GRAFiK TASARIM: When did you first become conscious of form or aesthetics?
Miles Newlyn: Very young… It’s always tied to learning to draw, and I think the first time must have been when I just started drawing patterns. I’m watching my children now drawing their version of their patterns and I had an idea the other day for an identity which was using a check pattern – because stripes have been done a lot – I couldn’t think of any brand that had a sort of check, and I showed it to the children and asked them what they thought of it, and their opinion was just the same as mine.
I don’t do as much drawing as I used to. I still do some life drawing. It’s nice just to keep your hand in because it can get rusty very quickly. I hadn’t done it for about ten years when I restarted doing it, and the first five or six weeks were really difficult, and I kept thinking, “it’s not going well!” and then I thought about it for a week before the next session and realized that what I wanted to do wasn’t to “produce” drawings but just enjoy the drawing, so they’re not drawings for show or anything like that. So if there is a five minute pose, and I only do the curve on the back of a leg, then I’m quite happy with that, and I don’t have to complete a drawing. So I think there are lots of different approaches to get something out of life drawing other than just producing pictures of nudes! Or whatever you’re drawing, you don’t have to force yourself to “produce” work, otherwise it becomes like work, production.
What were the first forms you loved, or the images that first awakened you to the possibilities of design?
I think it was the outlines of countries, maps. At school we had a project about Australia and so we had to do a poster, and everyone treated it in differently, I had a typographic approach, and became aware that my poster was very different to all the others. I must have been about seven or eight years old, that was my first design job. From that point on I looked at things in a different way… I enjoyed all the crafts at school; metalwork and woodwork and pottery, I loved all of them.
Sometimes I regret becoming specialized, I have super-specialized as a designer, and so I miss making things, that’s possibly one of the reasons why I bring in some form of modeling. I made lots of model aero planes as a kid and have always enjoyed creating things that you can put on a shelf or hang from the ceiling, things that are sometimes a bit more tactile than printed graphics.
You are very much a role model for students and professionals…
I receive emails from designers all over the world expressing interest in my design work.I’m very flatterd by those because I’m simply exploring my own imagination and I’m being paid for it. That these two things came together seems to me to be chance, not because I’ve tried to make it happen. The corporate world has been the best paying client for typographers, but I’ve always felt that the monolithic structure of corporate identity can’t last forever. After having grown up in an era of mass unemployment caused by the failings of monolithic organisations – British Steel, British Leyland, etc., I wanted to find out what might come after the monolothic structures, so that I stood better chance of being useful. The corporate world doesn’t have to look so uniform and controlled; it’s a matter of understanding consistency and flexibility
You studied at the Central St. Martins School of Art. Were you happy with the education there?
Well, when I got there I was shocked because I was expecting more of a vocational education. I was pretty interested in typography, before I got to Central Saint Martin’s and when I realized that nobody was really going to teach me typography in a formal way, which was quite shocking. I spent a couple of years not quite understanding the freedom that was being put in front of me and all the time wishing to be taught rules, but of course all those rules are in the books if you want to find them. So in the third year it kind of clicked and I enjoyed it very much. I very much enjoyed the fact of being in the centre of London especially being in the middle of Covent Garden, so close to Soho. That was an education in itself. The tutors, great as they were, didn’t have to do that much other than let a lot of us get on with it.
Was there anyone who particularly influenced you? Did you have a clear sense of what you wanted to do?
There was a typography tutor there called Nick Biddulph who retired in our last year, he was a really interesting guy, he was always very kind and had this little library of typography books, which he always kept under lock and key and when you were lent one you always felt really privileged, and I’ve always loved books as objects, nice books, and you know books about books is even better! So, he was my main influence I think. And then there was Tim Foster. Tim was my tutor, mainly during the last year, and he understood me, I think he understood most of the students who were interested in typography. I think he was a big influence on Jon Barnbrook as well, and introduced us to the Berthold photo setting machine, so this was in the year before the college got the Macintosh. It seems like a long time ago now… It was this big green machine, enormous, you couldn’t move it from room to room, and it had this green monitor, black with green lines on it, so you couldn’t read the type, it just showed it as blocks of text and you had to type it all in and use this strange language and insert these little glass fonts, this little glass thing with metal letters in-between, and it would set them onto film and you’d develop the film yourself. Learning to set type without actually instantly seeing the finished result was important because it made you visualize and be very precise about what you wanted, it was very difficult to undo, there was no back button, you had to know what you were doing – it was a very different approach to anybody learning typography now. It soon changed, and I was going, “No! The Mac’s nowhere near as good as the photo setting!” I was so impressed by the precision of the Berthold system, and of course looking at a little Mac screen didn’t seem so precise, but of course it was really, it was just that on a bad laser printer the outputs weren’t so exciting.
