After Hours: setting problems, rules and limits

The After Hours exhibition at the Jerwood Space on London’s Bankside is a diverse compendium of personal projects from graphic designers working without a client or a brief. But are there any common threads to be found?

The After Hours exhibition at the Jerwood Space on London’s Bankside is a diverse compendium of personal projects from graphic designers working without a client or a brief. But are there any common threads to be found?

Running until June 23, After Hours is curated by Nick Eagleton of The Partners. The exhibits in the show are deliberately diverse – driftwood sculptures, clocks, chess boards, flags, films, prints, wardrobes and remote control drawing machines – the idea being to celebrate the variety rather than imposing a single narrative.

But there are inevitably some common themes that come up when you look at the work, and which arguably keep it closer to ‘design’ than ‘art’, or at least give a clue that the people behind it come from a design background. Perhaps the main one is this sense that, in the absence of a prescriptive brief, many designers tend to create their own.

This is literally the case with Michael Johnson‘s Arkitypo project, which sprang from a relationship with Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication. They approached johnson banks suggesting they’d like to do something to showcase their 3D prototyping skills.

Johnson explains what happened next: “Once we’d had the initial thought of using 26 different letters, our first explorations were, well, just a bit weak,” he says. “There seemed to be no genuine substance to it – it was just 3D prettification.

“But then we worked out how to tell stories within each letter (where a letterform came from, how it came about, why it existed). So we’d created a limitation that made the idea stronger.”

This instinctive aversion to “prettification” and tendency to gravitate towards rules and structure is arguably a classic designer trait. According to Johnson, “We’re so used to limitations that we build them in when they’re not there.”

Jim Sutherland of hat-trick design has a self-confessed obsession with rules. One of his exhibits is Deck (above), a set of typographic playing cards developed from an idea he sketched out while on holiday.

“I started doodling a few ideas,” he says. “Very quickly, I found it necessary to lay down a few rules. No repeated typefaces. No redrawing of typefaces. It’s the rules that bring the whole thing into focus.”

Another of Sutherland’s exhibits is an ongoing project called 8×8, exploring the the different configurations that are possible if you rearrange the 64 squares on a chessboard (example shown, above): a case of exploring the creative possibilities within tightly defined limits.

Although superficially miles apart, it’s not dissimilar in spirit to Found Folk – a series of driftwood sculptures by Phil Carter of Carter Wong, and one of the exhibition’s highlights. Like Sutherland’s 64 squares, it’s the prescribed nature of the source material that defines the project. Each sculpture is shaped by whatever the tides happen to throw up.

Carter says he never consciously imposed any parameters on the project, but some have naturally evolved.

“Nearly all the figures are made entirely from found pieces from the same place of origin, because it feels more authentic that way,” says Carter. “What is really noticeable is the variations in colour in different parts of the world – beachcombing on a Greek island or Malta yields much more colourful finds than the drab colours of UK beaches and rivers.”

When it comes to painting the pieces, Carter has similarly inclined towards authenticity, leaving most of the pieces untouched by brushes, although he has recently taken to using a blowtorch on some to give a blackened finish. “It tends to unite the parts into a whole.”

That said, Carter sees all these projects as being mainly about creative release rather than limitation – finding a medium and a language, then letting yourself go.

For him, the medium is wooden sculptures, but it could equally be the joyful letterpress creations of Alan Kitching (above), the delicate screenprints of Alex Swatridge (below), or the mesmerising comic-book illustrations of Robert Ball (below).

Other projects here spring from the enforced limitations of daily life. Journeys to work are a particularly fruitful area for designers.

Steve Royle’s Antigraffiti project (above) arose from countless train journeys last year, where he observed the concerted efforts to cover up trackside graffiti as the Olympics approached. He began to wonder if the roller paint itself could become a kind of language, communicating something despite itself.

Royle explains: “I think a lot of designers are interested in the idea of subversion, or turning things on their head. It becomes a habit of thought, so you find yourself doing it even in idle moments.”

When designers aren’t creating their own limits, they’re often looking for problems to solve. And you don’t need a client or a brief to find a problem – they’re everywhere.

David Azurdia’s ABC Rule is a simple 30cm ruler (below) adapted to contain standard paper sizes – an answer to hours of head-scratching beside the cutting mat.

Fellow contributor Ben Christie produced For a Rainy Day (above) – a money box where the slots double as raindrops – while Jamie Ellul goes for a similar play on a proverb with Time is Money (below).

In the latter two cases, there’s not exactly a problem being solved, but there is a distinctive strain of graphic wit in evidence.

Christie describes it as “a graphic designer’s approach to product design – I like the idea of making people smile with everyday objects.”

This sense of playfulness runs throughout this exhibition – from Craig Oldham‘s philosophical flags (above) to Jack Renwick‘s moth-eaten wardrobe (below), which turned a wardrobe crisis into a chance to celebrate the beauty of moths.

At first sight, this playfulness might seem to contradict that whole obsession with rules, limits and problems. But games need rules, and you have to agree them before you can start playing.

The whole thing is summed up in Joe Phillips’ Remote Drawing (below): a large canvas laid out on the floor, with adapted remote control cars that you direct in order to make drawings.

Phillips says the idea behind the project is to “force people to draw in unconventional and almost ridiculous ways – it removes the pressure that can be felt with drawing, and frees people from their usual inhibitions.” It’s a project about the liberating power of limitations.

Problem-solving, an obsession with rules, a liking for subversion and witty ideas. It’s possible to overstate these as common threads in all the work – you will find many of the same traits in pure ‘art’ projects.

But they are undeniably there, and it gives the exhibition an extra appeal that you don’t always find with art shows. There are ideas to ‘get’, messages to ponder, things to smile at, hooks that draw you into the work.

Anthony Burrill’s wall piece (see top of post) is the presiding spirit of the exhibition, with its larger-than-life message: ‘I like it. What is it?’ Whether it’s design or art, it’s worth visiting the Jerwood Space before 23 June to see for yourself.

Nick Asbury is an exhibitor in After Hours with ‘Pentone’ (Twitter edition shown, above) – an artificial system for dividing language into different tones of voice, with several rules of its own. He is a freelance writer and one half of Asbury & Asbury.

After Hours continues at the Jerwood Space until 23 June.

Pink Floyd fans may recognise the cover of our June issue. It’s the original marked-up artwork for Dark Side of the Moon: one of a number of treasures from the archive of design studio Hipgnosis featured in the issue, along with an interview with Aubrey Powell, co-founder of Hipgnosis with the late, great Storm Thorgerson. Elsewhere in the issue we take a first look at The Purple Book: Symbolism and Sensuality in Contemporary Illustration, hear from the curators of a fascinating new V&A show conceived as a ‘walk-in book’ plus we have all the regular debate and analysis on the world of visual communications.

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