Interview with Logo, Type & Comic Book Legend Rian Hughes

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In this episode Ian chats with Rian Hughes, a British graphic designer, illustrator, writer and comic book artist. Rian is best known for his work in the British and American comic book industry, having created many logo designs for Marvel and DC including Batman and Robin, Bat Girl, Spider-Man, The X-Men, Captain America, Wolverine, The Script, The Invisibles… the list goes on!

In this episode we talk about Rians approach to logo and type design, as well as his new book Logo-A-Gogo, an inspirational visual history of the iconic brand identities created Rian.


Resources mentioned



I’d like to thank FreshBooks for sponsoring this episode, and for making this series possible. FreshBooks is a beautifully designed accounting software that makes it easy to create and send invoices, to track time and to manage your incoming and outgoing money.


Episode Transcription

Ian Paget: This week I’m really excited to be interviewing Rian Hughes, a British graphic designer, writer, and comic book artist. Having a slight obsession with logo design books, one day a few months back I was browsing Amazon, and I came across a book that was available for pre-order. Now this book was called Logo-A-Gogo and it covers branding, pop culture, logos and designs for comics, music, toys, and more. Now this was a book by Rian, and having seen the book that was covered in logos from like Batman, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I was immediately excited. I mean, we’re talking about logos and nerd stuff all together in one … I actually love this stuff, and hopefully, if you’re listening to this, you’ll also be interested in both of those things too.

Now I need to be honest. At that time, I’d not actually heard of Rian, but spending a short amount of time browsing the internet, it became very clear that Rian was somewhat of a legend. He’s designed logos for DC and Marvel, and these logos have included things like Batman and Robin, Batgirl, the X-Men, Captain America, Wolverine, The Spirit, The Invisibles, the list goes on. It was also really cool to find out that he designed the logo for one my favourite shops too, Forbidden Planet. Now we talk about so much in this episode, so I want to get straight into this. Here’s Rian Hughes where we start the discussion, talk about his beginnings as a designer, and how he got involved in logo design and type design for the comic book industry.


Rian Hughes: The involvement in comics has always been there in parallel to the design work. And I think one of the threads of my work is that I’ve always worked as a typographer, illustrator, and comic strip artist, and writer on those subjects, and other related things, always in parallel. So they inform each other. So I started off many years ago. I had a graphic novel published by a Belgian publisher called Magic Strip who were publishing people like Yves Chaland and Serge Clerc in a very nice little hardback format called Atomium 58. And that led on to working at 2000 AD with Grant Morrison on Dare. Actually it wasn’t 2000 AD, it was a companion comic called Revolver.

And because I was probably one of the only people who comic publishers knew who was a graphic designer, I ended up by being the graphic designer of choice for a lot of these magazines and comics, and that’s just how it’s continued through the friends that I have in the industry who will ask me to get involved in various things. And when a lot of the English writers and artists began working for DC primarily, but also for Marvel, and I got asked to get involved with their projects then, and so that’s how it’s grown from there, really. It seems very organic.


Ian Paget: So, would you say that it’s simply because you being, working on that particular niche area that you’ve become known for it, that that’s basically the reason why people keep coming to you, because as far as they’re concerned, you’re the best person to go to, am I right?


Rian Hughes: I would hope that would be the case. I don’t think … There are not actually that many designers working in comics, who actually love comics rather than see it as something that’s part of a … I mean you get a lot of the designers who will work in comics who will have no idea what’s appropriate for comics. And then you get graphic designers who are so marinated in comics that all they can do is design comics that look like old comics. So the trick is to be aware of the history of comics, but also not bound by it.

So you’ve got to import things from outside of that, and because I always did a lot of work for the music industry, or for advertising, or mainstream book publishing, I always try to bring something to bear that wasn’t what you might expect for comics. And this was … You’re talking about probably the mid 80’s now, when I was starting out in this. And nowadays, the design of comics, the look of comics, is so much more broad and inventive and there’s so much beautiful stuff being designed now that I kind of forget how hidebound by convention it used to be back in the day.


Ian Paget: I’m really curious to talk through your logo design process, because within this podcast so far I’ve primarily kept it fairly commercial, but I think comic books is a fascinating area, and would you mind talking through how you would go about creating a logo for a comic book.


Rian Hughes: Well, I do a lot of logos for book jackets and bands, for corporations even.


Ian Paget: Okay, this could be really interesting then. So would you say, in terms of your process, are there any drastic differences when you’re designing on a logo for a comic book versus designing a logo for say, a band, or a business?


Rian Hughes: Yeah, well there are similarities and there are differences. The conceptual approach is probably quite similar, and the contextual approach isn’t, and I’ll explain why. You’ve got to ask yourself what the logo is trying to summarise, and if you can articulate what that is, whether it’s the voice of the company, or the character of the cartoon character, and if you can articulate that somehow in the design itself, that’s what you’re aiming for. Where that sometimes becomes more fraught is if the client itself doesn’t know what that is, or can’t articulate that. So sometimes you’re trying to dig into the essence of the character, or find something unique about it that you can express.

