We got to grips with the brilliantly creative and unmistakably modern work of this London graphic artist.
Everything changes. We all have to adapt. As technology continues to advance and become an increasingly ruling presence in our lives, so the means we are exposed to information is altered. What James Kirkup accomplishes with astonishing vigour is utilising an impressive number of contemporary media outlets as a means of expressing his own brand of digital art.
Be it through the mode of branding, designing visual identity, or simply having fun with visual ideas; working at London’s internationally respected design agency Poke as a freelance graphic artist, or simply having fun in his spare time, Kirkup finds a way to pour his own creative energy liberally over anything sporting his name. Drawing information from across the board and reproducing it in his own distinctive, contemporary style, this is an artist with his finger strapped to the pulse.
His portfolio displays a clear eye for the element of simplicity and immediacy so key to effective branding. Sleek, subtle and immediately arresting, it’s very rare to see it done well. Yet despite establishing a clear affinity with creating brand identities, Kirkup seems loath to sit still in any one role. Flipping between positions and tasks with freedom, it seems impossible to imagine James settling for any kind of restriction.
Some of his most striking work comes when working alongside musicians. Take a project for one of the most important British bands of the modern era, Metronomy, creating artwork for a pair of concerts this past March. Over the course of two posters, James manages to say, with remarkable subtlety, a huge amount about the band, their image and sound with a striking keyboard motif designed for an NY show and a sublimely interworked mesh of Eiffel Towers creating a near Aztec print for the corresponding Paris gig. Equally, his European tour poster design for Australian synth-pop leading lights Cut Copy boasts a design stark in its basic symmetry, hinting at a tribal or hieroglyphic pattern while remaining confidently modern and effortlessly iconic.
The auspicious commission to take control of photographic direction and design for singles from Bloc Party and Ellie Goulding added serious international respectability and clout to an already bloody impressive portfolio. It’s a range of musical projects which juggles the Main Stage (Justice, the aforementioned hefty names) with more low key, up-and-coming acts (Young Lagoon, Stay+, Outfit). As James acknowledges, these smaller acts not only allow him to build his name alongside respected artists, but also to display his work on the cover of a song or tour poster which may, one day, be viewed as seminal.
Also taking in perfectly on-trend clothing design (see his work alongside 1ina100, which took classical oil paintings and reinterpreted them through the medium of a contemporary logo), devising his own music and design magazine Fragment – now a more all-encompassing media brand – and poster work for Corsica Studios’ über on it club night Off Modern; this is a creative restlessness which Crack benefitted from when James designed one of our most memorable middle-page posters to date. And from there we had no hesitation in welcoming this phenomenal young talent to be our latest featured artist.
You appear to keep very much on your toes creatively, with a wide range of projects and ways of expressing yourself. Do you consider it important to remain as versatile and open-minded as possible?
Yeah, I find myself falling into different types of projects all the time, I get too excited about being involved. Keeping busy is really essential though, and keeps you fresh and excited to get working each day. I just fit in the sleep thing some other time.
So therefore how would you define what it is you do? Is there an overarching title you feel comfortable with?
I’d say I’m a Graphic Designer as although I get involved with a wide range of projects, that’s essentially what I bring to the table. I liked the whole term ‘Creative’ before I started working in a larger studio and it meant something completely different, so Graphic Designer it is.
Obviously you’ve worked with a range of different musicians, has there been any act which has been a particularly big deal to you?
In my opinion any chance I get to create something that represents another artist’s work, whether it be a record cover or identity, is a huge deal. However, this year so far, working for Metronomy was right at the top for me. I’m a real big fan of their releases and knowing they already had such an outstanding artwork in place for The English Riviera, it made me really want to come up with the goods and raise the bar.
Does it matter to you whether or not you’re into the music you’re representing?
Fortunately I think nearly everything I’ve worked on in recent years I’ve liked – maybe one or two things I haven’t been completely blown away by, but yeah, I’d say it’s important. Of course I’d like to believe I could do great design work whatever the project, but when you’re into what you’re working on you get a real sense of excitement, and that helps you strive to make sure it’s the best you can produce.
Is it important to have both more mainstream acts like Metronomy and Bloc Party and smaller, hipper artists like Youth Lagoon in your portfolio?
I’m not sure you can pick and choose until you’ve reached some form of ‘status’ within our industry. Without getting your teeth into the less established musicians, you’re certainly not going to get any closer to working with the bigger acts, or ones of your choice. Working with smaller acts can sometimes be much more rewarding too. For instance, working on the Outfit 7” last year with Double Denim could well turn out to be a really important piece of work – those lads certainly aren’t getting any smaller.
When working for larger brands in your work for Poke, have you ever felt restricted or confined by a brief? Do boundaries and set concepts help you to thrive, or do you enjoy working with more freedom?
