The Offset Past: Design and Comics Interview No. 1
When you mention either Design or Comics, one name is inevitable to come up — Rian Hughes.
Rian wears every hat that a creative can. Rian emerged from the UK comic scene in the 80’s when the British Invasion involved bristol board instead of mop tops. His illustration work is deeply influenced by his Mainland European neighbors. It features bold colors and line work, evoking a timeless feel. His work has a visual “pop” that can only come from a strong design sense and classic drawing skills.
(left) Louche magazine | Illustration for Texturebook | HOW publishing USA,
(right) Marlowe | Cover to Comic Art Now | Ilex Press.
My first exposure to his work was through his impressive design career. He has been featured in every milestone design publication, and his work is immediately recognizable by any designer. He has created scores of high quality typefaces and is constantly digitizing classic mid-century typefaces.
A cross section of typefaces designed and digitized by Rian Hughes. | Available for purchase on Veer.
Rian recently has transformed himself into a publishing tastemaker. He’s edited a series of books for Fiell Publishing which feature lifestyle imagery, as well as vernacular lettering from the 1940s through the 1970s. They are massive tomes that are indispensable for lettering and illustration inspiration.
I am huge fan of Rian’s work and I want to thank him for making time in his schedule for this interview. His wit and grace are eclipsed only by his talent and I’m honored to feature him as my first Design and Comics interview.
Website: rianhughes.com, devicefonts.co.uk
Contact Info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Job position: Director
What was your first memorable interaction with comics? Were you a regular consumer of comics or was in a occasional thing?
I read an English comic called “Countdown” as a child, but didn’t really get into American comics until much later, when I was lent a pile of Frank Miller’s Daredevils and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knights. I also read a lot of European albums – Serge Clerc, Yves Chaland…
Did you get them from a comics shop or from a spinner rack at a grocery store/deli?
We didn’t have spinner racks in the UK! American comics would be bundled with string, and randomly turn up months after their US release in corner newsagents. It was pot luck what you’d get. We also had Alan Class reprints – black and white poor quality selections randomly thrown together from old Marvel, Timely and Charlton comics from the 50s and 60s – you can imagine, these looked very old fashioned in the 70s.
Was there a character you connected with or aligned with the most? Did it extend to other media? Movies, TV, et cetera…
Not really – I have always found superheroes to be somewhat…silly, though I do have a great affection for them. They’re just not in my blood the way they are in some comic creator’s.
Were you inspired to start creating by these, did you trace the books? Color in them? Something else?
There’s a very early strip I drew that you can see on the Forbidden Planet blog. It’s obviously inspired by John M. Burns’ work on Countdown. He’d do these dynamic page layouts with bold graphic colours that really appealed to me – bright oranges and lime greens.
Were their any other landmark motivators upon your creative development at this young age? Books, family members, et cetera… What was your career arc post high school/secondary school?
I was later introduced to type design and graphic design via my father, an architect, who used Letraset on his plans. I drew my own fonts on small sheets of paper, and sent them to Letraset hoping they’d use them. They didn’t, of course, but when I was 15 they did spend a day showing me around the Letraset studio and demonstrating their font design process.
I also liked the work of Hipgnosis and Chris Foss, and a few years later when I was attending the graphic design degree course at the LCP I much admired the conceptual purity of Peter Saville‘s work for Factory and Ultravox. Saville has been an influence, not so much stylistically, as he didn’t employ a style as such, but conceptually – I try to incorporate every last element of a design into a larger rigourous conceptual whole. Saville taught me a perfectionist attention to details like grid layout and restricted type use that means I get cross when, for example, a barcode is printed a few millimeters too large or a font is stretched to fill a space in-house because of a last minute text change. I feel like I should point out here to potential art directors who might employ me that I’m not being difficult when I insist that you shouldn’t replace Helvetica with Univers and expect no-one to notice.
Saville was a judge for a sleeve design competition run at the LCP, my art college, and as I was one of the winners I collared him afterwards in the hope he’d give me a job once I’d graduated. He didn’t. He was very erudite and entertaining, however, memorably showing me proofs of “Power, Corruption and Lies” months before it’s release. His studio was in a 30′s industrial unit in Westbourne Park, coincidentally just above Knockabout’s. He suggested I drop in on them, which I did, and that’s how I met Tony and Carol Bennett, who 20 years later are publishing Yesterday’s Tomorrows, despite the fact I thought they were a pair of hippies.
