin of the old stool reveals a reliable source of inspiration: if years of hoarding books and records and magazines has taught me anything, it's that there's gold in them there spines. Slivers of rainbow, type and texture – I could look at these all day. But that doesn't seem awfully productive, so I merely rearrange them instead. And now I'm the proud owner of an entire shelf made up of nothing but black, white and red spines. Useful. Pretty.

The colours I need are around here somewhere. When they appears, they’ll appear in the most unlikely of places. My mind wanders back to a conversation with designer Nick Felton (aka Feltron). One of his legendary personal annual reports was a combination of greys and greens and whites – only later did he realise that the colours perfectly matched a photograph of some lichen he'd taken months before. So maybe I've already seen it, maybe the inspiration is already lodged in my noggin, maybe …

Whilst I furrow my brow and stroke my chin, my exasperated other half is actually getting something done; hanging washing in the doorway of our home studio, lining up an array of damp t-shirts just so. A navy and white striped one. A mottled grey one. A faded green one from a Wilco gig I dragged her to years ago.

And there it is. Colours. Perfect. She'll pretend it's just some chromatic happenstance, but I think she's known all along. Brilliant, patient wife. So much more useful than a thousand apps.

-

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of MacUser.

140 Characters

Birdy borrowed from Death Records

Birdy borrowed from Death Records

I need to cull. I love my twitter feed and all the characters that populate it, but I really do need to cull. Several hundred voices all yammering at once is a bit too much to take in, so I need to get it down to a sensible number. A number that works.

Too many followees and it's just noise, too few and it's like an awkward conversation outside the bathroom at a party. There must be a Goldilocks figure that I can aim for, some state of socio-mathematical perfection. Twitter is too valuable to just throw arbitrary numbers at, willy-nilly.

I know what you're thinking: it's all getting a bit Beautiful Mind around here. But patterns and formulas and ratios are all part of how I think – my head is all columns and codes and colour values and kerning. Fibonacci and Euclid and Palladio and Müller-Brockmann, all muttering sweet nothings. Numbers are important.

And so is twitter. To many, it's nothing more than a distraction, a trickle of ego and innuendo. It's all about how you use it. At its very basic level, it's simply a communication tool, an open conversation. If you nurture it carefully and make sure you only follow the voices you really trust, you've got something invaluable. Where would I be without my retinue of designers, writers, film-makers, weathered friends and heroes? It's a river of news and opinion and wisdom and humour and opportunity, flowing through my working day like a big flowy thing.

It's also the most fascinating search engine you could hope for. Rather than feeding a request into the great big Google Algorithmotron, asking actual human beings is so much more effective. Sometimes you ask a simple question and moments later you're inundated with generous pearls of wisdom and links and advice from all over the world, more than you could ever hope for. It's like having your own personal fleet of flying monkeys.

I took advantage of this when one of my more abstract works, Pouring Hot Fluids Over Apple Hardware, killed my close-bracket key. Whenever I needed to use it (more often than you'd imagine … in fact, here's one now), I just turned to the helpful distractible hordes of twitter. More often than not, there'd be someone already emoticon-grinning on there, so I could just copy and paste from that. If not, I just asked for a smile and I'd get a pile of nice little sideways happy robot faces looking at me within seconds.

So yes, okay, a lot of it is just silliness. But what's wrong with a spot of the old silly? You can't plan it this way, but with the right people, silly makes for a great foundation for more sensible chat. A bout of hashtag punnery – when the copywriters get going there's no stopping them – can lead you down all sorts of useful professional avenues.

Actually, tweets have proven to be a good starting point for lots of things. I've lost count of the people I've initially met on twitter who have turned into more important connections. Some I’ve met in person (so very 20th century), some I’ve gone on to work with, some have provided unexpected support elsewhere (network of designer dads, I salute you). A couple of years ago it even led to me taking over the reins of CR's twitter account for the day. As I recall, I mostly talked about scotch eggs.

I imagine what turns a lot of people off is that it's all rather public. Social networks have made us willing inmates in a pocket version of Bentham's Panopticon, allowing ourselves to be observed by one another in lots of different ways all the time. That is, on the one hand, downright terrifying. But on the other, it's incredible – full of interaction, narratives and lovely illogical connections.

Creative industries don't benefit one jot from everyone keeping themselves to themselves. They feed off generosity and openness. And numbers. Don't forget the numbers. Which brings me back to my initial quandary: how many people to follow?

