All change

At the end of June I leave the place I’ve worked at for 10 years to set up as an independent graphic designer.

D8 have always given me a huge degree of autonomy, but that’s not the same as being in control. I feel like my work’s better than it’s ever been, and I think the best is still ahead of me, but that work doesn’t necessarily fit so well inside a large company, which is what D8 became while we weren’t looking. It just took me a while to realise this.

A couple of years ago the Birmingham studio had a pretty disastrous time, and I was convinced Jim and Adrian were going to pull the plug. Up until that point I felt like I was in control, but the realisation that our family were so completely in the hands of others scared the shit out of me. I’ve gone through a period of lifestyle envy, directed towards erstwhile colleague David Coyle for the amount of time he gets to spend with his kids – I sometimes see mine for less than half an hour a day. I also had a bit of a health scare earlier this year, when I thought I’d put myself at risk because I’d been too busy to go to the doctor (thankfully nothing). This seems like the right thing to do, for more reasons than just my development as a designer. I see enough excellent designers struggling to get work to know I’m privileged to be in this position. All the more reason not to waste the chance.

Things haven’t always been perfect at D8, but I owe Jim and Adrian a lot. It showed a lot of faith to open a Birmingham studio when Ruth and me wanted to move here, and I’m not sure I’d even be a designer if I hadn’t joined them 10 years ago. There’s been no falling out, no ‘taking legal advice’. They still do great work, it’s just not the work I want to do anymore.

This could, of course, go horribly wrong, so I’m nervous. But also excited.

As a postscript, it also seems like time to let this blog go. I paused about a year ago and I haven’t really felt the urge to come back. I don’t think there’ll be anymore updates here, though there’ll probably be something else when I’ve worked out what that is. In the meantime, I’ll be here or here.

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(Somewhat stupidly, I forgot to credit this. All text from here.)

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(Image by Michaeloswell: Graphicdesigner)

The controversy around Workfare shows no sign of abating, but it’s worth remembering that the design industry are years ahead in dubious employment practices. These examples readily spring to mind.

While studying for my degree a visiting lecturer (also external assessor of our course) told a packed room of undergraduates he felt it was important for potential employees to want to work for his studio so much, they’d do it for free. He illustrated this with a photograph of a knackered bike, going on to show a photo of his very expensive BMW as proof of the rewards for reaching his position.

On leaving college I was offered a job, on a trial basis, with a studio in Newcastle. I didn’t like their work and I’d rather not have taken it, but my bank was insisting upon repayment of my entire student overdraft so I really didn’t have much choice. At the end of my second week one of the directors took me aside and said that, as it was a trial, it was probably better if they didn’t pay me and I continued to sign on. I didn’t go back.

Around the same time that I started my first proper job in Glasgow, a friend was working for a big name London studio for a salary of £9,000 – £2,000 less than I was paid, in a much more expensive city. He survived for six months by squatting in a house which was being renovated by a friend’s father, who was unaware he was there. This meant carrying all of his belongings with him whenever he left the house so as to leave no trace of his presence in the house. Eventually having been made homeless when the renovation was complete, and unable to afford anywhere else to live, he went to see his boss in the hope of sorting something out. The solution saw him spend another few months sleeping in a sleeping bag on the studio floor, before eventually leaving for a job that paid more.

I’m sure there are loads more. If you’ve any good examples feel free to add them in the comments.

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Ways of being

A recent visit to the excellent Richard Hollis exhibition in London brought to mind Robin Kinross’ piece on Hollis for Frieze, particularly this paragraph:

‘Equally, some of the work that Richard Hollis has done since 1985 has seemed to fall below his own best standards. Fischer Fine Art, for example, could not offer the scope or volume that a major public gallery such as the Whitechapel had demanded. Trying to find a graphic language for this firm, he has seemed to practise – to have been forced into – a default mode of mere competence. His posters and catalogues for the Crafts Council and the Barbican Art Gallery have been variable – in response to variable content and to the shifting directions of those institutions. And there has certainly been something in the climate of the times that has made good work difficult. In the end, designers cannot be better than the body that commissions the work: one thinks of those elaborate, complex jobs for mundane requirements that are witnesses only of mismatch.’

