Brian Roettinger on his design process, tendency to break rules and the advantage of books
Brian Roettinger is a two-time Grammy-nominated artist and graphic designer based in Los Angeles, from where he is a partner at Willo Perron & Associates and runs his own practice. He’s designed art books for Aaron Curry and Henry Taylor and cover art for JAY-Z and Marilyn Manson, winning Rolling Stone’s Album Designer of the Year award in 2009. We caught up with him for a quick chat about his approach.
EM What’s your first memory of design?
BR My dad’s vinyl collection.
EM How did it make you feel?
BR I re-organised them from my favourite to my least favourite. He could never find anything. I knew nothing about the music at that age, I was judging every album by its cover… I still kind of do.
EM What does your daily schedule look like? How do you juggle your time between W P & A and your personal projects?
BR At the moment we are all working from home. My days are a bit mundane. Video chat with the other designers to follow up on our projects, then work, I brew some tea for the day, eat, work some more, maybe take a break and spend some time outside. Get distracted by something online, work some more, then another video chat or two, then think about dinner and what I have to finish for the following day. Projects seem to never leave my headspace. Then I stretch and think about sleeping.
EM We’re intrigued by your ‘one minute per glyph’ type experiments on Instagram. What is the idea behind them?
BR The idea was to give myself a simple type challenge or exercise. The time restriction was so that I couldn’t make them feel too refined or finished. I don’t want to think about them for too long. No real adjusting or tweaking or further developing, just think, draw and move on. What happens within the given time is the end result. No more thinking about it. I’ve made around 20 or 30 of them and every time trying to approach it differently, it gets harder. I’ll probably make something with them at some point.
It’s always important for the designer to take a back seat to the content.
EM Why are books still an important medium for exhibiting art in our digital world?
BR I feel physical objects, tangible things that you can feel and hold will always be important because they are something that you can have an intimate experience with. Holding them, feeling the paper, the weight etc. It’s a more pleasurable way to read and see. Same with records.
EM Your approach to artbooks seems very much defined by the work of the artist, not a personal style. Do you agree?
BR With books, I feel it’s always important for the designer to take a back seat to the content. I like the book to work as a very nice container. Before I design anything I like to know what the book will include, the format and aspect ratio of images, the type of images.
I always start with: page size, paper, page count, binding and the material aspects of the book and how that will have a relationship to the work or even a relationship to the artist in a subtle way. My approach is very technically driven. I like to play with printing techniques, folding techniques, new materials, different papers, and ideas most printers tell you not to do. If a printer tells NO, I usually know I’m onto something new. Perhaps that’s one thing that’s more apparent in my books than a particular style. I am less interested in the books having a ‘style’ and more interested in them each having a unique voice, and feel conceptually driven and connected to the artist. The design should never get in the way of your thinking about the work or material you are looking at. I like when a book is about the artist or artists and not the design or designer.
EM How do you go about understanding the spirit of the artist before starting the design?
BR Like every project it all starts with a conversation, dialogue, more conversation, jokes, ridiculous concepts, bad ideas, ideas that have nothing to do with books, looking at their other books (if they have any) and talking about those. Every artist I have been lucky to work with has become a friend (sans Andy Warhol). I like when a book feels more genuine and has ideas that are less conventional, less expected. The work and the design should go hand-in-hand.