Spin the black circle

There’s a theory that recorded voices can be drawn from tiny irregularities in the surface of ancient ceramic vases, having picked up vibrations while their clay was still fresh; like grooves laid in vinyl. It’s probably a load of baloney, but it’s a nice idea. Along those lines, I’d like to think that each of my projects has a bit of music in it; the rhythms of the grid subconsciously translated from whatever I was listening to when I worked on it. 

On a big diagram of creative pursuits that has yet to be drawn, design and music are clearly seen to be opposite poles, complementary forms. Distinct enough to avoid one pastiching or disturbing the other, but similar enough to inspire and influence. They may work on different senses, but they share an underlying language of repetition and rhythm, colour and shape.

This is especially true when it comes to LPs, a tidy containedness that neatly reflects the defined boundaries of a design. I grew up with C30, C60, C90, so I’m hard-wired to appreciate music in neatly defined albumular shapes, pre-sequenced packages, structures within structures. The freeform shuffle of iTunes and Spotify has its place, but I’m not going to get any work done tossing coins into an infinite jukebox. I love daily morning ritual of flicking through my collection, from Ant Music to Zooropa, to select the day's soundtrack. Once that's done, no more distracting decisions to be made.

LPs have beginnings and ends, but most importantly, they have middles. Middles that demand attention. The necessity to get up and walk across the room to flip the disc offers a welcome break from the staring and clicking repetition. That brilliant idea isn’t going to magically appear on the desk you’ve been hunched over for five hours. Observe the silence of the album, start again, reset your brain, get out of a thinking-rut. Stretch your legs, pore over some liner notes and stroke that sleeve art. But most of all, play the music.

Fast and slow, quiet and loud, every good record holds valuable lessons that can be applied abstractly to whatever you’re working on. A conversation between black circle and white rectangle. When you’re elbow-deep in grids and guidelines, a mire of technical considerations and constraints, music reminds you that design should be alive and vibrating. Warren Zevon’s hairy-handed gent who ran amok in Kent; Michael Hutchence shouting “trumpet!” to introduce a saxophone solo; Eddie Vedder making glorious Eddie Vedder noises. A single nugget of pure silliness or joy or truth nestled in the middle of a song can breathe life back into whatever you’re working on.

When it happens, when it kicks in, my computer ceases to be a tool, it becomes percussion. Drumming with fingers, peddling with feet, lots of finger-clicking and … hey, ho, let's go!

Note: I originally wrote most of this a while back for Creative Review, but it just sprung to mind again whilst watching Baby Driver – a film essentially about soundtracking your work. 

 

Films watched, June 2017

Here's last month's slew of cinematic happenings. Check out my Letterboxd profile for more of this sort of thing.

  • Wonder Woman. A lot of fun, at least until the standard issue DC climax kicks in. Gal Gadot is absolutely perfect in the role. Much like Captain America and The Rocketeer, the film benefits hugely from a period setting and being stand-alone. Rather than skip straight to present day, I'd love to see the sequels tackle other eras – 70s New York WW would be glorious, if only for the hair – without those silly boys getting in the way.  
  • Suicide Squad. It's like they took a bad film and then recut it to deliberately make it even worse. And then they patched over the joins by occasionally fading Best Rocks Anthems Ever Volume 3 in and out every so often. The result is teetering on the very edge of what constitutes a film.
  • Tangled. Deservedly holding a permanent spot in this list. Watching for the umpteenth time, and it struck me how near damn perfect the comic timing is. The dialogue, the editing, the action, the expressions of the characters, all absolutely spot on. And there's a lot of comedy, none of which falls flat. Honestly can't think of another film that I laugh at more. Should be a set text in comedy school.
  • Hop. Many, many times. The boy's new favourite film. Actually rather good.
  • Moneyball. Given that's it's about a sport I have absolutely no interest in, this was really rather good. Whole scenes of baseball player trading shenanigans went way over my head, but somehow I was still riveted. The always underrated Pitt absolutely perfect in lead role.
  • Morgan. Imagine if Ex Machina was sucked dry of all goodness and remade as a TV movie; maybe an episode of nineties Outer Limits. The Scott family should probably stop making films about robots.
  • Valkyrie. Some tense moments, but frustratingly keeps falling short of full-on seat-edge nail-biter. And nobody's quite sure what accent to go for.
  • Apollo 13. Damn fine film, and a timely reminder that Ron Howard is a hugely underrated director. Looking forward to seeing what he does with Han Solo. 
  • Baby Driver. Enjoyed this immensely. Huge smile on my face from beginning to end. Weirdly, the wit and invention and sheer joy of it all gave me the same overwhelmed-by-glee feeling I get from watching Hey Duggee. Stick that on the poster. 
  • The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Good fun. Very creepy, up to a point. An interesting case study in the effect lighting, editing and music can have on your perception of a completely still face.

