A Dozen Questions for Mr Collison
Simon Collison is a designer, speaker, author and bon viveur with a passion for Victoriana and assorted miscellany. He lives and works in Nottingham.
A co-founder of Erskine Design, he recently left the company to pursue gainful employment in a freelance capacity. A regular public speaker at international design conferences, Colly, as he is affectionately known, has been invited to share his experience at events worldwide including: The Future of Web Design, DIBI and @Media.
A gentleman that stands by his word, it is a measure of his dedication, that he answered our - admittedly late - questions at 10,000 feet, somewhere over the Atlantic between Manchester and New York.
We asked Mr Collison a dozen questions.
Where did you learn your craft?
I needed a web site for my art stuff back in 2000, so I made one, and it was shit. Later my knowledge blossomed whilst employed at an agency for a few years. For the most part, I have worked my arse off way beyond the 9 to 5, year after year; learning, experimenting, reading, listening, playing. Later, I learned about the business side of things whilst building Erskine.
A lot of what I value comes from art school in the 90s. It’s one thing to learn how to use Photoshop or craft exemplary CSS, but designers need to know about the fundamentals - balance, composition, colour, patterns, textures, movement - and how to react to the real world.
Who inspires you?
Manic creative people who just have to get it out of their system. Take Nottingham’s own fashion designer Paul Smith. He takes influences from everywhere, scrapbooking the world he sees, appropriating all of this into his designs. His studio is a treasure trove; he’s like an excited child showing off the things he’s collected and is inspired by. A brilliant man.
Simple Scott; the man who designed Obama. Listening to him speak so passionately about his work, his belief, his motivation, the detail. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways, but I didn’t care.
It’s the ones who push the boundaries, look at things sideways, have artistic sensibilities. So, plenty of Jason Santa Maria, a bit of Brendan Dawes, and a sprinkle of my good friends Greg Wood and Malarkey. Lately, Trent Walton for his effortless design sensibilities. I often think that what the best people do is ignore a lot, and exploit a little.
What are your influences?
Art and design movements like Modernism, Futurism, Abstract expressionism; German and Russian design schools, Swiss design; painters and theorists like Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, Klee, Peter Lanyon, Richard Long, Olafur Eliasson. Modern design classics; Mini Coopers and bakelite goods, Peter Saville.
Popular culture. TV and film. Humour is a huge influence. Music — lots of music, all the time. Alt stuff, noisy melodic bands. New Order’s ‘Substance’ and ‘Technique’ albums (visually and aurally) made me want to be professionally creative.
The real world. I can’t stand looking at the internet for too long. Mountains, rivers, rain, buildings, tiny little details. Everything that happens above the shop fronts in our cities.
Your recently redesigned personal web site is a firm favourite of ours. There are clearly some Victorian influences in evidence, both visually and in tone of voice. What would be your favourite, hitherto unexploited, era to pillage for design inspiration?
Is anyone exploiting Neolithic? Cretacious? What about The Plague? One thing I like is that I do see quite a bit of stuff inspired by the Industrial Revolution, the idea of machines, foundries, letterpress etc., although I’m not sure the designers themselves are always aware of that influence.
Language is a fundamental component of the designer’s toolbox. Can you tell us a little bit about the role it plays in your process?
Some people fail to design with language at all, fail to think about words. I often go on about rhetoric, and using language to persuade, win an argument, perhaps at the expense of the facts. We can be incredibly creative with words, with intended and perceived meanings. We can play tricks, impress, amuse, disappoint, force emotional responses. I love all that. I’ll sometimes lose a whole day labouring over the infinite variations of one sentence.
One of the fundamental principles of Modernism is the importance of ‘truth to materials’; that the nature of the material shouldn’t be hidden and, equally importantly, shouldn’t pretend to be something it’s not. Can you see this principle applying to web design?
Absolutely. I think web designers have strong Modernist spirit. Think about how the architects of the 20s and 30s would marvel at the simple functionality of the water tower, its clean lines and honesty of construction. We’re like that, us web designers. We love the grid, we love rhythm, we produce very self-referential work at times, we ‘show our working’ as maths teachers would say. We admire our own building blocks and we’re not afraid to show them off.
