0.7 Interview (excerpt) with Vaughan Oliver


Vaughan Oliver is an award-winning, legendary graphic designer, artist and author of several books, including Exhibition/Exposition and This Rimy River.

James Grady: I had this revelation, and it was through my daughter, Joy, and all of these different things going on at once. Then reflecting back on the workshop* I had with you where I felt really liberated, and I wasn’t forcing a conceptual narrative or social policy on what design should do instead of designing and letting the design influence me. That was the shift in my thesis, and that’s where it is now. It’s really about the everyday—I’m equating the everyday with my surroundings and asking what is observed with these surroundings? I wanted to know where inspiration comes from in your work? Does it come from your surroundings, or does it come from another place?

Vaughan Oliver: Well it’s going to be a mixture of both. I get inspired by high art and high culture. Exhibitions inspire me. Documentaries on art, and documentaries on politics inspire me, that kind  of feedback of information. But I can be just as inspired by a walk across the park, and seeing somebody interact with somebody else, or interact with his dog. Being a graphic designer, I might get inspired by new posters that are put up in the park or old posters that have decayed. There are two maps in my park about the park and the local surroundings that have been totally washed out with time. They’re fairly modern maps—they might go back twenty years. They are on metal. All of the information that was on there and that withstood time in full color is being washed out and it’s almost like an old engraving—well, what’s left. I still haven’t used that in my work yet, but that touches me.

It’s that kind of thing. I think I was kind of inspired hugely by my tutor at college thirty years ago [Terry Dowling]. He used to work in the same space as us. I was very inspired, and I think I told you guys that you have a studio environment, and that is so rare in the U.K. now. You have your books in there, you have your bikes in there, you have things to inspire you, and that’s good. On top of that I used to have my tutor’s work on the wall, which I never understood. He would put on the wall pieces of packaging from Chinese noodle packets, which he got at the Chinese supermarket, which was very exotic thirty years ago in the north of England. And simple crisps packets. When he’d come to visit me, he’d be walking along the street and then just pick up discarded sweet wrappers among other things. Things, which would appear to be rubbish to anybody else, and he’s apologizing for it. So I said, Terry, you were teaching that to us thirty years ago. It’s all around you. In a sense, I think this is what somebody said. For inspiration you don’t have to look far, you just have to look closely. I think that is really a simple observation. If you look closely and hard enough, it’s right there.

JG: I totally believe in that as well, and sometimes it seems over simplistic to feel that way.

VO: You’ve got to be brave enough to go with it.

JG: I think those are things that I am learning through this process, to follow my instincts and not be afraid to not always have the answer or the theoretical backing, or the precedence of where certain things have come from.

VO: Or where they’re going to. You don’t have to have the final solution, and that shouldn’t stop you from accumulating inspiration or ways of seeing. It’s an accumulative effect really. You might see this, or you might see that. It’s a moment in time. It’s a change of light. It’s about just being observant.

Ways of seeing and appreciating what happens with the change of time, with the change of season, with the change of light. Which I suppose is training you to think in an artist’s way. I almost remember the penny dropping on one or two occasions realizing, this is a great view in front of me, and it’s down to light. It’s not going to be like this everyday. It’s down to this real moment in time that illuminates things for you. Does that make sense?

JG: Absolutely. That’s a good segue into another question. It’s about the observation, but it’s also about the transformation, which is something that I really admire in your work. This transformation, where does it come from? In my work I feel it comes from my surroundings, but then it’s transformed into something else. I’m in a class now called, “Betwixt & Between,” and it’s really about the in-between space. There’s a lot of talk about liminality, which is neither here nor there. It’s this threshold place.

VO: That’s great! You’ve just given me a title for my next exhibition—Neither here nor there.

JG: Nice! The work that you create has really inspired my work; sometimes it’s hard to describe your work. It’s not that it’s so abstract; it comes from someplace. It’s not so abstract that it doesn’t mean anything, but it really oscillates between reality and this other place. Just like the project we worked on, the thirteenth month, which was a fictitious month where anything could happen; it could represent anything, it really frees you. It puts you in this space that I think a lot of graphic designers are afraid of because they can’t quantify it.

