Food for thought‘[...] do not think that good design can make a poor product good, whether the product be a machine, a building, a promotional brochure or a business man. But [...] good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential. In short, [...] good design is good business.’
Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM CEO

Books are tools to stimulate your senses and adjust your thinking

May 3, 2014, 4:58 PM

iancul-Psycho-Pass

When a show references Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, William Gibson and then goes on to analyze the benefits of reading and paper books versus ebooks, you know you’ve picked a great one. Here’s the transcript:

“This city is like a parody of the sort of novels I used to read when I was younger.”

“Oh yeah, what kind, like a William Gibson book?”

“More like Philip K. Dick. Not as controlling as the societies George Orwell depicted in his work and not quite as wild as the ones in Gibson’s either.”

“Philip K. Dick, hm? Never read him. So if I wanted to check him out, which one should I read first?”

‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, it’s a classic.”

“There’s an old movie based on that, isn’t there?”

“The content’s quite different. You should compare them when you have time some day.”

“Then I’ll go ahead and download it right now.”

“No. Find the paperback. Ebooks lack character.”

“Got all the same words, don’t they?”

“Physical books are more than the words they contain. They are also tools to stimulate your senses and adjust your thinking.”

“How do you mean?”

“When I don’t feel well, I’ll stare at a page for ever before realising I haven’t absorbed a word. When that happens, I try to understand why. What’s gotten in my way? On the other hand there are books I can take in effortlessly, no matter how awful I’m feeling. Why do those books draw me in? I think it may be a sort of mental tuning. It’s the feeling of the paper against my fingers, that familiar smell of pulp and glue, a momentary stimulation to my brain when I turn each page. These sensations regulate and focus my brain, they make it work better.”

“Wow, that’s discouraging.”

“Hm?”

“Why is it every time I talk to you, I leave feeling like there’s something I’ve been missing out on my whole life up to now?”

“That’s just silly.”

“I sure hope so.”

How great is that? How many shows have you seen, lately or not, that pose questions and ideas like these, making you stop to think for a while?

The dialogue is taken from the anime series Psycho Pass (episode 15). It goes on between Shōgo Makishima, the main antagonist, and his right hand man, Choe Gu-Sung. I’ve used the dub version for the quote, although I usually prefer anime in Japanese with English subs, as very few English dubs are good enough. The subs however have a better version for the penultimate line: “You’re reading too much into it” – a bit more serious, and I liked the reading pun (intentional or not).

The story has many cyberpunk elements, reminding often of Philip K. Dick’sMinority Report‘ (again, worth comparing the book with the film), and also of Ghost in the Shell (the series mostly, both produced by Production I.G., best in the game), Monster (similar ‘contrast’ between two of the main characters) and sometimes hints of Cowboy Bebop (due to the noir feel and two main characters reminding of Spike and Jet).

Definitely worth watching, plenty of food for thought (besides the thrilling action), the above quote being just one example of many. Be warned though, it’s not for the weak of heart, it often gets very violent, even if not gratuitously.

The top image is a screengrab from the opening of that episode. Needless to say, being a Production I.G. show, it’s a treat for the eyes, and not only.

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Three things to think about from David Bailey

April 6, 2014, 6:49 PM

David-Bailey-Look

“It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the extraordinary.”

Indeed, it often seems easier to start from scratch, rather than work with something that’s already ‘on the canvas’, done by somebody else, be it a person or ‘nature’. This can be due to objective reasons (poor quality, outdated etc), or due to personal reasons (ego being the usual suspect).

However, I find it much harder to begin from ‘nothing’ rather than start with a defined idea, brief, a pre-existing situation. Christoph Niemann’s illustration about the creative process is one of the best portrayals of the sheer despair a blank piece of paper can fill you with. Excepting a few ‘lucky’ ones (for various reasons), most of us go through this almost daily.

I’ve often thought that, in photography, the work is mostly done by the time you get there. Nature, fate, chance, God, or whatever you call it, has already prepared ‘the scene’, whether it’s done, or being done right in front of your eyes. You just have to frame it, not much else. Of course, framing can be done in so many ways, and it often alters the way the subject is seen. Sometimes it can even change it completely.

“I try to simplify things by just having a white background and no distractions. I don’t care about ‘composition’ or anything like that. I just want the emotion of the person in the picture to come across … to get something from that person, even if I have to force it out of them by being rude.”

Making people feel something (interest, delight, compassion etc) is the best way to reach them, maybe the only one. It’s very easy to get caught up in details and forget the main thing: if people won’t find it interesting enough to ‘read’ it, consistency, ‘good design’ or any other high standards are worth nothing.