What you don’t want to do is end up by picking a font, which a lot of logos seem to boil down to. The main difference with comic book logos as opposed to even a band logo, or a corporate logo for sure, is the context, and the context is generally on a very busy background on the cover of a comic. And unless you’re actually designing what’s called the trade dress as well, which is the barcode, the publisher’s logo, the credits, the whole logo … Sorry, the whole cover, quite often the logo itself is a free floating item which has to work on any background whatsoever.

So it will generally have to have some kind of outline or some kind of shape within which it sits, just so it doesn’t lose itself in the complex background, whereas you have a bit more control over a corporate logo. You can specify background colours. You can specify the fact that it should be some distance away from other elements that may be on the page. So there are all those practical concerns that are different. But by and large, you’re articulating the character. You’re articulating the mood. You’re articulating the attitude of the story, of the art. You’re producing a sigil that sums up what the project’s about, and I think that works cross the board, and I think that the logos that are less successful are the ones which aren’t really saying anything, or they’re saying something that is generic rather than specific. Does that make sense?


Ian Paget: Yeah, it does. So I mean, going back to your actually process, are you okay to explain through how you actually go about creating a logo? Because I’ve seen a lot of your work and it feels very handmade. So I’m just curious to know the steps that you actually take because, for example, in my case, I typical … I do a lot of sketchbook work, and I only develop the basic idea on paper, it’s in Illustrator that I actually really polish that logo. So I’m curious to know, from your experience working on comics and other areas, if your actual, physical process, like A-Z process is different in any way.


Rian Hughes: It sounds similar. And for me the sketching process is an ideas process, and as soon as I’ve cracked it, as soon as I know what the idea is, what the concept is, I’ll go straight to Adobe Illustrator, and I’ll know by that time what it looks like. I’ve done the thinking part. And so the working in Adobe Illustrator is much more the technical exercise. It’s to do with the weight of line, and balance of shape, and counter, and symmetry, all those technical things. But by that time I’ll know with the logo looks like. The sketches that I will do won’t be particularly finished. I mean they’ll literally be little thumbnail drawings, which will articulate the basics, and that’s it. You wouldn’t be able to show them to a client, and they wouldn’t be able to understand what it is that you’re trying to do.

But with a comic book logo, I will probably produce four, five, six, seven ideas, some of them maybe variations on a single idea, some of them might be completely different ideas. It depends how well I think I’ve articulated what’s needed. If I produce eight or ten variations on a design, it’s probably because I don’t really know what it is that I’m doing, and I’m hoping that I’ll work it out. And quite often, from the client’s point of view, I think it’s indicative of the fact that they haven’t articulated very clearly what it is that we need. And so the more I produce, the more it’s probably indicative of the fact that I haven’t solved the problem clearly yet.

Having said that, I quite often produce a design which is I think is the perfect design, and the client will fundamentally disagree and we’ll be back to square one. So it doesn’t always work that way. In fact, one of the nice things about this book, Logo-A-Gogo, that is going to be out in March, is the chance to show all the variations that got away. So the basic idea is that on one side of a spread you have the final logo, and on the other side you have sometimes up to 20, 30 designs that didn’t make the cut that will all explore different ideas. Maybe it was I who didn’t get the essence of the character, or I missed something important that needed to be said in the logo. Other times the client was an ass and just picked the wrong one, which always happens … Sometimes happens.

So it’s an interesting … And I talk about this case by case, which I hope will be instructive for students, because a lot of these books on logos, they show you the final object, and you don’t really know how you got there. You don’t really know the blind alleys that you went down. You don’t really know what the process is. So I’ve tried to be as honest as I can about things that went right, but also the things that went wrong. Sometimes you learn more about the jobs that go magnificently off the rails than you do about the ones that just sail through. So I’ve tried to present different examples of different jobs that progressed in different ways. There’s no real one way, one working method that always works.

I think you’ve just got to have the conversation with the client that is straightforward and articulate, and gets to the nitty gritty of what it’s about. So I think quite often the logos that don’t really work is where that conversation didn’t happen. And sometimes it’s like getting blood out of a stone to get feedback. Other times I myself have completely misunderstood what the need for the logo is. But it’s always a conversation between you and the clients, and you’re trying to draw them into what the perfect solution would be.


Ian Paget: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I know with your book, I’m actually quite excited to see that, because I think you are right is that one of the problems with quite a few books out there is that they do just show this finished, polished piece, and it can be quite misleading as to what the process was to get to that. And when you do actually start to see a lot of the sketchbook work, which I’ve been lucky enough to see in my career, simply by constantly looking out on social media or searched on Google, you have to dig for it. So I’m quite excited to see what you’ve actually put in your book. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about your book? I know you briefly covered it then but I think now would be a fantastic time to insert this into the conversation. What’s the reason why you put this book together, and what can we get out of it?


Rian Hughes: It’s going to be published in March, by Korero Press, who I did a previous book called Custom Lettering of the 20’s and 30’s, which was the last in a trilogy of custom lettering collections. And they do a lot of books that focus on pop culture, typography, things like that, so it was a really good fit for them. I was amazed at how many logos I’ve actually done, and if you include all the ones that didn’t make the grade, it’s thousands. The book itself is about 560 pages, and I haven’t actually counted how many logos there are, but there are lots. Not all of them are good. A lot of them are there to show the process. I’m not claiming that every single one is an award winner. It’s not.

