My box of bricks: why play is good for design

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.

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New forms in film poster design

A few years ago, cracked.com 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.

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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?

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Ricci

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 asmagazines. 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. October 1998. Christina Ricci glowering at me from the cover.

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Offline

I've picked up Michael Harris' new book, The End of Absence, and I can't put it down. Essentially, it's about how those of us born before 1985 will be the last to remember what life was like before the internet became everything. He laments the loss of absence, of the nothingness now occupied by constant connection, of a time before empty moments were filled with duties to social networks, inboxes and ubiquitous trivia. I've recently given my online life a bit of a spring clean, to wrestle back some control. Dust-gathering accounts were scrapped, mailing lists unsubscribed from, redundant social connections severed. Untethering from all of this digital baggage was remarkably satisfying. But I want to go one step further, just to see if I can. I will embrace the absence I used to know. I will go without internet for one week. Starting tomorrow. 

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Buffalo

Isn't the English language a wonderfully broken and ridiculous thing? For example, it turns out that "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" is a grammatically sound sentence. How utterly splendid. A little explanation from io9

"It has been the talk of grammarians since 1972. According to William Rapaport, its creator and a professor at the University of Buffalo, it means, 'So, buffalo who live in Buffalo (e.g., at the Buffalo Zoo, which does, indeed, have buffalo), and who are buffaloed (in a way unique to Buffalo) by other buffalo from Buffalo, themselves buffalo (in the way unique to Buffalo) still other buffalo from Buffalo.' The sentence relies on a few tricks. The first is that 'buffalo' is a verb as well as a noun and the name of a place. To buffalo someone is to confuse or fluster a person. There's also a missing 'that.' Under normal circumstances, we can sometimes drop a 'that' from a sentence, as long as the nouns still make the meaning clear. All-buffalo sentences muddle it up a bit."

I'm now going to dedicate the rest of my life to finding a conversation in which this sentence would naturally come up. Living near Buffalo Zoo would probably help. A perfectly fine excuse to move to New York. 

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. 

Tear Gun

After an altercation with a tutor, Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Yi-Fei Chen designed a gun that captures, freezes and fires her own tears – recently on display as part of Dutch Design Week. I'm not sure about the practicalities of this in an actual warzone, but I sure do like the brassy steampunk-minimalism design of the thing. 

Common People by Jamie Hewlett

Jamie Hewlett, one half of Gorillaz (or is it one third? Or a quarter? How do they work again?), put pen to paper for another Britpop star long before he hooked up with Damon Albarn. Way way back in 1995, he produced a mini-comic version of Pulp's Common People for the French release of the single. Jarvis looks suitably angular, and the general design takes me back to the days of other Hewlett classics like Tank Girl and Hewligan's Haircut. Terrifyingly, this is twenty years old.

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Ballard

"Far more sophisticated devices have begun to appear on the scene, above all, video systems and micro-computers adapted for domestic use. Together these will achieve what I take to be the apotheosis of all the fantasies of late twentieth-century man — the transformation of reality into a TV studio, in which we can simultaneously play out the roles of audience, producer and star … All this, of course, will be mere electronic wallpaper, the background to the main programme in which each of us will be both star and supporting player. Every one of our actions during the day, across the entire spectrum of domestic life, will be instantly recorded on video-tape. In the evening we will sit back to scan the rushes, selected by a computer trained to pick out only our best profiles, our wittiest dialogue, our most affecting expressions filmed through the kindest filters, and then stitch these together into a heightened re-enactment of the day. Regardless of our place in the family pecking order, each of us within the privacy of our own rooms will be the star in a continually unfolding domestic saga, with parents, husbands, wives and children demoted to an appropriate starring role."