It was there you started creating Missionary – over 1000 hours of labor. What did that font mean for you at the time?
I was in touch with Rudy and Zuzana at Emigre, and Zuzana was working on Matrix and all the other low resolution typefaces, and I suppose this goes back to what I was just saying about the influence of the Mac – it had an aesthetic of low resolution when it was first introduced, because not many people had PostScript printers, and everybody was doing stuff that was pixel based, so there were a lot of pixel typefaces still going on, and I found those interesting too, but Missionary came about because I could suddenly see that PostScript type when it was introduced had very high resolution and could do very fine lines, and I just wanted to do a typeface or some lettering which used the other side of the coin that Zuzana was using, so while she was doing low resolution, I started doing high resolution, and that philosophy has stayed with me – I’ve always thought that while most people make logos work very small in one colour, I’ve always been interested in – you know, I’ve got 16 million colours and unlimited resolution – what can I do there. There’s a payoff in terms of recognition, but means of production have changed, nobody spends much time worrying about what logos look like on a fax anymore, so it’s just one way of reassessing what’s possible in design with form and so on. On Missionary – the skeleton of it was OCR-B, I think, and so I found the forms and the actual structures of the letters more interesting than the very traditional structures that most ornamental typefaces use, so I just wanted to mix an interesting form, a skeleton of a letter, with a completely different era. It’s almost like time travel, as if we’d had optical camera recognition computers in 1860 – what might they have looked like? It’s an easy process for me to mix two things together and see what the form looks like. I guess the lesson that I’ve learned out of that is that it’s interesting to work on something and not have an idea of what it’ll look like. I had no idea at the time that people would say that Missionary was Victoriana or anything like that, although I can see why they do, but I didn’t know that it was going to look like that – all I wanted to do was mix elements of different things, and people see the structure less obviously than they see the decoration on Missionary, which I find a slight disappointment with the typeface. I could simplify things – I am working on a typeface which is a sort of simplified version of it – one of the many typefaces unfinished.
It must have been very challenging and exciting to push against the limits of the technology. Do you still feel you are pushing against its boundaries?
I don’t have any boundaries in terms of technology any more. I think it’s almost something to try and keep up with.
How did you get together with David Carson?
I sent him some typefaces on a floppy disc, and straightaway he began using them – as he did with many students’ work, I was less excited about the fact that he was using them and more excited about the fact that somebody wanted to use them – so there was possibly a market for them. I was probably quite market driven at that stage. And so he was quite shocked when I asked him to pay for them but he did, and that was the first step. At the same time I was doing the Emigre stuff, but he used them quite consistently over a period of time and still uses them, the six “End of Print” set. There were a few others which I gave for free, which were a lot more experimental and incomplete.
What are your views on legibility…?
I read a lot on screen and I think typefaces like Verdana, Times Roman and Georgia are becoming a lot more legible now than when they were introduced, through familiarity. The progress and development that Microsoft makes in the field of screen typography is the reason why I use a PC rather than a Mac.
I’ve always quite enjoyed deciphering a code, so I like some things that are a challenge to legibility or have some kind of reward once you’ve spelled it out. But certainly with commercial work I keep that in check since who would want an illegible logo? Thinking about legibility and understanding it is a liberating process, it provides freedom to play.
What applications do you use when designing?
I just use Illustrator and Fontlab, all the time.
Do you prefer to think on paper first?
Yes, but in words though, usually. I like to write it down in words first – conceptual, keywords. I like the thesaurus as a means of association – synonyms and antonyms – just to help my mind work.
Do you need any particular environment in which to work? How do you open your mind to ideas?
Easy really – going out for a walk, just getting out of the office. I find that the easiest way to create a blank page in my mind is just to be surrounded by nature, just because it doesn’t shout any particular thing – it’s quite neutral, the natural world. Whether that’s just a field or skiing, or a walk in the park, but it really helps me think because it opens my mind, clears it. It’s also a skill isn’t it? You’ve got to know what does it for you personally and cultivate that. If you just panic about where the next idea is going to come from, it won’t come, you just have to go, “well, ideas will come”. I know that because I’ve been doing it for ten years. You’ve just got to be confident enough to give those unconscious parts of your mind the time and the lack of pressure to be able to do their little trick.
Are there any artists from within or outside the graphic design field who have inspired you or inspire your work?
