AP : Who are some of your conceptual influences as an artist and designer? And what might you tell us about the proverbial “US / UK conceptual divide”?
ES : ...It’s funny how you ask that question just a week after I was reading Roger Sabin’s article in Eye (no. 54, “Understanding Silly Books”) about the influence of graphic design in the Monty Python books of the 70s. Those really inspired me, as a young teen who was looking for an outlet for my own surreal sense of humor and ideas, beyond simple illustration and creative writing as exercised in class. Those early Python books were beautifully designed and made, and really left a mark on all of my subsequent work. Here, you had a conceptual extension of a surreal comedy television show, and the product was a set of books that parodied the publishing genre, in place of simply reducing or distilling the television aspect into print. Kate Hepburn, the books’ designer, discussed in this article, how “the closer the pastiche was to the real thing, the better the gag worked,” so I can testify how that soon became a flagstone of how I would approach things, with that desire for authenticity and an attention to detail.
Design has also been a huge part of how I consume music. I always align first to an artist or label’s graphic sensibilities, as that speaks volumes about their beliefs and viewpoint. I’ve been attracted for a long time to labels like 4AD because I saw something critical in the work of Vaughan Oliver and his team, and the same, especially for Peter Saville’s influence upon the output of Factory Records. And that list keeps going on and on, Jon Wozencroft’s approach via photography and simplicity for Touch and Ash International, and Colin Newman’s excellent Swim~ label, Benoit Hennebert with his retro-chic approach to Crepuscule. There was a big influence on the look of the first few Day For Night releases, because the French culture that I was brought up in resonated perfectly in this kind of faux-jazz and post-punk/no-wave statement, which I fully agreed with at that time. But for me, Saville was the big one. I often say to people that, had it not been for Peter Saville's ability to convey volumes at an intuitive, even sub-intuitive graphic level, then I would probably never have fully discovered or realized my full potential in the past 20 years. Wasn’t 24 Hour Party People a trip, and that illustration of Saville always getting there late, but with an absolutely beautiful design under his arm.
I’ve always been moved by the way certain labels, musicians, artists and designers have a real heart for their craft, and are genuinely interested in the relevance and power of their medium. I don’t know why, but that seems to be more of a UK than a US thing. There’s such a huge divide between the people who claim to “love” music because it sounds fine on their car stereos every once in a while, and the people whose lives are so impossibly ruined by their exposure to amazing music, that they now couldn’t live without it. You could probably substitute “art” and “design” in that sentence, and I would stand beside that statement.
For example, musically-speaking, I’ve always been a fan of Wire and the Durutti Column, and New Order; in each case I think they initially established something with great sensibilities in a post-punk era, which was a very important time for me creatively. Each of them represents something sublime and beautiful that has stayed largely uncompromised. For me, that is a real test – when I can still claim to be fan to the same degree twenty years later as when I first discovered them; it means that they’ve grown up and matured along with my tastes.
I’m not really otherwise any more of a fan of pop, hip-hop and rock culture, and tend to go for instrumental music because it also serves a greater function in my life, and it fully demonstrates the real strength of music, which is that it is fully-contained and relies upon nothing. I don’t think you need words and singing all over something to keep it relevant. The biggest flaw I see around me is the failure of “slick” things to know whether they’re overlapping the problem. Like the commodification of “cool,” that so often happens at the ad agency level.
For something so important as music to remain uncompromised, it has to be produced by an artist trying to maintain commercial independence. For example, I have no problem hearing Oval used under a Giorgio commercial. In fact, that was a defining moment for me in jingle history – that was when I remember thinking, “at last, we’ve made it out of the dark ages!”
I also had no problem learning that Moby placed
all 18 songs off of his Play album into multimedia/licensing deals,
that is actually where I see the landscape of advertising as having
changed, because the emphasis now is upon targeted advertising, and
this represents a completely different business model from the old-fashioned
Madison Avenue one. For independent musicians, this lessens the risks
of “network” overexposure, which has routinely been a source
of killing great music through meaningless impressions.