JG Ballard, Vogue, 1977

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The secret lives of elevators

Fantastic long read from the New Yorker on the past, present and future of elevator technology. A lot more fascinating than it sounds. For example:

Ask a vertical-transportation-industry professional to recall an episode of an elevator in free fall—the cab plummeting in the shaftway, frayed rope ends trailing in the dark—and he will say that he can think of only one. That would be the Empire State Building incident of 1945, in which a B-25 bomber pilot made a wrong turn in the fog and crashed into the seventy-ninth floor, snapping the hoist and safety cables of two elevators. Both of them plunged to the bottom of the shaft. One of them fell from the seventy-fifth floor with a woman aboard—an elevator operator. By the time the car crashed into the buffer in the pit, a thousand feet of cable had piled up beneath it, serving as a kind of spring. A pillow of air pressure, as the speeding car compressed the air in the shaft, may have helped ease the impact as well. Still, the landing was not soft. The car’s walls buckled, and steel debris tore up through the floor. It was the woman’s good fortune to be cowering in a corner when the car hit …

I think maybe I'll take the stairs.  

The inside-out city

As London continues to be hollowed out by absentee owners and the "buy-to-leave" market, this observation from Jonathan Meades' Museum without Walls seems rather pertinent. 

What we are actually witnessing is an abandonment of the North American model and an espousal of the French model. The embourgeoisement of the inner city combined with a dereliction in the matter of building social housing to replace that which was so carelessly sold off is effecting an economically enforced demographic shift. Social polarities are not going to disappear. The sites of income-defined ghettos are merely being exchanged. They’re swapping with each other. A new hierarchy of place is being created. The haves move inwards. The have-nots move, or are forced, outwards. There is a significant population who cannot afford the affordable. Privilege is centripetal. Want is centrifugal. It can be summed up like this – in the future, deprivation, crime and riots will be comfortably confined to outside the ring road.

Basically, every now and then, we turn the notion of the city inside-out. Me, I'm playing it safe, nestled indecisively between York's inner and outer ring roads. 

Best Animated Feature … feature

Sb7-ig.jpg

Okay, so this is pretty pointless, but also kind of interesting.

What are the chances of an animated film ever getting a Best Picture Oscar nomination, now that Best Animated Feature Film exists? The category was only introduced in 2001, but what should have won, had it always existed? And what exactly is the difference between a “Picture” and a “Feature” anyway?

Ponder these questions no longer! Here is a full(ish) list of actual and probable winners from the past couple of decades. And yes, that’s right, my critical judgment is equivalent to the entire voting membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In some cases, it's not even a matter of opinion, it's just that nothing else was released that year, so films like The Rescuers Down Under would have won by default.

The actual winners

2014 – Big Hero 6
2013 – Frozen
2012 – Brave
2011 – Rango
2010 – Toy Story 3
2009 – Up
2008 – Wall-E
2007 – Ratatouille
2006 – Happy Feet
2005 – Wallace And Gromit And The Curse Of The Wererabbit
2004 – The Incredibles
2003 – Finding Nemo
2002 – Spirited Away
2001 – Shrek (Monsters Inc was robbed!)

The winners that weren't winners because the category didn't exist yet but they probably would have been winners in my humble opinion

2000 – Chicken Run
1999 – The Iron Giant 
1998 – Antz
1997 – Princess Mononoke
1996 – James And The Giant Peach
1995 – Toy Story
1994 – The Lion King
1993 – The Nightmare Before Christmas
1992 – Aladdin
1991 – Beauty And The Beast
1990 – The Rescuers Down Under 
1989 – The Little Mermaid
1988 – Akira
1987 – I can’t find a single recognisable animated film released this year. 
1986 – Castle In The Sky
1985 – The Black Cauldron
1984 – Nope, nothing here either.
1983 – Nothing.
1982 – The Secret Of NIMH
1981 – Heavy Metal

… and then that’s where my research ends. It’s a bit depressing that there are entire years without any recognisable films. What we can learn from this: the eighties was a terrible decade for animation, and we have it very, very good right now.

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Updated from a post originally written in 2008.

Shed

fact.jpg

A large wooden shed. An innocuous hulk of a thing, a windowless box. Nothing special. This is the photograph I've been looking for.