Oh, there’s a huge list. Lot’s of designers in there, less so artists. I’d say if there was any one artist it would be Damien Hirst, he’s so pop and so dark at the same time and that’s a really difficult thing to achieve – how nobody in the history of art or design has ever thought about doing a skull covered in diamonds before. It’s such an obvious icon, just an image that once you’ve seen it you will never forget it and to be the first person to do it is remarkable. Lots of boys love sharks and he just goes and puts a shark there for you to see, something that you can rarely see in everyday life, so I’m a big fan of his art. I’d also mention Pininfarina, Bertone, Giugiaro, all the big car styling people. Car design has always been a big influence on my own work, very popular things, something that it’s very difficult to talk about, formal and aesthetic. I’ve spent years trying to find good magazines about car styling – ones where they’ll actually discuss the form. The ones where they just approach the shapes are few and far between, just because it doesn’t transfer well into the written word. It’s an instinctive thing. And then there are people like Ross Lovegrove and Luigi Colani. I love their work and I like their approach and also their freedom of thought. I think if I was influenced too much by other designers, other graphic designers, then every influence would be a hurdle to cross in terms of doing something original, whereas just transferring some thoughts from a different practice is always beneficial. I mean you end up producing quite zeitgeisty work, and that’s not always a good thing. I enjoy trying to guess the next zeitgeist, just push it a little bit. I don’t think I feel very differently to many other people, I know I’ve got quite open sort of tastes, and I think a lot of people do really, they’re always interested in something new. I remember going into a shop once to buy some accessory. I was doing some surfing at the time and I was speaking to a guy and there was just some gadget or gizmo and I asked, “are people buying these?” and he said, “yeah, people buy them just because they’re new”, and it was only a two or three pound item, but I’ve never forgotten that, I thought, yeah, people like the new things and there’s a sort of aesthetic to newness, usually shiny, a tiny bit challenging, I can’t put it into words any more than that, but it’s an interesting aesthetic to play with and it changes.
Do you feel an especially English designer, or do you feel tied (willingly or not) to a particular identity (more broadly European perhaps) or as working within a particular tradition?
Quite schizophrenic in a way… certainly not tied, but liberated by internationalism. I’ve always been an internationalist, I’ve never believed too much in boundaries. I think if you’re interested in pushing the limits then whether the boundary is somebody’s taste or a country border, then I don’t think you should pay much attention to those boundaries! I feel a little bit tied because I only speak English and Danish – because my wife is Danish and our children are bilingual- and it would be great to be able to speak more languages but I don’t have the time to learn them. But I’m also particularly attached to English aesthetics and while England isn’t the only country with an Heraldic history, I’m very interested in tradition, but not necessarily of a particular country. So I love history, and I love the past as much as I love the future. I’m not one of those people who just love everything that’s new. It’s a massive waste to ignore the past, and some of it is so inventive. If I just look at 13th century calligraphy, the freedom is just beyond anything. Marian Bantjes is doing some interesting stuff, with that very ornamental aesthetic. I’ve been aware of her work for a long time, and I think she’s working along the same path that I started on when I was doing Missionary. It’s great to see somebody doing that, with a lot of success. She’s done some interesting typefaces. So her work to me is as relevant as the 13th century calligrapher’s, because it’s the same thing – this will to embellish things and make it as rich as possible. And whether its 700 years old or done next week, it doesn’t make any difference.
Do you feel design has a spiritual side to it? Are spiritual questions important for you?
Yes I think so. I don’t have a particular faith; I believe more in the natural world really.
You have spoken of being a “channel through which drawing expresses itself”, and I am also thinking of your term “white occult”.
Those two things are quite separate, and it’s hard to speak of them together, but there is a mysticism which I value and which is very much opposed to rational modernism. On the other hand, I’m often asked to bring a rationalizing eye to a piece if work, and that stems from being a type designer, which involves a systematic way of looking at form. So I am always in conflict between rationalism and mysticism, that’s why I called my company x&y – because great things often come from two opposites things coming together.
What role does expression play in your work?
The most powerful and universal expression comes from the soul of the individual – I think it’s very difficult to express for someone else per se– but our job is to communicate for other people. It’s a case of listening and then interpreting, and to be very aware of the times and the world you live in, to recognize what particular things the people of the world are receptive to. And between these two things; what people are receptive to and what the client has got to say – is the expression bit.
I’m always very quiet in meetings, and never have much to say, I like to listen to what people say. Being a good listener is a skill that is often overlooked, it’s another process that a designer needs to think about and improve. As a skill it is related to being open, and clearing your mind of yourself as much as possible, just hearing what the other person is saying and who they are, where those thoughts are coming from.
Never be afraid to show the client what you would really like to do, rather than what you think they will accept. Don’t show anything you don’t believe in, otherwise you’re going to be spending a lot of time listening to the answers of questions that didn’t need to be asked. Most people show two or three routes, maybe more, and that’s fine if you’ve got two or three designers working on it, but where one designer has to do multiple routes means they’ve a favorite and they’ve ones which they don’t think are good, or certainly not as good as the one they would like to go with. So I do believe in showing the client one option, and listening very carefully to the reaction it provokes. To do that you must not be precious about your work at all, since if you are you will begin to defend it, in which case listening become a problem, and communication begins to break down.
