Burning Questions with Sarah Boris

All students in the second year of their degree must select a studio from a choice of four to spend the rest of the year working in. Each studio contains second and third year students, who also go through the same process for a second time. Each studio is supposed to offer some flexibility in what it offers so both the graphics and illustration students feel they can pick from any studio. If I haven’t explicitly stated this anywhere, let me say it now: my illustration degree runs in conjunction with the graphic design course. So, as I’ll be explaining to friends, family and prospective employers and clients for the rest of my life, my degree in illustration is actually a degree in graphic design. If you’re waiting for me to add ‘and illustration’ to the end of that last sentence, join the queue, ‘cos I’m waiting too…

Anyway, the studio I picked was called the Press Pass studio. It’s mandate is to focus of the finished, published article, with an emphasis on developing my ‘inner wordsmith’. As David Hobson, one of my foundation tutors so adequately put in when remarking on my work, ‘You can draw well enough’ and while I might argue that I have a very long way to go,  I do agree with the sentiment. What I need more help with is getting from realised concept to finished product, having something that doesn’t look like it was made by a student or amateur enthusiast but by a designer. Something I can charge people for! Press Pass seemed to be a pretty good fit for that.

Our first brief was given to us by Sarah Boris, one of the four core tutors in our studio. She first introduced herself, giving us an overview of her work before joining the course. There was some interesting stuff in there, which I won’t give justice to, explaining it here, so have a look at her website.

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Sarah Boris introducing herself then moving onto our first brief

Our first brief was titled Burning Questions. The goal was to produce a poster or a series of three posters to be typographic in nature that would be judged, with shortlisted selections being considered for entry onto the Ficciones Typografika website.

We were each asked to come up with a burning question, a genuine concern we have about our futures as designers. I made a list which contained questions such as: Is this art? Does it make sense? Must it make sense? And a few more. Upon showing the list to Sarah, she was intrigued with does it make sense?. The rest of the session was spent then trying to come up with how to visually represent the notion after a little warm up exercise, but before I move onto that I should clarify what that question means to me.

As I allude to in my post on Font by Fiona Banner, the difference between art and design is about ease of understanding. It’s also about the speed of comprehension. You go to a gallery to look at something that is hopefully worth pondering, but a poster needs to get you as you walk past. So my question is tapping into the broader area of ‘is this art or design?’ Also, in a more mundane way it addresses a core concern every designer must always be wary of: ‘do people get what I’m saying?’ Good design is about imparting all your information with the least amount of distractions or, flourishes, if you will. Failure to communicate the information clearly and concisely is unacceptable. So there’s that as well. These were my thoughts going forward.

Sarah suggested we all write ‘hello’ big on a piece of paper. I don’t remember what her intentions with this were, maybe to see how we tackle creating type by hand?

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My best work ever. Hold the applause. Stare at it long enough and you might see the face in the background.

It was worth doing for me because I’m not a fan of type led design. It meant that I just had to get stuck in, and knowing next to nothing makes it really easy to learn something useful just about all the time. Some of the more observant readers will have noticed that I came looking for a degree in illustration, not to say that one can’t make delightful illustrated type, but like I always say ‘dammit, I just want to draw ninjas and robot!’. My interests are with comics, storyboards, book illustrations, poster art, concept art for video games, those sorts of things. Things more traditionally associated with, here’s that word again, illustration. This is why, following this exercise, I wanted to focus on making my text as image. Sarah had shown us some artwork to help inspire us and there were examples of, perhaps ‘calligram’ is the wrong word, but images of things that were constructed solely of words. It just wasn’t things like a heart shape made out of the repeated use of the word ‘heart’.

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Rough draft of initial concept

So I drew a monkey scratching it’s head. The question ‘Does it make sense?’ Makes up all of the form. ‘Does this’ is the body, ‘makes’ is the arm, ‘sense’ is the face. The ‘make’ being upside-down and the ‘sense’ being split up make comprehension far slower. This ties into my statements earlier about art vs design and the speed at which the reader is expected to understand your message.

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Tightened up first draft

In the tightened up version of my monkey, I added a furrowed brow to emphasise the confusion on the monkey’s face. If you’re really sharp and have far too much time on your hands you may have noticed I’ve made a rather large blunder. Last chance to look for it before I tell you… It’s not that obvious, because it involves the face, but the nose to the chin is a ‘c’. The face, with the exception of the brow marks, is made up of the word ‘sense’. There is no ‘c’ in ‘sense’. Oh dear. I now commit seppuku. Oh what an artist dies in me! Ahem.

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‘Does this make sense?’ written in black, spread across a grid of white letters

I also produced a couple of alternate designs. The question is written in black letters dispersed amongst random white letters. Again, the idea was to slow the speed of comprehension.

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As above, except the random letters were replaced with question marks

The second version replaced the random letters with question marks. This wouldn’t have presented a strong enough deterrent to immediate understanding, but it is worth noting these ideas were purely formative. One must work through the initial ideas to get to something more interesting and productive. Please ignore the fact that my monkey was actually my first idea. It was born in response to the work of others, unlike the other two, which were effectively born in a vacuum, benefiting only from my inexperience with letterforms as the focal point of a design.

So that sums up the initial session on burning questions. I’ll see you next tim, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

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