I've been working on a cover for Brad Prager's After the Fact, a book about 21st century documentary films on the Holocaust. This is the sort of brief one accepts with a furrowed brow – it's a privilege to be able to work on such a project, but the subject matter is rather intimidating. As well as doing the text itself justice, there is a responsibility to produce something sensitive to the delicate complexities of history. It may be the tiniest thing, but even the cover of a historical text can affect how that history itself is interpreted. The past is a mutable, fragile place; too easily is it subjected to the crass, the clichéd and the exploitative. One must tread carefully.

My research has been a sobering experience, tentative tiptoes around the Holocaust. To begin with, the horror and shame of it all was overwhelming. Watching footage of the camps, reading details of the conditions, listening to first-hand accounts – it froze me. How can beauty be found in the darkness? How can anyone create anything that will ever do this justice?

Looking for usable images was a similarly crushing experience. Focussing my search on the dark tourist attractions of the concentration camps, I was met with the same familiar signifiers everywhere I looked. So many photographs of barbed wire and guard towers; those train tracks leading inexorably into that station, over and over.

I struggled. And I was aware that I had no right to. This was the most piffling of problems to be faced with, and I was looking at countless horrendous things that reminded me of this. This was no time for creative angst. So I retreated from the problem for a while, spending time on other projects and poking other parts of my brain. What this needed was a completely irrelevant perspective, a random connection to present itself.

As is often the case, it was procrastination that led the way out of the mire. Because the world absolutely must hear about every second of my creative anguish, I mentioned my frustration on Twitter. One thing led to another, and soon enough I found myself being directed to the Selfies at Serious Places tumblr, specifically a picture of a chirpy young lad giving Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial a big thumbs up. Bless him. Looking past his shiny little smile, I instinctively honed in on the elegant simplicity of the memorial behind him, a vast grid of 2700 concrete slabs. A creature of brutalist habit, I immediately became a bit obsessed with the Big Concrete Thing. I abandoned the camps and searched for photos, satellite images, blueprints, drive-by Googlings of this incredible place. I was getting somewhere! Nothing builds up a creative fervour quite like symbolic concrete.

I was almost there, I almost had it. Then it occurred to me that the grid of the Memorial echoes that of a plan of Auschwitz–Birkenau; a matrix of huts and stables and inhumanity. This abstract grid, stunning as it is, was too far removed from the subject matter. I had abandoned the camps too soon, but this was the new perspective I needed. I remembered a previously-dismissed photograph, a widescreen wooden facade, an amateur shot on Flickr: Pferdestallbaracken OKH-Typ 260/9.

One of many stable-barracks to be found at the former concentration camp, this prefabricated structure was designed to house a few dozen horses. But the design was misappropriated. Rather than shelter, it ended up as storage; a great wooden cage for hundreds upon hundreds of human prisoners, arranged in the most space-efficient configuration. Seventy years later, and it is a discarded shell, a remnant of hate, a tourist attraction. The utilitarian framework of that shed is a synecdoche of the awful truth at the heart of the Holocaust, the dark thread that runs though those documentary films and through the book: this was a rational solution to a logistical problem.

This beautiful image of a terrible place, this is the photograph I'd been looking for. It needed work – just a considered crop, an unobtrusive type treatment – but there was little more for me to do. Sometimes finding the right image is all that's required.

Design is tourism. With every brief, I get to visit other places, scrutinise obscure topics and dark history, bring back souvenirs. Every day I'm grateful for the freedom and opportunity to explore, to learn, to open my eyes and understand.

Still, it's nice to be home.

Written for Creative Review

Backs of things

Quietly, with no fuss at all, we are losing an area of design that is rarely discussed or celebrated. When it's gone, we'll miss it and reminisce it and pine for it. We are losing the backs of things.

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Macdeath

Sorry. There's a chance this might get a tad solemn and obituarish. My Mac, my wonderful iMac, is no more. She is an ex-Mac.

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