Darren McPherson: Passionate about the process

It’s the little details that get designer and art director Darren McPherson out of bed in the morning. We catch up with him in New York

Darren McPherson is pretty busy these days. When we arrive to meet him in a bustling New York Starbucks, the Sydney-born designer and art director is already there, working on his laptop. He’s balancing five huge web projects, he tells us: “One of them I built completely myself, which is almost done, and one of them I built half myself just to get it finished quicker. But I’m trying not to build as much now,” he laughs. “It’s just a matter of finding the right people.”

McPherson’s work isn’t always so web-focused: he’s designed everything from books and magazines to a monument for Times Square – the latter of which saw him tackling a terrifyingly open-ended brief during a stint at boutique advertising and design firm Doyle Partners. “It was very intimidating to be told to design a monument and that it could be absolutely anything,” he recalls. “The ideation phase of this went through so many rounds. There were so many crazy ideas.”

McPherson collaborated with Will Miller, Nick Adam, Ohn Ho, Firebelly Design and Co-Prosperity Sphere on the Typeforce 2 catalogue. The blue sections represent the motivation behind the show; full-colour printing signifies the substance; and red was used to represent the experience. To create a sense of interaction and ownership, a hand-affixed perforated tear seal was applied to the cover so that each copy was picked up intact

The final design isn’t due to be installed until 2015 so, for now, the details are under wraps. “It’s going to take a hell of a long time,” he says. “I swear every little square foot of Times Square is owned by a different organisation – it’s insane.”

McPherson’s career has taken him around the world, from his native Sydney to Hong Kong, Chicago and, most recently, New York, where he’s been busy notching up an impressive client list ranging from the likes of The New York Times, Glamour magazine and Jaguar to smaller start-up companies, such as sustainable event venue Greenhouseloft. As McPherson explains, it’s about a client’s passion – not its size: “I’m more concerned with working with people who are invested in their cause. The smaller organisations can be a bit more fun in general, and I get to begin some great client relationships and friendships,” he says.

“I always do a ton of strategy and consulting with start-ups, since I don’t consider myself to be just a visual guy. I like to be involved in the success of the brand from start to finish, which includes everything from social media strategy to product design, marketing, copywriting and improving the idea before all else.”

Typeforce 1 title wall. “Will Miller, the creative director, and I worked on the project in our own time,” says McPherson. “When I saw the artwork on the walls I was blown away.”

Since going full-time freelance back in May 2012 he’s been increasingly calling on his coding skills, but typography is his first love: “Growing up, I was heavily surrounded by graffiti art,” he explains. “I tend to obsess over things: I was obsessing over free-writing my name and learning whole alphabets, because I could never stick to a single name. Then I was doing it in Hong Kong when I finished high school. At the same time I was learning Mandarin – I was learning how to re-work the structure of sentences and just getting so much more in-depth with language in general. It all added to my love of type in the long run.”

It was a dream project, then, when McPherson was recently asked to redesign the logo of a major magazine – the results of which are due to be rolled out later in 2013. Working closely with Doyle Partners’ creative director Steven Doyle, he was able to indulge his obsession for the tiny details, spending “days and days” slightly tweaking the shape of the words. “People couldn’t really tell what I was doing, but I was having the time of my life,” he laughs.

McPherson worked closely with Will Miller again to create the title wall for Typeforce 2. “I made 550 or so hand-rolled paper tubes. It taught me a lot about patience,” he laughs

The pair merged Torrino with some of the humanist characteristics of Modern MT, endlessly squeezing, cutting and extending each letterform, all the while testing for consistency and effectiveness on the newsstand. “We were discovering the influence of all these different kinds of serifs and shapes – when looking at the whole title, subtle changes have a big impact in the overall mood. Working with Steven was good. He’s a type genius and it was a hell of a learning experience for me.”

The problem-solving aspect of design resonates particularly strongly with McPherson. For him, working up a concept and having input from the outset is “incredible” to be part of. And he’s as passionate about the process as he is the end result: every step is as significant as the completed piece – which is why he started documenting each stage of a new project. “When I first got into the industry I’d get frustrated that people would only see the final result,” he says. “So I began recording every sketch and step of notes.”

In the latter half of 2012 McPherson worked with Steven Doyle on the logo redesign for a major magazine – which is due to be rolled out this year. “This was part of the process of one of the letterforms,” he explains. “I’d push and pull, cut things off, redraw it and make it more consistent. It was intense.”

Eventually he intends to split his portfolio into two, with half dedicated to the process and half to the end result. He’s also created timelapse videos of some of his projects using sketches and screengrabs taken from each stage. “I’ve got 200,000 or 300,000 grabs though, so who knows when I’ll have time to finish it,” he laughs. “I love it. My artboards tend to go in a spiral pattern as the project progresses. It’s good to see the parts that I obsessed over too much – I’ve learned from it.”

Another dream project for McPherson was his campaign design work for the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival, which he worked on at Firebelly Design in his first full-time designer job straight out of college. Briefed to reinvent the Canadian music festival, he worked with Firebelly creative director Will Miller and a small team to create a split typographic image and pattern layout, which was applied across the system from the posters to the program, a 48-page booklet, signage, website, app design, TV spot and more.

Website design for New York-based salon Three Squares Studio. “Most of the stylists are doing work for many of the major fashion titles, led by Jordan Blackmore,” McPherson says. “So the site took on a high-fashion feel, with a bit of extra life in the form of subtle roughness and texture via the type choices, gritty gradients and woodgrain pattern in places. The studio’s full of raw wood panelling, so it felt right.”

“We were really inspired by Paula Scher’s work with the public theatre,” he recalls. “It’s very spontaneous, energetic type. We took a nod from that and put together this design that was relatively versatile in terms of format and balance between elements,” he explains.

“Will was working on a program at the same time as I worked on all of the posters and then we would swap, take notes and find a middle ground. He’s incredible and has pretty much made it my goal to have the influence on someone else through my career that he’s had on mine. He’s a huge inspiration who’s supported and pushed me from day one.”

The idea of influence is key to McPherson’s perspective as a designer – be it music he might have listened to while designing, one stage of the creative process on another, or any one of the inspiring people he’s driven by every day. “If the only thing we do in our lifetimes as designers is inspire the next ones to come, then it was worth it,” he explains.

Life as a freelancer in New York isn’t always easy though. “A few months back a developer dropped the ball on a project,” he says. “I worked all week 9am until about 4am and finished it with a straight 17-hour day. At one point I thought I’d gone blind – luckily once the migraine came I was able to see enough to finish.”

For the 25th anniversary of the Saskatchewan jazz festival, McPherson worked with Will Miller and a small design team to reinvent its branding, pushing it in a much more energetic direction. But the project wasn’t without its challenges: “Every artist came from a different promoter so there was a lot of difference in the quality of photos,” he says. To achieve consistency across the identity, the team added a strobing texture and “blew the photos out a bit”.

He continues: “The goal is to continue freelancing until I have the cash to hire someone else and start a real studio. Or, possibly begin backpacking and working out of coffee shops along the way,” he laughs. “Either way, the one thing I need to figure out still is balance, but I’m getting better at it. If I can handle that, I’m returning to my personal projects. I feel incredibly inspired.”

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