Callum Abbott on "egalitarian" design, the age of the internet and his striking speculative practice
From architecture to anamorphic blobs: we speak to Callum about his many creative outlets, each as thoughtful and questioning as the last.
- Harry Bennett
- 11 November 2020
Unexpectedly, Glaswegian graphic designer Callum Abbott first went to Edinburgh College of Art to study architecture. Only completing his first year there, he moved on to graphic design in favour of something “more free and faster paced” and firmly rooted in contemporary concerns rather than the “really tiresome and frustrating” drawn out processes he found in architecture. “Even though I knew graphics was the right thing for me, I still found university pretty uninspiring and hard to engage with,” Callum explains, leaving one year before graduating. Although leaving Edinburgh College of Art without a degree, Callum tells us he did leave with one huge takeaway, suggesting “the really cool and talented people I met there who are by far the most valuable resource at any art school”.
Attracted to design’s “egalitarian” nature, Callum still admires the level playing field that design programmes offer, telling us “you can have the exact same technological capabilities as the most decorated, elite designers,” he explains, suggesting that “the only thing between you and them is time to master the tools, and ideas”. It comes as no surprise that he labels himself as being “a huge internet addict” whilst growing up, naming Tumblr as a significant part of his creative awakening. “I became obsessed with the PC music movement and the hyper-digital and satirical,” – inspiration that becomes abundantly transparent in his exciting and speculative work.
Now living and working in London, Callum's personal and professional practice seems to straddle illustration, graphic and typographic design, whilst keeping the individual disciplines separate from one another. “I had never really considered illustration when I was studying, and think I underestimated how hard it can be,” he remarks, “it is a very fine balance between creating things that look good, but also communicate ideas well.” This underestimation led Callum down a path towards “a trendy aesthetic,” whereby he found himself sacrificing any actual function of illustration in favour of “communicating the themes of the article,” instead plastering his work “amorphous blobs,” 3D bevels and ecstatic neon colour palettes. Constantly researching and continually developing his style, Callum believes he’s at a healthier place where he more greatly respects this balance between function and theme.
“My day job at Dazed is really very illustrative,” Callum explains, “we make digital collages and images under fast time pressure with limited source material,” which despite sounding restrictive, is quite the opposite – having almost totally creative freedom in their appearance. The system in place at Dazed is a rare and wonderful platform for creative growth, working on projects such as Jake Hall’s exploration of gay incels and creating bespoke runes and symbols inspired by the “increasingly shareable aesthetics of astrology,” that unfortunately went unused. That being said, however, the system is quite typographically limiting. “We have one typeface: Univers,” which is used across all of their digital and printed ephemera Callum notes. “It’s a great, classic typeface, but there are limitations to how much you can do with it,” leaving Callum to satisfy his typographic cravings through the striking and frolicsome type-led exploration of his personal practice.
Dancing between the digital and physical space in the construction of his typefaces, beginning with sketches before a digitisation, the charm of Callum’s work is the balance he finds between the two and the thoughtful thematic consideration he imbues into them. This is incredibly apparent in Callum’s typeface Forgotten Memories, which he describes as “largely useless”. Inspired by semi-illegible medieval letterforms, Callum contrasted this with the rounded boxes of SMS texts that are fairly unacknowledged but immediately recognisably in the digital realm we interact with. “I love to work on things that feel culturally relevant and timely; that’s why I love my job at Dazed,” Callum tells us, “because the writers and everyone else there have their fingers firmly on the pulse” in their constant reconnaissance into “exposing the most interesting parts of our culture.”
Similarly in a recent personal project, Callum has been reinterpreting the articles and images of Wikipedia entries into speculative magazine spreads, telling us “Wikipedia is an incredible resource, and I want to honour it,” doing so by removing it’s “utilitarian setting.” If you are willing to trawl through the plethora of images, Callum explains that “there are some incredible images on there...and it's free to all to access!” In his rejigging of cultural expectation Callum creates an immediately personal interpretation of “the most universally available material”.
This project seems significantly emblematic of the aesthetic and conceptual components within Callum’s practice, which sees him succinctly simplifying contemporary digital western culture into intelligently crude distillations that seem to highlight the absurdity of what we do, where we live, what we consume and what we own. “My visual language is a combination of esoteric symbols and digital crystals,” Callum explains, reappropriating “corporate icons with nostalgic sunsets and iPhones and emojis,” subverting digital language alongside traditional spiritual and religious motifs resulting in a bizarre and uncomfortable summary of “the internet era.”
With a totally unapologetic and intellectual youthfulness, Callum questions the generally accepted structures at play in society, asking why they are how they are and how they exist in the context of an increasingly technologically developed world. “Last week, I saw a sign outside a church near my flat offering Zoom Sunday service, and I just thought, wow, who would have ever thought that would happen?” he remarks, comparing the spirituality of established religions with the spirituality of the internet. “I think it's the perception of anonymity and privacy,” Callum suggests, “that allows us to ask questions that we might never be able to in real life.”
With lots more exciting and challenging projects in the works, from more typefaces including his own blackletter inspired font, as well as further drawings and paintings of iPhones, Callum has one simple and salient quest — “I want to break into graphic design TikTok, I’ve seen some videos starting to creep up on my feed, and I think it might be the new frontier.”
Callum Abbott: Drugs in 2020 (© Callum Abbott, Dazed 2020)
About the Author
After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. He nows works as a freelance writer and designer, and is one half of Studio Ground Floor.