Rian Hughes is arguably one of the most multi-talented men currently working in communication design. His comic books are just the tip of the iceberg, with his current redesign of the Valiant logo making comic shop shelves a little sleeker, and his recent work organizing the Image Duplicator exhibition displaying his passion for original comic book art. When I was in London, I was lucky enough to a get a glimpse at the projects currently cluttering Rian Hughes’ desk and it proved an enlightening afternoon.
A lot of the time, people who work in comic books and design are self-employed, working alone in our offices and communicating with our teams via email, phone, chat, and skype. As a result of this, the camaraderie of colleagues and peers can become a distant, virtual experience. Outside of conventions once or twice a year, we rarely actually manage to see each other in meat space, making do instead with sending files back and forth. That’s why, when I went to London last month I had to make sure to meet up with comic book author and groundbreaking graphic designer; Rian Hughes. Hughes is one of the most interesting and engaging graphic designers working with comic books today and I am always inspired and excited by his take on things. When he invited me to visit him at his studio in Kew Gardens, I leapt at the chance to get a sneak peek at where the design magic happens. Hughes shares his bright and sunny studio with a group of freelance designers and a small graphic design company, which combines to create a quietly bustling creative atmosphere. Initially, my intention was to conduct some sort of interview, but instead we jumped right in to chatting about all of the interesting things lying about on his desk, and it proved to be quite the treasure trove…
Piled up to his right, Hughes had a stack of old science fiction books, the kind of “pulp” science fiction popular in the ’50’s and ’60’s, tinging with hyperbole and horror. Hughes explained that he loved the old cover art, as well as the distressing effects of time on the paper. The influence of this type of art can be clearly seen in Hughes humorous and irreverent take on Dan Dare, in the book “Yesterday’s Tomorrows”, (a collection of Hughes science fiction work from comics like 2000AD, Revolver, and Escape, published by Image Comics). Written by Grant Morrison, their take on Dare in this relaunch is both nostalgic and modern, with none of the unyielding quality of the original character, but all of his strength. For people with an interest in design, the added bonus of this collection is the wealth of advertising and marketing materials created by Hughes for these works. From teaser ads to end papers, from pencil sketches to TV ads, everything is beautifully documented. While Hughes has published books examining type and design of the past, recently it is his book “Tales from Beyond Science” which is the real homage to the genre, collecting short science fiction comics originally drawn by Hughes in 2000AD and in the early 90’s. While the comics in the book are great fun, it is the pages of fake ads in the back of each one which really take you back. Growing up with American comic books in Britain, I share Hughes’ fascination with these fantastical claims of x-ray glasses and sea monkeys, so I was delighted by the range and detail of each of these bizarre little monuments to a lost form of advertising.
Hughes gave me a glimpse of some of his current work-for-hire drawings of Supergirl, Batgirl, and Wonder Woman. Drawn in Illustrator, they had a very different feel from his comic book drawings, more of an energetic, pop-art feel to them, almost bordering on Manga, it was an interesting departure. Hughes explained the constraints of working to this style while still incorporating technically complex current costume designs, and we discussed the ways in which other companies can then use the images. For example, Target combined all three characters to create a “Super Friends” T-shirt, complete with incongruous type additions. Hughes explained, “There are more personal projects you put your heart and soul into, and those you do and enjoy the doing, but have no final control over, so learn to let go of – and that’s fine. As long as there’s a balance, and it’s not all the latter.” The difference in style is very specific, between characters Hughes has drawn and controlled on his own comic book projects, (where he can design the way in which they communicate ideas and concepts), and those more iconic drawings he has created to be used in whatever abstract space the client chooses, and I was impressed with how able he was to create an icon rather than an illustration, yet still manage to convey so much about the characters depicted.
Currently, Hughes is in very final stages of publishing a volume of his burlesque drawings in “Soho Dives, Soho Divas, Sketches of London’s Burlesque Artistes”. Slated for release soon will be a very limited, premium hardcover edition published by Image Comics, (as well as a paperback version for the “financially impaired”). I was able to get a look at the cover proofs, complete with red moire silk, and gold and black foiling and embossing. Pictured at right, you can see the first proof on the left (where the title is knocked out from the black, and even in this rough form Hughes was able to tell that the title wouldn’t be prominent enough), and on the right where Hughes used gold to create a more visible treatment on the title. The interior of this book promises to be as elegant and interesting as the cover and I’m looking forward to picking up a copy myself.
While Hughes is known for his design and his comic books, it is Hughes’ work as a typographer which is most impressive. The incredible attention to detail and necessary focus which is essential to good type design is a rare skill, and not really one which can be learned. I’ve often heard it said that James Dyson (the inventor of a better kind of vacuum cleaner) has an obsessive nature, which is a pretty good asset for an inventor. Similarly I’ve often seen that great type designers naturally have an obsession with detail, and Hughes has this in spades. Funneling this into his work, he is now on the cusp of publishing a collection of twenty years of typefaces – “Typodiscography. The Complete Font Collection” – a massive collection of Hughes typefaces, including examples of usage from his own work, interviews expanding on Hughes philosophical approach to type design, his type study photographs from around the world, and even custom fonts created for specific projects. It is an awe-inspiring thing to see two decades of design in one specific area and it puts Hughes work in comics into perspective as just one small aspect of a lifelong fascination with communication design.
Later, in the rare British sunshine, eating lunch outside a classic British pub, I asked Hughes about the future and what he thought he might do after design, for his retirement. He laughed, incredulously asking “Can you imagine ever wanting to stop working?” and I had to agree that I couldn’t imagine a time when designing things wouldn’t be fun.