Freelance State of Mind: Embracing serendipity

Freelance illustrator Ben Tallon on how an accident proved to be the inspiration to embrace mistakes and experimentation in his work.

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Turning as my phone displays an incoming call, my low hanging elbow clips the top of the lidless Windsor and Newton bottle of ink. With the cap clenched between my teeth, the ink pen taking my right hand out of the equation and my left hand at a positional disadvantage the bottle hits the desk. Black ink glugs out of the neck and all over my pristine white keyboard and editing desk.

Then the strangest thing happens. I’ve half committed to the first step of a desperate bolt for the bathroom to get tissue when I stop dead. From the corner of my eye, I see something morbidly attractive in this tiny catastrophe and I turn on my heel, almost falling backwards before grabbing my camera from the shelf and documenting the scene.

I’ve grown obsessed with the mistake

I’ve grown obsessed with the mistake, the beauty and originality in imperfections and the revelations they bring. My artistic style has grown to become unfinished, raw, unapologetic mark making and that love has taken giant steps forward in recent weeks thanks to the spillage.

“I can’t leave it perfect. I have to throw something off grid. That’s Felix in me, I have to just break it a little,” says a creative director friend of mine, detailing the influence former boss Felix Dennis had on his work whilst working for the publishing maverick. That comment stayed with me, passed down a generation despite having the misfortune of never meeting the man personally.

One week later, Confronted by the strikingly chaotic visual identity for the inaugural D&AD festival, created by The Beautiful Meme, president Andy Sandoz explains how the type came back very readable and functionally accurate. “I love what they did with this. They really nailed the opportunity, but I sent it back and asked them to fuck it up a little bit. I find when something is perfect and makes sense to the eye, it can fail to retain our attention,” he says on my ‘Arrest All Mimics’ podcast.

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As an illustrator with an eye for design, I have no technical typographic skills of my own, but a heightened appreciation of clinical and clean graphic design since it’s way beyond my skill set. But I get excited by disruptive ideas, breaking rules through either a considered decision or a reckless disregard, leading boldly with instinctive unknowns no matter how subtle or brazen.

Later in the festival, Grand Budapest Hotel production designer Annie Atkins explains how cult director Wes Anderson on multiple occasions asked her to discard polished edits on both the kerning of the film poster’s typography and the spelling on packaging prop designs.

It’s his aesthetic trademark and the embodiment of all of Anderson’s highly acclaimed movies. The idea that if it had been made right, it would instantly be so wrong has changed everything for me.

The ink spillage was the lighting of the fuse and D&AD festival happened to be the resultant boom inside my head. Too much control can lead to frustration but playful experimentation can unlock results. We need more of the industry wide disruptive thinking that inspired me to write my dissertation on Ken Garland, Blek Le Rat, Jonathan Barnbrook and other graphic activists.

It’s not the designers’ fault

Every day I see movie posters and mainstream album covers that aid the sleep of the tube cattle they target when they could be invigorating them. It’s not the designers’ fault, more the mass marketing parameters when trying to please everyone, all of the time; the very moment innovation dies.

Advertising, according to Andy Sandoz, is in a state of flux, which is not distinctly good or bad, but needs to be pushed in a direction where new ideas are informed by our abundant exposure to technology. He asks me, ‘where is the punk?’ He has a point.

Doing simply what we already know and what we’re asked does not produce groundbreaking content and while we can’t just tell our clients that we’re doing what we want, there is certainly more room for collective risk and taking responsibility for shaping the future, fighting to implement fresh ideas and not just repeating the formula to prop up the economy.

Who knows how many years it might have taken to have the idea that the ink spillage inspired? My appreciation of the pioneers willing to do things wrong in order to get it right gifted me the vision to see the beauty in calamity and reminded me of my need, no, responsibility to keep rolling the dice to take things forward.


Ben Tallon is an illustrator, art-director and author of Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries. He also hosts visual arts podcast Arrest All Mimics.

You can follow him on Twitter at @bentallon and see his portfolio at bentallon.com.

You can read his Freelance State of Mind columns at www.designweek.co.uk/freelance-state-of-mind.

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