How to exclude stress and hatred?
By avoiding or ignoring competition. I hated competitive sports at school, and I’m not a great team player. That’s why I’m my own boss, always have been, probably always will be. As soon as you’re in a team, you start to compete, either within the team, or against other teams. Some people thrive on it, but personally I don’t like it, preferring instead the challenge of surpassing my own standards. I’m immensely self critical, which has its own issues, but I don’t find it stressful.
And never seek recognition from competitions.
The avoidance of competition is also a useful business strategy. When you’re developing corporate identity, or brand, you’re building difference. What you’re trying to do is make one business look different from the rest, and to find what it is that the business does best and what’s their unique position, why they exist. And most of the time businesses actually do quite different things, although the difference may be very small. As soon as the difference exists and is understood, the easier a businesses can exist in the market.
What is there that is “permanent”?
Well, nothing really…! My belief is very taoist, everything is temporary, all is vanity…
What kind of relationship do you have with your clients?
Sometimes long distance. Most of my clients are outside the UK, so I work in a way that I couldn’t have done before the internet. But I think it’s always good to meet in person at the beginning, to get an idea of who the other person is, who you’re dealing with, and of course there’s a lot of nuance that isn’t able to be communicated electronically. You use your eyes to listen to people as well.
Have you found it easy to develop a productive way of working with large corporate clients?
I am often not in control of those jobs, being fortunate to have just the role I enjoy most. But I have never felt that large corporate clients are any different to smaller clients. Large businesses generally want to deal with other large businesses/agencies, because it reassures them, and some large corporate clients prefer to speak to people more like themselves rather than the designers, which is certainly true in the US where the people commissioning the work on the client’s side often went to the same universities as those people managing the work in the agencies.
However, I’ve found that businesses from developing markets are more confident in seeking talent outside the establishment; individuals and smaller agencies, but they need help nurturing a creative team composed of specialist.
Do you ever feel one of your designs is under-appreciated? Are there any of your works in which you feel you “got it right” in a particularly interesting way?
I certainly don’t feel anything I’ve done has been under-appreciated. With regard to getting something “just right” the Unilever logo was crafted over a long time, lots and lots of different versions of it – individual icons changing and so on –and we ended up with it feeling just right. When you work on something incrementally like that there comes a point where everything slows down and the changes become smaller and smaller, and you think, “it’s getting there now”, and then there comes a period where you change something and it’s worse than it was before, and you think “no, I’ve got to stop now”, and that moment seems to be quite different from job to job.
The handwritten logo is beautiful, very warm and feminine…
I did some drawings of the actual Unilever word where it was more perfect, more like Johnson & Johnson, lovely and regular, and I preferred those at the beginning. Lee Coomber, the creative director I was working with on the job, rightly stuck with the one that kept the inconsistencies – the U tilts back a bit, and it’s all “not quite perfect”, more natural.
On my own, it wouldn’t have been so good. The creative director – designer relationship is very important. I love strong direction to push me in a way I perhaps hadn’t thought of. It’s also useful to be asked to explain the work on a level that you might have with a client.
After graduating is spent some years designing quite obscure and idiosyncratic typefaces, during which I sometimes felt that I was heading down a cul-de-sac, and if I went much further down I wouldn’t be able to come back, that I’d end up in a bizarre aesthetic universe of my own making and without any escape! That’s when I moved to London and started working with Wolff Olins.
It’s very good to have someone to direct and somebody who can do. I’m happy being a designer, and having on occasion someone with a different vision to push my skills.
Going back to your question about ‘getting it right’, I’d like to add that getting something wrong is really interesting too, sometimes more interesting than getting something just right. When working on the 3 logo, the early versions were organic but also very alien, life at the microscopic level, something quite weird. And while I was on this really amazing journey of aesthetics, there came a point where I had to stand back and ask ‘is it the sort of thing that you want, or is it the sort of thing that you would prefer to kill, to stamp on?’ And I had created things that needed to be squashed! I was very happy to have done them and realized that!
I really like the 3 logo, very much, because I find it so… youthful and vivid.
They’re just the perfect words since I was asked to work on the 2012 job on the strength of the 3, for those reasons, those values. It was quite a while ago, and you still see it everywhere. They change it as well and I like that – the fact that they do different versions of the logo, different colours and different ways of rendering it – they do the apple gel version of it, an outline version of it, make it up from objects and different textures…
The logo for “B” is also a fascinating one….
The project was really an exercise for the client to be able to say, “This is what’s possible”. Occasionally a client doesn’t need an asset at the end of a project. Sometimes, if it’s a small project, and they’re not risking a lot of money on it, they can have a beneficial experience in terms of learning how their business might communicate by going on an interesting design experiment. No asset may come of it, but the value lies in the process. B was one of those kinds of projects.