Hollis represents something of an ideal for a particular type of designer, responding with intelligence and restraint to his material and the needs of his client. The sort of design that, as Kinross says, seems exceptionally difficult to pull off in todays climate. It’s probably no coincidence that his most successful recent work was produced while working directly with artists, notably Steve McQueen.

A thought then: how much of what gets labelled critical design is actually an attempt to create a space in which it’s still possible to be Richard Hollis?

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I designed this cover

This time I did.

If I were to do a vanity google, the results would overwhelmingly be to do with this, mainly because I’m mentioned in the credits (which proved quite controversial with my employer, but did result in my own discogs profile).

Which is a bit strange, really. I don’t feel it’s hugely representative of me as a designer. In fact, I don’t really feel like it’s ‘my work’ at all. As Neil alluded to in his comment on my last post, attribution can sometimes be a tricky thing.

Belle and Sebastian’s sleeves up to and including Dear Catastrophe Waitress were designed by Andrew Symington of Divine. I took over on the Funny Little Frog and Books singles, and the Life Pursuit album. Emma Howlett from D8′s Glasgow office followed that. On the face of it, there does seem to be a difference stylistically, certainly between Funny Little Frog, The Life Pursuit and the sleeves that preceded them. Looking at it from the outside, it would be natural to attribute that to the change of designer.

Yet that isn’t really how I remember it. The designs were collaborative to an unusual degree, the process usually starting with Stuart Murdoch bringing cover photos into the studio – these are always taken by him. We’d then sit side by side at a mac and work up the designs, going back and forth with suggestions and saving each design that we liked as a new page in the document.

I can’t speak for Belle and Sebastian’s other sleeve designers, but the sleeves I worked on arose from collaboration rather than a spark of inspiration. The process always seemed to move forward in tiny increments, but a comparison between the initial design and the one which went to print showed a huge amount of progress in between. If there was a change of style in the way the sleeves were designed, it’s because one of the two people collaborating on the sleeve design had changed, which naturally resulted in a different dynamic. It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision.

I think a lot of design happens like that. Despite the preponderance of stories about a lone genius having a eureka moment – Alan Fletcher designing the V&A logo in the shower springs to mind – but those stories achieve fame precisely because they’re not the norm. Most design is at heart a collaboration. That does make apportioning credit a bit messy.

So yes, I did design this cover. But collectively, not alone.

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I designed this poster

No I didn’t.

I did get sent a portfolio today which had some of my work in it though, which is a first for me. The designer in question spent a day in our studio (which turned into a four-week placement by the time it had reached his cv) and came up with some initial ideas for the project. They weren’t used and he had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the visual in his portfolio. Dishonest, stupid, yes. But also lacking ambition. At least I nicked the poster from Weingart.

I see quite a few portfolios. Finding my work passed off as someone else’s isn’t usually a problem, but in a wider sense context almost always is. Most graduate portfolios contain work for clients you’d recognise, but without any explanation whether they’re student projects, pitch work undertaken on a placement, or actual live work. All of those are viable things to show, but they each tell you very different things about a designer.

Neil McGuire has made an interesting point about the potential for the web to create alternative identities alongside the original. If a google search for ‘Kunst Kredit designer’ brings this blog out top and the viewer is credulous enough to believe the claim in the headline, in effect I become the owner of the work, even though I clearly had nothing to do with it. I steal authorship of Weingart’s work. An extreme example, but what if I instead decide to redesign the poster, without any reference to the original, and it remains the top-ranked google search? As long as the images remain without context, I still claim an equivalence between my purely speculative project and Weingart’s published original. I don’t steal authorship from Weingart, but I do steal legitimacy. This seems like semantics, but it’s potentially a real issue. What else was the Moving Brands/HP affair if not a fight over just this kind of context? Moving Brands unusued identity proposal gained legitimacy from its display alongside work HP did actually commission. The fact that you can no longer see much of what Moving Brands put up tells it’s own story.

