Where creative thinking is concerned, we're in a moment of wild appropriation. We have immediate access to every time period, every movement, and every artist. With all of this inspiration around, it's easy to get distracted and lose sight of one's own scope. We talked with UK-based illustrator Scott Balmer about his process, vintage video games, and why it's important to stay focused on one's own vision—even if it is informed by endless visions of the past.
I read somewhere that you were really into printmaking while you were studying. Did having a foundation in block and screen printing ultimately have an effect on your style and process as someone who primarily works on the computer?
For one thing, it made me think more about the many ways in which elements of my designs could relate to one another by using a medium where change isn't really that much of an option. It also gave me a better understanding of working with colors. Most folks go on about using paint to learn the basics of how to use color effectively, but personally I found it's best to use a process like block printing where not only are you limited on how many colors you can use, but also your color choices are pretty much set in stone once they are printed since it's not that easy to just cover it up with another hue like you can in painting.
Where do you start your work? On the computer?
It depends, really. There have been times when I just jump right in with a rough idea and see how things fall into place, but for most of the time my work starts off as some very simple rough thumbnails. Then it's either getting right into the action or, if it's for a client, I would flesh out the thumbnails towards something that shows the concept a bit more clearly.
All of your illustrations seem to come from the same world, but there are still a few very distinct groupings of style. Are these from different periods? Or are they in response to different types of atmospheres or objectives?
I think it's more to do with what best fits the initial concept and generally, the look and/or feel with what will work within the subject material. A style should be scalable in the sense that you should be able to reduce it to its bare essentials in the production of simple yet striking concepts, but it can also be taken into the more complex realms by trying to push the style to its limits and producing a piece with a dense illustrative landscape.
The illustration coming from the UK is just so great right now, especially where editorial is concerned. Would you agree? Is there any kind of scene or even just a collective consciousness that you're aware of?
There are a fair few great and diverse illustrative pieces coming out of the UK right now and I do keep up and look at what other illustrators/designers are doing. But I tend to follow what other creatives are up to more casually as I think it's important to have a balance in that you're not almost always looking up how someone else tackled a certain subject as to avoid subconsciously mirroring someone else's concepts. I find it also helps greatly in defining who you are and how your own work can be defined on its own without being overly influenced to the point where it's borderline mimicry. All in all it's basically the art of looking but also not looking.
I know you grew up in the '80s. How do you think your pop cultural knowledge of that era influences your work—do you draw on it? I noticed RoboCop in a recent piece.
Bits of the '80s has influenced some of my work, such as toys and their packaging to the cartoons usually aired on a Saturday morning. Mostly it comes from the old games like Zelda and Mario plus a few titles and systems that had some quirky charm to them back in the day, like the ZX Spectrum. I'm still thinking about making a piece just using the colors that the Spectrum used to produce in its heyday. For anyone thats not familiar with the graphics output of the Spectrum, it was almost always a black screen with about four to five vibrant colors being produced (usually bright neon pink, green, yellow, or blue which I felt really stood out back then), giving the spectrum a visual distinctiveness compared to its peers.
I've also been recently admiring the skill of the various artists who were hired to work on the title/loading screens on both the Spectrum and the C64, with the restrictions the system, its color pallete, and having to use a joystick to draw the design in most cases. I think that if I was working in that time period, I'd most likely be working on the cover art and/or loading screen graphics within a games company if that were possible.
In terms of illustration, what illustrators or elements of visual culture led you to your style? And what do you think this style says about you?
It's mostly been from my appreciation of old school illustration and design. Designers like Saul Bass with his simple poster designs and title sequences, Polish poster designs, the collective work of Pushpin Graphic, Paul Rand, and other great folks.
I think there's something about old illustrations/designs which hold up quite well and also carry a certain charm which I feel influenced me in some way. I guess that deep down when it comes to pushing myself forward, I want to make beautiful things. There may be a fair bit to go, but all in all, that's my ultimate goal.
Those living in the Washington, D.C. area in the '80s circa the Iran-Contra scandal might remember the bold graphic poster emblazoned with "Meese Is A Pig" popping up around the city. They were hard to miss for commuters and locals alike. The posters appeared overnight and were visible on various public spaces. The graphics were clearly aimed at Reagan cabinet member and advisor Edwin Meese who was enmeshed in Iran/Contra and also the champion of various far-right causes in the administration. The poster campaign got national attention. Soon, the poster's creator, Jeff Nelson (of Dischord Records and Minor Threat fame) was revealed. With respect to Nelson's album sleeve and logo designs (among our favorites ever!), his "Meese Is A Pig" poster remains his masterpiece. Nelson sold T-shirts with the image, which covered his printing costs and the graphics lived on long after the street campaign was over. With Edwin Meese back in the news as the backer a government shutdown and national anti-Obamacare efforts, we're pleased to see "Meese Is A Pig" getting its due.
