Past Presentation - Malcolm Brown - Break or Teach: rules for the unruly
Thank you to everyone that met Malcolm Brown, the award winning editorial designer who has art directed several Canadian titles including Shift, Outpost, enRoute, Adbusters and the new Unlimited magazine.
The event was held November 29, 2007 at the MacEwan Lecture Theatre. See the PDF below for photos taken at the event and check back in a week or 2 for online video file of the presentation.
In 2007 under the newly formed GRAFIKMILK and with unlimited magazine, Malcolm Brown continues to make a strong contribution to design and art direction in Canada.
Born in the U.K., he got a quick start in Toronto right after art school at Citytv and MuchMusic, where he was promoted to art director after his first 6 months. He has since worked across Canada, New York City and California.
As Art director of Shift in the late 90’s he received 16 gold and 17 silver awards, and following that with Outpost travel magazine, he greatly contributed to it taking ‘Magazine of the Year’ in Canada in 2002.
In his career he has recieved over 140 awards for his art direction and design in both Canada and the U.S. Recently Brown redesigned Air Canada’s Enroute magazine in Montreal, and was invited to be guest art director on 2 issues of Adbusters in Vancouver in 2006. This summer he took on a brand new magazine out of Edmonton + Calgary: a large format, national mag, for the 20-35 demographic, called Unlimited. The first issue launched September 2007.
The following was submitted by Malcolm as an overview of the presentation:
Break or Teach: Rules for the Unruley
The focus tonight is on rules or rather working with rules. This was not a direction I necessarily wanted to focus on, but looking more closely at my work and career, I realized that despite not wanting to adhere to rules, they have played a huge part of my life in my relationship with design and art.
I feel certainly that this relates to being born in England; that rules have dominated how I work, and my approach to art and design problems and solutions – working with them, or more often working around them and through them. Living in England in the 60’s and 70’s, until I was 18 years old, social revolution was part of life. Change was NORMAL and so tackling the rules rather than adhering to rules, seemed to me to be the way of the future both socially and creatively – even at that young age. Brits don’t like being told what to do, maybe more than others - a kind of childish rebellion, even though they also love rules and pomp. The confinement of living in a very small island surrounded by many rules and manners, does bring out in the English a highly creative desire to make change.
For me, manipulating the rules is not negative in a rebellious way, as is often perceived, where breaking or bending the rules is without reason. I feel opposite, that reworking the rules is positive – it’s about manipulating the parameters, so one can actually be more creative – create a better layout, or design, or magazine – that by pushing the rules, a rule is changed, and therefore the design grows and I grow as a designer.
Bending the rules, or whatever you want to call it, is really an attempt to make the box that I work in, BIGGER. Pushing the limitations further outward, so that creativity and ideas can be worked in a larger sphere. I don’t feel the correct instruction is to “think outside the box,” I think it’s “make the box as big as you can make it – therefore giving yourself more room to play in.”
I used to be a more stubborn designer I admit, but now later in my career I feel I understand the process more. Being creative – choosing to be in creative work – means being open, NOT closed. You can’t find solutions to a problem in a straight-jacket. Too many rules and you will be shut-down. But strangely enough, designers often set up, even unconsciously, self-imposed rules which are harder to move around or out of. I have met many designers who are chained by themselves and their ideas of what they can or cannot do – rules or conditions they set up regarding their own work, which is really contrary to the idea of free creativity. This is what all designers need to work out of; a kind of UNLEARNING must take place.
I looked up rules on dictionary.com and found the usual: Toe the line, obey the rules, adhere to rules, come to heel, conform, fall in, fall in line, follow the book, stay in line, toe the mark. But under bend the rules, was shockingly the description PLAY DIRTY. Synonyms were: hit below the belt, hoodwink, hose, mislead, rip-off, rook, sandbag, scam, screw, shaft, sucker, swindle, trick, and even ‘oddly’ victimize. I largely disagree with such definitions – for me bending the rules, working against the rules, is a creative endeavour. It is not as the general dictionary meaning here interprets – as pulling the wool, or tricking. My only rule in a creative endeavour such as design, is that a rule is a guide. Breaking a rule is destructive, shifting a rule is constructive.
The reason I called this part of this talk “Break or Teach” was in reaction to an interview at an Ontario art college five years ago, to hold a fourth-year student a workshop. It was to be an experimental class of magazine and editorial ideas. Free-form. Pushing boundaries and rules. But after a long interview – after looking at my work – the head of editorial design said to me. “Well, its clear you know how to break the rules, HERE we are about teaching the rules.” I didn’t get the position back then, although they have now changed their mind and want me to teach. Maybe they broke a rule? But I was pretty disturbed by such a remark for an art school, and has furthered my discussion on the condition of rules.
I remember an episode of Family Ties when Elsye (the mom) said the Alex (her son). “My job is to make the rules, and your job is to ‘negotiate’ to change them.” For me that resonated in a huge way. The ‘rules’ are not the key but ‘negotiating’ them is. I thought this was brilliant because it gave Alex a way out! Paradoxically, a rule can be a way out, not a way in or something that blocks us. Saying NO is really saying YES to something else – and this is what a creative person should be reaching for, the YES behind the NO. So that has become the nexus of my feelings and work. Beyond rules.
Contradictions intact, I like rules, we need rules especially in commercial work, rules set up the parameters, but we also need to room to play. I have a friend who is a very controlled designer, tight, controlled, leashed, afraid of being creative. But then on the road driving her car, she is reckless. I said to her, “shouldn’t you be more reckless with your design work – but more controlled driving your car?”
We need rules. I want cab drivers to follow the rules of the road, and I want the pilot flying me out to Toronto to follow the rules of the sky. As Arjun Basu, a friend and the Editor-In-chief of Air Canada’s enRoute magazine writes, “My flight was uneventful, just as I always like it.” Rules makes us safe. But I don’t think that I want to feel safe in the world of art and design. I want to feel inspired, and rules don’t inspire (me anyway).
I want to ask you that if I told you that I was going to art direct a photo of you in a hotel room. That a photographer would be bring in a bank of 18 florescent light tubes, nine on either side, position you inside a triangular unit 12 feet high. That I was also going to rip off the bed cover and to reveal a red Hudson’s Bay blanket, and then for fun I would remove the lamp-shade beside the bed, I am sure you would wonder about the success of the shot. Well this was where I found myself, before trying to get a good shot of the well known musician Beck. I don’t that it would have not turned out so well, if myself and the photographer had not broken a bunch of rules. I think the photo by Chris Chapman of Toronto in shift magazine, is a good example of messing with creativity and bending a hell of a lot of rules, can produce great work in a very ordinary hotel room.
As a final note, there is always a commercial mandate, an objective that has to be met financially, commercial art is a business, the rules of ‘needing funds’ to keep going – can’t be fought. But still within the sphere of creativity, being courageous with the creativity, not adhering to any rules that limit creativity, is what will turn an ordinary design into stellar design, memorable design, strong design.
As a note to students, ENCOURAGE COURAGE in yourself and others. SAFE is for flying and driving and sex. In creativity IDEAS, new ideas, brave ideas is what will get you a good job, keep you employed and if you work really hard give your life a ton of satisfaction. Find a good fit in a good company and exploit your talents in a big way.
BE UNRULEY IN AN INTELLIGENT WAY.
See photos taken at the event.
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