Designer Anthony Burrill’s Advice for Living
“Work hard and be nice to people.” The line is something of a mission statement for prolific British designer Anthony Burrill. And, not surprisingly, it’s one of his most popular works. Set in Victorian wood type and turned into a poster by a print shop in his hometown of Rye, England, the phrase is part of a series of his simple, upbeat text-based works featured in the Walker exhibition Graphic Design: Now in Production. Situated a few feet from some of the show’s higher-tech works—Dutch collective LUST’s Posterwall for the 21st Century and Jürg Lehni’s robot-assisted drawing machine—Burrill’s work offers a less technological take on graphic design. But, as he readily admits, the Internet plays a huge part in his work: his posters, most notably the piece Oil & Water Do Not Mix—printed not with ink but oil from the Gulf Coast BP oil spill in 2010—have spread across the world as bloggers pass along his quirky, sometimes quizzical, and often encouraging mantras.
Paul Schmelzer: One of the themes of the exhibition is how design has changed in the past decade. What changes have you seen?
Anthony Burrill: The way that people reach each other through the Internet—the whole social media thing—has completely changed the landscape. When I was at college in the early 1990s, before websites were invented, you kind of made your work, and it only reached a handful of people. Whereas now, with the Oil & Water poster, that went online and just was shared on blogs and, over two or three days, it got such enormous attention.
Schmelzer: Are you okay with that?
Burrill: Yeah! Making the actual work is one thing, but the way it gets shared and passed around is another. It’s weird when you see work on blogs; it lacks any kind of context. Sites like Ffffound!, where basically it’s just image after image—it takes away all the context of the work.
Schmelzer: As someone who likes and works with artists, I sometimes find it frustrating when artists don’t get credit. On the other hand, ultimately that’s the experience of art: you’re there and you confront this object and you have to make heads or tails of it, often without additional information. But in the case of Oil & Water Do Not Mix, this has a backstory that’d be nice to share with people.
Burrill: Definitely. Because the whole context of how it was produced is a big part of the story.
Schmelzer: So the piece is made with oil cleaned up from the Gulf of Mexico?
Burrill: That’s right. I got an e-mail on Tuesday afternoon from a communications company in Brussels called Happiness, and they had the idea to make a poster using the oil that had been gathered. They said, “We’re flying out on Sunday. Can you design us a poster?” So I said, “Yeah, I think so.” The first thing I thought of was “Oil & Water Do Not Mix.” I just sent them a rough idea of the poster, and they went for it.
Schmelzer: The posters were sold to benefit the cleanup? Are they a firm that does activist work?
Burrill: They’re more of a communications/advertising company, but they like to make socially engaged work and work that goes outside the boundaries of design or advertising. It was an edition of 200 prints. We made a special website and it went everywhere. It sold out in a couple of days.
Schmelzer: Beyond the aesthetic, tell me about the social message of your work, which is sort of a be-nice-to-people ethic.
Burrill: The work kind of reflects me as a person. It’s the way I live my life. It’s the way I’m happy and comfortable with—making work that’s produced very simply. I print it all in a local print shop near where I live, and it’s all very simply made. It kind of talks about, I suppose, my life philosophy and a different way of living that’s not about amassing huge amounts of consumer goods. It’s just this different way of doing things, being independent and positive in the way you live.
Schmelzer: Is this work indicative of all the work you do: the clarity of the message, the simplicity of the design?
Burrill: I think so, yeah. There are a few different strands in my work. I do work with more abstract imagery that’s more visually colorful, but the text stuff is the most direct. It’s about a very simple message, communicated in the simplest way.
The phrases are things that I hear in conversation. “I like it. What is it?” That’s something my wife says quite a lot. Things that are quite everyday, really, but when you make them into a poster and the typography’s very strong and bold, it seems to give them an importance.
Schmelzer: That’s an interesting statement—“I like it. What is it?”—it speaks, perhaps, to precognition: “I have this response to this, but I don’t know what it is yet.”
Burrill: Yeah, yeah. And it’s kind of a positive thing as well.
Schmelzer: An openness, a “yes” instead of a “no.”
Burrill: Seeing things and being open.
Schmelzer: You’re something of a soft talker, but some of these works—such as “Don’t Say Nothing”—can be interpreted as rather vocal and bold, as if they might be slogans for Occupy Wall Street or the women’s or black power movements. Have you seen your work interpreted differently from what you intended?
Burrill: Yeah. One of the early posters I made had the line, “It is OK for me to have everything I want.” And that was, obviously, kind of ironic, but it was taken the wrong way. People thought it was a positive consumerist message, when in actual fact it was the complete opposite of that. I think the irony was lost a bit.
Schmelzer: What’s the irony of that? That maybe what you want isn’t what everyone thinks you want: “I just want to be content.”
Burrill: Exactly. If everything you want is to live a simple life, well, you know, that’s okay. But I saw on blogs that people were sort of getting the wrong message, so I stopped making that one.
Schmelzer: How would you describe these lines? They’re not quite fortune cookie, because that’s too negative, but they’re sort of mantras for living.
Burrill: Some of them you could imagine being in a Hallmark greeting card. They almost have a religious feel to them, like the sort of posters you see outside of churches. On another level, they work in an interesting graphic design/typographic way as well. That’s kind of a secondary thing. It really is more about the messages.
Schmelzer: What about the technology? There’s definitely a nice old-world quality. The woodblock is an antiquated-seeming way of producing design.
Burrill: It was just a really happy accident that I live in a place where there’s an old print shop with all this old Victorian type. I think, in a way, it gives [the work] a charm—that if it were done a computer, it wouldn’t have the warmth. You can see that the type forms are quite worn and soft, and they have a kind of old-fashioned appearance.
Schmelzer: If you look around us in the exhibition gallery, we have a digital poster wall with QR codes, a robot-assisted drawing mechanism—all these kinds of technologies—then your work, which is in some ways antithetical to that. Is this a response to the advance of technology, or is it more that these messages are simple so the technology needs to be simple?
Burrill: Yeah, the messages and the technique go hand in hand.
Schmelzer: This wouldn’t work as a digital poster wall with QR codes?
Burrill: I don’t know. It’d feel different to me. I suppose I’m quite a traditional designer, really. But then the way the posters are disseminated via the web—I embrace all that side of things. I’m not a complete Luddite!
Schmelzer: That brings us back to Oil & Water Do Not Mix and the idea of things being disseminated far and wide on the Internet. It seems that if your message is a positive one about change or about people being more empowered or better humans, it’s good that it gets spread so widely. But do you ever feel like you want to say to those bloggers, “Hey, would you mind attaching my name to it?”
Burrill: I think it depends on which context it’s in. I’m quite happy for the work to go out and live its own life. The way people gather information now is so different to how it was even 10, 15 years ago. If they’re interested, it’s easy to find out who did it. The work has to stand up for itself in the whole mass of information that we get now. I’m quite relaxed about how people use it, really. But then if it gets appropriated for the wrong kinds of things, that’s weird as well. You have to be kind of relaxed about the whole thing.