At art school, two things happened that rekindled my interest in comics. One was seeing Serge Clerc‘s work in the NME, and through Paul Gravett being introduced to Chaland and Ever Meulen, and to a lesser extent Torres. It seemed to me that Clerc was someone who was successfully amalgamating Hanna Barbera simple linework with a modern hip design sensibility. Comics with style. The door opened on this new world of Belgian and French artists that seemed to be the freshest and most exciting material I’d seen in ages. The cross-hatched bubble-fingered work of cartoonists like Moscoso, Crumb and Shelton had never appealed to me on a gut level, and even though now I love their work and respect them for the geniuses that they are, it was the clean areas of black and white and asymmetric layouts that people like Clerc and Ever Meulen used that cut through all that extraneous detail and hit me in the aesthetic heart.
How does comics/cartoons/illustration/creative work interact with your day-to-day work?
My day-to day work is pretty evenly divided between mainstream illustration, logo design, font design, design for music and a random assortment of strange jobs that arrive via email and Facebook. Many cross disciplines and tend to blend into each other, so I’m not one for distinct categories.
Rian’s work on the Wednesday Comics masthead for DC Comics. (top) Wednesday Comics | Proposed logo design | DC Comics,
(left) Wednesday Comics | Proposed logo design | DC Comics, (right) Wednesday Comics | Logo design | DC Comics.
Currently I have several book projects either just out or at press. I’ve just published CULT-URE, which has been 10 years in the making. I have notebooks filled with observations on how design works – the language of signs and symbols, and how they inform and spread culture. This is probably my most personal work to date, and has garnered some very good and very uncomprehending reviews – most people love it, some people just don’t get it. Personally, I think it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done. I’ve also edited and designed two books on vintage type and a book on 1960s lifestyle illustration, wherein I ride a couple of hobbyhorses to exhaustion.
Moments From Eden | Album sleeve design | Ultravox.
Other recent work includes a sleeve for the reformed Ultravox, sleeves for a fantastic new band called The Winchell Riots, new logos for DC’s digital relaunch, logos for another comic company relaunch, the collected Tales from Beyond Science (for which I’m drawing some new material), designing and editing a book on Science Fiction artist Chris Foss, from Titan Books, and a bunch of other stuff that escapes me at present.
What interests you the most about comics and their place in your world?
Comics, in a broader sense, are simply words and pictures – and words AS pictures, which as a designer, and especially as a font designer, is what fascinates me the most. The formal aspects of communication – this is the very language designers manipulate for their own ends, the medium culture uses to spread memes. Comics are a subset of this broader picture.
What is your favorite aspect of creative work in your life? What makes you sit back and smile about what you are doing?
I think I have a preposterous work ethic and an overbearing need to get all these ideas out and down on paper or pixel that rarely lets me relax. This is a curse and a blessing, as I’m sure others with the same affliction would agree. I’m chained to a runaway train of ideas that three or four of me couldn’t keep up with. It is enjoyable, but it’s also exhausting and mentally draining – but I’d not have it any other way.
I’d say the bit that makes me smile is getting the finished item back from the printer – but I’m so self-critical that even at that stage, all I see are the mistakes (and there are inevitably always one or two) which I then obsess about.
(top left and right) The Spirit | Logo Design | DC Comics
(bottom left) Strange Tales | Logo Design | Marvel, (bottom middle and right) Strange Tales | Proposed Logo Design | Marvel
Where do you see comics and design heading, what is your personal perspective on the future?
Everything is converging. Digital media means that magazines, online content, comics, video – everything that can be reduced to zeros and ones – is blending into a new hybrid medium. Comics are two media combined – words and pictures. This is comics’ innovation, its USP (Unique Selling Position). When all these other media combine, we’ll see something new begin to appear, but I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what that might look like. We’re like early manufacturers of cars who put horses heads on the front to help communicate what this strange new invention was supposed to be. Only later did the car evolve its own symbolic language of shape, colour and meaning that is all its own. We’re currently using signposts from the past to point our way to the future. I think we’re very much in one of those bridging periods between the old way of doing things and the new, and I’m excited to find out what that new way of doing things might look like.
What advice can you share with younger artists and designers towards their future?
Show us something we haven’t seen before. Amaze us.
Rian’s bio photo is credited to Steve Cook. All artwork examples are © Rian Hughes and associated parties. They are used with explicit permission. Special thanks to Joe Gordon at Forbidden Planet International for permission to reprint interview excerpts and Joe Peacock for his proofreading muscles.