While celebrated in the British design and comics press for
decades, Rian Hughes has been generally overlooked by major U.S.
publications. As the principal of Device, Hughes is a
self-proclaimed “commercial artist.” He handles illustration,
graphics and typography on posters, CDs, clothing and cartoons, as
well as other projects for clients such as Virgin Airways, the BBC,
Hasbro and the Cartoon Network. Hughes has been credited with doing
more than anyone else to elevate the sophistication level of comic
book design, and recently completed several makeovers for top
comics companies. I sat down with Hughes on the eve of the
international release of Yesterday's Tomorrows, a deluxe hardcover compendium of
strips from his comics career's most accomplished phase to date, as
he expounded upon the dynamics of comics, design and fine art.
Yesterday's Tomorrows book and slipcover, published by
Dooley: You're involved with all aspects of graphic design,
from concept and layout to type design, hand lettering and finished
art, in the tradition of the great European poster artists of the
early 20th century. Was that a result of strategic career
Hughes: It's a result of caring what the finished product
looks like, top to bottom.
When I first became aware of “graphic design” as a
discipline—and I'm sure this is common—it wasn't apparent to me
that, say, a record sleeve was the work of several different people
with several skill sets. So I'd do it all myself. You are far more
likely to get a cohesive “tone of voice” and a conceptual and
aesthetic unity that way.
Vonnegut covers for Vintage Books.
It's also the result of too many experiences where an
illustration I've done has been very poorly supported by the design
and type of the in-house designer. On the upside, there are some
very skilled practitioners with whom I'm happy to collaborate
because I trust their skill and judgment.
It's also a return to the working methods of the people you
alluded to—Jean Carlu, the Stenberg Brothers, E. McKnight Kauffer,
Alphonse Mucha. All these people produced work that marries type,
design and illustration successfully and for whom this broader
skill set is at the core of their approach.
Dooley: What are the downsides of being a generalist rather
than a specialist?
Hughes: I can't think of any downsides. There will be a
flow of work—one year it'll be advertising illustration that will
come to the fore, the next book jackets, the next font design.
What has been termed my “lifestyle illustration” style has been
so roundly ripped off—there are more than a dozen copyists in the
Workbook and Contact this year—that the bottom has
fallen out of the market. Too many people now chasing the same kind
of work, fashions moving on, clients not knowing the copyists from
the originators: all these conspire to make versatility almost a
prerequisite of an ongoing career! If you're, say, a specialist in
woodcuts of thatched cottages or watercolors of food, chances are
you'll very quickly find that instead of carving a niche for
yourself you've backed yourself into a corner.
“Bachelor Pad,” an example of Hughes's “lifestyle illustration”
It also comes from my training as a designer, first and
foremost. The idea that the appearance should follow from the
content, and so be unique and appropriate for each new commission,
does not always fit with the idea that illustrators have one slowly
evolving style that they apply to every job that comes their
Dooley: You'vementionedhow you learned from Peter Saville's aesthetic of “conceptual
purity” and how you adapted his sense of rigor, restraint and
perfectionism in your detailing.
Hughes: A Saville/Brett Wickens piece was always
surprising, always different, always beautifully executed, always
internally self-reflective, both conceptually and geometrically. He
of course borrowed widely, but the lesson is still there.
Catwoman shirt for Fornarina .
Dooley: What other designers have you drawn inspiration
Hughes: Other people who have been inspirational do tend
to show more of a personal style, but still a broad style that
comes from addressing the context. Clarity, bold use of geometry,
unfussy layout: the Stenbergs again, A.M. Cassandre, Jan
Tschichold, Frank Bellamy, Ron Turner, Hergé, Serge Clerc, Ever
Meulen. Jack Kirby, of course, for his ability to fill
Dooley: You've bunched early design Modernists with sci-fi
and ligne claire cartoonists. Do you distinguish between
graphic designers and comics artists?
Hughes: Well, I think there are commonalities that
underlie all the people whose work I respond to. It's like looking
into the same room through different windows. They all have a
different take on the same thing: line, color, harmony,
composition... the structural underpinnings. The big difference of
course is that comics bring the fourth dimension to the fore, but I
think that even a single image like a poster needs to be structured
to take the flow of the eye across it into account, to telegraph
the correct order in which to view the information or digest the
image. A designed item that extends over more than one page or
element, like a CD booklet or a magazine, has a structure very
similar to a short comic strip, actually—a sequence of images that
has a rhythm, a pattern, a flow that tells a “story.”