But then, that was the point of the book. It was to show this process. And so it’s partly monograph. It’s partly instructional manual. It’s partly a catalog of my work up to this point on the logo front, at least. I mean, like I say, a lot of my work is illustration, or mainstream graphic design, or typography, so it doesn’t really … It peripherally addresses some of that, but it very much focuses on just the logos. It’s called Logo-A-Gogo and as I say, it’ll be out in March. Check it out.


Ian Paget: Sounds fantastic. It’s something I’m quite excited to have a look at through that. Now you’ve worked on a lot of very iconic logos now, and has there been a particular favorite logo, or one that might have some kind of interesting story that you might like to share with us?


Rian Hughes: Oh, there’s so many. I think you don’t really know how well a logo, or how badly a logo is going to work until probably about eight to ten years have past, and then you can look back at it and see whether it’s actually … If it has worked or not, and what you don’t want for a logo when you look back at it is to look old fashioned. You want it to look as fresh as the day you designed it. You want it to still be appropriate. And the logos that tend to get changed are the ones where it might have keyed into a current trend, but it didn’t have anything deeper to say than that. It was superficial.

And one of the earliest logos I did, I can’t remember the exact date, but it was probably the late 80’s was the Forbidden Planet logo, Forbidden Planet being a chain of … British chain of, I think they’re actually in New York as well, chain of comic book shops, science fiction shops, and that logo I think has lasted quite well. I’m still happy with it. And there were other logos that … The Batman and Robin logo I quite like. It has a kind of of brash pop art appeal, which I pinned down quite well, I think. But the logos, my favourite logos, they tend to change.

When I was doing this book there were certain logos that I remember at the time being quite pleased with that in retrospect looked a bit superficial. And then there were other ones, which I haven’t looked at in donkey’s years, or other ones that I hadn’t even presented to the client which I actually thought had something going on for them. So it was a chance to go through the archives and reassess a lot of these things that I haven’t looked at in a long time. And the nice thing about the Forbidden Planet logo is that it’s past the payment. I was given a staff discount card, which has probably been worth more than … The amount of money I spend on art books and comics and vinyl toys … Pretty good deal.


Ian Paget: Do you still have that?


Rian Hughes: Pretty good deal. Yeah, it’s got a photograph of me on it that’s now about 20 years out of date, so the people at the till look at me slightly askew, but yeah, that was probably …


Ian Paget: Yeah, I think that’s probably the one logo of yours that I know very well because growing up, or even now, Forbidden Planet’s, one of my favourite shops. I mean, there’s … We’ve got one here in London, one in Manchester. I always like having a look around there. I’m quite into movies and comic books and stuff like that.


Rian Hughes: Yeah. Well, I think because I was passionate about the material, and this is what I find so enjoyable about working on logos with writers whose work I love, with artists whose work I admire, on projects, whether that be a new project, or a repackaging of an old comic that’s been collected, the chance to just work with some of the material that I would be buying anyway. So it’s a bit like designing stuff for me, which is the most fun part about what I do, I think. I don’t think I’d be very good at … I mean, I have done a lot of corporate stuff, but I find it very hard to get enthused about housing developments in Leeds, and things like that, whereas a new Batman comic is right up my street. So it’s an enthusiasm for the material that I think has propelled me forward and kept me interested.


Ian Paget: I think a lot of people listening to this, myself included will find that quite inspiring, and I mean, obviously it’s something that everyone wants to do, they want to be working on something that really actually fascinates them. So is there any advice that you can give for actually finding those projects that you are passionate about?


Rian Hughes: Well most of the people who I know who work in say, music design, love music. They’re probably musicians on the side. And so that love of the form feeds into the design that they’re doing for that. Or say people who are working in the charitable sector. They’ll really be invested in the work of the charities that they’re doing the work for. So it’s that engagement. It’s not just a job. You really want to make this work. You really want it to be good for the client and say what it needs to say. And I think that that’s what I try to bring to every job is that kind of passion.

I think that there’s a slight downside to this is that there’s obviously a lot of graphic design work which is not like that, and everyone does their fair share of turd polishing, shall we say, in a design point of view. But I think that even when a job comes in that’s, I don’t know, for an accountant, or something like that, there’s a part of my brain that will kick into gear and say how can I make this interesting? And then I’ll get all enthusiastic about it. And then I’m away. So it’s retaining that enthusiasm even for the jobs for which that enthusiasm is probably surplus to requirements. I think that’s how you keep yourself engaged that way.


Ian Paget: I find that really interesting you say that, because I used to work for a medical company, and some of the products used to be basically tubes, you know. They were pretty uninspiring things, and we had a small team, and quite a few of them would always say, “How come you always get to work on the cool stuff?” And I think it’s the same as you. I found something in it I was passionate about and I was able to make a thing of it. So I think that’s fantastic advice.


