Photo credit: Tom Bunning
Work Hard & Be Nice To People – words to live your life by. Artist Anthony Burrill’s ear for language and eye for typography has captured the hearts and minds of people around the world. As well as creating iconic prints and graphics, Burrill has also collaborated on moving image projects and is a director at 2AM Films. While he is drawn to the tangible beauty of handcrafted art, Burrill is no stranger to the power of social media. LBB’s editor, Gabrielle Lott spoke with him to find out more about the processes and inspiration behind this illustrious illustrator’s work.
LBB> Typography is seeing a huge resurgence, with many crediting you as being a driving force behind its current appreciation. What is it about typography that you find so enticing?
AB> Letterforms are fascinating. When I began studying graphic design I thought you had to know the name of every typeface and be able to identify it. As it turns out you don't need to do that.
I love simple vernacular typography, wood type, industrial fonts and non-designed lettering. I like to look outside the world of graphic design to gain inspiration. There is an endless variety of fonts, with new ones being designed every day. My preference is for simple sans serif type, classic wood type, geometric grid fonts and stencils. Finding the right font to say what you want it to say is very important because it sets the tone of voice. I like seeing type in unexpected places, especially long forgotten signage. I love discovering bits of old hand painted lettering, stuff with real character and warmth.
LBB> The world has gone digital, with many using Twitter, Facebook, blog or a simple text as a means of projecting and sharing a message or thought. What influence does this have on graphic design and is it an instigator for why you feel compelled to put optimistic messages out into the world?
AB> We are bombarded by so many messages every day it's hard not to be influenced. My work focuses on short punchy phrases that aim to communicate positive messages, to engage and amuse the audience. I've always been interested in the language of simple statement posters, forms that are normally associated with authority or religion. I'm keen to subvert the form with my messages which tend to concentrate on ideas of freedom, sharing and self reliance. Above all I like to surprise people and make them smile. That's something I like to do in my day to day life and my work is an extension of me as a person. As I get older that's something that becomes more apparent.
LBB> You first overheard the phrase ‘Work Hard & Be Nice To People’ at a supermarket checkout, and it forms the basis of your now-famous series. That simple saying is now hanging on people’s walls around the world and you made that possible. I gather that you collect images from the web where people have snapped how and where they exhibit the work. Why do you do this? Is it just inquisitiveness or do you feel a need to know where and how your work is being used?
AB> I'm interested in how my work is used and seen by people and I’m generally quite nosey. I love it when people outside the world of graphic design discover my work, that's when it gets interesting. I try to speak about more than just whatever is fashionable in graphic design; my aim is to make work that crosses that boundary.
LBB> How did a boy from Littleborough in Lancaster come to be a world famous designer and artist? Why did you choose to study Graphic Design at Leeds Polytechnic and then onto the RCA for your MA?
AB> Nothing I have ever done has had a great master plan behind it. I've always trusted my instinct and concentrated on doing things that are positive and above all enjoyable. I've never been motivated by money or power. I've never had a 'proper job', never worked for anybody in a studio. I've always been independent, choosing to work at home and working at my own pace. At heart I don't like being told what to do. I'm quite stubborn and single minded. I think those qualities have helped me along the way.
LBB> Your work is very collaborative and you’ve discussed how many of the people you work with become friends of yours and each have different strengths and skillsets than your own. Can you explain why you like to work collaboratively and what it brings to your own practice?
AB> As much as I like working at home and doing my own thing, I also love spending time with friends working collaboratively. It's lovely to work on projects that take you to a new and different place, outside your comfort zone. It stretches you and makes you work in different ways. I'm a very sociable person and enjoy meeting new people through work. The social side of work is very important, there's nothing like chatting over a project down at the pub over a few pints. That's when ideas flow - when people are relaxed.
LBB> Much of your work has local influences when it comes to the technical processes that you use. For example, your early work, the booklets, were shaped by your use of a photocopier. ‘Work Hard & Be Nice To People’ was inspired by a local print shop near your home (Adams of Rye) and your work in Lisbon for the British Council was affected by your use of local sign writers. Does this add to the vernacular of the work and do you believe this makes the work more powerful?