On the other hand, Mr Bailey is just making a point. Many of his photos are fine examples of composition. But that’s just a detail, the cherry on top of an idea that grips your attention in the first place. How many people did you hear saying ‘wow, what a brilliant composition’?

“The pictures don’t get better the longer you’re around the subject. The moment’s the moment. And you don’t want them to get bored with you either, because the magic goes. You have to get the magic quick. If I go to Delhi, I get off the plane and I start photographing, because five days later it all starts to look normal.”

What a brilliant bit: “five days later it all starts to look normal”. Our capacity to adapt quickly helps us in many ways, beginning with survival, but when it comes to creativity, it’s more of a problem. Things that are new, even amazing at one moment, are quickly taken for granted, even invisible. This goes especially for the last ten, fifteen years, with the rise of computers, internet and smartphones. New becomes old so quickly.

I usually get the best ideas in the beginning, thinking and sketching about it before I know too much about the subject. During this period, my mind keeps making connections, some obvious, some surprising, some maybe weird. ‘Five days later’, having gone deeper into the subject, it’s a lot harder to come up with anything unexpected. These ideas might be more relevant, informed, but they’re also less interesting, more fitting for the subject, and more like ‘the others’ (usually the competitors). Of course, the ‘fresh mind’ approach does need a bit of initial knowledge (one of the moments where constant curiosity pays off), just enough to get you going.  Sometimes you realise when you look back that those connections were common sense, in that field or another. But common sense gets left out so often when you get caught up in the brief, or the process.

On the other hand, some ideas you only get in pieces, incomplete. Time often helps, more pieces falling into place, usually if you don’t force it. Leaving them running in the back of your mind is the best thing to do. Most will grow, in time for the current project, or for a future one if not. Some never make it, and you can only hope that somebody else will make them happen at some point.

I know I said three, but here’s one more, to end on an encouraging note:

“I don’t think you’re ever successful. I think if you become successful artistically – as opposed to financially – you might as well stop and play chess, like Marcel Duchamp. There’s no point going on.

I’m distressed every time the contact sheets come back, every time I see the results of a job: I think, ‘My God, after fifty years of mucking about with photography I’m still getting it wrong.’ I get it wrong all the time, and it’s so depressing that I want to keep trying.”

Glad to see that I’m not the only one, endlessly digging in search of gold, feeling like a failure or a fraud most of the time. Judging by how many greats say similar things, it seems that once you stop feeling like this, you’ve lost the spark. Or, in other words, there’s no easy way to do it, it’s all about doing a lot of work. Strive for it to be good, and maybe some will even be great.

iancul-Baileys-stardust

All quotes are from “Bailey Exposed“, a new book edited by Bailey himself. A quick read, with great photos by Bailey, next to quotes from himself and a few others. Another proof that great ideas don’t need hundreds of pages, maybe even the contrary.

The top photo is a crop from Phaidon’s Look monograph of Bailey. Second photo is my own, taken at the National Portrait Gallery, the entrance dominated by one of Bailey’s portraits of Michael Caine. Classic. Worth visiting if you’re in London till June 1.

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Thoughts and wishes on the old and the new year

December 31, 2013, 5:07 PM

 

Have-a-happy-2014-iancul

It’s been a bit quiet on my blog for the past two years, mostly because I post on Twitter the interesting bits and pieces that I find. However, I’m hoping to get back on the blog in the new year, as I miss its ‘journal’ quality, and clearing my thoughts through writing. Twitter, even if very useful for many things, is much more ephemeral. I’ve already back-posted a few things, I’ll add more in the next days, especially photos and quick notes from some inspiring exhibitions.

This year has been a gut-wrenching ride, reaching the highest and lowest points in my life in the last four or five years.

One of the most challenging projects I’ve ever been involved in was launched in January, the rebranding of the ITV network (you can read Rudd Studio’s case study and blog post about it) — quite a maturing experience for me. After that, I took a break and did a self-promo package, two booklets, sent together with handwritten letters to people that I admire and want to work with. The black booklet showed my work and explained my background and beliefs, inspired by Mr Michael Wolff’s saying that ‘nobody hires portfolios, you hire human beings’. The red one showed my Picturing Thoughts personal project. The ‘set’ you can see below was sent to my former colleagues, Brandient, as thanks for our work and relationship over the years, both before and after my move to London.

Booklets-sent-Brandient

The booklets turned out to be the best idea and investment ever, leading to conversations, meetings and interviews with many top British designers, people that I’ve been looking up to for many years, including Mr Wolff himself. The list is too long to include here, I’m thankful to all of them, especially to those that I got to work with, as they are among the very kind ones that have helped me get so far as a designer, doing work that reaches pretty much all the continents on this planet – a thought humbling and amazing at the same time.