Rian Hughes: Yeah. No, I think quite often it’s not the content of the job that dictates whether you can produce something interesting or not, it’s the willingness of the client to embrace slightly novel solutions, and that’s what you need. Here’s another bizarre thing is that people ask me what the ideal client is, and the ideal client isn’t necessarily the client who likes everything you do, because I just think that makes you lazy. The ideal client will give you quite a lot of pushback, and if you’re getting quite a lot of pushback you have to articulate what you’re doing much more straightforwardly, and if you can say, and can show why it is the way it is, and convince the client that that’s the way it should be, that makes a strong logo.

If you have a client who is not particularly articulate, or is not particularly rational or constructive, you’re shooting a moving target, so that is also bad. But between given enough rope to hang yourself, and having the kind of client who never really knows what they want, between those two extremes there is the perfect match of the articulate and engaged client who will push back, and because they do, you rise to the challenge, and out of that comes your best work, the clearest thinking, the purest solution that you can reach, if that makes sense.


Ian Paget: Yeah, it does. I can agree with that, because a lot of my best work have been in those instances where the client’s questioned things, and pushed back, and I mean, it’s kind of working together. It’s not in the instances where they totally hate it, but where they are challenging you, so I agree with that. Now I know that typography and hand letters has been quite an important aspect of your work, and I’ve noticed that you’ve got a real talent for adding personality to your typography. So I’m curious to know, is there any advice that you can give to the audience to help them create letters or fonts that capture what a business or product is?


Rian Hughes: Yeah, I do a lot of font design … I mean I remember the early days of Fontographer, and I’ve always been a font nerd. I used to collect Letraset sheets and catalogs of old hot metal type. I’ve still got a massive collection of these things so I am very much a type nerd. And when I started using Fontographer to create fonts, it was just a pure pleasure to actually be able to use type faces of my own design in my own work, which is by and large what I do now. Over the years I’ve built up a library, so there’s pretty much any kind of tone of voice which I might need, I can probably draw on something from the device fonts library for that. And if there isn’t, that’s probably a project that I should get into to produce that tone of voice. And I think the quite often, the most successful fonts are the ones which people will use because they say something that they need a font to say.

So you might have identified a gap in the market, if there’s not a specific font that you would need for the project to have. But also, all the type that is in the logos is 99% of my own design, and 99% drawn up specifically for the logo. There’ll be the odd occasion where I might use a historical font for specific historic atmosphere that it produces, but by and large I think if you can draw those characters from scratch, specifically, and very much for comic book logos, because you’re very much fitting them in the shapes of a bat logo or something like that, to force an existing font into that, which some people do, doesn’t really work so well.

So yes, it’s all hand drawn typography, from scratch, and there’ll be 30, 40 iterations of it before I get it right. I’ll print them out. I’ll put them up across the wall on pin board across the side of the studio and look at them, and then come in the next day and you can pretty much see where you need to polish something, or something isn’t particularly balanced. So it’s a honing process that goes on there.


Ian Paget: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think that’s an important aspect that is probably worth talking about more is that I’ve noticed in the communities, people will post just an icon and the type part of the logo will almost be a second thought, but in my experience the typography is actually the most important part. You briefly spoke about your process here. Are you able to talk through how you … For a complete novice, someone that hasn’t done this before, could you talk through how you go about creating that and if there’s any resources that you’d recommend to help them learn how to create the letters correctly.


Rian Hughes: You mean the letters that might be used in the logo?


Ian Paget: Yeah, for a logo, to actually create a custom typeface for a logo.


Rian Hughes: Right. You probably wouldn’t create a custom typeface for a logo, but you might create a custom set of letters for a logo. A lot of the fonts that I have released did begin as logos, and then it looked like it had legs, so I would then extrapolate it out of the logo into a full alphabet, and then maybe even into a full family. That’s how, say Blackcurrant was designed, or some of the custom fonts, for example, for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles logo that I did, there’s a font that developed out of that. But as regards the process, if you took something like I don’t know, take a Batman logo. I will probably know either the writer or the artist. I’ll certainly know the editor. And so we’ll just have a phone conversation, or maybe an email conversation where we’ll talk about what the new comic is about. And that may involve me reading the synopsis, maybe the script of the first two or three issues.

There’ll be general discussions about the kind of mood. Is this a dark, violent tale of revenge? Is it a psychedelic outer space adventure involving multi-universal drug use, or something like that. These are all examples of things that I’ve actually designed. And so you’re trying to articulate that in a logo somehow. And you’ll have this conversation, and you’ll probably talk about certain touch-points, if you like, in terms of historical styles that may or may not be suitable. Generally I try not to recreate styles from the past.

I mean, it does happen, and people do request this, and sometimes some of my logos are described as being vintage or retro, but I try and shy away from that because you’re in the business of recreating something rather than creating something new, which I always think is the best way to go. But having had that conversation, I’ll probably then … I’ll doodle a little in one my little Moleskin books, but those will literally be drawn in biro, tiny little two or three centimetre wide doodles until I’ve figured out what the idea is. That’s what I’m after. It’s the way in, the idea.


Ian Paget: I mean, what type of thing are you actually doodling, just so I understand. Are you doing specific letters, or are you just drawing the whole word?