Are there any designs which you feel a moral ambiguity towards – great design for a wicked cause, say?
You can’t help but think of Albert Speer, first architect of the Reich, who masterminded one of the first controlled visual identities on a large scale. Many of the senior people I’ve met in the branding business can’t help but admire the corporate identity created by the Nazi party, particularly since it was implemented so thoroughly. ‘Powerful’, ‘direct’, ‘inspirational’, many of the emotional aspects of the Speers work come up again and again in identity briefs – an organization may feel the need to be ‘impressed with itself’ – and they want to be super-powerful. I hear identity briefs for very big organizations in which they describe nothing less than the need for an image equivalent to the image of God. If you could turn the halo around an angel’s head into an identity, that touch of divine light – it’s something that they would love. This theme in briefs is so repetitive, and of course impossible, that it must always be countered.
How important is it for a designer to cultivate an ethical sensibility?
An ethical sensibility is important for any human, regardless of vocation. I don’t think it’s more important for designers to cultivate that anyone else. People with very questionable ethics do some great design and the reverse must be also true. The question can be interpreted as ‘are ethics and aesthetics connected?’ I don’t feel that my ethics are connected to my sense of aesthetics.
They may be connected in terms of who your clients are, and whom you want to work for, as Jon Barnbrook says so clearly in his talks.
A new font is maybe also a response to the world, sometimes a complex mixture of fascination and repulsion (Barnbrook’s fonts). What is the story behind some of your fonts? What led you to design Ferox, for example, Becker or Luvbug (“Fused, flattened, outlined and individualized, then inflated and turbo pimped, a flagship for happiness and optimism. The Cooper Black of post-millennium delirium”)? How seriously should we take the titles designers give to their fonts? Was Democratica an optimistic response to the fall of the Soviet Union? Your copy for Luvbug reads more ironically…
I think the story of type design is always one of fascination with certain forms. It’s that you’ve seen a way of changing the archetype. So the archetype of an A is a pyramid with a line through the centre – Futura comes really close to it, and so Futura often seems to be the only solution for certain problems, particularly in the luxury market where you need to get to the very essence of things. But sometimes you see letters challenge that archetype, and that is something that most designers do early on in their career because they need to find their own voice and also the limits of things. In general type designers gradually become closer to the archetypes the further along their career they go, as they gain greater mastery and subtlety.
I started off doing lots of novelty typefaces, whose purpose was to pleased little parts of my psyche, and then as you progress you begin to appreciate the value of creating a tool useful to more than a few people and for more than a few things. With the clients I have now it’s necessary for me to create type that has some universal qualities, but I also have time to do things which just touch a few people. It’s like appreciating pop but being into something more esoteric music. To me this is the common theme among type design: when you’re just exploring your own personality you get interested in different genres, and you want to explore them for a while. Like black letter, or digital. Later on you bring these experiences together at some point, all these little things that you’ve learned.
Naming is an important part of marketing a typeface and I think that Democratica wouldn’t have sold half so many if it had been called something else, since Democratica was released in the same year that the Democrats got in power the US. The US market for typefaces is enormous compared to the rest of the world, because typefaces have always been cheaper in the US, and they have a more frivolous attitude to buying type.
Going back to one of your earlier questions about things being overlooked, a type designer will spend many hours designing glyphs in a font that almost no-one will see. The florin for example – nobody uses it any more, but you can’t rush it because of that. It used to be the same designing the @ symbol, but of course we see them a lot now because of email addresses. The Ampersand has a tradition of being an opportunity to do something playful and beautiful. So unless someone is really looking closely at a font, there will be things which are overlooked.
There’s a slightly different logic to numerals than to letters, so in a 7, the backstroke of would be thin if it followed the broad pen derived logic of the Roman alphabet, but our numerals are Arabic ion origin, and so you have a different logic for them. There is a lot of beauty in numerals, particularly in some of the more obscure typefaces.
In Ferox I liked the 5 very much…
Yes! With the Mickey Mouse ears on the top! I like the 4 too, but the 5… Of the things I’ve done if I was to say my favorite, my favorite number is the Ferox 5.
It’s beautiful I think…
So happy. It was an exercise in trying to make something which is typically gothic and dark and trying to make it light and playful. But I think that Black Letter now is less associated with Germany and more associated with Rap and Street, which wasn’t true six years ago
In fashion too, I remember very well in 2004 Black Letter was used a lot.
Yes, Versace used it, went through a whole period with them. They’re lovely shapes. If you forget everything about them, Gothic is a really nice, rhythmic series of shapes with a lot of playfulness in the uppercase.