I was also lucky to be included in the After Hours exhibition, the Picturing Thoughts booklet was featured on It’s Nice That, I became a TypeToken contributor and one of my logos was included in the Animal logo book, published by Counter-Print.

It hasn’t been easy though, I went through more than a decent share of lows, doubts, mistakes, sacrifices, some big, some small. Some were for the better in the long run, some, I don’t know yet. All I can do is keep moving, strive more and hope that things will be even better next year.

Thank you, have a great, happy new year!
Iancu

Later edit: lest I forget, the arrangement of a word, calligraphy, handwriting etc to form an image is called a calligram.

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Would you define yourself by your tastes or by your creations?

January 5, 2012, 2:23 PM

Following the thought-provoking quote, “your taste is why your work disappoints you” from Ira Glass, here is a new ‘kick in the gut’:

When you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. Your tastes only narrow and exclude people.
So create
— why the lucky stiff

Yet another push, if you still need one, to spend more time creating your own work and less looking at what others are doing. As it gets easier and easier to be online 24/7 — tweeting, instagramming, facebooking, blogging or Internet-knows-what — it gets harder and harder to find the time for your own projects. And I’m talking about investing at least a few serious hours, if not days’ worth, not just thirty minutes here and there, doing trendy all-caps posters using Twitter ‘wisdom’ for copy — even if some seem to make quite a good name for themselves in this way.

It’s also a bit unsettling to realise that if you could judge yourself by your creations only, you wouldn’t have a very good opinion of you, isn’t it?

Before you ask, the source is not a joke, it’s the pseudonym of a programmer, you can read more about his interesting story and disappearance here — I’m hoping he just decided to create more.


Via Quote Vadis. You might also like my post, “My taste is why my work disappoints me.”

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“Do you draw for fun anymore?”

November 27, 2011, 11:56 AM

As I get used to the inevitability of being 30 next spring, I can no longer call myself a ‘beginner’, but I also don’t feel that my experience so far has made me significantly more confident or ‘great’ in my work. Even if Mr Saul Bass provides a bit of comfort — “… the good news, I say to students, is that what you are experiencing is exactly what everybody else experiences, even those people you most admire. The bad news is that it doesn’t get any better” — I’m still searching for at least a faint feeling of being on ‘the right path’.

I’ve been reading some great books lately, but also picking up bits and pieces that feel ‘right’, building something almost like a ‘widsom’ puzzle. One of the pieces was the “your taste is why your work disappoints you” quote from Mr Ira Glass that I wrote about a few weeks ago. This time it’s a talk from Mrs Lynda Barry, on the topic of “What is an image?”. It’s hugely entertaining, very insightful, makes you think, but, most importantly, makes you want to pick up a pencil and start drawing just for fun, just playing, and do it as often as possible.

But I’ll let you enjoy it:



Here are the links too, in case the embedding doesn’t work: part 1 & part 2.

Thanks go to Mr Austin Kleon — do follow him.
Saul Bass quote from the new book, read about it on the Creative Review.

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My taste is why my work disappoints me

October 19, 2011, 7:37 AM

A thought-provoking piece, something that should probably be read as a mantra each morning, titled “Your taste is why your work disappoints you”:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have that special think that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you finish one story. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just gotta fight your way through.
— Ira Glass

In short, there is no easy way out. You have to sweat over everything you do if you want it to be any good. Of course, you need talent just to have a real chance of getting somewhere in what you’re doing, but that will only get you as far as ‘decent’ — you need perseverance to make it to the ‘good’ section. And, with a bit of luck, you might even see a glimpse of ‘great’.

It felt like a small epiphany reading this — too often I’ve found myself unhappy with my work. I’ve always thought that a good way of learning is to watch others how they do it. And it was, for me at least. I would often surprise my college friends by being able to work in their style after watching them do just one or two drawings. But watching is not enough. It can break the ice for you, but if you want to make it to the shore, you’re on your own, with no one to help you. You have to go through it alone, fighting your own damned self. Beacons (mentors, colleagues, other sources of inspiration) might guide you awhile now and then, but most of the time, you’re in the dark, swimming for your very soul. You do get better with age if you keep going, but your best chance is to barely make it to the shore when you die. Any other way is just Sirens fucking with your mind. If you ever think “It’s easy, I know how to do this”, they’ve probably got you.

You do get better with age if you keep going, but your best chance is to barely make it to the shore when you die. Any other way is just Sirens fucking with your mind.

The quote is a transcript from a video interview with Glass, the “On Taste…” part. You can watch it here on Youtube. Via Untitled Mag, Kottke.

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Thank you, Steve

October 6, 2011, 7:42 AM

Feels like losing a dear family member. Thank you, Steve.

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose,” … “You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” — Steve Jobs

Sorry Mr Glaser for borrowing your idea, I’m sure you’d understand.