VO: That’s right. I find it difficult to go further than that. You know you’ve kind of intellectualized that very well for me. Again I struggle to quantify it. In a similar sort of way people have commented and said to me, You’re really brave highlighting that, going for that. You’re a free person. You seem free from the intellectual quantifying of things. It just is. Not sure where to go from that to be honest.

JG: When you look at your work after you’ve gone through the process and edited it down, when you’re looking at it, is it amazing you, or bewildering you when you look back at the work? How do you edit?

VO: I suppose that’s where intuition comes in. It might seem an airy-fairy concept, but it feels right. I don’t know why it’s right, but it feels right. The majority of my work is dealing with music and the nature of music. This feels right for that sound. It’s the old concept down at post design analysis is a better way of putting it. But I can explain it to myself later in time. That’s why I did it.

Hopefully the musician is on my wavelength. Hopefully I’ve connected with the music. That’s why it makes sense, but I’ve been working intuitively. I’ve never tried to define the music, just to suggest the parameters of it if you like. There’s a great quote, well for me it was a great quote of course, because it made me feel better, and it made me realize that people are thinking like that. It was a photographer. Robert Doisneau said, “To suggest is to create, to describe is to destroy.” Now I don’t know about the second half of the quote, but I believe in the first half. This idea of suggesting—and I think that’s a really powerful thing. It puts something on the table, for people, that’s not defining. They’re not totally describing, and it allows room for interpretation. I think that’s kind of a sensible philosophy in the kind of field that I’m specializing in.

* During the Spring of 2011, I had the pleasure to participate in a weekend design charrette with Vaughan Oliver. It was a liberating shift in my work and thinking. I look forward to future conversations with Vaughan about design and life.

1.0 – 1.1 Input: Accumulate Inspiration

Trapper Keeper

1.1 Trapper Keeper
Coming back to school after eleven years in the professional field was daunting and uncomfortable. School brings back so many memories and anxieties for me. I’ve always had these nightmares that I was in school and didn’t know what my schedule was or where my next class was to be held. In order to calm my anxiety about being off schedule or lost, I embraced my Type A personality and pulled out my old Mead 3-ring binder with a full zipper closure Trapper Keeper, to keep myself organized through graduate school. Although this may be nerdy, it is an indexical, archival and accumulation system. Individual tabs identifying each class divide my current semester notes and sketches.

How should we take account of, question, describe what happens everyday and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infraordinary, the background noise, and the habitual? — Georges Perec

Once the semester is complete, all the contents move into a larger archival binder to be accessed from my desk at a moment’s notice. I treat these binders with the same consideration I would treat an inspirational object, photo or memory. Apart from their archival system, I love to look at the material qualities of the notebooks: the irregular hand writing, the highlighter markings, the intimate codes that meant something to me at the time I wrote them. They represent the unpretentious struggle I have with the written word and the simple gestures of an idea that inspires me—probably while riding the train. These binders also hold the notes and references that link my formal inspiration and making, to conceptual, historical, or personal content.

1.2 – 1.3 Ephemera Collection

1. Videotape
2–3. Brass Number Three
4. Project Description
5. Paper Swatch Book
6. Pantone Swatch Book
7. Name Card
8. One-way Amtrak Train Pass
9. Button
10. Small Clip
11. Pantone Chip
12. 10x Loupe
13. Reflective Sticker S
14. Reflective Sticker T
15. Reflective Sticker E
16. Reflective Sticker P
17. Respond Design Sticker
18. Claim Check Ticket
19. Parking Claim Ticket
20. One-way MBTA Train Pass
21–27. 12 Trip MBTA Train Pass
28. Calendar At-A-Glance
29. Silver Number Three
30–33. Reflective Sticker 1
34–35. Reflective Sticker 3
26–37. 12 Trip MBTA Train Pass
38–58. Train check-in tickets
59. Clam Cake Bag
60. Color-Aid Box
61–65. Chap Stick
66. Book
67–68. X-Acto Blade
69. Paper Angel
70–72. Marker
73. Pen
74. Pencil
75. Pen
76. Marker
77. iPhone
79. Student ID
80. Altoids
81. Emergen-C
82. Lighter
83. Hole Punch Reinforcer
84–86. Rubber Bands
87–88. Small Clip
89. Pencil Sharpener
90. Baby Photo
91. Bottle Cap
92. Small Clip
93–94. Penny
95. Dongle

