Creative Review, June 2015

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The new issue of Creative Review is out – this month, focussing on how the creative industries are engaging with our ageing population. I'm in there as always, dropping accidental Hawkwind references and writing about accelerated decrepitude. Plus there are great features on designing for dementia, the branding of Hillary Clinton, and architect legend Frank Gehry. 

It's a slightly biased opinion, I admit, but I reckon the new thematic approach is really paying off. Each issue offers a more cohesive read than most magazines, with the scope to tackle a given topic with depth and diversity. Plus there's real variety from issue to issue, providing a much-needed glimpse to what's happening outside the design echo-chamber. 

Perhaps this model is the best approach for magazines to coexist alongside the more erratic and ephemeral web. Look at Little White Lies for example: in print, they follow a thematic approach, with each issue full of articles about and inspired by that month's featured film. It works brilliantly, and prevents the magazine from simply being a compilation of old news and reviews that appeared on the web weeks ago. 

Anyway, go get the new Creative Review and enjoy. More details on the their blog

Christina Ricci on The Face, October 1998.

This was the start of it all for me. I'd bought and loved magazines before – my teenage years can pretty much be summed up by three words: White, Dwarf and Select – but I'd never loved them as magazines. I loved what was in them, not what they actually were. 

Then one day, traipsing home from work, I found myself at London Victoria with too much time to kill. I did the obvious thing: loiter in WHSmith. And there it was. The Face, volume 3, number 21. Christina Ricci glowering at me from the cover.

WICKED. 

For some reason, this amazing magazine had completely passed me by up until that point. Maybe I'd been too young, too blinkered. But it found me in time. I can't remember any particular details about this specific issue, but it did enough to get me hooked. It only had a few years left in it, but I made those count. I bought news issues and whatever old ones I could find on eBay. This was the first time I'd had a relationship with a magazine like I do with a film or a record – every issue mattered. When it got it right I loved it, when it got it wrong I hated it. It was fickle and tasteless and pretentious and crass and fucking brilliant. 

Not quite sure how to deal with the Internet or shake off that bloody "80s style bible" tag, it eventually withered and died, but it left behind some classic issues. Some of the covers from my time with it are still etched on my brain: Ed Norton's bloody nose; the dot-to-dot Spike Jonze; Spice Girls giving it all that. But it'll always be wicked Christina Ricci that means the most.

There have been other since then, but here it is, here's where the magaholism started.

Originally written for My Favo(u)rite Magazine

Google Volume One

A book that contains the first Google image result for every word in the dictionary. Interesting. But is it just an arty gimmic or could it be a genuinely useful artefact?

I'm not sure, but as a parent I definitely see some value in it. I'd love to sit and flick through this with my boy, give him an idea of the wonders of the world as seen through the peculiar lens of the internet … without actually going on the internet and all of those distractions and asides. Also, I like that it captures a fixed point in time – the book would become more fascinating as the years roll by. Imagine sitting down and looking through the Google image results of your youth. 

Google Volume One, by Felix Heyes and Ben West, is available from Amazon.

New

A few newish things around here:

  • I'm working on a load of new covers at the moment, including a number for Bloomsbury and my first few for Pluto Press. More on those soon.
  • The Gray newsletter has proven to be rather popular. Subscribe now to get interesting links and thinks dropped into your inbox.
  • Getting into the routine of putting the newsletter together every week, keeping my eyes open to genuinely fascinating stuff out there, has got me interested in blogging again. So I'll be updating this site a lot more frequently. Nobody can quite agree on whether blogging like this is old fashioned, dead in the water or enjoying a renaissance. As somebody who's been doing this off and on for over ten years, I like to think it's the latter.
  • danielgray.com now has a Facebook page. Go and like it or follow it or poke it.
  • I'm smeared across various other bits of the web – my Pinterest collection is getting splendidly vast; I've added a few covers to Instagram; and I'm doing whatever it is that you're meant to do on LinkedIn.
  • More of my round, succulent words can be found in Creative Review every month. They say it's a column about the everyday joys and turmoil of the freelance designer, but it's actually an ongoing experiment in the art of grammatical freestyling and tangential blathering.

That's about it, I think. As always, I'm available for freelance design and writing assignments – drop me a line to discuss working together on something incredible. 

Art of the Modern Movie Poster / Translating Hollywood

As commercial art produced to sell another form of commercial art, film posters can often be crass, repetitive, disposable. They’re just adverts to convince you to sit in a dark room for a couple of hours, right? They’re all about big floating heads, questionable quotes from reviewers, mugging comedians accompanied by bold red text on white backgrounds, right?

