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Tom Brown

TBA+D

Principal / Editorial Designer
Tom Brown is a well known designer from Vancouver. He's a master of typography and editorial design. His work is compelling for both its simplicity and power. Tom also designs typefaces, books and works on the odd alternative commission such as skateboard decks. His clients are primarily in the USA and he's represented by Renee Rhyner & Company, in Dallas and NYC.
HT

The majority of your studios work is editorial. How does that differ from more traditional studio based graphic design?

TB

I’m not sure I know what traditional graphic design studios actually do. All I know is what I do and essentially my thinking and process is based on my experience in running an editorial art department. We have recurring and repetitive deadlines usually weekly, which incorporate repetitive actions and in some cases mandates. When I do more familiar graphic design projects I work them out in a similar fashion as I would a editorial project.

HT

The publishing industry has taken quite a beating in the last few years, yet the design quality of printed magazines seems to have increased. Is there some weird correlation going on here that you can see?

TB

For as long as I can remember, the newsstand publishing industry has preached tough times and a decline of budgets and available dollars. But for some reason it manages to find ways to reform and carry on, and in most cases without a decline in the quality of design, photography and illustration.

What I believe we have seen lately is a rise of independent publishing where the love of the craft takes the lead and the crass corporate culture is done away with. These publications often look and feel a bit less commercial and certainly don’t have the complexity mass magazines do. On one side the traditional corporate newsstand publishers are scheming new ways to offer editorial products. These products are weighed and measured for productivity and ROI which makes them less likely to take risks on niche topic projects or smaller market products.

Which leaves a glut for smaller publishers and individuals to create printed publications that reach these target groups with publications that are more relatable and tend to have a believable integrity to them.

HT

As the publishing industry moves to the new digital frontier it opens up a lot of opportunities for new design industries. Is your studio making any inroads into digital publishing and what excites you most about it?

TB

I have not embraced the new digital publishing frontier – mainly because I personally have no interest in experiencing a published product in this manner. I love print and all the joys that come from holding a printed object in my hands. I understand the move to digital by publishers but I also see what it has done to the art departments within publishing where many great art director talents now spend much of their time designing buttons and decorative interactions simply to take advantage of the medium’s capabilities or to keep up with something another digital magazine has been spotted doing. I see a lot of the industry as chasing it‘s own tail right now. Further evidence as to why independent print publishing seems to be taking hold.

HT

Beautiful typography is the corner stone of your work. What do you like most about using type to convey a message or feeling?

TB

I guess I just love the way letters look when printed. Arranging and emphasizing the words and thoughts of others is fascinating to me.

HT

I can see various influences in your work – from Roger Black to Non-Format, tell us a bit more about what and who inspires you to do great work.

TB

I am intrigued by individuals who can effortlessly arrange words or create new letterforms out of familiarity. I wish I was clever and I am drawn to work that defines that for me. I’m a big fan of really simple effective graphic design. I love printing in only black and white. I love patterns and I myself strive to be anonymous in the role I take in designing a project. I was taught by a great design talent early in my career and my eyes of magazine design, typography, and the art direction and appreciation of photography and illustration were opened wide because of his influence. He had and still does have classic tastes and the individuals producing work in magazines during the 1970’s, 80’s and early 90’s was where I spent my years of teething. But you want some names, so here’s a few: Alvin Lustig, Josef Muller-Brockmann, Willy Fleckhaus, Reid Miles, Mike Salisbury, Rip Georges, Robert Priest, Neville Brody.

HT

Editorial design also involves the skill of leading the reader through an article visually. Each spread is a story almost in and of itself. What’s your studio process for designing articles from an overall perspective as well as breaking it down to it’s various components?

TB

Truth. You play with the reader’s ability to be intrigued and investigative within a page or multi-page story but you also allow them to rest and take it all in eventually. I was taught to look at the pacing of an entire magazine and it’s individual pages much like the editing of a good film. As often as I can I use this mind-set to inspire how I suggest pacing to an editor or even to art direct a photographer who is shooting for me. Storytelling is a dying art. It takes attention to detail and the understanding of holding back and not being frivolous with information. Designing for effect is becoming increasingly difficult in a culture where the appetite for feeding the eyes is at a maximum. Whitespace is seen as prime real-estate for chucking more “stuff” on a page, as opposed to using it for moments of tension and scale.

