“If you read a comic for the comic itself, or listen to music for the music, why can’t we have graphic design that’s the thing in and of itself, the reason you pick it up in the first place?” posits Rian Hughes. Since the mid-80s, the prolific graphic designer, illustrator and typographer has carved a hugely successful career largely in the comics industry, designing logos and covers for DC Comics and Marvel, books for Titan, magazines Revolver and Speakeasy, not to mention branding for Cartoon Network and Hasbro, in many cases doing everything from illustration to bespoke typography. Now he’s releasing his first novel – though he has published several books spanning logo design, font creation and comics – and is aiming to bend the genre by experimenting with storytelling from a designer’s perspective. Importantly, though, this is not design for designers’ sake, he adds. “I wanted to create something that would appeal to the general public, not just design aficionados.”
The book tells a tale not simply through words, but via the design devices used to display those words, approaching storytelling from a creative’s perspective. “As a graphic designer, I’ve always been aware that we are often just a service industry – we dress up someone else’s content, rather than create the content ourselves. Having worked as a comic book artist and writer where you are very much an author, this freedom is hard to forget.
“That’s the starting point: if this idea of ‘authored design’ requires the designer to come up with the content themselves, and not simply dress someone else’s content, what should it be? I didn’t want another exercise in meaningless mark-making – there’s already too much of that around – but something where the expressive range of type, design, layout and image are all used in the service of an extended narrative,” he says. “A ‘novel, graphic’, was the awkward phrase I came up with to describe it.”
So for example the novel’s protagonist, XX, speaks in a “shouty declarative style… he’s read too many Futurist manifestos and looks like a cross between Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill and a Wyndam Lewis self-portrait,” Hughes describes. To convey this, the designer splashed one of his key statements across a double page spread in a Futurist-inspired typeface. On another layout, lines of text overlap vertically and horizontally, visualising a segment where AI experts at a tech start-up are mapping an extraterrestrial signal.
In another segment, The 19th Count – a character representing the spirit of a “genteel and aristocratic age” – ruminates on the power of ideas, communicated through words set in Victorian wood type. Elsewhere negative space is applied in shapes within body text; this is meant to depict the missing regions in the extraterrestrial signal, which show up on the page as “crystal-like blank intrusions” Hughes explains.
At its core, the story explores how symbols and language encode ideas, and so in the novel Hughes introduces a new alphabet that is “completely alien, that our protagonists have to decipher. This gave me the opportunity to digress into such themes as icons, mathematics, memes, and even how consciousness might work,” he adds.
Hughes has gone to immense detail to build the world his novel depicts. In the book, the characters not only try to decipher the extraterrestrial signal they’ve discovered, but they also make art and music out of it. One fictitious album by a made-up band called Celestial Mechanic is reviewed in the story, and this album has now been created in reality – here it is on Bandcamp – with cover artwork by Hughes. He also makes reference to an eight-part serial called Ascension written by 60s counterculture guru Herschel Teague, who claimed to have contact with aliens, and designs and illustrates a set of book covers for these in the novel’s endpapers.
Elsewhere he experiments further with fonts and symbols, using lettershapes and styles to communicate certain aspects of the narrative, “like a tone of voice, or a historical reference,” he says. Hughes says he came up with “dozens of entirely alien orthographies,” including a species of sentient beetle who can change the pattern of spots on their body, and imagined “what might their written language look like,” as well as how a dolphin alphabet might appear. This article barely scratches the surface of what Hughes has delved into, and he’s hoping his impossible-to-pigeonhole approach encourages other designers to do the same. “There are lots of frustrated graphic designers out there with great ideas, so I’m hoping it might catch on.”
XX: A Novel, Graphic by Rian Hughes is out today published by Picador and Overlook Press.