They had DIN as well, at that time especially. It was very common in the 1940s, 30s, because of Bauhaus –
Yes, yes – but we don’t associate DIN with Nazis anymore!
Because DIN is the common font of –
That’s why I won’t use it though; I don’t use it, because everybody uses it. That’s the reason for not using it, it’s just too much, everywhere.
Bembo? It’s beautiful. That’s just one of the ones where you look at the letters, and you think “oh, that’s so perfect, so feminine as well”. DIN is just too masculine.
Is there any work of design or lettering which you feel has been unjustly forgotten or slighted?
It’s difficult to tell what’s been forgotten, as everything has its fans, although they might be few. There’s an illustrator/art director who worked on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty called Eyvind Earle. I love his work, but I don’t know if he’s been ignored, just that I’ve never met anyone who shared this interest. Everything finds its audience with the web you know? There are people who put stuff up there, websites about bookplates or labels and you think, well, there’s not going to be that many people looking at this website, but they’ve spent all the time and energy to create a really nice website about something very obscure. I think that those people are the people who are not credited somehow, the people who are building the richness of the web. I’d like to credit those people.
Is there anything now whose ubiquity annoys you or that you feel is actively harmful?
Beauty ads… actively harmful. Don’t you think? All that stuff about being thin and the Hollywood aesthetic, particularly harmful to young women.
Facebook…actively harmful. It doesn’t connect people, it disconnects. It discourages conversation and encourages ‘nudging’ and ‘poking’. It is making friendship measurable by quantity not quality.
Do you feel at home in the world of Hip Hop and Anime or is it something that you find more alienating?
I find Hip Hop quite alienating, whereas I bought all of those Studio Ghibli films for my young niece, and that feels very familiar to me, I like it. The stories feel very alien of course – we were watching Princess Mononoke the other day, as a family, and we found it quite difficult to follow the story, yet when I read about the story on the web, just to check that I’d understood it correctly, it was relatively simple, probably no more complicated than the Cinderella story, so I think it’s just familiarity. I remember the Cinderella story from when I was a kid, just from having a sister, it’s part of our culture, so I’m assuming that some of the stories in Anime films like these are very familiar, but native to the Japanese culture. But foremost I appreciate the artistic craft of them, the drawing, it’s just spot on. And my children love the drawing as well, they’re not that interested in Finding Nemo or Monsters Inc., any CGI stuff, they’ve taken to the drawn stuff much more easily, there’s a human quality to it.
You are an inspiration to Turkish designers as someone with strong individual creative presence within the corporate world, “in” it but not “of” it, but refusing to stand “out of it”, maintaining a passionate spirit despite the various homogenizing pressures. How do you situate yourself? Either in political terms (against a design program of “lite happiness” pre/post millennial), in design terms (the responsibilities of a “trained eye” to produce works of good taste and to advance good design values), or in personal terms (as someone who clients come to in order to fundamentally rebrand themselves, someone who can take design risks and think a bit further than the corporate design norm)? Is there something you feel you stand against? More positively, what values do you see yourself as advancing through your design?
Taste is important, something I like to talk about. ‘Taste’ is seen as a snobbish thing by most people, but that’s a misinterpretation of taste, it’s a misunderstood concept. Taste for me is the faculty you exerted in experiencing anything aesthetically. It’s intuitive, something that grows and expands. Taste is about openness and inclusion, not exclusion. But nowadays taste is often defined more by the exclusion of vulgarity, than by the inclusion of the artistic.
Most artistic criticism comes in the form of contextual criticism; considering and evaluating something by looking at the factors surrounding it, and there is less intuitive criticism, since we’re living in an age of accountability where we feel the need to back up our aesthetic responses by constructing a framework of rational argument. The problem with this is that it constricts our ability to experience the world, we become experientially poorer. It’s a lofty ideal, but I’d like to see myself advancing intuitive experience.
You are someone who has maintained their creative integrity within a hyper capitalist environment. Is that hard to maintain? How to balance the exhilaration of a hyper capitalist environment against an ethical reserve?
That hyper capitalist environment only offers a thin layer of experience. If your creative integrity is based upon experience outside of that layer, it’s easy to maintaining it. My integrity is based on the tradition of the artist/craftsman, and the dilettante.
This seems to me to be true of other designers and artists who have maintained their integrity.
Ross Lovegrove I think maintains creative integrity in the same way that Colani does; via a perception of the natural world’s design principles, or understanding of nature.
You’ve criticized UK managers in particular. What about the management of UK design firms? Are there any prospects for improvement?
It’s not particularly design managers; it’s just our style of management in the UK really. It’s just poor. What did we do before them?! I don’t need management. I think everyone’s fairly capable of managing themselves!
Are you optimistic when you look at the standard of design around outside?