Rian Hughes: Yeah, it can be the whole word. Yes, it would be the whole thing, and it would be … For example, if it had to be a character that was, I don’t know, again let’s take Batman, for example, you know Batman has certain characteristics. So what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to articulate this vengeful figure of the night, typographically. So you’re not looking at, say the shape of the crossbar on a G, which is a conversation I got into with one client recently. And I was saying, “Yes, we can fix that. That’s not relevant. Can we talk about the overall concept?” They were fixated about this crossbar on the G, for some reason. So you’re not talking about that, and that’s primarily why these thumbnails are so loose. You’re just trying to visualise how you might articulate this concept.

And that concept, like I say, might be, make it dark, make it light, make it fun, make it gritty. There’ll be adjectival descriptors of what the project is about, sometimes very, very loose ones, very non-specific ones. And then when I feel like I’ve got a handle on that, then I’ll start drawing character shapes in Illustrator. And at that point it’s very much a slow sculpted refinement, where I’ll put the basics down, and then finesse it. And maybe bin it, maybe come up with something else in the process that I think is a more fruitful avenue to pursue. It’s very much all … The looser you can keep it, the more up in the air you can keep it at this stage, the better, which I think is why using existing fonts is always a bad way to start these things, because they have very specific characters. And so you’re moving too far down the process too quickly.

I mean I still do a little life drawing. I did a book of burlesque portraits a couple years ago that Image Comics published, a series of illustrations on a burlesque theme. And a lot of these were drawn from life, and one of the reasons I started doing this, and I didn’t intend it to actually be a published book when I started it, was just to get back to the kind of art school mentality of, there’s the model that you’ve got a piece of charcoal or whatever it may be. You haven’t got an undo button. So you’ve got to think about what you’re doing. And the way I work, the way I was taught to work, I mean doing the life drawing is you get the basics out first. So you have a line where the head goes. You have a line where the hips go. You have another line which might describe the curve of the spine. You might plot where the feet are, and then you might draw the legs in, and maybe the arms.

And then you’ll look at it, and then you’ll think, is that right? Is that stance right? And then you’ll change it if it isn’t. And only then do you start putting flesh on the bones. Only then do you get into where the muscles go, and the expression on the face, for example, how hair might fall. And only then, after you’ve done that, do you start thinking about the lighting and the modelling and things like that. So the same thing applies when you’re doing a logo. The things that you’re trying to articulate to begin with have nothing to do with the shape of the serif, or the slant of a type, or anything like that. Those are end point decisions. What you’re trying to do is you’re trying to actually get … You’re trying to get something that says what you need it to say. Someone’s got to look at that and say, “Yes, that is grim and gritty.” “That is light and fun.” “That is corporate and reliable, but conservative.” “That is fuck off punk rock, in your face,” or whatever it might be.

So you’re trying to articulate these very, very, almost abstract things to begin with. And only then do you get into the mechanics of the letters, and things like that. And when you get into that part of it, then you begin to look at the consistency of counters, consistency of serifs, whether you can reflect certain parts of the letters to create a symmetry. I mean in quite a few of the Batman logos I’ve done, for example, you get all these graphic gifts, as I call them, in certain words. So in Batman, for example, you have a second and the second last letter are both A’s, and you can do things with that. You can have them … It suggests a reflective symmetry that I’ve worked into the shape of the bat in many occasions, for example.

So get all these geometric, graphic aspects of logo design that you can use, that you can play with, that come out of the shapes of the letters that you happen to be using. So you then get into that, having dealt with the conceptual part of it, you then get into the geometric part of it, which is quite often the more fun part, because you’ve cracked the difficult part, and you’re now into the kind of noodling that you can put the music on and relax a bit, and you’re making aesthetic decisions rather than much more difficult intellectual decisions. And at that point you’ll probably send some examples to the client to get feedback. It will be at a point where someone who’s probably a little less visually acute will be able to understand what it is that you’re trying to do. It still won’t be completely polished, but they’ll articulate what it is that you’re saying.

And then at that point you’ll probably have a conversation with the client and incorporate their feedback. And that feedback can be something relatively light, a polish here, something that doesn’t make sense. Maybe the logo doesn’t read very well. Maybe there’s a letter that isn’t particularly clear. Or it could be a conceptual comment, commenting, “It doesn’t say what we need it to say in terms of the character of the character that this is for.” And then the last part of the process is once you’re on the same page, and all of those problems have been solved, you then deliver the final artwork. And then at that point you really go in very close and you make sure that all the line weights match, that everything is elegantly constructed from a technical point of view.

I’ll product different colorways. So I might produce 10, 15 different colorways of the logo, especially for a comic, just to illustrate how the different elements of it can be coloured up in different ways, because quite often with comic book, or the best way for a comic book logo to gel well on the cover, is if the colours in the logo are lifted from the artwork. And with an ongoing title, a monthly title, that is the job of the in-house designer. So if I can make the in-house designer’s job as easy as possible by showing them how this logo might work, it helps them along. So quite often, to see whether a logo is working well, I’ll put it in context, on … By that time, quite often we’ll have cover art in, so we can see if it looks like it’s in tune, which is always very helpful.

Sometimes you don’t have cover art in, so you’ll use a generic piece by the artist who is drawing the cover, just to get a vibe of how the thing is coming together. And then you deliver the artwork. You might deliver, like I say, several different colorways, a black and white version, a screen, a web safe version, and hopefully that’s job done.