1.3 Reading a Collection as Possibility
Any one of the ninety-five previous objects could be a piece of trash or a spark of inspiration. Each object has the ability to be examined, studied and elaborated into its own thesis topic. The Train ticket stubs (38-58) may relate to the history of the Industrial Revolution or the first locomotive. The brass address numbers (2-3) perhaps unpack the history of the single-family home, suburban expansion in America or social class structures defined by Marxism, or they could relate to the current U.S. economic and political environment. The calendar page August 3, 2011, (28) may be the impetus to discover the Gregorian or Egyptian calendar or elaborate on one of the most amazing days of my life, which was when my daughter Joy was born. The iPhone (77) potentially investigates the current state of technology and how it is just one device in the future continuum of mobile technologies and communications. The paper angel (69) may speak to the concept of kitsch, religious iconography or good luck charms.

1.4 – 1.5 Form + Content (or structure) = Graphic Design

RISD GD Studio Providence, RI

1.4 Form
Ephemera Collection is just a small sampling of everyday objects that inspire me; initially, they inspire me in a formalist tradition—how something is made, looks or feels based on my canon of aesthetics: imperfect surfaces, vernacular typography, kitsch iconography, repetition, scale, nostalgia. I take great pleasure looking at these objects; first, in their indeterminate haphazard state in my studio. Second, understanding that creating them in an organized poster composition decontextualizes each object; thus, each signifies structure and meaning. As contemporary artist Deborah Fausch states “The very act of labeling a part of experience as ‘everyday’ alters its fluid character and its immersion in an ongoing stream of events; substituting a hypostasized mental object formed according to the rules governing theoretical operations.” Therefore, I feel nothing is really an everyday object. Everything has meaning and falls under the umbrella of structuralism no matter how mundane.

1.5 Structure
Structuralism is a theoretical paradigm that emphasizes that elements of culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or “structure.” Alternately, philosopher Simon Blackburn summarizes Structuralism as “the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract culture.”

Form + Content (or structure) = Graphic Design is nothing new, but my work aims at being conscious that we are completely surrounded by these elements everyday. Furthermore, it is not just about the function of the object or how it looks, but the intangible lives in how it feels. I ask myself metaphysical and epistemological questions when observing these things. Why is that object inspiring? Where does this inspiration come from? This is where the Japanese tradition of Wabi-Sabi plays an important role in my methodology.

1.6 – 1.7 Wabi-Sabi

macro corner

Wabi-Sabi can be called a comprehensive aesthetic system. The more systematic and clearly defined the components of an aesthetic system are, the more conceptual handles, the more ways it refers back to fundamentals, the more useful it is.

Metaphysical Basis
– Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from nothingness

Spiritual Values
– Truth comes from the observation of nature
– “Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details
– Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness

State of Mind
– Acceptance of the inevitable
– Appreciation of the cosmic order

Moral Precepts
– Get rid of all that is unnecessary
– Focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy

Material Qualities
– The suggestion of natural process
– Irregular
– Intimate
– Unpretentious
– Earthy
– Murky
– Simple

Wabi-Sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace. — Leonard Koren

1.7 Aesthetics
These Wabi-Sabi principles are a guiding light in terms of how I approach seeing and experiencing my environment. Ultimately my inspiration comes from what I see and accumulate from my surroundings. I do this as much as I can to make up for what I don’t know. Since there is so much knowledge that I crave, it’s nice to know there are endless points of inspiration. As novelist William Burroughs asserts, “What I want to do is to learn to see more what’s out there, to look outside, to achieve as far as possible a complete awareness of surroundings.”