I am optimistic – perhaps because I don’t apply a ‘standard’ to it. I’m not the Design Council. If you create something, you can’t help but design it. Their view of design is something designed by someone with designer on their business card, and I don’t believe in that. Thomas Heatherwick did an exhibition at the Design Museum a few years ago, where he displayed £20,000 of goods that were not ‘designed’, and I criticized it for not going to the trouble of actually finding out who designed all these things – mainly because Conran, who was overseeing the exhibition has a reputation for being economic in giving credit where credit’s due, and Thomas Heatherwick is Conran’s protégé. But at the same time I appreciated the point of the exhibition, which was to showing all these unusual and obscure products from around the world, which aren’t usually in the Design Museum, from sex toys to waste disposal chutes.
If you were to be pessimistic about design, then I think that’s a snobbish viewpoint – you’re saying there’s not enough of what you like, but the world isn’t built for you or me, you know what I mean? We all share it.
The Turkish language reform adopted Roman letters eclectically, omitting Q, X, W, adding Ğ, Ç, ı, etc. Atatürk disliked the appearance of lower case q, which had been suggested as an alternative to the modern Turkish k followed by a circumflexed vowel. Do you like accented letters? How do you approach designing for European languages other than English?
That’s a nice question. Yes, I do like designing accented letters. And you have to do the research. When I started designing typefaces, they weren’t the kind of typefaces which were ever accented before. Missionary, for example, would have been woodblock or steel engraving and it would never have had accents, but I had to create them since I was designing a flexible digital font with a standardized character set. So I was posed the question – are the accents ornamental as well? And of course they have to be, but I only worked with the Latin, Western European set which are fairly familiar and not a problem, the same is true of the Turkish ones… But anyone who is serious about regional nuance can now search the internet and find material on designing as naturally as possible. I like cedillas… I’ve tried to simplify some of them, like on Modena condensed I did a cedilla which was just like a comma beneath the letter –
That’s nice, I prefer that. In writing, we normally just put it like that.
Yes, as a kind of typographic philosophy, I’m a fan of Gerrit Noordzij who wrote a useful book called LetterLetter, about how we should look at handwriting and typefaces as if there were no difference. All typography comes from handwriting initially. There’s a book called ‘The Origin of the Serif ‘– it poses the question ‘were serifs formed by carving, or were they brushstrokes?’ Before a mason began to carve a stone, he painted the letters on as a guide. So there’s an element of using a brush. And we’ll never know the answer to that, it was too long ago and nothing really survives. So all typography is rationalized handwriting constructed in accordance the properties of the medium. I do quite a lot of Cyrillic work, and find it useful to look at Cyrillic scripts and the handwritten word before I begin.
You have designed some beautiful Qs – Democratica, Verona…
Yes, Qs are very nice. And it’s a lovely sound as well. Combine that with what I’ve just said about handwriting – there are a lot of designers who will design a word, i.e. a logo, without thinking about how it sounds and how it feels in the mouth. The actual nature of the word and how it feels is really important and if you can make it look the way it feels when you say it – O, when you say it, obviously, your mouth makes a kind of circular shape, and O is a circular shape, and you’ve already got a lot of the work done. Onomatopoeia, words that look like they sound, are very interesting, and Q is somehow
Yeah. Very elegant, difficult not to associate with the word and idea of a Queen.
What non-Roman alphabets have you worked with and how did you approach this?
I’ve done a little bit of Japanese and a little bit of Cyrillic, some Greek… that’s it I think, so far. I love doing it, and I’m looking forward to doing some Chinese work, which will hopefully come through in the next few years. The similarity with Roman, i.e. the thick vertical and thin horizontal strokes is interesting. In Chinese this arose as a result of the direction of the grain when cutting wood blocks; it was easier to cut fine horizontals with the grain than it was vertically, against the grain. They have the equivalent of a serif too, I find that remarkable.
Are you interested in spelling, as part of the complete form of a word? Is there any design advantage for English in using such a non-phonetic spelling system?
There’s an advantage for English in that it’s very suitable for the construction of new words, it’s very buzz-wordy, people accept new words quickly and you can change the meaning of new words quickly. I don’t know how good standards of spelling and grammar are, in comparison with other countries, whether it’s lower because of its flexibility. It’s a bonus to my job.
There’s also an international aspect. If I start thinking about the naming of drugs, I do a fair bit of pharmaceutical branding, they’re all made-up names – Herceptin for example – they’re not English. They’re obviously in the Roman alphabet, but they’re as universal as you can get until you start doing numbers. It’s an interesting thing about 3; it’s a number, so it’s totally universal. Whereas Coca Cola has to change it’s logo for Arabic and other languages, 3 can remain the same. And be pronounced in the local language rather than having to teach someone a new word. That’s one of the great things about that brand.