Do you have a view on modern cities, or the corresponding lifestyle patterns? And if so, how did this inform your web design efforts?
Well, there’s a really interesting idea to be found in how modern cities are models for web communities and I think that any communal pattern merits a deeper investigation, wherever it can be applied to web design and usability. I think there’s no point in the continued assumption (still made by stodgy old-tech types) that web shopping will “never catch on.” It’s simply too easy to believe that the lowest common denominator is still anchored to the analog world, despite the stubbornness of broadband statistics, suggesting that only 10% of the web would ever exceed a 56 k dialup connection. That’s the old thinking at work.
Culturally, we share an awful lot through broadcast, and what we watch through scheduled programming. This is due to the predictable nature of schedules and the idea that this limits our choices to a reasonable number of channels or avenues. For now, the office water-cooler talk, which is a big form of community, hangs upon the premise that what we consume is not simply part of an unscheduled, on-demand service, but instead, partially dictated by a conformity to traditional scheduling. So if you and I both watch Seinfeld at 11:30 PM, there’s a better chance that we’ll have that in common to talk about tomorrow at work.
But the biggest problem I’ve detected within
new media, is the adherence to the Postmodern pre-supposition that limiting
choices is either “all bad,” corrupt and/or politically
incorrect, or that conversely, more choice equals more freedom as the
only good we can hope for. I think that’s a real mistake, and
in the process of great change as we speak.
What long-term changes do you see happening in the way the Web will be used – or perhaps in the way you as a designer will use it?
What we’re actually finding is that “curatorship”
– of galleries, both online and offline, just like the musical
curatorship of DJ culture is a highly desirable idea, and that the plan
of sharing a meaningful influence with our circle of friends, family
and constituents, feels like a natural idea. I think the next level
in the development of community will have to integrate personal taste
and some limits on expression, which in a word, will signal an end to
What role does language play in web sites you create? “Day For Night”, “NIGHTlinkRail” ... Are there hidden thematic meanings or approaches to communication embedded in your vision of how web talk takes place?
It turns out that there are relatively few people who actually know what Day For Night comes from as a term, and as my friend J.J. Abrams likes to refer to something he calls “genius filters”, which are the ways we can often use simple language cues to identify our compatibility with others who work on our kind of wavelength. Every so often someone will ask me, “Oh, you mean ‘Day For Night’ like the Truffaut film?” and I’ll usually smile because I know that there’s a volume of stuff probably going on with this person that we can share and relate.
But I don’t use language to separate people into insiders/outsiders, I prefer clever things. The whole goal with NIGHTlinkRail was that it should simply establish some basic principles about Day For Night – that it was a borough of some metropolis out in the ether, and that all the landmark and place names related one-for-one to projects in the Day For Night catalogue, and that all projects had a matrix number which could be related to the tube station that got you to that virtual locale, and so on. I did name a bunch of the streets in the NIGHTlink system after birds, such as Mynah Road and Sparrow Lane, with a few weird variations like “Cloaca Alley” which was meant to make people pull out their dictionaries and hopefully wince a little with revulsion. Just a hidden gag. I’d say there was maybe a reference to the style of filmmaker/artist Peter Greenaway there; he’s a very detailed author with an underlying rationale that is deeply invested in his personal interests and research, and his work is always fascinating to me.
Another interesting dimension of the ALIAS web
puzzle was the way the players of this online game were drawn into some
of my extracurricular sites and projects and somehow began to attempt
to relate concepts at Day For Night to concepts in the ALIAS game. On
one level, this felt at the time like a potential miscalculation, but
also on another highly important angle to how you must never underestimate
a person’s desire to dig deeper than the mere surface of things.
What can you tell us about your side projects? Have you often done quote experimental work that later became part of a process you regularly use?
Technically, my side projects are always works-in-progress
that will integrate (hopefully) into future chapters of the Day For
Night catalogue. I’m very logical about how I approach stuff like
this, because I want everything I make to become useful and relatable,
even on a “sketchbook” level of importance. Everything is
useful, and nothing gets wasted.
