Designers' Aesthetics

Lowdown - Interview

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Jeff Powell and Tom Muller are Designers. And they love comics. So guess what? We get better designs with our comics. And these gentlemen know exactly what they’re doing.

Jeff Powell has been working professionally in comics for over fifteen years as a letterer. A few years back he started putting together convention sketchbooks for artist Scott Wegener and eventually the trade paperbacks for Atomic Robo, and things progressed from there. He says “As far as breaking in, one of the best ways to get your foot in the door of any field is to take up an internship. Be persistent, keeping doing what you do and eventually people will take notice.”

Tom Muller got his first gig in comics with Ashley Wood. You’ve seen his design work in Viking, Comic Book Tatttoo, and DC’s Rise and Fall storyline. His advice to designers wanting to break into comics is this: “Do not dilute your work, keep at it, be honest to people (if something doesn't work, say so and don't beat about the bush) and seek out like-minded collaborators."

BROKEN FRONTIER: When jumping into a new project, what information do you guys need to develop a design for the book? Is it everything from Character Bibles from the writer to sketches from the artist, or is it just a couple of emails jumping around lining out what the other creators would like to see?

TOM MULLER: It’s usually a couple of emails (or IM) back and forth to get the job done. Usually I'll get a brief concept description along with some art to get the idea across to me of what the writer or editor is looking for (usually more a sense of atmosphere rather than concrete design ideas). Sometimes I'll get the whole book as reference or even just the title and go from there. You have to be flexible enough to work within those scenarios.

JEFF POWELL: It depends on the project. If I'm lettering a series that will eventually be collected into a trade, like Atomic Robo or Olympus, I tend to think about the trade design loosely while I'm working on the series. Most of the time I'm given carte blanche to do what I want within certain confines. For Marvel stuff, I'm given all the materials for the book—individual issues, covers, etc., and work from there. The editors usually indicate what they want me to use for the front and back covers, but other than that I'm given little direction.
I have a question for Tom. Being that you designed the logo/identity for Viking, why did you wind up changing it for the collected edition?

TM: When we came up to the cover for Viking # 5, Ivan needed it to say "SEASON FINALE." I did a few layouts before ending up with what’s now on the shelves, and while doing those mockups, Ivan mentioned he'd love it if we could push the boat out further on the covers for the next season/chapter in the series. I felt that the current logo/look had run its course (and I personally felt it had become too rigid/inflexible compared to Nic's awesome art) that I wanted to evolve the logo to something slightly more organic, rough and adaptable/scaleable—and most importantly something that packs a punch visually. So that’s how I came up with the new look for the collected edition. And that will be the logo/treatment that will be used and evolved for the next issues. It wasn't necessary per se to change it, but the collection presented an opportunity to raise the stakes.

BF: So, are there any personal or set rules you guys adhere to--your own guidelines, so to speak--when designing?  "Less is more," "Hit the reader between the eyes as fast as you can"....

JP: I usually try to devise the most complicated and time consuming design solutions I can.  Well, no, but that tends to happen more often than not. I try to design things that appeal to my personal aesthetic while at the same time complimenting whatever it is I'm working on. Personally, I like things that are simple, clean, clever and/or iconic. I try to satisfy the client and myself at the same time, which isn't always the case. Something that, if I saw it on a shelf somewhere, I'd think it was cool and would pique my interest. I'm a tough customer.

TM: When talking about designing for comics in particular I try to avoid anything that looks like comics and want to approach from a very graphic design-led perspective instead of designing what would look like an expected 'comic book logo' (so for starters I really avoid outlines and telescopic/beveled type at all costs). I try to inject modern design into the books and covers I design, something that fits the book, but also something that looks very different from anything else on the shelves.

JP: Logo design for comics largely depends on the book it's intended for. I think logos should be expressive and reflective of the content and give you an idea of what you're getting into right off the bat. A larger than life logo for a larger than life character (or story); a logo that could take a punch and return one twice as hard if necessary. At the same time, I'd love to work on something that would require a more understated design approach.

TM: You're 100% right. The logo should fit the book. When I was working on Comic Book Tattoo my first designs were (admittedly) out there, and I had to pull it back a bit to make sure it wouldn't alienate readers and play up more to expectations (as it was going to be quite a high profile book, we couldn't really afford to screw up).

But I agree totally with Jeff. I think my "problem" would be that too many times the same visual language is used and (comic) logos become interchangeable.

BF:  Does that mean you guys go straight for the logo before a book's design? I agree with the general feeling--a good logo makes me go straight for a book. With so many books nowadays, a clever logo will trim the fat on the shelves.

TM: Usually it starts with the logo, yes, because that is one of the main selling points off a book. Of course this being comics, of course great art is going to get a cover equally noticed, but when you're asked to 'brand' a book the logo is the starting point, and once the visual language for that has been established, everything else flows out of that. It’s just like magazine design. Go to any Borders and go stand in front of the magazines, you'll see how few cover designs there are that are different and leap out at you. 

JP: Yeah, a logo is usually a good springboard for the rest of the book's design. I wanted to make it out to my local comic shop to peruse the shelves and see what logos struck me before answering this question, but my schedule didn't allow for it. I do like a lot of Rian Hughes' work, most times without even knowing he worked on a title. I remember liking his New Mutants logo a lot. On the opposite end, I still like classic comic logos like the rocky Hulk logo and Steranko's X-Men logo. You can still see the influence of his work in today's X-title logo designs.

TM: I think the Steranko X-Men logo is a perfect example of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” Looking at Rian Hughes' portfolio you see he's done a lot of proposals to redesign it, but the end result is a refinement of the Steranko design instead of something completely new (the question is of course if that design is still relevant and/or it is a case of being apprehensive to update such a recognizable logo).

BF: What about books that have design elements throughout--not just the cover, not just the logo...? Asterios Polyp quickly comes to mind...Mazzucchelli's incredible ability to somehow purvey a seamless transition from the idea of "comic book" art to design. 

Do you think there's a growing market for these types of stories, these types of approaches?

TM: I'm certain there is a market for that type of book, but as we all know, a book like Asterios Polyp is (for now at least) the exception rather than the norm. Not that I want it to become the norm per se, but I do believe there is space in comics to experiment more and pull in design and art on a bigger scale.

JP: I think Asterios Polyp is an exception. The main characters are involved in art and design themselves; the book itself reflected just that. Not to mention that Mazzucchelli is just incredible at what he does. I definitely want a Radniks shirt, by the way. Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Adhouse (to name a few) publish some beautifully designed collections and original graphic novels by some exceptional creators.

TM: Agreed. Although I think there is--to me at least--a difference between designing a comic in the way Mazzuchelli did, which isn't necessarily graphic design, but a very informed and astute page/book design and a 'graphic' approach to art which straddles the boundaries between graphic art and graphic design. Having said that, his cover and type design for the book is brilliant.

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