Quick twitter

I rather like twitter, but my word it can be a tad much at times – I simply don't need all of that noise, all of those voices, all of the time. So this little tip from Andy Baio looks like it might be handy:

Want to know a little secret for making Twitter better, a coping mechanism for making sure it's still capable of bringing you joy? Go make a list with the handful of people who make you happy and whose updates you never want to miss. Then go to https://mobile.twitter.com/account , click on the list you created, and bookmark it. On iOS, use "add to home screen". It's my new happy place, where I can escape for a few minutes when I'm too busy, too exhausted, or the world is just too much.

Sounds simple enough. Worth a shot. Now I just have to work out who my chosen few are …

Into the unknown

With a bit of time to kill after a client meeting in London last week, I popped into the Barbican Centre to check out their new exhibition, Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction. And oh it was wonderful. Spaceships and robots and props and pictures and models and books and scripts – I couldve spent days in there. Definitely recommended. Creative Review have a much more thorough review of it.

My only criticism: the scope of it was way too broad. It kind of felt like the highlights of five or six much better shows, or like a taster of a bigger and more permanent museum of Science Fiction. Actually … the more I think about it … we need this. Could somebody with too much money please find a nice big empty building somewhere and turn it into – bear with me while I brand this on the fly – SciFiMu? Yeah? That'd be grand. Thanks in advance.

Idea

Well that was an election, wasn't it? There's lots of analysis elsewhere, but I'm particularly fascinated by one particular detail: the battle for Kensington and Chelsea. Apparently, wonderfully, Labour managed to take the hitherto safe Conservative seat with 16,333 votes to 16,313. Twenty votes. That's incredible. That's the size of an average Made in Chelsea dinner party.

Anyway, here's an idea: an exhibition in a gallery in Kensington/Chelsea, nothing but twenty beautifully framed spoiled ballots. Abstaining as art. The difference between red and blue. Twenty crappy little doodles and profanities. Twenty symbols of the huge and indelible social/cultural shift in London. Twenty reminders that that, yes, every single vote does matter. 

Films watched, May 2017

Here's everything I watched in May, on small screen and large. For further discussion, all links lead to the corresponding bit of my Letterboxd profile. And yes, I did pinch this monthly movie missive idea from Khoi Vinh.

  • The Silence of the Lambs. Still incredible. If you can't afford film school, just buy this and watch it every day for a month. You will learn a LOT
  • Prometheus. Thought it might be a good idea to watch this again before seeing Alien: Covenant. It wasn't.
  • The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Lots of good stuff, lots of bloat. I never thought I'd say this about anything, but Michael Rooker is the star here. 
  • Moana. So many times. Is it as good as Tangled? Quite possibly.
  • Margin Call. I'd heard good things about this for a while, but never quite found myself in the "ooh, I'll watch a low budget banking drama" state of mind. And then it appeared on iPlayer and I gave it a shot – and oh boy, it's good. Highly recommended. 
  • Alien: Covenant. Such high hopes, but despite the title, this is more of a Prometheus film than an Alien one. And it weirdly has the same boring core as Guardians
  • Coherence. Made for approximately five quid, and all the better for it. 
  • I Origins. Really wasn't sure about this one right up until the last scene, and then it completely broke me (partly because of a beautiful bit of Radiohead). Raises some big questions about science and faith – it's a great late night discussion-starter. 
  • The One I Love. A three minute short film dragged all the way out to a feature. Shot at Ted Danson's house apparently, so maybe worth watching if you like a spot of Through the Keyhole. Rooney Mara is credited as costume designer, which is utterly preposterous for a film that features a frock and a couple of shirts. 
  • Wild at Heart. Back when Cage was Good Weird rather than Bad Weird, and Dern was approximately 8 feet tall and had to hold her hair in place for entire movies. Vastly superior in every way to the embarrassingly poor new season of Twin Peaks.
  • WALL-E. Brilliant, obviously. Not sure why exactly, but I have a feeling that this would make a cracking double bill with La La Land.
  • Rogue One. Second time around and … nope, still doesn't work for me. Mostly down to the unlikeable characters, the unnecessarily convoluted plot and the weird no-loose-ends third act. 
  • Tangled. Love it love it love it. Straddles so many genres, and wins them all. Those celebrating the fact that Wonder Woman is the first successful female-led superhero movie clearly haven't seen this. Or Moana. Or Frozen.
  • Nightcrawler. Dr B didn't like this at all, but I rather liked the cynical, sleazy, Taxi Driver-ish feel to it – but you do need to have a shower or two afterwards.
  • La La Land. Still utterly adorable, but it loses a lot on the small screen. As with any film about films, this demands to be seen on the biggest, brightest screen possible.
  • Solace. A fine, forgettable little thriller. Notable for apparently being written as a sequel to Seven
  • Hop. Surprisingly inoffensive, and stands up to repeat viewings with the boy. Basically the Easter equivalent of Arthur Christmas. Russell Brand is really rather good – and surprisingly tolerable – as a voiceover actor, and James Mars den continues to be one of Hollywood's most underrated talents. 