HT

Outside of editorial and publishing based design, you’ve done creative works for things like skateboards. How enjoyable is it to work on these projects?

TB

My heart belongs to magazine design. Probably because it is truly where my brain is firmly planted but the one thing about being experienced in art directing and designing magazines is that you have to move fast, execute effectively with the basics of communication and quite often have to work in a conceptual frame of mind to speak to people. Translating this over to other areas of graphic design in some cases is quite difficult. Mainly because the idea of simply “decorating’ seems contrary to me. I need a message to convey and when I do projects that are not of an editorial nature I struggle.

So to push myself beyond my comfort levels I take on projects that require me to find a message that isn’t quite as obvious or even to simply make something “pretty” with my God given skills. But overall I really do try to execute solutions through the same process that I approach magazines through and it generally comes out satisfying and on point.

HT

A lot of your work exudes simple clarity of an idea – Alan Fletcher was a master at this. Often these are the hardest concepts to come up with because they appear so effortless. Do you find they pop into your head in an ‘ah-ha’ moment or do you have an more deliberate system to create these ideas?

TB

I believe graphic design is a language and if you can’t talk or communicate cleanly and simply to another individual you just sound like static or noise. All my life I’ve been a shy individual but I could tell a story like nobodies business. I included subtle details and background information to engage those listening to me to be there with me; and early on as a kid I would use comparative metaphors in stories to add emphasis or to drive a point further

When I began to work in magazines I found this skill helpful to convey direction to artists and photographers. I still work that way and love to collaborate with individuals of a like mind. It is hard and avoiding cliches takes work. I never rush my ideas when I’m feeling stumped on a problem. Waiting for inspiration to fall on you is a luxury but also at times necessary. As long as you are open in all areas to allow ideas to take hold. I work with an incredible photography partner on almost all my projects and our work and personal relationship allows me to have an accountability that helps me weed out over-thinking and lame ideas — I think.

HT

The Vancouver Olympics obviously caused a massive jump in public awareness of design and it’s role in their lives. Has the design scene in Vancouver and the surrounding regions managed to maintain this, or have things wained since the Olympics moved on?

TB

I have no idea. I personally have never seen Vancouver as a business opportunity for my aspirations, and I have very little connection if any to the Vancouver design landscape. My eyes have always been elsewhere even though I grew up here and moved back to my home town after a few years working in New York. My early career was niche in this city. I was a magazine art director. One of maybe 10 in BC. Thats not a bustling high demand area of employment.

I worked at Vancouver magazine for 6 years before being plucked up by Men’s Journal magazine in the mid-90’s. I started TBA+D while in New York because I was offered so much freelance work. I loved working on multiple projects simultaneously and decided to move back to Canada simply because I didn’t “need” to be in New York to work remotely and thats how I’ve worked ever since. I have had the odd Canadian or Vancouver based client but find that the projects lack what I can find elsewhere. So I’m actually a stranger in my own land. Well known everywhere but here…

HT

When making a new hire what are the core attributes you look for in a staff member?

TB

Well I now work alone in my studio. My reputation is that I am hands-on in my approach and clients tend to hire my studio to get me. The projects are generally drawn out in a schedule and I don’t take on small bread and butter jobs to pay the rent. I take small jobs but only if I’m keen to do the project and can enjoy a certain amount of freedom with the solutions explored.

I have a few designers that I network with in the event I need some help and they are all over (New York, DC, Texas) or comrades I have history with here in the city but they are tried and true design friends. I can tell you that when I do hire I am typically doing it for a magazine that I am redesigning and I require staff to execute the new design or to work with the new editor etc. In those cases I look for talents that have an eye for detail, work quickly through multiple solutions, aren’t afraid to push type around and take risks. And it helps that they know their graphic design history. This industry is still so new and young, changing constantly and it is wise to know where it came from. Who the pioneers were and to get to the bottom of how they thought and made design decisions. I think young designers going out there today should have design heroes and appreciate those heroes for their minds, not just their attractive work.

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