Working within any agency environment comes with certain creative restrictions, on every project. Sometimes they can really hold you back and attempt to destroy that high level of design you’re trying to set down, but it’s always exciting to beat them or work a way round them. I try to keep the mindset of; bring on the restrictions, it’d be boring if we always got our own way all the time – but sticking to that thought can be pretty difficult.
Much of your work really stands out for its simplicity; what is it that elevates such simple branding to give it authority and strength?
My work tends to stick to the classic rule of less is more (the Dieter Rams philosophy), most of the time. A piece of good graphic design work, as much as it needs to look nice and fancy, needs to do its job most importantly. If you can get that rule in your head when you’re working on things, you can’t go too far wrong.
Even though Digital Art and much of what you do is such a decidedly modern practice, do you believe there is still plenty to learn by looking back in time?
Absolutely. Classic graphic design heroes such as Wim Crouwel, Saul Bass, Paul Rand, Rob Janoff, Peter Saville, Paula Scher to name just a few, have such an enormous bible of work that as a practitioner you cannot ignore them. It’s vital for me to look at as much new design work as I possibly can and over the last few years talents like Matt Maitland and Jasper Goodall always reach a level that impresses. But design from the past is still what inspires me to better myself way more than the new.
What was the story behind the Fragment publication and what were you hoping to achieve with that?
The plan was pretty basic when we started it up. I had a huge urge to design for newsprint after getting sucked into the argument of the future of how we digest news. The whole concept was to produce a really nice little paper as a one off, with potential to expand later on. We worked hard and got some really good content, interviews, features, and just made it how we wanted. There was a lot we hadn’t delved into like distribution and how we were going to afford it all, but we managed somehow to pull it off. We then had a masterplan for a second issue but as we refused to include advertising we very quickly became scared of the project possibly killing us. Fragment now developed quite far from its original format and runs as a club night around London and as an umbrella brand for other experiments for myself and friends outside of work.
Having worked extensively on establishing brands and identities, it must be thrilling to begin a brand from scratch and have the freedom to apply everything you’ve learned however you see fit?
Yeah, it’s always really excited to get started on new branding work. Seeing the final product in use is far more rewarding than you can imagine. It’s a really important part of our field and being good at it takes years of consistently good work, so every new identity project is important to me.
Readers may be familiar with the centre page poster you designed for Crack last year, what can you tell us about the process and the thinking behind that piece?
That piece was a lot of fun to work on. I was allowed complete freedom to go a bit wild and try out some new ideas which was great. It’s always nice to have something like that to just take you away from your more structured work.
Your 1ina100 collaboration saw you incorporating elements of classic oil painting into modern t- shirt design; what is it about that which appeals to you, and what lends it to being reused/recreated in the way you did?
I’m no fine art quiz master, but I got into it a little at college, studied it and – to no personal surprise – hated learning about it. I just loved the enormous paintings you see hanging up in galleries, their ‘epicness’ and the depth of colour they can achieve. I’ve also got a little thing for big old war ship paintings … I can’t really explain this one, they just look fucking cool. Smashing that style with quite a harsh, bulky graphic was something I had been working on for a few months, and when the collaboration came in I just thought it’d work perfectly in that format.
What do you have to take into account when designing for clothing?
For me it’s all about personal buying preference. I’m always questioning myself on whether I’d wear and buy the design myself, and being quite picky this can make for a pretty slow process. The manufacturing and tailoring of the clothing should always be the highest priority. There’s nothing worse than a shirt that has lost its shape after a wash, and reaching that quality elevates the print or graphic being featured.
You’ve been described as a ‘one man news source’, constantly ingesting information for inspiration. Are you the kind of person who would still be able to work if left alone in a room alone, or do you need to feed off other sources to be creative?
Put me in my own space any day. I’m much more into relying on myself, but working with the right people is also important to me. You can learn so much in design teams, not just technical aspects of how to design but vital design etiquette.
Are there any specific, reliable resources that you turn to for inspiration? Any websites, or particular artists, musicians or films etc …?
I’d say publications are probably a bigger tool for me. Not specifically design publications, just any printed matter that’s well designed. There’s some really important publications that I’ve either discovered through friends or natural hoarding that together have formed an essential library in my house. Go out and spend all your money on good publications, you won’t regret it. Bar that though, online I’d say DesignInspiration.net and Twitter have a big impact on discovering new influences and designers. Then the top 5 blog network of It’s Nice That, Creative Review, FormFiftyFive, Brand New and AisleOne.
You show a love of discussing and studying design as well as practicing it. Do you think being an artist of your ilk requires one to have a thorough understanding and a love for the medium?
If you love what you’re doing then I reckon you kind of just fall into constant discussion and discovery. That whole passion thing doesn’t really give you an option most of the time. If you plan, like me, to be doing this for the rest of your life then constantly gaining knowledge within your field is essential.
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Words: Geraint Davies