“I hope to make people think” – Interview with Anthony Burrill
Graphic artist, print-maker and designer Anthony Burrill combines a knack for simplicity that packs a punch with analogue craft skills and positive messages. Anthony is known for his persuasive, up-beat style of communication. He likes to ask questions rather than give the answers, and always looks for a powerful connection with the audience. Burrill’s practice is the longstanding passion for creativity and a natural curiosity about the world and the people in it.
Tell us about projects which kick-started your career. How has your approach to your work changed over time?
I studied for an MA at the Royal College of Art in London and graduated in 1991. During my time there I experimented with lots of different media and approaches to making work. I particularly enjoyed the audio-visual department where I made a tape and slide animation during a workshop. It was the first time I’d used animation or worked with sound. The piece was produced using an array of 35mm slide projectors linked together using rudimentary software. It was extremely basic and produced a clunky effect that was charming in its simplicity. The piece was shown as part of my end-of-year exhibition and was spotted by Peter Dougherty, who was the creative director of MTV Europe. Peter commissioned me to produce on-air idents for the channel. The brief was wide open, I just had to fill air time with my own brand of weird imagery. That first commission led on to more work for MTV, which in turn led to more work in advertising.
My approach has evolved over the past thirty years as I have gained experience and a deeper understating of myself and how I wish to communicate with others and what I want to say. When I started out I was keen to work on anything for anybody, I said yes to everything and enjoyed the ups and downs of freelance life. As my work has become more established I’ve been able to navigate my way through the commercial world, taking care to only accept commissions from clients I’m happy to be associated with.
So, what originally made you want to become a graphic designer?
Like many other designers of my generation, I was obsessed with record sleeve design as a teenager. I would sit for hours in my bedroom listening to music and studying the sleeve designs of my favorite bands. I’d spend time drawing logos on my schoolbooks. That’s where my early interest in visual culture comes from. That potent combination of music and visuals sparked my imagination and inspired me to study art. When I arrived at art school I felt like I’d found my ’tribe’, everyone had their own way of making art, it was exciting to be part of.
Which are the main hurdles in creative work?
The main hurdle is having enough time in the day to do everything I want to do. I try not to work such long hours and mix up my weekly routine. Some days I spend alone in my studio focused on a particular project. Other days I’ll work at the screen-print workshop where I produce my prints. And then other days I’ll take time off to visit an exhibition or spend time with friends. I’ve never worked with assistants, I prefer to have solitary time in the studio to focus on the work.
What do you personally find fulfilling and nourishing in your practice?
My aim is to make work that connects with as many people as possible. When I see my work being enjoyed by people it gives me a good feeling. I use simple phrases and amplify their message and meaning. I like seeing my work out in the world doing what it’s supposed to do. I hope to make people think and maybe uncover something inside them that they didn’t know was there. My life experience has given me insights into how I think and deal with other people. I believe those interactions are common with lots of other people and that’s the stuff I want to talk about. What is it that connects us and how can we lead fulfill decretive lives.
Your education was in the pre-digital era, does it mean that you tend to use more analog tools or mix digital with the analogue mindset?
It’s true I was taught in pre-computer times, many years ago! It’s hard to imagine how we got by without access to all the tools we take for granted now. The closest I got to anything hi-tech was using a black and white photocopier in the college library. Everything I produced was hand-made, cut out and stuck together with glue. I was an expert in setting type using photocopied type specimens. My visual language developed through this lack of technology and DIY approach. I still use this approach to produce my work, even though I have access to the same digital tools as everybody else. I set myself boundaries to work in, choosing simple forms of production and using minimal visual means to communicate my message.
Do you start the design process with sketches or directly on screen? How important is the software you use?
I think about ideas in my head long before I start to sketch anything out. My most productive time is when I’m reflecting on an idea and developing my initial thoughts. I respond quickly to an opportunity, and try to protect my first instinctive thought. I try hard not to overthink an idea and overlay too many thoughts. If an idea is good you can communicate it very quickly in just a few sentences. I like people to understand my work instantly and grasp the meaning. I don’t really think about the software I use, it’s a means to an end. I keep that side of things extremely simple.
What’s the secret of a great poster? How do you see its future?
The secret is to communicate your message successfully, no matter what that message is. The way that you do that depends on what you want to say and how you want to say it. Think about who you are talking to and how they will respond to your idea. I hope posters are still going to be around for a while longer. They’re a direct way of getting your message across that reaches a wide audience. I think their power has been magnified by social media and how they are shared. I’m a fan of posters, I like to make them and I like to look at them.
How do you feel when you see your inspirational aphorisms blowing up the audience?
I feel that I’ve done my job well. I hope the message has been communicated well and that it makes sense to the audience. I’m always looking for that kind of powerful connection.
Is there a mission you want to accomplish with your work? And do you feel some certain responsibility while translating ideas through your art?
I think I am on some kind of a mission where everything I do links together to tell one story. I’m relating my life experience and talking about how I live my life. The quotes I use to refer to insights I’ve had from situations I’ve been in. I make a kind of positive propaganda that describes a way of living that engages with the world we live in and how to make sense of what’s going on. I like to ask questions rather than give any answers.
Are there some books that had an influence on the process of practiсing your skills?
I love books and collect them for inspiration and the pure pleasure of owning beautiful things. I also collect artists’ books and publications, I find them hugely inspiring. On my bookshelf at the moment are catalogs of work by Allen Ruppersberg, a book of photographs by Nick Waplington titled ‘Anaglypta’ and a book of text work by Stefan Marx. When I look at work by other artists and designers I’m always excited by the possibility of different means of expression. I respond to work that doesn’t fill in all the gaps with an explanation. I like some mystery and room for interpretation to develop.
You are pushing your traditional discipline into bold new territories by collaborating with other creatives across media like music, architecture, education and more. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on more screen-prints and planning an exhibition in London later this year. I’m working on a number of archive projects, looking back at my previous work and connecting it with the current work I’m making. I’m hoping that the end of the pandemic will bring new optimism and opportunities for new connections and collaborations.
What are you passionate about besides your work?
I find film to be the most enjoyable medium. My favorite thing to do is settle down in the local cinema and enjoy a good movie. I love to be transported away into a different way of thinking and being by the cinema.
Anthony Burrill is one of our key speakers at Forward Festival Berlin on June16th – 17th, where he will explain his approach to making design valuable.