"It comes out of that whole thing of trying to communicate. It doesn't have to be complicated." Anthony Burrill tells Graeme Aymer of the joys of simplicity, hard work and being nice to people
After studying graphic design at Leeds Polytechnic, Anthony Burrill received an MA in Graphic Design from the Royal College of Art in London. He created classic work for clients including London Underground, The Economist and Hans Brinker Hotel, before relocating to the village of Wittersham in Kent, where he discovered that a local printer, Adams of Rye, had preserved its old letterpress machines. Together, they have produced a large body of simple message posters that have caught the world's imagination.
Computer Arts: Tell us about your upcoming Outline Editions exhibition in June; 'Clear Your Head Every Day.'
Anthony Burrill: Outline Editions is one of the old record shops on Berwick Street [London] near the market. It's a shop that I used to go in to buy records back in the day. I've worked on the design with Michael Marriott. I do lots of collaborations with Michael. We're stretching wires across the ceiling and hanging printed drapes - like gingham fabric that's got a geometric repeat pattern on every sheet. Berwick Street is known for its fabric shops, so we wanted to make reference to that.
CA: You do a lot with Outline Editions. How did this relationship come about?
AB: Throughout my career so far, it's just been about building relationships with people, I suppose; like-minded people. It's just a nice space to put some work in. It's what I've been doing a lot of recently. I don't tend to work with clients anymore. I tend to just produce my own work and sell it through various places.
CA: Why do you think that is?
AB: Two years ago I had an exhibition at 'Mother' (the advertising agency) with Michael Marriott and we built this big wooden tower. It made me want to do more of that kind of stuff and it made me think that there's a whole other world of work out there. Previously I'd been doing advertising campaigns and you kind of just get a bit bored of it.
CA: What else have you got coming up?
AB: Some friends of mine have just formed this thing called 'Graphic Design And'. It's an event at the Design Museum. It's kind of evolved, teaming graphic designers with non-designers; so they put me with Alain de Botton. I've always been interested in his work. We did these posters. It's great to work with an actual philosopher.
CA: What was that relationship like?
AB: He's really nice. To be working with somebody like him - it's great. He's got this thing called the School of Life, and so I'm going to be doing some stuff with them. It makes it feel real - that you're doing something that's crossing over, getting out of graphic design and reaching out to more people.
CA: Much of your work has a sense of a 'big idea' behind it. Is that something that's always been with you?
AB: Yeah. I've always been interested in things on the edges, rather than on the mainstream. I come from that kind of Northern working class, really. I went to art college, but I thought, you've got to earn a living. But then I think, if you've got something to say you can use all the tools of graphic design.
CA: When did you first know that you wanted to be a graphic designer?
AB: I think it was through music and record sleeves. I always talk about Kraftwerk and that whole mystique, and the whole acid house thing. I used to go to [Manchester nightclub] the Ha§ienda. Recently I've been working with Ben Kelly, so it's amazing that all those years ago I was this sort of long-haired raver; now I'm working with someone who was involved in the whole Factory thing.
CA: The simplicity of your work is very striking. Is there a reason why you've adopted that style?
AB: My upbringing was quite simple and my mum was really super tidy all the time. So all the rooms were just really empty. I like to keep things really simple. The less things you have, the less things to go wrong. I think that sums it all up.
CA: Is it the case that you always try to use only two colours, very occasionally three and never four?
AB: Yeah. There would have to be a good reason. There's all this new stuff now for the [Outline Editions] show. There are three colours. I think after that anything else is unnecessary.
CA: Outline Editions has referred to you as a 'master sloganeer'. Do you see yourself that way?
AB: I don't know. 'Work Hard & Be Nice To People' came out - that was in 2004 - and it's become quite iconic I suppose. I made this collection of images where it's been spotted. There an image with David Cameron as well!
CA: What makes a good, catchy message, and what makes it a good graphic idea?
AB: Adams [of Rye] only have a certain amount of typefaces. I know all the sizes, so I can work out how everything's going to fit on the page. I jot them down in my sketchbook as you would expect. I tend to have phrases in my head. They have to have some kind of force behind them, and be kind of positive as well.
CA: What's your working relationship with Adams of Rye like?
AB: They're completely fantastic. They've got this amazing resource. I think when I first went in they hadn't made a big poster like that for 10 years. They got the old type out and printed it all off. It's developed slowly. We're just like friends now, and they're really cool.
CA: Have you ever thought of scanning the woodblock letters into Photoshop and just creating the posters that way?
AB: It has to be real. Part of the quality of the posters is that they're printed. Sometimes they're a bit manky. We do chuck the really bad ones out!
CA: How much do you use computers?
AB: I sit behind a computer all day. You kind of try not to make it run the idea. For most projects, the computer helps the communicating and works things out quickly. But the manufacturing and building things out of wood - that's when I think it gets interesting.
CA: Would you say that you're inspired by limitation?
AB: Yeah. I think so. I kind of have a system of rules, like not using more than three colours unless it's 100 per cent necessary. I think that because I trained traditionally - when I was at college I didn't know anyone who had a computer, so everything was still done by hand - I still have that kind of aesthetic. I use Illustrator and Photoshop, but I only use the most basic bits of them. I suppose a lot of it is thinking about production and use of materials.
CA: Do you think your work would be different if you were still in London?
AB: I think I'd still be doing the same thing, but being down here definitely gives you that space and different references. It's peaceful; you can just think. I'm a really sociable person, but I also like being alone.
CA: How does your creative approach differ when it comes to your motion video work and installations?
AB: It's all quite collaborative. It's a lot of friends I went to college with, like my friend Malcolm Goldie. When you have exhibitions, it's kind of good to work with other people so you can get to that next level. There's only so much you can do in your own head. It's important to work with people whose work you're into.
CA: Is working with people you admire the secret to a good collaboration?
AB: Yeah. Working with people who are better than you can make a good collaboration, too. You get a bit of a leg up, a little bit of reflective glory!
CA: How do you judge someone to be better than you?
AB: It's just people who you think are at a higher level than you.
CA: So how do you approach your solo work, such as your exhibitions?
AB: I work on lots of things at the same time, three or four projects, and you're kind of going from project to project. Sometimes things are a lot more conceptual and other times it's more instant. I suppose it's a lot like the 'Oil & Water' project. The agency in Brussels got in touch with me on the Tuesday afternoon, and they said: "We're going to Louisiana on the Sunday. Can you design a poster for us to print?"
CA: How does it feel to be part of something like that?
AB: It was huge, and so was the way that social media kind of launched it. It was a big deal. I think it's all about simplicity. Oil and water do not mix. It comes out of that whole thing of trying to communicate. It doesn't have to be complicated.