Pens

Artist Jeffrey Alan Love recently tweeted a sketch, simply captioned “illustrator’s funeral”. Leaning over an open casket, a mourner asks one final question of the deceased …

“What pen was that?”

Ah yes, the question, I know it well. Artists, particularly those with distinctive styles (such as none-more-black Love), must spend an unseemly amount of time fielding this one. The thing is, it’s not so much the corpse I relate to in this situation, but the inquisitor. I don’t know why, but I simply must know what tools people are using.

Years ago, I read an interview with cartoonist and illustrator Tom Gauld, in which he declared the Uniball Eye Micro his favourite pen. Jealous of his robots and monsters and jetpacks, I immediately bought one, certain that it would magically imbue me with his drawing skills and invention. And sure enough … well apparently pens don’t work like that.

Still, who am I to let the obvious realities of the universe get in my way? Years later, I still love reading about what’s in other people’s pencil cases, and picking these things up, hoping to immediately adopt some new technique or style.

And yes, dead or alive, I will pester people directly. What pen was that? Where can I get one? And what about that? What pen was that? Creatives have made themselves constantly botherable, the immediacy of social networks allowing me to tap them on the shoulder day or night with whatever inane question has popped into my head. What am I supposed to do, just leave it un-asked, let the curiosity fester in my mind? That can’t be healthy.

Yes, I’m aware that, as well as being bloody annoying, the question is also kind of incredibly insulting. The insinuation is that the credit for the work goes to the tool rather than the hand – “Wow, you’re so talented at choosing pens! They make such wonderful pictures while you hold them! Teach me where I might procure these mystical ink-wands!”

Maybe I would give it a rest if only they didn’t respond – but they always respond.Even when having their talents tacitly undermined, it turns out that people who love pens love talking about pens.

So now I have a big pot full of the accumulated preferences of strangers. Copic markers, Japanese brush pens, graphite sticks and obscure imported mechanical pencils of very particular pedigrees and girths. I’ve even developed a thing for expensive professional pencil sharpeners, as if they will somehow improve anything. And now I’ve started sketching on my iPad, I have a whole new line of enquiry. Yes, that’ll be me at the funeral, politely harassing the deceased’s family about Procreate brush settings.

And yet, as much as I leech other’s inventories, this obsession over the tools of others isn’t actually reflected in my own work. The more coveted and hard-to-get a pen is, the more likely it will stay in my pot, untouched and precious. Sure, the Gauld-approved Uniball still gets a lot of use – but mostly for writing shopping lists.

I suspect my own response to “what pen was that?” would be rather uninspiring. I invariably end up with whatever is in reach: one of the numerous almost-dry felt-tips scattered about the house; a shattered and blotchy kitchen-drawer Bic; that antique Argos pen that hibernates in the lining of my coat.

And of course – of course! – it doesn’t matter one jot. A pen, all you need is a pen. Find your own line. Whatever it takes to get the drawing from in here to out there, to make some marks and get ideas down onto … onto … um …

What paper is that?

Written for Creative Review.

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Flâneur

I think I might get lost. 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 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.

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Vinyl

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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.

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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 

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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

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