Inevitably, a question about the 2012 Olympic logo… Is there a place generally for defiantly ugly design, or is “good bad design” in the end just a gateway to a higher understanding of taste?
My view is that it has been derided not because it’s ugly but because it doesn’t represent what it’s meant to represent, which is the people of London, of the country, the kingdom, the location, the event. To say that the population of London is diverse, and that therefore it is not possible to represent it, is a cop out, it was a task that was quickly resigned. Whether we like it or not, we have a flag that is not about to go away. I’m not saying we should have done a logo in red white and blue, far from it, but that we have some of the world’s strongest cultural symbolism that could have been used as a reference point, which would have given people a doorway to a relationship with the ‘brand’.
Instead the logo was designed for an Olympics that would be for everyone, all inclusive. And it failed at this too. It used a visual style that did the opposite; it used the mannerisms of minority.
It’s like a transvestite; it wants to be something that it isn’t, and we all can see it. What it ultimately expresses is a paranoia. The paranoia of knowing that its form doesn’t follow its function; that the concept doesn’t match the execution.
There’s another fundamental problem, and that is that most people aren’t able to have useful reaction to typography unless it says something meaningful, and the reaction is likely to be negative when the typography is brutal. People were expecting a pictorial symbol, good or bad, but they were shocked to be confronted by a meaningless ‘brand name’.
I do however applaud the intention of attacking complacency.
Where is corporate design heading?
Post-Consumer, Post-Corporate and Post-Western are the new buzzwords for marketing consumer focused western corporations. I’ve used these ideologies in my work for almost a decade and they’re beginning to catch on.
You have spoken in terms of single designers or small teams working freelance, with maybe greater flexibility, and that this is a global trend. Are you still optimistic about this? Will they not have the same hard time as microbreweries struggling to make inroads into the big pub chains?
Do you like beer?
Yes I do!
Good! I visited a few microbreweries in Colorado in 1992 and I was like, “Look at this, taste it, it’s fantastic!” They’re lovely – small is beautiful when it comes to food.
I am optimistic and I think that more and more designers are linking up, many working in consortia, forming communities around ideas and coming together for discussion at conferences. Blogs, forums and networking tools have enabled groups of creative people to form flexible agencies that work in new ways. It can necessitate a change of attitude or process; you need to be accountable, to be there when people need to get hold of you, and time zones can become a problem in this respect. Web 2.0 tools have been designed to help organize these groups, their management has become open source.
Are there any future trends or developments in design – or in society – which you find inspiring, intriguing, or frightening?
I do find technology inspiring. Whilst Glyphs, Illustrator and Word are the dominant tools of my business, I’ve started to use other tools, applications not typically used by my colleagues, certainly not in the world of branding. I use most of the Google tools; I use Google SketchUp to design for Google Earth. I spend time looking at the opportunities for brands to embed themselves in Google and be of the medium – Google Maps, Finance, etc. A business well integrated to the web need spend less money on traditional marketing, but so few businesses have achieved this yet.
I play in SecondLife, where I build experimental ‘brands’ that don’t have a logo, colour or typography. Instead I’ll use sound, light, texture and ‘weather’.
Could you tell us about your current projects, or about anything you are currently researching? Is there anything exciting in the pipeline?
I’ve a new e-commerce site for myself, soon to be launched. I’ll be able to sell my own typefaces, some new ones, and some of the more interesting experimental fonts. In the bigger picture, I’m excited to be doing business directly with clients.
I’ve also a new service, providing the most discerning client with the unique opportunity to create bespoke communications of a grandeur and splendour not seen since the Medicis and Louis XIV. Encapsulating who they are, and how they choose to live, a small team of artisans take care of every imaginable detail, from a precious invitation to the detailing of private estate.
Have you any advice for young designers who want to do good work?
Well everybody says it and I agree with it – it’s just that good work is work that’s true to yourself, so be true to yourself – don’t end the interview on that one because it’s just too clichéd! But it’s very true. I’ve been true to myself as far as I can. It’s sometimes a struggle, because we all have to fit in to a bigger world. Missionary, people still talk about it – just a unique, personal little project, done at college, but one done without any thought of trying to become commercial or anything like that, and it doesn’t matter whether it made very little money, it makes a reputation, and from that becomes a career.
What in your work gives you the greatest pleasure or satisfaction?
The cheque at the end! You can’t ignore that, I enjoy the running of a small business, and in a small way it helps me to understand my clients, who run businesses. But really that’s not the greatest pleasure. The greatest pleasure is just that moment when you go, “Ah, I’ve got the idea, it’s perfect, elegant!” the Eureka moment after which comes a sated happiness. That moment, that high, is an addiction. That’s what keeps me doing it.