I'm advised (by somebody on twitter, of course) that "Dunbar's number" is a measure of how many effective social relationships its possible to maintain. On average, it'a about 150. Or so it says here. That seems like a sensible level of interaction to me, but it's missing a certain poetry to it. If I just cull a few extra individuals, the number will be perfect and elegant and right. That's it. I'll follow 140 characters.

I'd best make sure though. I'll ask the flying monkeys.

-

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Creative Review

Amiga

There I was, lazily flicking through the latest releases on the App Store, looking for things I really don't need or want, just in case there's something incredible buried under all the camera filters and calculators and clunky weather apps. I was about to give up too, and then I saw something glistening in the most obvious of places. Right there on the main "Featured" page.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it said. As in, the XCOM: Enemy Unknown that I spent a Summer attempting to master on my Amiga 1200? That XCOM: Enemy Unkown? Surely not? Really?

And that was it, that's all it took for me to tumble into nostalgia.

Ah, the Amiga. Commodore's flagship brand may have found itself a little bit buried by history, but if you are/were of a certain age, you'll remember it with a warm, cushiony fondness. For a period from the mid-80s to mid-90s, it quietly redefined what a computer should be, and found its way into living rooms and bedrooms and studios and people's hearts. Sound familiar?

In so many ways, the Amiga was Apple's spiritual cousin and forebear (can you be both, or is that considered spiritual in-breeding?). It laid a path down which Apple would find itself wandering a decade later. It wasn't trying to be an insipid business machine or a cheap arcade; it was trying to have a go at being everything, and mostly excelling. The graphics and sound capabilities were like nothing seen before – it was a giant leap in terms of home computing. No more screechily-loading audio cassettes here, thank you very much.

You get the feeling that the people behind it weren't entirely sure what they'd created, like it was a beautiful monster that had escaped the lab. It was (of course) left to the users to tame it and identify its strengths. Art, video, music – it was a multimedia platform, even if nobody could quite agree precisely what that fresh buzzword meant. With the right boffins at the controls, it could do incredible, unexpected things.

Babylon Five made spaceships with it; Andy Warhol painted Debbie Harry with it (“The thing I like most about doing this kind of work on the Amiga is that it looks like my work in other media.”); NASA kept track of their satellites with it; I … well, I strategically neutralised unknown alien threats with it in a traditional turn-based fashion. As you do.

Because on top of everything else, it was a great games machine. Whilst the other kids were squabbling over the whole Megadrive versus SNES nonsense, I was having a whale of a time. XCOM was just one of many games that sapped my hours as a teenager. Looking back now, all misty-eyed, the best of them have one thing in common: they'd all be quite at home on the App Store.

Games like Lemmings and Worms were the Angry Birds of the day – casual side-on puzzlers with fantastic character design. The plethora of tower defence games that we see today can be traced back to pre-Command & Conquer resource-strategisers like Dune II. And there was Zool ("the ninja of the nth dimension!"), notable for the amount of shameless in-game advertising (the nth dimension was made up entirely of Chupa Chups apparently) that we wouldn't bat an eyelid at these days.

Not only are there similarities between then and now – the App Store is littered with actual Amiga titles once thought lost to boot fairs and attics. Time is unforgiving to games. Films and music live on, easily hopping from one format to another, but games are usually shackled to their native hardware. Fortunately, the App Store has offered a second lease of life to the likes of XCOM, Speedball, Syndicate, The Chaos Engine, Alien Breed. Classics, every last one.

Many of these have benefited from modern interfaces. Pointing and clicking (or “clointing” as nobody ever called it) in particular has benefited from the move to touchscreens. More than just trips down memory lane, games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Beneath a Steel Sky are still great, they've just been waiting for technology to come back around to their way of thinking (but without all of that interminable INSERT DISC 14 floppy-swappy nonsense).

Playtime aside, the Amiga also made work fun. I tested its limits by relying on it for every school assignment, no matter the subject. Wordworth is still a far superior word processor to the text-riot that is Microsoft Word, and I have the essays to prove it. Deluxe Paint – which I'm fairly sure was made entirely of magic – was Photoshop before Photoshop and got me to where I am today. My entire further education, saved onto 3.5" floppy discs.

Just like Apple, Commodore made the possibilities of computers enjoyable and inspiring. There were others. Acorn and Atari had similar machines on the market at the time, and each had its strengths. But the five-letter A-word that most informed today's five-letter A-word? It has to be the Amiga. The thing is – and this is how it earns a rightful place in my nostalgius cortex – it promised the future.

