Simon Stalenhag

If you aren't already familiar with Simon Stalenhag's Scandi-scifi art, I suggest you get over to his site at once. He paints an ominous blend of the nightmarish and the calm, landscapes depicting the aftermath (or normalisation) of some horrifying techno-biological events. Often narratively linked, Stalenhag's work looks like concept art for the greatest film never made. It's surely only a matter of time before Hollywood comes calling – just imagine him paired up with Alex Garland, David Fincher or Denis Villeneuve.

Dystopia

"I’ve always been taken aback by the assumption that my vision is fundamentally dystopian. I suspect that the people who say I’m dystopian must be living completely sheltered and fortunate lives."

—William Gibson, The Paris Review

Every Month

Every month more than 300 Irish women travel to UK to seek an abortion. To support the campaign to repeal the Eight Amendment and help bring safe and legal abortion to Ireland, illustrator Philip Kennedy has made Every Month, a free zine for you to download, print and distribute/scatter. And then once you've done that, check out Kennedy's excellent and educational Illustration Chronicles.

Ruscha

Ed Ruscha with six of his books on his head. Photograph by Jerry McMillan, 1970. I would love a copy of every one of those, but mostly I want that shirt because hot damn. 

Ware/Kidd

I love this 1994 Art Director's Club invitation, designed by Chris Ware (and found in Chip Kidd's excellent monograph Book One). From now on, my main  – heck, my only – objective for any book cover design is that it "snaps the crackers". 

Flâneur

I’m in that London you hear so much about (you know, the one off the telly) and I’ve got time to kill before I have to return to York. I think I might get lost. I came down to catch up with a client. The meeting went better than expected – there were sandwiches and I didn’t break anything. Most of my interactions with clients and suppliers and suchlike are conducted via email (and increasingly via abrupt quick-fire exchanges on Twitter DMs), so being a proper human in a room with other proper humans made a nice change.

Of course, unfamiliar with how human interaction normally works out here in the wild, I completely misjudged how long the meeting would take. My train isn’t due for another six hours. Plenty of time for a good wander. I kind of know where I am and I kind of know where I need to be, so I point myself in the general direction of King’s Cross and let my feet take me where they want to go.

I’m soon reminded that most of my usual haunts on the internet are merely simulacra of this wonderful city. There’s that gallery I’ve seen pictures of! There’s that agency! And that one! That shop is an actual place! It’s all real!

When chance and thirst dictate, I stop for a sit and a coffee; a chance to doodle and catch up with whatever urgencies have appeared on my phone. It’s good to work and think somewhere else for the day, if only to be joggled out of all those little familiar routines and ruts.

I’ve come to realise that being partially-lost in London is one of my favourite pastimes. I am no longer a designer, I am a flâneur – “a man who saunters around observing society”. The trick is inefficiency. You must ignore the pace of the harried, drudgerised locals. They have places to be, things to tut at. The more your journey slows you down, the better. The tube is to be avoided at all costs. You’ll see nothing that way, just people wanting to be somewhere else. 

If you absolutely must use public transport, try to get upstairs on a bus – that way you at least get the benefit of being able to peer into people’s windows (remember: it’s not voyeurism, it’s sociology) – but ideally, you want to stay on foot. Once you’ve figured out the general direction you want to be sauntering in, zigzag. Go down as many side-streets as possible. Each is a microcosm, full of characters and history and really quite peculiar smells.

Compared to the compact historical theme park that is York, London is vast and fast and more than a little science fictional (plus there’s a disconcerting absence of Vikings). I’ve known this place my whole life, but it never gets old. Fresh nooks and crannies are everywhere; the ever-changing snaggle-tooth skyline constantly unrecognisable.

It reminds me of Alex Proyas’ 1998 sci-fi thriller Dark City, in which the city shifts and churns into new forms each night. All the protagonist can do is explore the city anew, struggling to make sense of the impermanence of his habitat. Of course, the city is only behaving in such a way because it is trying to make sense of him. He is merely a rat in a maze, an unwitting flâneur rodentia.

Eventually my feet find their destination, and my saunter concludes with the traditional “ooh doesn’t King’s Cross look lovely these days” proclamation to nobody in particular. And then it’s back to York, back to my little desk, back to the little city that lives in my computer.


Written for Creative Review

LP

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!


Written for Creative Review

Films

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.

Week

Remember Week? I liked Week. Week made sense. I appreciated how Week was neatly divided into a cycle of manageable chunks; five for work, two for cartoons and jigsaws. The UI of Week was a bit skewiff – fashioned from a hotchpotch of Norse mythology, Judeo-Christian DIY habits, pagan leftovers, Roman gods and planetary orbits – but it mostly worked. Week provided the comfort of repetition. You knew where you were with Week.

And now … well, now I’m self-employed, Week is long gone. Is it Tuesday? Am I supposed to be doing something on Tuesday? Didn’t we just do a Tuesday? Or was that last week? There’s a lot to be said about the wonderful chaos of autonomy, but I’ve come to realise that a certain level of predictability is good for my mental wellbeing. It’s hard to keep a firm grasp on the passage of time – if you don’t have the framework of office hours and weekends and bank holidays, the universe changes shape and meaning a little bit.

Add to this the whims of a pre-schooler’s turbulent social life into the mix, and time falls apart completely. It congeals into a bewildering nougat of work, rest and play. Everything feels urgent. I’m in and out and working and I’m not working and then I’m sort of working and then maybe I’m eating and then there might be sleep and it goes on and on and on. There’s no beginning, middle or end; no clocking off for the weekend because I have no idea when the weekend is upon me. I feel no sense of progress or pause, just this constant … constantness. Everyday is like Wednesday.