Meanwhile

After a bit of a hiatus (and a kick up the bum from Do Open, David Hieatt's inspirational book on the art of the newsletter), Meanwhile is once again finding its way into people's inboxes. For the uninitiated, it's a weekly newsletter, a digest of fascinating/obscure design-related links from across the web. Positive, good, smile-making stuff only. And because your time is precious, it only takes about thirty seconds to read.

Subscribe and enjoy.

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Nothing

I have nothing on my mind. Not nothing-nothing, you understand, but nothing. This was the subject of a book I worked on recently: the concept of nothing, the value of nothing, the significance and interpretation of an absence of … thing. Weird and fascinating texts written by intimidatingly clever people cross my desk all the time, but this one was a bit special. I’ll let you in on a little publishing industry secret: most books are, by and large, about something. Something is the designer’s friend. You know where you are with something. Nothing, now that’s a rare visitor. What does it want? Where do you put it? What does it look like?

There is, of course, one very obvious answer. Not that it was obviously obvious to me at the time. After an awful lot of staring at a blank page, I got there eventually: nothing looks like nothing. This was the beginning of a half-formed, sort-of idea. And then I came across Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read blog, documenting in generous detail the creative process behind his work on Italo Calvino’s backlist. Apparently he’s had nothing on his mind too, highlighting this pertinent quote from Calvino’s The Arrow in the Mind:

Is the blank also a colour? The blank is the colour of the mind. The mind has a colour that we never see because some other colour always passes through our minds and superimposes itself on our gaze.

The colour of the mind. Who could resist having a stab at that? Subscribing to the Adamantian philosophy that under no circumstances should you fear ridicule, one of the cover concepts that I pitched to my client was blank. No title, no author, no fake stickers. Simply nothing (see above).

It was swiftly, politely, justifiably rejected. This wasn’t a massive surprise – it was always going to be a bit of a long shot. Somewhere between apt and unmarketable, it was one of those ideas that would either hit the brief squarely on the head or hit a wall. To the wall it went. But it’s still on my mind, and now I’m questioning all of my assumptions about nothingness in book design and what a cover should or shouldn’t be. As with any physical format awkwardly adjusting to the digital world, it’s impossible to pin down quite how books are supposed to behave from one day to the next – into this void of uncertainty, devilish advocacy spills from my mind …

Such as:

Why not nothing? Does a book’s cover really need to have anything on it? Displayed for sale online, all of the pertinent details are typically displayed next to it. It’s nice to have the title and author and all that word-jazz on there, but it’s no longer essential. The cover can be relieved of its duties, free to become a blank canvas for a more expressionist interpretation of the text.

And:

Here in the real world, on the shelf of a library or shop, isn’t the spine more important than the cover anyway? Why do we never talk about spines? Do spines not deserve our love?

Also:

Designers are breaking and remaking the visual language of books all the time. Text is removed, reshaped, redacted. At what point does the unconventional become the conventional? (After a lot of confusion, apparently. There are reports of readers who scratched away the overprinted blackness of David Pearson’s fantastic Nineteen Eighty-Four cover to get to the title, the deliberate obfuscation interpreted as a challenge to emancipate the norm. Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity! had the opposite problem: too much text. The story starts right there on the front and continues on the endpaper, denying the reader that usual initial breathing space. Whole shipments were returned as faulty.)

Of course, the music industry answered all of these questions long ago, going through its own revolution of design abstraction. Record sleeves constantly disrupt conventions and expectations. One example springs to mind, a sleeve that shares very subtle design nuances with my own book cover: The Beatles’ White Album. Nothing but a square of nothing. It is the apotheosis of blankness …

Except that it isn’t blank any more. Artist Rutherford Chang recently collected hundreds of copies for his We Buy White Albums project, and not a single one is immaculate. Each is marked with unique discolourations, stains, rips, stickers and vandalisms. Seen together, they display the incredible diversity that identical nothings can attain over five decades. Time reveals the colour of the mind. Nothing is merely a vacuum, to eventually be occupied by a million somethings.

Originally written for Creative Review.