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Graffiti is dead, long live graffiti

March 28, 2011, 4:50 PM

Street art, graffiti in particular, is more or less an ephemeral form of art, threatened all the time by weather, unhappy landlords, neighbourhood-cleaning raids or, most of the time, other street artists in search of a space to express themselves. There may still be around graffitis from the ancient times, but few are so lucky.

Shoreditch is by definition the cool centre of London, the place to be if you’re involved in any creative business. Almost every street has its own ‘work of art’, if not more. My favourite was this one, a rather unusual, monochromatic graffiti, as it was more a painting than a “wall sketch” (click for the full-size version):

The first time I saw it, I thought the wall was just dirty, as I could only see a small part from the right-hand side. The guys standing with their backs at the road seemed so natural, waiting for something, maybe just killing time. And of course, the smartest touch, the bike tied to the street light added even more depth to the confusion (each time I walked past the wall, at least one bike would be there, almost part of the painting). Details were beautiful, each character having quite a lot of stuff going on, plus there were one or two small bits to discover, like the plane right under the windows, usually hidden by the tree. And last but not least, the background was beautiful as well, an abstract, random-stripes-nonsense at first sight, an interesting city sky-line on closer inspection.

Here’s a closer-taken photo of the left side, taken last fall — the others are taken later on, during the winter (click for the full-size version):

Sadly, or naturally, as all things have an end sooner or later, the painting was replaced a few weeks ago by this less unconventional graffiti (click for the full-size version):

It’s most likely a continuation of the work on the other side of the building, on Curtain Road (which also went through its share of changes):

Unfortunately, I don’t know the [nick]names of any of the creators, so if you know something, drop me a line and I’ll happily add the credits. My favourite wall painting might not be there anymore, but if you’re walking on Great Eastern Road towards Old Street, make a left on Curtain Road to see what’s on.

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Different ways of looking

March 4, 2011, 5:18 PM

Few days ago, I happened to walk past a beautiful scene: a bright-orange pot, holding a tiny, Little-Prince-like tree, caught up right in the never-ending battle between light & shadow. Obviously, I had to stop for a look and a quick shot:

Half an hour later, still thinking about the photo, I felt like putting more emphasis on the subject, closing the frame in and warming the whole scene even more — while I was quite skeptical about Instagram at the beginning, dismissing it as yet another ‘hipster-app’, I came to love it quite fast after giving it a try: it’s fast, it’s simple and it lets me focus on the subject and on the title — a great exercise for any creative person (true, some use it to share their breakfast menu to the world, but I guess that can’t be helped in the current no-privacy world). So here came the second, more focused treatment, titled ‘It’s mostly about being there at the right time, eyes opened.’

'It's mostly about being there at the right time, eyes opened.'

As my Instagram account publishes instantly to my Twitter account, one of my followers retweeted it. While it’s always nice when people ‘like’ your stuff, seeing the retweet made me look at the photo again. Oddly enough, there was something new, something I didn’t see the first time. Or, better said, I realised that, in spite of the title, my eyes haven’t been open enough.

Graphic Design: Visual Comparisons (1964), by Fletcher Forbes Gill

As a big fan of Pentagram, I have pretty much all the books they’ve ever made, starting with the above beauty, “Graphic Design: Visual Comparisons” (1964), written by Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Bob Gill before the official birth of Pentagram (the Fletcher Forbes Gill studio eventually became Pentagram in 1972). The simple drawing on the cover, depicting the book’s title, would’ve probably went just as well on the cover of Alan Fletcher’s later book, The Art of Looking Sideways (2001). So with these two  constantly roaming through the back of my mind, I saw an entirely different scene, where the orange pot was no longer the main subject, but where several other much more interesting ‘characters’ were ‘looking’ around in many different ways. The title this time, ‘… and there’s always more than just one way of looking.’

'... and there's always more than just one way of looking.'

After this, I started playing around some more, trying black & white versions of the photo, other crops and so on. None made me happier than the above one, but it really was a great to be reminded that one can look at things from so many different perspectives. Of course, the scene had quite a lot of things to play around with and focus on, but the same exercise can be done with almost anything, even just one single object. For example, I remember one of the assignments my high school design teacher told me about: you are given a single push pin — you have to come up with a complex pencil drawing composition on a large A1 paper, based only on that tack. Now, there’s a challenge, if you needed one.

And since I mentioned push pins, there’s no better way of concluding it than with this Milton Glaser poster:

Milton Glaser's "Looking is not Seeing" poster.

Further links and credits:
— thanks to Roxana for helping me see things differently;
— you’d probably enjoy my Instagrid photo collection (now over 100);
— you can buy Milton’s poster on his website.

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