Dooley: You were part of the 1980s renaissance in which comic
books began to demonstrate an awareness of graphic design and other
outside influences. How did that coincide with your personal
Hughes: I think it was a realization that comics were, in
essence, just words and pictures.
The Europeans seemed to be producing work that, while not always
rigorously written, was much broader in terms of styles and content
than the material popular in the U.S.—and to a lesser extent the
Coming from outside comics, from the broader design world, it's
easy to see how comic book design is mired in cliché. It's a much
more varied and exciting scene now, but back then bold and sharp
work by people like Dean Motter and Richard Bruning was the
It was also that, due to the close-knit comics social scene, I
naturally was the “go-to” guy for a lot of comic publishers who
needed a designer.
A page from “Dare” from Yesterday's Tomorrows.
Dooley: At 70-plus pages, “Dare” is the longest of the five
stories in Yesterday's Tomorrows. Besides his origins back
in 1950 as a naive, straight-arrow hero of a popular British sci-fi
strip, what should American readers to know about Dan Dare before
reading your book?
Hughes: That he was originally drawn by Frank Hampson,
who lost control of the copyright and in later life had to draw
overhead projection slides for his local technical college to make
ends meet. Hampson's story also feeds into our Dare story.
And that he was succeeded on the strip by Bellamy. Garth Ennis
is currently producing a version for Virgin Comics. I think
Hampson's shoes are some of the biggest to fill in British comics,
so my tack was not to try and reproduce his style but to feed the
strong design and styling sensibilities of the original through my
Dooley: You approach each story with its own distinct visual
style: “The Lighted Cities,” the short opener written by Chris
Reynolds, employs a flat, duotone scheme of mustard and black
masses over a strict nine-panel, thick-border grid, while for
“Goldfish,” a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler tale adapted by Tom De
Haven, you use a looser line and typeset text and indicate scene
changes through a series of a shifting tonal palettes. How did you
arrive at these decisions?
Hughes: I think this goes back to the design
sensibilities I spoke about earlier. The style is to some extent
dictated by the content. It also keeps it fresh and challenging for
myself: new ideas, new approaches.
The U.S. method of using a different penciller, inker, colorist
and letterer on the same strip unfortunately tends to homogenize
work. I don't think the variations in style in Yesterday's
Tomorrows would have been possible under that system.
“Really and Truly” is all Day-Glo purples and oranges; “Dare” is
'50s pastels and kidney-shaped tables; “Goldfish” is two-tone,
harshly lit noir interiors. Each is in the service of the
Panels from “The Lighted Cities” (top) and “Goldfish”(above),
published in Yesterday's Tomorrows .
Dooley: Your comics, fonts, logos and other graphics are
often meant to evoke various past eras. How would you describe your
Hughes: I would say I have a “contemporary” visual
It's not a purposeful revival; I'm not attempting to be “retro.”
Certain aesthetic underpinnings that show themselves in certain
historical movements, because they are universals, do show
themselves again in my work—colors or shapes, for example—but I use
them because they are relevant now and work on their own terms, not
because they add a veneer of “style.” I think that everything has
precedents; the important point is not to take a surface style as a
precedent, but instead try to gain a structural understanding of
the thought processes that ended up expressing themselves as that
style. If bold graphic shapes and strong dynamic compositions are
the things that hit you in the aesthetic heart, then you're going
to prefer mid-century modern to Louis XIV.
Dooley: Yes, why the particular fondness for mid-century
Event announcement for Lifestyles 2000.
Hughes: I think mid-century modern architecture
epitomizes the same clean lines, geometric clarity and boldness
that appeals to me in the work of the artists I previously
mentioned, just with the added third dimension.
It also helped that I grew up near the Hoover Building, Wallace
Gilbert and Partners' masterpiece of Egyptian Deco. The modernism
of these buildings is offset with a sense of play, something that
is sometimes missing from the work of architects like Norman
Foster, who is the architectural equivalent of a lumbering rock
legend riffing on his old glories when he should have retired and
passed the baton a long time ago.
No more humorless glass boxes, please. Let's have a return to
style, detail, quirky individuality and elegance.
Dooley: How is cartooning typically viewed among your graphic
designer peers? Have you encountered any snobbery?
Hughes: Not at all. Most graphic designers are comics
fans, and tend to think it's a more interesting area to work in
than, say, corporate reports. Designers and illustrators and comics
people tend to have pretty eclectic and wide ranging tastes, so are
very inclusive in their worldviews. It's in the gallery world where
we're all flying beneath the radar. Which is, of course, the most
fun place to be, even if the potential financial rewards don't
It's when “artists” like Glen Brown or Roy Lichtenstein begin
appropriating illustrators and designers work, usually considering
it to be mere cultural “clip art” which is there to be borrowed
without permission or credit and ironically “elevated” by being
hung on the white walls of a gallery that I have issues.