AB> I like to leave the computer behind as much as I can. Obviously it's an amazing tool and I wouldn't be able to work without it, but I do like the look and feel of work made physically. There is character and humanity in work made using traditional techniques that is impossible to recreate on the computer. I think a healthy mix of analogue and digital is important, I'm not totally stuck in the past. I'm a huge fan of social media; the way it can bring people together is amazing. People still respond to work made with skill and dedication, they always will. The way work is spread around is unimportant, it's the work that matters and the way in which it connects with people.
LBB> You’re quoted as saying that you’ve ‘always tried to work instinctively, not in a calculated way’; this seems very evident in your progression of personal projects into commissioned work and vice versa. For example Acid Washed to Jenny Packham, your ‘little books’ into Kesselskramers Hans Brinkler Hotel and your work for the British Design awards with Michael Marriot which led onto ‘We Must Have The Truth’. How does one influence or help the other?
AB> My work and the way I live are the same thing, I don't see any distinction. Whatever happens to me as a person feeds in to my work and vice versa. I'm inquisitive by nature and like finding out about things, meeting interesting people and learning from them. Life experiences inevitably feed into work, whether that's travel, becoming a parent, or simply getting older. It's all experience that helps make your work deeper and more truthful.
LBB> Recently you were asked by the Cranbrook Art Academy of Detroit to interpret a Frank Stella painting. He is reportedly one of your heroes. Can you discuss the work that you created?
AB> It was a dream commission. I've always loved Stella's work, his simple beautiful geometry, and his ideas on painting. The Art Museum at Cranbrook was celebrating the opening of its new gallery and contemporary practitioners were invited to make a new piece in response to work from the gallery's permanent collection of American art. I worked closely with my long term collaborator Paul Plowman on the project. Paul is an amazing motion designer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of moving image and design. We picked apart Frank Stella's painting and recreated its basic elements on the computer. We then created simple looping animations that layered with each other and created amazing abstract shapes. The animations were edited to a soundtrack specially composed by Acid Washed, another of my network of collaborators. The resulting film was displayed on a large monitor alongside Frank Stella's painting. The display looked amazing and was a real personal highlight and honour.
LBB> ‘Oil and Water Do Not Mix’ was a commissioned piece of work for CRCL (coalition to restore coastal Louisana). You’ve also created work for Amnesty International and Wilton’s Music Hall. These are all campaigns where your work is influential and is supportive of worthy causes. Do you enjoy working on such campaigns and how does it feel to create something with such a ‘large’ message?
AB> I think it important for all of us to engage with the wider world. I'm happy to use my design and communication skills to help promote worthwhile causes. It makes me feel good that I can help organisations that are trying to make the world a fairer place.
LBB> You’ve mentioned before the power of traditional tools to create work but you also dabble with motion and, with your work for Wallpaper, with digital. How does traditional craft lend itself to current technology and vice versa?
AB> Traditional craft is becoming more important and valued; over the past ten years we've seen a huge growth in interest in natural, locally made, ethical products. People use technology in increasingly sophisticated ways, bringing together like-minded people in ways that were unimaginable in the past. The internet is a vast, amazing resource. Work that is made traditionally has a feeling of quality that people are drawn to. Sharing work and ideas over the internet has become the new way in which we find out about new things.
LBB> With your work for Acid Washed you create very graphic imagery, when their lyrics are very verbally illustrated. How do you approach interpreting their music into a visual representation?
AB> We try to make visuals that feel similar to the shapes and colours that the music suggests. I'm a bit too old to go out dancing all night like I used to, but I still love loud electronic music and mind bending visuals.
LBB> What have you worked on in the last 12 months that has truly resonated with you?
AB> My trip to São Paulo was amazing. I was invited out there by Mesa&Cadeira, an independent educational organisation. We spent six days working with local designers, writers and art directors on a series of posters. We held an exhibition in São Paulo, then later developed it and expanded on the project and brought it to Kemistry Gallery in London. It was a fantastic experience; Brazil is an amazing place and I met some very lovely people.
I love words and language, particularly the way you can twist words and alter their meaning. I've always been interested in the everyday poetry of signs, words found on information boards, religious banners and other unexpected places. I like the absurd and see humour in almost everything. I play around with words in everyday conversation and I'm fascinated by awkward social situations. I think my work is about miscommunication more than anything.