Well mostly, yes. But, as with the films themselves, amidst all the dreck you’ll find the occasional poster that goes well beyond what is expected of it, a poster that deserves a life beyond the multiplex wall.

A lot of these one-sheet gems can be found in Art Of The Modern Movie Poster, a sizeable tome that brings together the collections of a handful of experts (Judith Salavetz, Spencer Drate, and Sam Sarowitz). Structured by nationality (of the poster that is, not necessarily the films themselves), you can flick to any random page and find something to like.

It’s hard to open up a double-page spread of The Man Who Fell To Earth artwork without wanting to hang the whole darn book on your wall. This is where the book excels – with page after page of stunning images, it triumphs through sheer volume.

The problem is that alongside this eye-candy it would have been nice to read a bit more about the context of what you’re looking at. When it does offer some insight into the stories behind the posters – such as the few case studies scattered throughout – it leaves you wanting more. It’s not surprising to find an article on Saul Bass (accompanied by inevitably stunning, iconic work), but what about all those great poster designers who go uncelebrated?

The structure of the book does reveal some trends – the illustrative nature of Polish posters for Hollywood films, or the candy cartoonery of Japanese interpretations, for example – but this method of grouping merely seems to be a convenient way to frame the particular collections on show. The prolific film industries of India and Hong Kong are given just a couple of pages each. It almost feels like an auction catalogue.

Whereas Art Of The Modern Movie Poster takes a geographic approach to its content, Translating Hollywood opts for a chronological ordering (and is also accompanied by an index – something the former book, the much larger of the two, desperately needs).

Based on just one collection of posters (Sam Sarowitz again – many of the posters appear in both books), the title suggests the specific focus of the book – the translation and interpretation of artwork for different audiences. Rather than finding posters for the same film pages apart, Sarowitz groups two or three different versions on a spread, and then offers some commentary on what you’re looking at.

Without exception, this structure exposes fascinating juxtapositions. The philosophical staring-into-space, sitting about-ness of the American Cool Hand Luke poster gives way to a Japanese version dominated by the promise of sex and violence; Army Of Darkness turns from knowing heroic imagery to multicoloured pop-art (complete with Warholian cans of Bruce Campbell soup); and The Big Lebowski … well, The Big Lebowski is going to be a crazy poster no matter what language it’s in.

Both books offer plenty in the way of eye candy, but Translating Hollywood benefits hugely from actually having a central thesis. Both, however, suffer a little from their origins in dealers’ collections. When viewed as works of standalone art, as valuable artifacts in their own right, rather than their original purpose – adverts – their meaning changes. We see very little of posters from the last fifteen years, presumably because they are not yet of any great monetary value, so no modern classics like Funny Games or Lost In Translation (which would seem rather appropriate here) to bring things up to date.

This is a shame, because there is no connection to how the marketing role of film posters has changed with new technologies. You’re just as likely to see a “poster” (those quote marks becoming ever more necessary) on the Internet, linking to a trailer or a review, as you are on a bus stop. So perhaps these books are best viewed as retrospectives of an era of printed marketing, a system facing a radical shift in purpose.

If you want a dip-in coffee table book, go for Art Of The Modern Movie Poster. For a more eye-opening read, one that has something to say about the increasingly international nature of design, go for Translating Hollywood. Just don’t expect to learn much about the art of today’s film posters.

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Originally written for the designer's review of books.

Mad Max: punk's Sistine Chapel

Poster by Matt Needle

Poster by Matt Needle

My ears and eyes are still ringing from watching Mad Max: Fury Road. What an incredible film. It's not perfect – it could've done with a little more quiet to emphasise the loud – but an audacious and unique experience nonetheless. It's good too see a proper stunts film, and not just a bunch of CGI cars flipping about. The Incredible Suit's review is pretty spot on:

Kudos to those films' creator George Miller for returning to his brainchild in the winter of his seventh decade and transforming it from cult curio to psychotic explosion of rocket-fuelled insanity with Mad Max: Fury Road. Max still isn't all that Mad, but his new film is so deliriously bananas that its very title deserves a place in thesauruses everywhere as the go-to synonym for crackers. It's a carnival of carnage (also lorrynage, bikenage, buggynage and tanknage) so eye-poppingly demented that it's hard to believe it's the work of a human being, rather than some furious, acid-tripping demon with a grudge against moving vehicles.