But all is not lost! Having spent the last few years completely deconstructing Week, I’m slowly starting to patch it back together again. Auntie has shown me the way. Television may no longer offer the dependably rigid schedule that it once did – displaced by box-sets and catch-ups – but there are still some things that demand to be seen when broadcast, and BBC Four have reinstated an important tradition, one programmed into the very core of the human condition: Seven thirty. Thursday night. Top of the Pops.

Sure, it may be repeats (fabulous, fabulous repeats), but this half hour of appointment-TV provides a vital waypoint from which to navigate the rest of Week. It’s something to look forward to, to stop work for, to be in a particular place for, a reason to be still for a set amount of time. Once I latched onto this, I noticed other little markers presenting themselves on certain days, small events against which time can be measured.

On Tuesday, a welcome chunk of advice, inspiration and inspiration from Lecture in Progress lands in my inbox. On Wednesday, social media automaton and absolute hero @binnightbot reminds me to put the bins out (impossible to overstate how important this is to the smooth running of my life). On Friday, Tina Roth Eisenberg’s Friday Link Pack digests all the best bits of the web into one manageable procrastinatory list. On Saturday, book design mavens Spine Magazine keep me on my toes by sharing the week’s finest new book covers. And then the Design Museum’s #FontSunday turns Twitter into a wonderful festival of type (#TypeTuesday is entirely different).

It’s not as clear-cut as the old nine-to-five pattern of Week, but amongst these newsletters, hashtags and blogs, little reading habits and activities, a gentle rhythm can still be found. Gradually, day by day, I’ll make a path back to good old dependable Week. And then maybe, just maybe, I’ll find the ultimate prize: Weekend.


Written for Creative Review

Films

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. 

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.


Written for Creative Review

On designing with colour

The other day, listening to a recent episode of North v South, Jonathan Elliman and Rob Turpin’s banterful design podcast, I found myself fervently nodding along to a particular subject of conversation. Turpin made an admission that sounded all too familiar:

“I don’t understand why people seem to see so much more colour than me. To me, the grass is green. Maybe two or three shades of green. But some people innately have this ability to see another spectrum of colour – they’ll paint a self-portrait and it’ll be purples and greens and deep ochres. I’ll paint a self portrait and it’ll be … pink. Can they see more colour than me? Is there something psychological that prevents me from recognising or expressing those colours?”

Read More

Alien, etc.

Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant is almost upon us. My response to Prometheus was tepid to say the least, but the presence of the A-word in the title offers a glimmer of hope for this prequel-sequel. And this got me thinking: the titles in this series don't make a whole lick of sense any more. Alien and Aliens worked when it was just those two films, but the series has grown forwards and backwards and now it's a bit all over the place.

Prometheus and Alien: Covenant suggest a new pattern though: both take their names from the ships in the films. Why not apply that logic to the whole series? So:

Alien: Prometheus
Alien: Covenant
Alien: Nostromo
Alien: Sulaco
Alien: Fury
Alien: Auriga

Renaming the films themselves may be considered sacrilege (a possible title for the next film/ship?), but what about the books? So I took it upon myself to retitle and redesign the films' novelisations. They're all great one-word titles, so I had a bit of fun with the type and steered the design away from the usual "let's just squeeze the poster on there somehow" approach. Books based on films rarely get published with any great fanfare or acclaim (not sure why – adapt in the other direction and you end up being showered with Oscars); I thought it'd be interesting to present these as respectable works of literature in their own right. 

Just to clarify, these aren't official covers for the books (published by Titan), simply a little personal project. Oh, and a note for the pedants: as is its nature, Alien³ proved to be problematic, given that it doesn't actually feature a ship. Still, Fury – the nickname of prison planet Fiorina 161 – was too good a title to pass up though, so that's what I went with.

Anyway, here they are. 

UPDATE: I've seen Covenant now – a few thoughts here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Alan Dean Foster has seen these, and approves – "Nice! Also, I remember there being a pretty good Chinese buffet in York."

Adventures

"Some adventures are so small, you hardly know they’ve happened. Like the adventure of sharpening your pencil to a perfect point, just before it breaks and that little bit gets stuck in the sharpener. That, I think we will all agree, is a very small adventure. Other adventures are so big and last so long, you might forget they are adventures at all – like growing up."

Anne Michaels, The Adventures of Miss Petitfour 

London no longer exists

“For Londoners, London is obscured. Too thinly spread, too private for anyone to know. Its social life invisible, its government abolished, its institutions at the discretion of either monarchy or state or the City, where at the historic centre there nothing but a civic void, which fills and empties daily with armies of clerks and dealers, mostly citizens of other towns. The true identity of London is in its absence. As a city it no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern. London was the first metropolis to disappear."

Patrick Keiller, London

Alien: Covenant poster

Good crikey, just look at this poster for Alien: Covenant. I've actually been working on a little Alien-related personal project of my own recently, and just when I think I'm halfway happy with it … this appears. How am I supposed to compete with this? It's as if Rodin took the afternoon off and asked HR Giger to finish off The Gates of Hell in his absence. Stunning/infuriating.

Safe

"If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting."

—David Bowie

Tula Lotay

Tula Lotay's poster for Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is rather lovely, isn't it? Love that lettering. As if being a bit good with a pen wasn't enough, it turns out that Lotay is also the brains behind Thought Bubble (Leeds' excellent annual comic art festival) and creative director of splendid comic shop Travelling Man. Lord only knows when she finds time to sleep. Check out her shop for more of this sort of thing.