Like most channels of popular culture, graphic design is a scavenger of ideas and material. The visual landscape is crammed full of references pointing in all sorts of directions, often simultaneously.
The same thing happens in pop music, perhaps the ultimate forager of styles. Building on the widespread use of sampling in the 1980s, the borrowing and stealing of material has reached a new level over the past few years with the emergence of mash-ups – a technique in which whole elements of songs are combined and overlaid to create a new, composite track.
Design and music are kith and kin, of course, so it’s no surprise that an analogous trend has bubbled up in graphics, fuelled by the viral interactions of the Internet. A series of design mash-ups has seen the style of one medium combined or overlaid with content from somewhere else. Imagine a film or record title reconceived as a vintage book cover.
It all seems to have started in January, when freelance graphic designer Olly Moss created a Flickr group called Make Something Cool Everyday. On here, Moss posted his designs for classic videogame titles, restyled as if drawn by Saul Bass for 1960s Penguin. Translating each game’s core element into a single graphic illustration, Moss produced a series of six ‘covers’ for titles including Half- Life, Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto IV. ‘I went to a Design Museum exhibition which showed some Penguin book designs and thought I’d like to do something with that,’ says Moss. ‘Video games often have this fairly naff design behind them, so I decided to appropriate the great design history of Penguin, but also to rethink the graphic, to come up with a neat way of capturing the game.’
Earlier reworkings of film posters by Moss had already inspired Ohio-based freelance designer Mitch Ansara (aka Spacesick) to create his I Can Read Movies series. Again influenced by Bass, as well as Paul Rand, Ansara posted his ‘vintage movie books’ – one per day – to the same Flickr group. With similar two-colour graphic interpretations of films including Highlander and Face/Off, his book covers sit neatly alongside Moss’s ‘Penguin’ video games.
‘In January, I made a 1960s-style Space Jam book cover as a oneoff joke. But I thought it was a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it, so I continued. Fast-forward a month or so and all kinds of talented folks were doing vintage book covers of all kinds of things: video games, music albums, other books, vintage album covers for movies, vintage breakfast cereal boxes for albums – you name it,’ says Ansara.
The idea of distilling a title into a graphic icon is taken a step further in the Modernist Editions, a series of album-covers-as-pictograms created by Heath Killen, director of Australian design group Illumination Ink. As a reflection on the future of album art, Killen’s approach is not a mash-up and avoids appropriation. ‘Everyday signage is a big inspiration and pictograms in general – everything from road signs to dingbats. But I’m not really interested in pastiche and I like to think that these designs stand up without a reference point,’ he says.
Back in the UK, Littlepixel Design director Huw Gwilliam turned directly to pastiche after seeing Ansara’s I Can Read Movies series. His mash-ups of classic album covers imitate an offset, two- or threecolour print process to reference classic Pelican books, where the original album artwork is overlaid on a dog-eared jacket. ‘I spent a lot of time getting the typography right – a special form of Akzidenz Grotesk – and tried to make it look like it was photoset and distressed,’ he says.
As the meme spread, many similar ‘reimaginings’ have followed, some more accomplished than others. But for Moss the trend has more or less run its course. ‘I feel it would be derivative to work on it any more,’ he says. Nonetheless, just as music evolves through remixing and sampling, other designers will no doubt continue to take from the takers, scavenging, adding and reinventing all the way.