Ian Paget: Mm-hmm (affirmative). There’s one part I’d be curious to know a little bit more about. You mention that you’re presenting part complete work. What is it you’re actually presenting at that point? Is it vector files that they’re … just not completely polished down?


Rian Hughes: Yes. There’ll be … I mean it depends on what the relationship with the client is. I mean if they’re someone who I’ve worked for for 10, 15 years, you develop a good relationship where they can read … They won’t obsess over a technical aspect that they know you’re going to fix later because that’s not what we’re talking about at this early stage, whereas a less experienced client will not be able to see past the surface, and they will tend to obsess over details which aren’t relevant to the idea at hand, that early on that you’re trying to solve. So you have to educate the client not to do that. But yes, they will be vector artwork at that stage. You know, maybe not most finished vector artwork, but most of the people I’m dealing with are art directors, so they’re designers themselves. They’re aware of the process. They understand.


Ian Paget: Okay. That makes sense. Because I’ve had the experience in the past where I’ve not felt comfortable to present part complete work. I always prefer to get it pretty finished and present it in situ as you did at the end of the process. That’s the point I’ve been sharing the client, so I find that interesting.


Rian Hughes: Yes. I think the plus of that approach is that it’s as polished and convincing as you can make it. The downside of that approach is that if you haven’t got it right, you’ve actually invested quite a lot of work in that. And what you want is to have the base level, conceptual conversations early on so that you don’t do that, so you don’t go down the wrong path. And with most of the logos that I do, if we’re on the same page conceptually, maybe I’ll do two or three variations, maybe four top, somewhere there.

There have been painful logo designs, and I talk about this in the book, where I’ve been through 80, 90, 100 logos, and then you know that it becomes … You’re just throwing stuff at the wall to see what’ll stick in the end, because the client just doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And it’s trying to navigate those spaces that is the job of the graphic designer. And so I would advise against going too polished too early, but that relies upon you having a client who isn’t impressed by polish, and who understands that what we’re talking about here is not the polish.


Ian Paget: Okay. That makes sense. I’m curious to know … You’re working on a lot of very visual work, and I assume that you need to keep inspired by imagery, so I’m curious to know, where do you look for inspiration?


Rian Hughes: Well, I think it becomes harder as you get older, to be honest, and I think that when you’re starting out, when you’re at art college, there are so many people that inspire you, and that kind of sponge like ability to absorb everything and anything is something that I try and retain. But when you become busier, you’re so busy producing that sometimes you don’t have the time to relax and absorb new ideas, new material, new things. So the stuff that I come across that inspires me now, it tends to be accidental. It tends to be some poster that I walk past in the street, or a friend of mine who sends me a book that they’ll think I’ll be interested in. And what does amaze me is it’s still possible to find illustrators, designers, architects, who do really fire me up again with enthusiasm.

There are certain people who … And also, because we work in a globalised community now, so you’re looking at comic artists that are coming out of China. There’s some amazing artists, Benjamin, for example, his use of colour is just incredible. And also the tools are evolving so that people are using lighting techniques, and use of colour that just would not be possible before. So there’s always something new. There’s always something fresh. There’s always something to keep you enthusiastic. There’s always something that makes you think, “Oh I’ve got to keep on my toes here. These guys are good. I can’t kick back and relax. I’ve got to keep trying. I can’t be lazy.”


Ian Paget: Absolutely. I mean there’s so many new talented designers emerging each day, especially now that design education is fairly easy to find online, and there’s social media platforms so that they can reach clients, so you really do need to keep progressing forward in this industry, but I mean, I personally love graphic design, so I have no issue with that. Now that actually leads on quite nicely to another question I have for you, and that’s what is it that fascinates you so much about logo design and graphic design in general?


Rian Hughes: What fascinates me about logo design is that to begin with, I’ve come across logos, and I think it all begins when you’re a kid. I mean almost anybody I know who’s a musician or a writer, they had some collision with the form, whatever the form that was their passion, quite early on. And I remember getting a badge which had the Star Trek logo on, you know the triangular logo, and being fascinated by that. And I remember having a … There was a Gerry Anderson show called UFO, and the logo for that was a man with a shadow. And then next to that, SHADO, the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation. I thought this was fantastic. And they were like, not like gang signs, or … They’re like little sigils or magical things that some this … Futurist, or call the organization up, and I think that’s where the fascination came from.

They were ways into something bigger than what they were. And I think on a broader sense, what you’re doing when you’re doing graphic design is you’re manipulating symbols, and some of the symbols that graphic designers manipulate are very obvious symbols, like the alphabet, or a certain font might have a certain historical resonance. So a serif font will look a certain way, and a sans serif font will have a different tone of voice, so there are certain ways that we as graphic designers manipulate these tools that we have. But then there’s a deeper level. I mean if you’re creating a logo, you’re aware of all this historical baggage that you’re bringing to bear, but you’re also dealing with line and shape and colour in its most elemental, platonic way. And I know this sounds vaguely pretentious, and almost metaphysical, but it’s true.