They just got there a bit too early. Equal parts baffled and inspired by their creation, Commodore pushed the Amiga brand to what would one day become cutting edge. The CDTV, launched in 1991, embodied the multimedia ideal of art, entertainment and education in one machine. The idea was amazing. The idea failed. The Amiga got ahead of itself: it wanted to give you the web before the web existed; to deliver media that the humble CD-ROM just wasn't cut out to deliver. Basically, it dreamt of being an iPad.

But now here we are. One click and a thumb-twiddle and I'm playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown again as if no time has passed at all. Time to shoot me some good old fashioned aliens. Thank you Amiga, old girl.

-

Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of MacUser.

That Awkward Designer Question

No. I can see what's about to be asked and no, I don't want to answer it. I'm sorry ma'am, I don't know you, and you can't make me answer it. No no no.

“What do you do?”

Can I get out of this somehow? Perhaps I could distract her and sidle away to the buffet. I saw mini-quiches. You can't very well interrogate a complete stranger at a wedding reception when they've got a mouthful of mini-quiche. That would just ruin the day for everyone. The only socially acceptable thing to ask in that situation would be “ooh where did you get that mini-quiche?”, to which I would mumble a reply and wave my hand in the general direction of the quiche-source and everyone would be happy and nobody would have to explain what it is they

“I'm a designer.”

Oh well that's just perfect. Whilst I was merrily distracted by savoury thoughts, my mouth went ahead without me and answered the unwelcome question. So now it's out there. Of course, that's just phase one of the polite chit-chat interrogation. Phase one isn't so bad. It’s what follows that makes me squirmy.

I can see the information being processed in her rapidly glazing-over eyes. Bless him, they're saying, he's got some Wayfarers and a knock-off copy of Photoshop Elements and he thinks he's a designer. Before those eyes have time to roll, here comes phase two:

"So what do you design?"

Now this is the big question. What the heck do I design? Why am I never prepared for this? Why don't I have a stock answer for this? How hard can it be to tell people what I do?

Here’s the problem: coming from a background of in-house designery at Quango Unchained, long ago I became accustomed to life as a Jack of all trades. Posters, books, websites, branding, magazines, adverts – every day I'd be designing a bit of everything. And that's how I've continued. It's all under the big design umbrella, and lessons learned in one area are undoubtedly invaluable and beneficial to another.

But the further I wander into this freelance life, the more I worry that I should attempt to be a master of something. By clinging onto all trades, am I just being greedy and leaving myself professionally diffuse, unmarketable?

Recently, I've found myself working on a lot of book covers – a particular line of work I love. So should that be the path to take? The more I sell myself specifically as a cover designer, the more covers I'd design, and the more expertise in designing covers I’d gain, right? It'd give my portfolio a bit of clarity, get me known as that guy who does that thing. I could sell myself and my services, easily and non-squirmily. In theory, the work would snowball.

And of course it'd be useful when hobnobbing at wedding receptions. I could head off career scrutiny by simply reeling off the literary classics I'd wrapped in my designy goodness. Maybe I could hand them out to all the guests – I bet Chip Kidd is forever turning up at nuptials with boxes of Jurassic Park. He has that look about him.

I'm aware that I'm nodding to myself and stroking my chin as this wonderment circles my brain. And the question is still just hanging there: what do you design? It's become awkward. After such a massive pause for thought, anything short of "flying cathedrals" or "the terrifying future of mankind" is going to be a bit of a disappointment. But okay, I'd better give an answer.

"Stuff."

Okay, so apparently my idiot mouth is not completely sold on the idea of specialising. Good to know. I suppose it has a point – I'd probably get frustrated only having book covers on the go. Even Mr Kidd branches out from time to time and works on non-bookular projects. I don't want to shoot myself in the foot and stifle myself with a pigeonhole (a situation that, quite frankly, sounds horrific).

Although the grass over there is a touch greener, I often take it for granted how liberating being a Jack of all trades is. Having fingers in pies did my imaginary friends Charles and Ray no harm – maybe I should continue following their lead and stop obsessing with how marketable I am on paper, and actually do some work on paper.

And here I am. Still nodding to myself. Now standing completely alone. Someone walks by with the last of the mini-quiches. Bum.

-

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Creative Review.