Lichtenstein is not as important as Kirby, in almost every
sensible measure you can think of. Yet a Kirby is far cheaper than
a Lichtenstein... which is great for savvy collectors!
Dooley: Well, it can be argued that, in painting, say,
Image Duplicator, Lichtenstein wasn't merely re-presenting
Kirby's X-Men art, he was engaging in several important
creative acts, transforming not only the content but the context in
highly complex ways. For starters, on the wall it works as a
reflection on the act and art of vision. It's also confrontational,
with its gigantic, menacing glare, and creates abstract ambiguities
that engage the gallery goer's imagination in ways entirely
different than an assembly line comics story...
(Clockwise from top) Roy Lichtenstein's Image Duplicator; “Doom
Patrol” panel, Bruno Premiani; and “X-Men” panel, Jack Kirby.
Hughes: I'm sure that's what the gallery guidebook would
tell you, and of course those are all valid points to a greater or
lesser degree. They still miss a vital point though, probably the
most vital point.
You see, these kind of discussions always seem to pivot around
what I think is this very common conflation; one best illustrated
by something Savage Pencil, a music reviewer for the New Musical
Express, once said to me—and I paraphrase here—“You can write
the best review, you can place a song in context and tell people
what it sounds like and why it's important; but it's still not the
same experience as when the needle hits the vinyl.”
In other words, there are pleasures to be had from harmony and
rhythm, from line and color, from “qualia” in and of themselves,
that no amount of well-meaning contextural analysis will elucidate.
This is why people create art and why people love art. This is also
precisely what contemporary art often fails to engage with, and
thus, as a consequence, why it often fails to engage its audience.
People who disengage with contemporary art are often much more
interested in contemporary music, precisely because it speaks to
them in a much more direct fashion: “Fuck art, let's dance.”
Dooley: Do you really think it's valid to pass judgment on
works of fine art simply by applying the standards of the very
different mediums of comics and illustration?
Hughes: By assuming there are in fact different
standards, you fall into the trap of elevating one form over
another. “Quality” should be able to be judged independent of
presentation; putting a fancy frame—whether conceptual, academic or
actual—around an uninteresting image does not make it better.
Of course, good art and good design and good illustration all
have much more going on than just their formal attributes, but
those formal attributes are the very vehicle through which
everything else is expressed.
Dooley: Well, the story of fine art—in this case, Pop—is also
the story of how the work reflects its time...
Point-of-purchase poster for Clark's.
Hughes: The 1950s and '60s, which is where modern
commercialism began, is best summed up by packaging, comics,
advertising, music, cartoons... all the stuff that provided Pop
Art's inspiration. Pop Art didn't create that zeitgeist, it just
rode in on its tails. Pop was a neat summation and distillation of
forms and motifs from the newly vibrant commercial arena, and this
is why it serves the art historian as a useful shorthand
It'll be interesting in 50 years time to look back at our
manga-infused contemporary landscape and see who is chosen to
epitomize it. Will it be the not-so-versatile and somewhat
derivative Takashi Murakami, whose work hangs in a gallery, or a
commercial, creative, talented powerhouse like Masamune Shirow, who
doesn't? I know where the smart art investor money is going.
Maybe Warhol and Lichtenstein were effectively saying, “Look at
this stuff outside the gallery,” and in so doing, they passed the
baton to designers and illustrators because they realized that's
where the really interesting work was happening.
If we look at the years between then and now, it's fair to say
that the work of “commercial artists”—say, the psychedelic Fillmore
West posters, up through Jamie Reid and The Designers Republic to
the present day—have much more clearly reflected their times and
have pushed the visual experiment far further than the concurrent
fine art world did. Maybe it's just that fine art went off to
explore something else. That is, of course, its prerogative.
Device font designs.
Dooley: And what are you exploring now?
Hughes: Six books with Spice girl Geri Halliwell, due out
this year. A book of my photographs, which has been mocked up and I
have to get around to pitching at publishers. A children's book. A
holiday. A constant flow of interesting and challenging work is all
I need to keep me happy.
Dooley: It's been around 10 years since your last graphic
narrative work. Any plans in that regard?
Hughes: Yup, stay tuned. It won't be what you think.
Although our lives are more digital than ever, Heller contends that, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, an analog aesthetic still reigns.
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