Mamihlapinatapai

Jonze

Mamihlapinatapai: Noun – A look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something they both desire, but which neither wants to begin.

This was listed in the 1994 Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s ‘most succinct word’. It comes from the language of the Yaghan, a people living on the southern tip of South America, and numbering only about 1,500. Although 19th Century British explorers described them as ‘savages’, they’ve got a word for a very complex emotional state that people everywhere would immediately understand, but couldn’t name.

Sometimes a language has the word for something, and sometimes it just doesn’t, no matter how real that something is. The vocabulary of a language depends a lot on history and happenstance, and this means many subtle things won’t be given the honour of a specific word or phrase. Thankfully, words are just one way in which humans communicate. We can draw on a host of things such as tone, volume, image, metaphor, allusion, and body language, to name just a few. It’s these which let us express reality, fantasy and lived experience in all their intricate nuance.

Words are just one way in which humans communicate. We can draw on a host of things such as tone, volume, image, metaphor, allusion, and body language, to name just a few.

Also, it’s these that creatives, copywriters, and visual designers rely on to do their jobs well. But there is another part of their job: explaining the rationale for their ideas to their stakeholders. And when it comes to explaining or rationalising something, words are really all they’ve got. Rationalisation is defined as the act of trying to explain or justify something with logical reasons. Logic is constructed from a sequence of arguments, and arguments are constructed from words with specific meanings.

So on the one hand there’s ‘human communication’, with its myriad potential forms, which fills in the gaps left by vocabulary. And on the other hand, there’s rationalisation, with its reliance on logic made of arguments, and arguments made of words. So, is it any surprise that things can get lost in translation? Any surprise that something palpably clear on seeing or hearing, might have no way to describe succinctly and straightforwardly?

Maybe that’s why rationalisation in the creative industry attracts much eye-rolling and accusations of vague bullshitting. You often hear the phrase ‘post-rationalisation’ muttered with a degree of cynicism, as if creative work which was not rational from the start is at best whimsical, at worst snake oil. This is unfair – even good rationalisation will inevitably involve some word acrobatics to try and give form to something that is inherently irrational in its origins.

Even good rationalisation will inevitably involve some word acrobatics to try and give form to something that is inherently irrational in its origins.

But more importantly, rationalisation is always going to be incomplete. It is at best a primer for the presentation of the creative work itself. Instead of letting rationale take centre stage in discussions about creative work, stakeholders should look at the work, interact with it, live with it for a little while, ‘feel’ it. This is the process the creatives will have gone through, taking a variety of perspectives, sketching, and re-sketching, writing and re-editing, until the result starts to feel right. The work was created on these terms, so why not judge it on these same terms? If something looks good, reads well, or gets a laugh, why stay attached to the incomplete logical explanation that’s sitting beside it?

So remember, if you see great work that fits, if it is simply ‘cool’, ‘funny’, or has a certain je ne sais quoi, it’s ok. It could be THE idea. It just might not have its own mamihlapinatapai.

Archangel

Archangel2

I was listening to what has to be one of the best records of the past few decades, Untrue, by Burial. For some reason I got inspired to make something to express how the music felt to me. The track features rolling UK garage rhythm, sampled choir and strings, and a haunting bassline.

I chose to create a blackletter treatment of one of the track titles, Archangel. I started with the basic characteristics of the style, shallow angled flat-nibbed pen and perpendicular rather than curved letterforms. To complement the rolling, syncopated rhythms and staccato drumbeats, I broke up many of the letters, forming diagonal dashes, and made them tall and narrow with prominent ascenders and descenders.

Artboard 4 copy 2@3x

Near-darFor me, and I suspect for many others, the dark, timeless feeling of Burial’s music perfectly matches the associations people have with blackletter type. Blackletter fonts are often used to make something look old and rustic. But they are also seen as dark, sombre and even aggressive. It is favoured not only by beer brands and antique shops, but also by heavy metal musicians and rappers.

Their physical characteristics support this image. They appear black and heavy, with fractured and angular forms. These design features started out in the 12th century simply as practical innovations. The straight and perpendicular lines made it easier to write quickly and neatly on rough parchment, to serve the growing demand for books among an increasingly learned Western European readership.

It began to acquire its counter-cultural associations during the Renaissance, when the printing press allowed for a variety of styles to be produced just as quickly, and revival of Classical styles prompted the dismissal of Medieval styles as ‘barbaric’ or ‘Gothic’. Save for the persistence of blackletter in Germany as a proud marker of difference against the rest of Europe, the style fell out of mainstream use.