I think there are … Certain colours will have certain emotive effects, just as certain chords on a piano will sounds harmonious, or disharmonious, or uplifting, or melancholy. Why is that? Why does that happen? I think it’s to do with some resonance in our mathematical nature of human beings, the way we’re made, and colour and shape and sound, and how they affect us. So there is that kind of level to design that I think that a lot of designers are aware of, some of them more explicitly than others. And of course when you’re dealing with clients you tend not to talk about this, because you’ll frighten them off. So if there’s a certain colour combination that you think works very well, you probably wouldn’t get into a metaphysical discussion about why it works well. You’ll probably just tell them that it represents their brand very well, or something like that, something that sounds a bit more practical.

But it’s a bit like listening to a musician trying to explain what it is about music that they fundamentally respond to. And once you’ve stripped away what lyrics mean, once you’ve stripped away the cultural reference that they may be using in their music, underneath all of this is the raw material of sound, or in the case of graphic design, the raw material of our visual experience. And I think that graphic design is quite pure in that way. We’re very much … I mean the artists that I respond to, that I like, are very much the modernists, Dada, cubism, Mondrian, de Chirico, Picasso, obviously. And so the graphic designers that I respond to are the ones who are very much interested in this exploration of colour and shape and form for its own sake, if that makes sense.

Now I must leaven this by saying that there are certain graphic designers who will just be making shapes, and there won’t be any conceptual content to it. It won’t mean anything. It will just be pretty shapes. And I’m not for one minute talking about that, the kind of contentless graphic design that is the kind of stuff that ends up by looking great today, and then awful … It’s a bit like wearing flares and then realising what a mistake you’ve made. So they tend … Just dealing with what things look like without dealing what they mean, what they articulate, can be quite superficial on its own. But there is this kind of underlying language that we all speak to some … We all have some degree of fluency in. And I think again, music is a good analogy. You don’t have to be a musician to love music. You don’t have to know how to play an instrument to be moved by music.

And the very fact that music can speak to everyone, from someone who might have studied it for 15 years, to someone who … An inarticulate Borstal boy from the arse end of nowhere will still have a favourite band that will mean something to them. Now if we can make design, or art, and I definitely think that design is part of art, they overlap in a very big way, if we can do that, then we’ll communicate as powerfully as music manages to do, we’ll have done something amazing. Which the graphic design that I tend to do, it has a very pop culture, pop aesthetic to it, and that’s not primarily because it’s for pop, pop, popular … I’m using the phrase in the way it’s used in music or in art, pop art, pop music. I think that if you can produce something that’s on the one hand is approachable and people can engage with, without being graphic designers, without having studied art, it’s not dense. It’s not up its own ass. It doesn’t use jargon that people who are outside of the field are bemused by.

It’s approachable. It’s open. But at the same time it’s not shallow. It has depth. It has meaning. It has universality. And that’s what I call the kind of pop aesthetic. It’s what the Beatles do, or Abba do, and Shostakovich doesn’t. And I very much want my work to fit that criteria. I want it to be universal and talk to everyone. Well, not everyone, but talk to a broad spectrum of people. I don’t want it to be design for other designers, because I think that’s … You know, music for other musicians is quite often pointless technical noodling, and the graphic design equivalent of design for designers is pointless technical noodling. If you’re sitting around admiring the curling, then you’re not talking about the ideas that the curling might articulate, which is not to say that the curling shouldn’t be perfect. Of course it should, but the technical aspects of it are not primarily what it is about.

Articulation of the idea is essential, and must be of the highest standard, but there must be an idea to articulate. And so it’s that slightly more metaphysical side of visual culture that really interests me. And trying to articulate that through the work, not just so others can understand it, but also so you can understand it because in the process of exploring it, or articulating it, it becomes clearer to you how this works. So I summed up my thinking on this in a book called Culture: Ideas Can Be Dangerous, which was published about four, five years ago. And it deals with a lot of stuff, not just visual culture, but semiotics, and consciousness, meaning, things like this. So I think that this is what underpins my interest across the board. So graphic design, illustration, writing. They all have this, at a ground state beneath all of this, I think this is what’s going on.

And in fact, I’ve written a novel, which I know is probably again, one of the most pretentious things that you can do, and I make no claims to it being a great novel, but it’s going to come out this year, and it’s basically me trying to use typography and design, logo design, type design, in an authored way. So different characters in this novel have different fonts that I’ve designed specifically for their tone of voice. And I reference historical fonts and historical types of design, say like a Victorian bill post and there’s lots of vernacular type, or a words-in-freedom Dada prose poem. So I reference historical types, but I’m also trying to do something new with it. So it’s this way of injecting an authorial voice into your design, which I think a lot of designers are very passionate about doing. They want to not just articulate their clients’ needs, but to articulate their own interest and needs as well, and quite often there’s a clash between these.

There’s an ill fit between what an illustrator might want to do and what a client might want an illustrator to do. So again, going back to the advice I was giving about not being a prima donna. You have to tread that carefully. But I think that because I’ve come from comics, and comics are very authorial, in that they’re not servicing something else other than themselves. So if you’re doing illustration for an article in a magazine, you’re servicing the article in the magazine. You might have created the most beautiful illustration that very well articulates the idea, but it won’t be your idea. It’ll be the idea in the article. If you’re designing a product, whether that be, I don’t know, a pack of biscuits for Tesco’s or something like that, it’s a packet of biscuits for Tesco’s. That is what you are fundamentally, at base, articulating.