Thinking about the materials we use, I guess it’s all about that Modernist view of the machine and mass production, and the need to avoid useless decoration. What we make is made of pixels, on a screen, actioned by chips and electricity. I, and many others, have enjoyed the fakery of web design, the pretend coffee stains, decaying stickers and labels, the websites made of masking tape and paper and so on. I actually love that collaged, hand-made approach, but so often it looks like it’s been cobbled together thoughtlessly, and I hate that.
I’m not suggesting we take the web into an austere and drab future, I’m just keen that when it comes to the motivation for our designs, we think twice about exactly what we’re trying to achieve. If it’s a handmade, nostalgic direction, then great, but why exactly? Why make a site look like it was made in 1874? For the sake of it, or because it’s sympathetic to the subject, and there is a well-considered, potentially exciting motive? Ultimately, people will do whatever they want. Like cats.
Your departure from Erskine Design was, to many, unexpected. You’re now operating in a freelance capacity, allowing you to rediscover your love of designing, writing and speaking. Do you ever see yourself returning to a company, or does the freelance lifestyle hold too strong an appeal?
So many people tell me it was a huge surprise, but if you’re not happy, you have to change something.
To directly answer the question: no, there’s as much chance of The Beatles reforming as there is me employing even one person in the future. I’m always interested in short-term collaborations and partnerships, but chiefly I’m settling for a simpler, more focused, liberated life now, and can’t imagine compromising that for anything. I’ve got my mojo back.
You’re just back from FOWD London where you took the stage to predict the future. Can you give those readers unable to attend a brief summary of the state of web design in 2012?
I found the topic of the FOWD presentation difficult, so I decided to suggest my own personal view of the future I might like to see.
The essence was that I feel we are at a super-congested, very busy phase of web design right now, with so much going on, so many new things to try and cram into our work. So, I was banging on about how we’ll begin to simplify, reduce, and distill. How we’ll perhaps think about relaying meaning with less, be more economical.
We have an opportunity to throw out all the crap, and move forward only with what we need. For decades, new industries have appeared, blazed forward without thinking, misappropriating and stealing ideas, only to forget everything that previous industries learned. For example, it’s not simply about learning from print design, it’s about learning from the mistakes made in print design.
You drive a 1977 Datsun 120Y. Is it good for picking up chicks?
The Datsun is not really an effective chick magnet, which is a shame. Well, maybe a few have fallen under its spell.
Mainly, it tends to attract taxi drivers. For the previous generation of Asian immigrants, the Datsun was the car of choice, so I find taxi drivers start talking to me at traffic lights, shouting about how their Dad had a 120Y, and they sometimes offer me money for it on the spot, or follow me home.
Most rusted away in the 80s, so you never see them any more, thus mine gets people talking wherever I go. People are easily pleased. It’s shiny black and chrome, and therefore an absolute bastard to keep clean.
What’s your favourite typeface?
Being a fan of all things modernist, I love the good, honest everyday-jobbing grotesques. So, classics like Akzidenz Grotesk, and lately I discovered Founders Grotesk (especially the Bold in uppercase), which I want to use in the new book somehow.
I don’t have an all-time favourite. Horses for courses. Other typefaces I use often in my work are Clarendon, Trade Gothic, Franklin Gothic, plus good old Georgia. Oh, and Times on my site, though I’m first in a queue of one on that.
What’s your favourite plain text editor?
TextMate. I’ve been persuaded to try numerous things since, but I’ll stick with Textmate, thanks very much.
What’s your favourite tea?
I recently discovered that caffeine was making me ill, and there’s loads of it in tea. I feel better without it. So, for the past two months I’ve fallen back in love with fruity blends, and any minty teas. I’m also partial to some good old Russian Caravan. I’m on a plane to the US right now, and I can tell you that I have a bag of Strawberry and Mango teabags in the hold; looks like a bag of drugs.