Blackletter was invented in response to a specific problem at a specific time. As a universal typeface for use in general typesetting, its days would always be numbered. But its physical features and its historical patina secures its place as a modern display typeface style. I think we’re seeing something of a revival of Blackletter in mainstream culture, as people become disillusioned with the idea of progress, and want to reconnect with a (real and imagined) cultural past. Other calligraphic styles have faded into mediocrity, being revived only to lend prestige, or to parody the olden days. However blackletter carries enough power not only to reconnect us to the past but also to make a serious, and relevant, statement about the present.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001_poster

Fifty years on, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ still feels edgy. Maybe it has something to do with the confusing ending – but it’s impressive for a movie that says in its title that it’s set in the brave, new, space-faring world of 17 years ago.

It’s one of my favourite movies of all time. I did a poster to mark the 50th anniversary of its release.

The composition is based on the feeling of encountering something vast and mysterious. It explicitly and implicitly references a number of different things from the movie and is in part inspired by the intriguing analysis of the movie’s symbolism from Rob Ager (http://www.collativelearning.com/2001%20analysis%20new.html). In it he suggests that the story of exploration and encounter with alien life is a parallel of a film character’s emergence through the fourth wall, out of the confines of the movie as medium, and encountering the audience. It makes for a very interesting read, and anyone who can make sense of Inland Empire must know a thing or two about film interpretation!

Branding a band: Trying things on

colours

Most music today is available on demand streamed through tiny electronic windows, while album art and live performances have been reduced to a tiny part of the experience. So projecting an image to listeners has become even more important.

But if you looked at my band, four middle-class, white guys from London playing slightly poppy alternative guitar rock, it was far from obvious what we could do to stake out our place among the millions of other aspiring guitar bands out there. Admittedly, we had largely defined ourselves in terms of what we’re not. Not metal, not fashionable, not punky, not angry, not ‘cool’. After a few years of playing together, Ollie, our former drummer, once called us the ‘Lib Dems of music’. Not exactly a flattering parallel.

The challenge is all the greater since band ‘branding’ is harder to pin down by necessity. Most successful alt-rock bands don’t have a strict ‘brand’ in the business sense of the word. They have a ‘zone’ which forms the basis for the visuals they choose to go with their music (think Strokes, with their retro video game stylings, or Radiohead, dwelling in their slightly disturbing Stanley Donwood universe). This is exactly what our band needed to find. Look too consistent and things end up looking corporate, no matter how playful you make it.

Over the five years we’ve played together, our look has lurched from one extreme to another. The survey below of the various identities we’ve given ourselves over the years reveals just how erratic this journey of partial self-discovery has been.

Colours for the Blind was the first name we really ran with. It’s evocative, but very grandiose. We were still getting to grips with writing our own songs, we were experimenting and trying out different musical styles, and we thought way too highly of our own efforts! Still, we had lofty ambitions for our creative project, and it’s fair to say the grand-sounding name and the operatic, showy visual style I paired with it reflected our naive and starry-eyed hopes.

another picture idea

I think, had we been experienced songwriters and had definite musical success, we could have worn this ‘look’ with no problem. After a couple of years, however, as we started to develop musically, and work with our limitations, we grew increasingly self-conscious of the mismatch. It was time to adopt a look which was more humble and paid more homage to our musical influences.

SnailBANDITS

Enter Snail Bandits: kooky and boyish, and in line with the tongue-in-cheek band name tradition that seemed to characterise our musical influences: Pixies, Pavement, Grandaddy. The look changed too. No more moody, operatic, multicoloured layering. We were going to be grungy, DIY, and a bit silly. We even came up with a hand signal (a fisted left hand on top of the right hand making a peace sign but with fingers held horizontally – a snail! Get it?). I won’t even go into the pixel art ideas.

But it was too much. We didn’t want to go that way. It was at around the four-year mark that we finally decided to try and record something properly, and our musical style really began to surface. It wasn’t kooky. It was contemplative and relatively slow-paced, with moments of dramatic ‘bigness’. It was at the same time we took this photograph. It looked cool and cinematic, and probably was the first visual thing where we all went ‘yes’.

sunny retouched

After one of the most intense rounds of name brainstorming we had had to date, we came up with… Fever Trees. Great name. So great it had already been taken – by a drinks company. Back to the drawing board, but now with a clearer idea of the kind of ‘feel’ we were going for. The assonance of the ‘Fever’ and the ‘Tree’, the slight mystique of the phrase. We followed this trail, and eventually settled on ‘Trees on Venus’

phones_photo_idea_notitle

Of all the ‘identities’ we’ve had, this feels pretty comfortable. It’s still got the slightly geeky nature of the Snail Bandits days – it’s just been pulled back a bit. There’s a slight sense of humour, but it’s not all-out irreverently punky. It feels like an identity we can ”wear’ comfortably and improvise around. From now on, when it comes to our ‘look’, hopefully it’s now a matter of evolution rather than revolution. We shall see…