And I think that what we’ve got to do is create a space where what we are articulating is more authorial. So when you’re doing a comic, and this is why comics are so fantastic, is that you’re thinking … When you sit down with a writer, or if you are a writer/artist, as some people are, your first question is, what am I trying to say? What more I trying to articulate? And then the style comes out of that. The story comes out of that. So you’re creating it from the bottom up rather than being given something that you can then polish or work with.

And it’s finding that authorial space that I think a lot of graphic designers are moving towards, in the same way that musicians have always had this authorial voice. If you’re a musician and you’re writing jingles for adverts, that’s very different from writing your own album where you’re articulating your own thoughts, and unfortunately 95% of graphic design is writing jingles. It’s that. It’s applying yourself to articulating a client’s needs, rather than your own needs. So this novel is an attempt to bring what I’ve learned in graphic design, and type design, and how that can be used to tell a story, and write the content myself. So I’m not just decorating someone else’s story, I’m actually writing the story as well. Now it may be a bunch of pretentious nonsense, but at least I’ve had a go.


Ian Paget: It sounds very much like a passion project for you.


Rian Hughes: Yeah, but I think that most people who are graphic designers are very passionate about their work in the same way that musicians are, or writers are. And I think that you mustn’t lose that passion. I remember when I was working in comic, when I was drawing comics, and writing comics, and working with other writers, when I was working with writers it was very much a collaborative process. We would discuss what we were going to do. And then you would divvy up the work, and the writer would write the script, and then you would draw that script. But prior to that you would very much talk about what it was that you were trying to do. And that is the bit that’s missing from a lot of coalface commercial graphic design, unfortunately. So it’s creating that space.

And if it’s possible to create work, in the same way that comics are … You buy a comic because you want to read the comic. The comic is not there as an ancillary to selling you some other product. It’s not there to sell you a TV or food, or some other thing. You’re buying it because you want to read that story and look at that art. And that is what graphic design doesn’t have. So this is my attempt to do that. I’ve called it a Novel, Graphic, obviously in a pun on graphic novel. So it’s my attempt to find an authorial space for graphic designers to create things out of … It’s creating a space for graphic designers to also be authors.


Ian Paget: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Sounds interesting. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for that. When does that come out?


Rian Hughes: It’ll come out this year. My agent has it with a couple of publishers, so it’s in the … Nothing’s been signed ye. So it’s in the process of being negotiated.


Ian Paget: Okay. Something to keep an eye out for, and what I will do is I’ll update the show notes for this episode, so if anyone does listen to this in the future, that will actually be in the show notes for this as well. Okay. I’ve got one last question for you to wrap this up. Now I know that you’ve achieved so much in your career so far. So for those just starting out, is there any advice that you can give to help them to achieve success of their own?


Rian Hughes: You mean generally, or…


Ian Paget: Yeah, I mean, what I normally like to do with the podcast is to end with some kind of tip. I’ve done a lot of logo design tips, but I think it would be useful to know, like is there anything in your career that you’ve learned that you wished that you know when you was younger? That’s probably a better way of asking that question.


Rian Hughes: Yeah. I think there are many kinds of clients, so the kind of clients that will turn into life long friends, and with whom you’ll collaborate to do your best work. There’s are complete chancers who will rip you off. There are people who will pay you enormous amounts of money for lame design, because lame design is what they want. And I think when you begin, you don’t know how to differentiate between these people, and quite often they’re the same person. So you’ll have this fantastic client who will never pay you. You’ll have someone who inspires you to do your best work, and then it never gets printed. So it’s navigating this … The design is only half the job. It’s getting the design out there in as uncompromised a version, as idealized a version, as pure a version as you possibly can.

And that involves a lot of social skills, I guess, that certainly I didn’t have when I came out of art college. I think that what I would do is just dig my heels in and stick my bottom lip out and refuse to change anything, which doesn’t solve the client’s needs, and it doesn’t get your work published. It’s a lose-lose scenario to do that. So I think that if I had any advice it would be that you probably learn more from the jobs that go horribly wrong than the ones that sail through, because those are the ones where you learn how to navigate those awkward spaces where the communication’s broken down, or there’s been a misunderstanding, or all this non-design part of design, which is not to say you should flatter your clients.

I think that you should give as good as they give, which is why I was mentioning earlier about how the ideal clients are not afraid to give pushback. And they don’t balk when you give them pushback either, as long as you’re both aiming to get the best job you possibly can, because that’s what you both want. That’s good for them. That’s good for you. So navigate that space as best you can. Be articulate. Be charming. Don’t be a pushover, but don’t be a prima donna. That would be my non-design advice for a designer.


Ian Paget: No, I think that’s really good advice, and I think everyone definitely will take that on board whether they like it or not. It’s something that you end up having to learn one way or another. Now Rian, I just want to say thank you so much for being on the podcast. It’s been a really fascinating conversation. So yeah, again, thank you very much for your time.


Rian Hughes: No, my pleasure. Thank you.


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