So you seem to have generated quite a few projects these last few years – How do you organize the way you work?
Well first of all, Day For Night is divided between the imprint and label, the first of which is about creating a lasting body of work, that will also generate publishing and residual income. There’s also Day For Night Multimedia, which serves outside clients, and their needs for interactive and creative briefs. The Day For Night label and catalogue gets re-purposed and then licensed for underscore in the case of multimedia clients, so there’s also a connection there between the two.
I try to keep things into these two, distinct categories,
because I’m inclined to do more R&D during the slower periods,
and then harvest as much of that creative output once I find a paying
client, whose design requests make joining the two a possibility. So
the imprint is also a bastion of research and experimentation, except
with a professional packaging and licensing portal, and the client work
is currently a means to network that into a bigger scenario and work
that into a greater place of visibility.
How do you go about soliciting new projects?
New multimedia projects really seem to be word
of mouth; I’ve never found a need to advertise outside of the
self-promotion circles, but I also feel that the advertising world is
in a period of massive reinvention at the moment, and that much of this
will very soon change, to the benefit of small shops like this one.
What were some interesting aspects of the work partnerships you’ve been involved in?
Well, unfortunately for some others, I feel constantly aware of the need to police how things get positioned, from the view of what we do, what we think, and how we say it.
What I was just thinking about before you asked me that: How do you deal with any subject – something that really impassions you, I mean – and create a discourse for it, but within the “agency framework,” for example. And do you treat that subject any differently, when that phenomenon is at risk of becoming marginalised?
I mention this because I used to get into this very problematic discussion with a former business partner, and it would also come up with many of our colleagues, and with the people we interviewed for positions at our agency.
It’s really the old “stick to your guns” vs. “selling out” argument, i.e., when you create something that’s meant to have a life of its own, such as the identity of an underground music artist, then should you also be concerned with protecting it from this kind of “over ground” consumerist marginalisation? So from a rational viewpoint, it’s all about policing credibility.
I’m going to climb onto my soapbox for a minute, so please bear with me... There’s apparently no end to the frustration that creates for people who care about stuff, who have ideas and who are passionate; and compare this to any discussion where the opposing viewpoint is purely business-like, and one of “who cares at the end of the day?”
Some will say that corporations can breathe life
into anything, mainly because they control the funds to keep it alive.
Others may cringe at that “Moby” phenomenon; a marketing
machine that appears to exist solely to distill primary entertainment,
to provide secondary content and underscore for automobile and cosmetics
manufacturers. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t dislike
Moby – I like him and much of what he's done is quite good. But
this opens up the “passionate” argument, from a place where
inspiration cannot be replaced or simply commodified... So when it comes
to the marginalisation of indie, or underground culture, I have to take
issue and this is the easiest place to create a rift between others
How does working with clients refresh you for your own projects?
Naturally, working with great clients can be incredibly refreshing. I tend to work through my R&D and technical solutions for use at Day For Night.com, and make them modular, so that I can re-use them for my clients after they’ve been tested, but that’s really a two-way street.
The work I perform best with is the high-concept, strategic and branding projects, because I prefer to be involved creatively at an early stage and to give a project life and definition. And while all creative work is a real blessing, the ones which seem to give me the least creative charge are those where my input is contracted as a fixit guy, or where I’m solicited only at the very end, and after someone else has tried and possibly also failed, because I notice that the “baggage” factor with many clients can be fairly high, and that can breed mistrust.
I have this theory that the best projects are where you’re not actually needed, because that means the client is already capable, and what they may be seeking is a strategic, creative relationship that is about collaboration. I’ve been fortunate in having a good share of those.
The biggest plusses come from when you create a
great early alignment with someone, and the trust and communication
levels are naturally very high... because that leaves you open to doing
your best work and with comparatively few restraints. I’ve always
praised the clients who understand the concept of design parameters,
which means that they think through what they want at the general level
of a creative brief, but stay open to the possibility that you might
amaze them with a strategic solution that doesn’t resemble a specific
thing that anyone has in mind.