For a bit of post-film reading/thinking (don't try either of these while watching the film), check out Ballardian's excellent and thorough post on the links between Mad Max and JG Ballard. Turns out he was a big fan of Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior), describing it as "punk's Sistine Chapel". This is what he told Rolling Stone back in 1987:

I loved The Road Warrior – I thought it was a masterpiece. For ninety or so minutes I really knew what it was like to be an eight-cylinder engine under the hood of whatever car that was; the visceral impact of that film was extraordinary. And seen simply from a science-fiction point of view, it created a unique landscape with tremendous visual authority.

I think it's fair to assume JGB would have rather liked Fury Road. If you haven't seen it yet, do. And make sure you see it on the biggest, loudest, two-dimensionest screen you can find. 

Camoupedia

Within minutes of picking up Roy R. Behren’s Camoupedia, I was regurgitating fascinating bits of camouflage-related trivia at anyone who would listen, like some kind of third-rate Stephen Fry. Did you know that in 1918, Walt Disney drove an ambulance for the Red Cross, covered not with a standard camouflage design but with early Disney cartoons? Or that snipers in WWII would hide inside fake horse carcasses? How about the fact that there is a specific technique for painting sweet potatoes to render them virtually invisible?

Before I got into it, I was half expecting a Jane’s Reference-like book, full to the brim with painstakingly catalogued military markings (something that the superglue-fingered Airfixkid in me would have treasured), but its scope is far broader than that. Encompassing everything from Picasso to the evolution of mice, this is an essential reference for anyone interested in the subject matter and its broader context.

For example:

By far the most famous eyewitness account of modern camouflage is reported in Gertrude Stein’s autobiography, which she impishly mistitled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. During the first winter of the Great War, as she and Pablo Picasso were walking at night on the Boulevard Raspail, ‘All of a sudden down the street came some big cannon, the first any of us had seen painted, that is camouflaged. Pablo stopped, he was spellbound. ‘C’est onus qui avons fait ca,’ he said, ‘it is we who have created that.'

A lot of the entries are biographical entries of key camoufleurs (the artists and officers responsible for the techniques, and favourite new word), which in themselves are quite dry. However, the tapestry of these characters comes to life when you come across an entry about how their work has been adopted by the fashion world or incorporated into a audacious method for hiding entire munitions factories. Behrens clearly knows his stuff, and is generous with his references to other resources. As well as the encyclopedic structure, there’s a comprehensive bibliography, index and timeline (going all the way back to Darwin’s theory of natural selection).

"Sorry, I thought you said CaMOOpedia. My mistake. Carry on."

"Sorry, I thought you said CaMOOpedia. My mistake. Carry on."

Of course, as fascinating as the text is, when you pick up a book about camouflage, you want pictures. Big pictures. Big colour pictures. This is where Camoupedia’s format lets the subject-matter down a little. Where the reproduced pictures are simple line-work, such as the numerous drawings submitted for bizarre patent applications, the black-and-white print works fine. However, when you’re looking at a picture of a brightly-coloured aircraft or an animal blending in to its background, the lack of colour robs it of any impact. Ironically, the camouflage on display is so good, at times you can’t actually see it. I’m sure the author would have loved to have had a full-colour coffee table tome, so it's not so much a criticism of his work, but of the budgetary constraints of a book that is unlikely to shift huge numbers (and whose source material was probably black and white).

That said, there's certainly no shortage of pictures. A lot of attention is paid to dazzle-painted camouflage – the technique of using brightly coloured, high contrast disruptive shapes on a ship’s hull, not as a means to hide it, but to force enemy U-boats into miscalculating its distance, speed and trajectory. Despite the lack of colour, the numerous photographs and technical drawings on display here contradict the common image of steel-grey WWII warships, instead revealing them to be garish and visually arresting, a style that rightfully garnered comparisons to the cubist movement. For me, looking at these designs led to a far-too-long stint on Google to look for bigger and better pictures, now armed with knowledge of the history behind them.

The breadth of the information within demonstrates how design can sit comfortably at the intersection of topics as diverse as nature, science, art and warfare. That such an encyclopedia still has a place in the modern I’ll-just-look-it-up-on-Wikipedia world is testament to the authority of Behrens’ research and his contagious love for the subject. 

Camoupedia’s real strength is as a starting point from which to explore one of the numerous intriguing avenues it sends you down. The first of which should be Behren's own blog, a fine companion to the book. 

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Most of this was originally written for the designer's review of books.