Detroit boasts a history of legendary axmen—Jack White, Ted Nugent, Robert White, Wayne Kramer and Dennis Coffey to name a few. And now, thanks to the passion project of commercial real estate director and woodworker Mark Wallace, the next great musician on that list may kick out the jams with a guitar made from a chunk of the city itself.
Built in a Corktown workshop, Wallace Detroit Guitars are fashioned from wood salvaged from the city’s recently demolished buildings. Each instrument will be branded with the address of the home that provided the wood, reinforcing the local heritage of the material.
So far, Wallace has created two prototypes that need to be tested, but a recent $8,000 matching grant from the Knight Foundation should allow him to expand production. Eventually, he wants the finished product to include more salvaged material from other local companies, like a strap made out of leftovers auto parts.
“One of the great things about Detroit is the collaboration,” he says. “Everyone wants to work together because they know they’re making the city a better place.”
Wallace's project is currently getting off the ground thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation.
The excellent design blog Thisispaper is now available, wait for it, in paper. We queried editor Zuzzana Gasior on the new print mag.
What is Thisispaper for those unfamiliar?
As Thisispaper we are now running two different, but interweaving projects. Thisispaper Magazine is where we share our inspirations and obsessions from multiple fields of design. Our roots are in the digital world but we find print equally alluring. We started off as an online magazine and continue running it, by we have recently ventured into print and released Thisispaper Magazine Inaugural Issue in paper and ink. Thisispaper Shop is our second, younger brainchild. It’s an online store with hand made products.
Which designers have been selected for the issue, how did you decide who to include?
The full list of featured designers is as follows: Studio Glithero, Faye Toogood, Formafantasma, Phoebe English, Nina Donis, Feilden Fowles Architects; photographers Kanoa Zimmerman and Marcel van der Vlugt; artist Anouk Griffioen.
The selection process was simple. We decided to feature designers whose work we’re impressed by and who have a strong conceptual background behind their work. We were particularly curious to find out about their creative process so we chose the ones that put emphasis on the process, not just the finished product.
Why do you think a print publication was necessary?
As you will quickly discover when you open the magazine, some of the interviews are quite massive, and were intended to be so from the start. We wanted to explore the designers’ creative processes in depth. Such content lives better in a tangible book that online. While surfing the web, people focus on image and have a short attention span and it’s not the best environment to present content that requires a careful reading. Plus we’re really drawn to the beauty of a printed object, the texture of paper, smell of paint and so on.
Thisispaper.com was an ironic name, but now it has a literal meaning.
Good point. Since Thisispaper is an umbrella term for both the site and the magazine, it now means that digital and print can coexist without undermining one another’s position. This is due to the fact that they are good for different things. The content that we feature online is much more image-based, while for print we look for something that requires more time and effort to absorb.
You're based in Warsaw, does that surprise a lot of your readers?
It does come as a surprise sometimes, but mostly to people in Poland. When they see Thisispaper they don’t expect it to be a Warsaw-based endeavor (love the word).
The print publication is a very limited run. Why is that? Do you hope to expand? Is it harder or easier to do a print magazine in Poland?
The print publication is not a limited run. We will print as many copies as there is demand for. 250 is the minimal number that we need to reach in the pre-order period to print the magazine, but there is no maximum limit on how many copies we will print. That said, it’s hard to imagine a situation when Thisispaper is available on every newsstand
Nowadays when distribution mostly happens online, printing a ad-free magazine is a comparable experience in Warsaw and everywhere else. It would probably be harder for us, though, is we were trying to attract sponsors.
Where can one get the print magazine?
Online at thisispapershop.com/product/thisispaper-inaugural-issue or soon at some local stores worldwide.
Do you accept contributions and pitches?
We do. See here for possible ways of working with us: welcome.thisispaper.com
While Swedish students may not have to worry about the same tuition bills as their American counterparts enrolled in private colleges, they do have to contend with a small scale housing crisis. A growing number of students are priced out of conventional apartments. So the architects at Tengbom are testing a housing system at Lund University that would reduce each apartment to just over 100 square feet. The studios have 13 foot ceilings and multiple windows to counteract the small footprint, and use lightly colored sustainable wood as a primary building material. The houses are completely independent from one another, but the plan is to build clusters of about 22 units for a kind of modified communal living. [images via Bertil Hertzberg]