Friday, August 5

Question and Answers

Here's a transcript of a recent interview I did for one of my friend's dissertation, very interesting topic, I enjoyed answering the questions...

Can design elements from the past ever look truly new? Should Victoriana for example, stay in the 1800s; the past stay the past?
New elements and genres are born out of developments and changes in technology, and things have been the same for quite a long time, meaning that designers have had to look backwards to go forward, this has resulted in regurgitating the past and blending it with different periods has become something of an art form, and this cross-pollination of styles is what’s constantly driving the field forward.
So yes, elements from the past can look ‘new’, but only when they’re combined in a way that hasn’t been seen before and no, they cannot stay in the past, we need everything we can to drive the field forward. 
Unfortunately our generation is stunted by the lack of any kind of development in technology that we can use to develop anything like a unique style, so we’re force to look backwards.

If a designer actively takes influence from historical sources, can their work ever be labelled as more than 'kitsch' 'ironic' or 'parody'? How do you feel about those terms?
Of course, if it’s done badly. Unfortunately the terms 'kitsch' 'ironic' or 'parody' have almost become sub-genres in themselves, if you look at current trends in TV Idents on ‘youth’ channels like E4, they’re all styled in this way, pooling references from the 70’s and 80’s and mashing them together to make something that looks purposefully dated.
The result, I think they’d like you to think is on-trend and cool, but I find it offensive, and boring. For me, it’s always been pointless to look backwards and purposely pick out the things that didn’t work, it’s the most boring approach to art, it’s dull when bands do it and dull when creative’s do it.

What about the public or consumer? Some say that the modernist approach to graphic design, where tradition and ornament were shunned in favour of simplicity, offered a degree of 'neutrality' to the promotion of products and brands. Is there then any benefit that you can see for returning to past graphic design practices in the modern design age?
I think to leverage a feeling of the time can be beneficial to a piece of product advertising or branding.

The brands I work with are starting to come back to more wholesome and people-centric looking logos and typefaces, and moving away from a clean modernist approach that saturated the 90’s-early 00’s. 
People are no longer desperate to look like cutting edge, web-savvy companies, and the focus is moving more towards their people and the idea that they’re approachable and real. That ‘neutrality’ has shifted more towards a 1950’s and 60’s style of ‘we’re here to help’ branding and away from the fake monolithic stylings of the corporations, that promised security in scale, but offered no sense of tactile contact with people.

Have you ever tried to emulate design styles from the past in order to present a 'fake' sense of traditionalism? If so how?
Yes, running a Wedding Invites company ( we do this all the time, people are obsessed with the having a 1950’s kitsch street-party, country pic-nic styled wedding, so we’re always looking for ways to illustrated this feeling.
Another good example of this would be the Royal Wedding this May. Almost across the board in Supermarkets, high street stores and Merchandise, the approach to it was to style it in the ‘1950‘s British Street Party’ style. People wanted to feel that kind of post-war camaraderie that we’ve all see on TV and heard about from our grandparents, the wedding gave a chance at some togetherness within out community that we don’t have anymore, and the chance to experience it bleed out into all the branding and promotion around an event that ultimately failed to deliver on a social level, because in reality things are desperately different now to how they were in 1950.

Conversely have you ever tried to emulate design styles from the past in order to be ironic? If so how?
No, never to be ironic.

Are you particularly proud of a piece of work that has a direct path to something old? If so what was it and why are you proud of it?
I’m proud of all of our Wedding Invite designs, simply because of the success they’ve been with the public (we’ve printed over 25k towels for nearly 300 customers in the last 2 years), and the happiness they bring to the couples getting married. They’re all infused with an old fashioned 50’s and 60’s feel and really hit the mark with our customers.
Another piece I’m proud of would be:
This poster for the band Slipstream was inspired by an old diagram I have from a 1950’s science journal, I completely redrew every layer and added all of the texture and copy back into it, the finished piece I always find striking and is one of my favorite pieces of work. For me it has a timeless feel to it, it’s scientific, and informative while at the same time (the original was) beautifully crafted with a delicicy that looks natural.

Have you ever directly referenced or parodied a design work from another time? If so what and why?
Yes, many times. Sometimes you have no choice. When working with the Band The Moons, who are a 60’s inspired pop band, and they release a single with a track called ‘Rear Window’ on it, and one of your design heroes is Saul Bass, what are you going to do...
Sometimes these things write themselves, and to hit a brief, there’s no other way to go.

When it comes to traditional graphic design processes Rick Poynor said of letterpress designer Alan Kiching: 
‘In an age of fleeting digital simulation his projects are a constant reminder of the seductive power and tremendous tactile satisfaction of ink pressed to paper.’ 
Do you feel the same way about techniques such as screen printing or traditional letterpress? Do ‘hands-on’ processes really add to the visual value of a piece of design or is it mere 'fluff' or 'aesthetics for aesthetics sake'?
I do like screen printed posters, but you can’t screen print a piece of terrible design and think that it’s great casue you did it by hand. 
When you break everything back to it’s purest form, if it stands up like that, then it’s a good piece of work. You can’t expect to hand print it on a piece of parchment from 1921 and suddenly you’re a genius.
That said a great poster design, hand printed can be a beautiful thing. So, these techniques make good work better, but don’t make average work good.

In your opinion, are there benefits to visually referencing elements of 'traditional' (for want of better term) graphic design? Do you think that speaking to an audience in a visual language that they may have experienced before in their past, helps you to get them to sit up and notice whatever it is your are designing today?

That’s a very complicated question, it’s different across all brands to all demographics. For example Stannah Stairlifts don’t advertise in a 1920’s style to their customers, and if you look at the new Cher Lloyd video, (which I assume is aimed at 15-18 year olds) they styling for that is straight 80’s, so that’s aimed at an era before their target market was born.
Of course it is possible to reference periods that people yearn for to attached that associated nostalgia to your brand, but this is dependent on the attributes of your product. For example working in the IT sector we’ve never been allowed to do something even vaguely retro, even when a concept calls for it, and it’s aimed at a specific age range, as it would be damaging to the brand, but in the consumer space, this is much more flexible. Brands like Cadburys can look back to older versions of themselves and leverage the feelings that people used to have for their products to hang campaigns off of. A good example of this would be the Whisper relaunch in 2010.

When was the last time you saw a modern take on a historical design style that was ‘done’ really bloody well?

I have to be honest I no longer look at any design publications or keep up with any modern designers. I’m really not interested in other people’s work, if I see something good it makes me angry, and if I see something shit, I have an urge to get into a fight about why it’s so bad, which is a total waste of time.
I do quite like the work of Kate Moross, I think she’s taken that Psych poster of the 60/70’s and made something bold and interesting out of it that looks modern and dynamic.

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