Hito Steyerl’s celebrated In Defense of the Poor Image posits the circulation of poor quality copied artworks as a kind of afterlife. The artworks are divorced from the originals both in terms of quality and context, free to access, but also free to become something else entirely. To a degree that’s true of graphic design, but to a much larger extent the opposite is also true – much graphic design has become about the circulation of images which are better quality than the originals they represent, if there is an original at all. Works are photographed, retouched, livesurfaced for circulation on the blogs, tumblr and Fffound. The reproduction becomes the important thing, the context a void. (Neil again)

I’ve no idea what this means for design, or whether it’s a bad thing. The power of the old media, of branding, derived largely from the control of high quality images, so perhaps the democratisation of these images is no bad thing. I do know that it’s entirely feasible to set up a professional looking website for a graphic design company, fill it with shots of good looking work and circulate those images globally, without any of it having ever existed. And I’d suggest that’s a pretty fundamental change since the five-year-old me designed the poster at the top of this post.

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Even more realism

“‘There was a big split at Verso,’ he recalls. ‘Some people were just horrified. It’s a valuable lesson, which I often talk about with students. It was a shock to me to bring in a piece of work I was so excited about and find people thinking I was having some kind of joke. But there’s no reason why you should expect someone who’s commissioning you to be involved in your agenda. It’s not fair. You really have to make it quite clear what you want to do and the reasons for it. If they are into it, they are into it. The worst thing is to force an agenda. You wouldn’t want that to happen to you.’

On this occasion Elliman won enough support for three of the covers to be given the go-ahead. But the lesson has clearly been learned the hard way from subsequent clients. ‘I have this almost fluorescent trail of rejected work behind me,’ he says.’”

From ‘Other Spaces’ an article on Paul Elliman in Eye 25. A considered appraisal of Elliman can be found here.

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More realism

“‘We are interested in your work’, the advertising agents tend to say, but there the matter rests, and they have not gone beyond that point.

And that is because Grapus’s work is not neutral, nor are the relations of the four with their principals. Grapus influences both the message and the clients. First the group has to agree on what they want them to convey. If not, then this means a rupture as with the CGT. The the message is maltreated, it is pulled out on all sides, it is distorted, it is made provocative, disgraceful sexual jokes are added, they make sure to transgress certain taboos. …

Gérard Paris Clavel likes to speak of ‘the image of pleasure’ and ‘the pleasure of the image’. Well, Grapus’s images are not always a pleasure to look at, sometimes they are even outright aggressive, if not repulsive. Grapus likes a seemingly rambling lay-out, congested and tiring now and then. But the whole attracts attention, it appeals. The on-looker becomes part of the discussion, and that is the purpose aimed at. For the client this process is not always that easy to digest. For he is being discussed and that can be embarrassing and sometimes unacceptable. Something like that occurred with a branch of the Comédie Française, the Petit Odéon. Two of the six ordered posters were rejected and remade – unjustly according to Grapus, since the first version was better. The whole theatre felt rather uncomfortable with the images of these non-conformist graphic artists: the actors because their names had been scrawled on the posters, or weren’t large enough, the other employees because the posters had not been or could not be fixed on the usual places, etc. The campaign was not repeated.”

From Grapus 85: Various Different Attempts.

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‘There’s a modern confusion about “authentic”. People demand “authenticity” in the art they consume, but what they usually get is some corporate constructed cliché delivered with no true feelings whatsoever. Whereas we deliver discourse on this point, bringing attention to it in an extremely personal, committed and devoted way. And people say it’s “arch”, “ironic”, “distant”, but certainly not “authentic”.

It’s easy to understand why people would find this unpleasant, of course. But it’s still depressing that people consume so much shit and then moan when you point out what they’re eating.’

From here. Image from here.

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This year’s rule

That’s it.

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