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

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?”

So it isn’t just me! I don’t think I’ve ever heard another designer address this so directly before: colour is hard. For some of us, anyway. It’s like an alien language – but it’s such a huge element of design, it feels stupid to admit that you’re not fluent in it.

Until now, I’ve successfully repressed my colourful struggles. I learnt my trade working in-house on a very tight budget, keeping printing costs down by sticking to two colours. Ever since then, black-and-another has been my default palette. It looks good, it works. Over time, I convinced myself that this is a considered stylistic decision, like I’m upholding a minimalist ideal of some kind. But if I step out of the safety of this routine and try something a bit more colourful, the truth soon becomes apparent. Colour hates me. Everything ends up looking like one of those colour-changing jumpers from the 90s that’s been put in the wrong wash.

(As a seasoned second colour picker, there is one indisputable fact I have learnt about colour: for some reason, the most satisfying ones are those that straddle two and avoid simple definition. Is it yellow? Or orange? Yellowy-orange? Gold? Rule of thumb: if you’ve chosen a colour that causes a morning’s worth of semantic confusion between you and your client, it’s a winner.)

Maybe it’s time to re-educate myself about this most basic element of my craft. I have to resist the pragmatism/complacency of my two-colour habit and recalibrate my eyes; teach myself to understand this broader spectrum that others are apparently privy to.

As with all problems in life, I’ve decided the best way to tackle this is to make a nice stack of handsomely-jacketed books on the subject. Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color is pretty much the gospel on how to use (if not spell) colour; Kassia St Clair’s The Secret Lives of Colour explores the fascinating history and meaning behind different shades and pigments (personal favourite: Mummy Brown, literally made from ground mummies); and the recently reissued Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art is a masterclass in designing with colour. These should keep me busy for a while.

Plus, I’m fortunate enough to share studio space with an expert on these matters, intent on surrounding me with an abundance of colourful things to inspire me and/or step on. He’s only four, but I think he knows what he’s doing. I asked him if he’s deliberately instigated an osmotic process that will systematically alter my brain chemistry thus ridding me of the Hypercolor fugue of chromatic nega-synesthesia that besets me, but he declined to comment.

It’s a start. One way or other, I’m going to change how I think about colour. One day I too will see if the grass really is greener or less green or several shades of green or not green.


Written for Creative Review

Working from home

“… and it wasn’t a factory, it was a prison! So they kicked everyone and turned into helicopters! And they flew off like THWOPPA THWOPPA THWOPPA!” — the boy is updating me on the latest escapades of his Transformers. I think. To be honest, I’m giving him completely divided attention. My brain is still upstairs on my desk, dealing with a flurry of demands that keep plinking into my inbox. It’s one of those weeks where all of the deadlines happen at once. Printers and art directors and marketers – everyone needs everything right now.

In an ideal world, all of this work would come with plenty of warning. It would be evenly distributed across the year and I’d always be able to see it coming from a mile off. Client requests would be reasonable, feedback would be coherent, spine widths would be confirmed months in advance of printing rather than hours. That would be nice. Somewhat bland maybe, but nice.

But no, right now, there’s just so much to do. It’s not that my clients or I are wildly disorganised; it’s an unavoidable natural phenomenon. Every now and then, there’s a perfect storm of publishing schedules and marketing meetings and catalogue deadlines and last minute authorial whims, and for a brief moment, a maelstrom of cause and effect sends it all my way. I blame chaos theory and/or
lepidoptra – somewhere, an inconsiderate butterfly is being a right flappy bastard.

My approach to this intensity of work is to alternate between a kind of multitasking mania (as all good productivity gurus will tell you, there’s nothing quite like switching to level five coffee beans and playing ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ on loop) and a detached, Zen-like calm.

I quite enjoy it. Ticking jobs off the big list of incoming demands is incredibly satisfying. It almost feels like progress when I email a finished job to a client. Unfortunately, people have this awful tendency to reply to my emails. My brief feeling of accomplishment is punctuated by a plink of new tweaks and ‘could you just?’ requests. At times, I can’t get any work done because I’m so busy discussing with the people I’m doing the work for the work that I’m doing for them.

This pace can only last for so long. When I find myself thinking about how to do the work rather than actually doing it, or when everything I design begins to look vibrating and confused, I take a break and zombie my way down to my ever-patient family.

But there is no gradual wind-down, no commute to clear my mind, just a flight of stairs. The switch from work and home is instant and jarring. By the time I’ve adjusted to one location (and its associated responsibilities, joys and THWOPPAs), I’m back to the other.

Hopefully the chaos of this week means that the next will be peaceful. I’d love to have no work at all for a few days. Well, mostly. The erraticism of self-employment can be unnerving – there never seems to be a comfortable middle ground between ‘can I feed my family?’and ‘can my family really eat all of this caviar?’. Probably best to aim for he latter.

I keep reminding myself that this was – this is – all part of the dream. I get to see my family during the day, one of the luxuries of working at home, but I hate when it makes me this mentally absent and inflexible.

The boy, blissfully unaware of such adult angst, continues to spiral about the room. And, sure enough, I’m beckoned by the distant plink of another email.