Cover designer interview with Heath Killen by Alexandra Savvides

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There’s a curious presence at work in this issue’s cover of Cyclic Defrost. Freelance graphic artist and designer Heath Killen is the gentleman behind its swirling, frenzied lines, wrapping around from front to back. It’s a cover that makes you want to pick it up, flip it around, get lost in the repeating, textured shapes, even if you’ve never encountered an issue of the magazine before. If that’s you – welcome.

Killen’s interest in design was piqued from an early age when he would look through his father’s collection of vinyl and VHS artwork. “I was always very intrigued by strong and unusual imagery. I would say my earliest and longest lasting influence is Storm Thorgerson, the man behind all the Pink Floyd covers. I actually emailed Storm a few years back when I decided to become a graphic designer, and he was very kind and encouraging.”

Newcastle is Killen’s home, and like so many creative forces in and around the city, he’s an active participant in Marcus Westbury’s Renew Newcastle scheme. His space is housed within a former surgery known as The Clinic, and while most of the surgical tools have been removed, he’s kept the odd accoutrement or two like the eye-chart letterbox in his room from which he took inspiration for The Clinic’s logo. His city is, in his eyes, “a place with so much potential but it just hasn’t been moving forward, so I’m very happy to be involved in something that’s trying to change that. I think that it really demonstrates the power of a grass roots movement, and that you don’t need a lot of money or power to make something important happen. Ultimately it is going to require the support of government and business to completely restore the place, but Renew Newcastle has definitely helped speed things up, and it’s drawn attention to just how bad things have gotten.”

It’s not just wide-ranging projects that appeal to Killen though; he’s got a number of other personal endeavours on the boil apart from ongoing freelance work. His zine, Field Recordings, is one, a collection of “orphaned ideas and experiments”, tied together thematically from the time in which it was created. “I intend to make each edition remarkably different from the last, and ideally each one will contain a theme or a mood from the block of time that it’s produced. I was in New York last month, so I’d say some of the first issue will reflect my experiences there. I suppose it’s sort of like a document of my ongoing process, and hopefully it will be compelling and entertaining for people. I plan on providing a free digital download from my site, and a published copy for a small fee.”

The other is Killen’s “fairly big top secret” project, The Society For The Preservation of Australian Secret Histories. “Basically the idea is that there’s this fictitious group of researchers who go around uncovering censored or lost events in Australian history, and bring them to light. All the uncovered historical events will have some component of art or design, which I will make and sell on the website.

“For example, the first event [for SPASH]that I intend to launch is about this desert dwelling, filmmaking cult from the 70’s. On the site I will be selling 13 posters from the films they made. These posters will be actual designs by me, but credited to someone else as historical artifacts in the context of the website.”

An undulating, Pop Art-esque frenzy of exploding colour and free-flowing lines defines this issue’s cover, with one of Killen’s signature hooks – his seamless use of typography. It’s used as illustration, he says, “functional, but it’s also decorative. It’s never an afterthought or something that needs to be added over the top, it’s always a consideration from the beginning, so the graphics and type are always designed to work together.

“I wanted to make something fun, something with a lot of energy and movement, and something quite psychedelic. As there’s not really a brief for the project, nor do I know what content’s going in, it’s really just about trying to make something that’s going to catch your eye and make you want to pick it up.”

Looking through a range of Killen’s previous work, texture plays a fairly large role in the design process, and the more obscure the source the better. “Lately I’ve become really attracted to blowing up 72dpi images and playing with all the ghostly artefacts that this process creates. A few years ago I would have been horrified of this idea because I liked my collages to be clean and precise. Now I try and work distorted pixels and digital grit into everything. I suppose it’s a reaction to all the spotless minimalist design that’s so common in the industry.”

You’d also be hard pressed to separate the role of music in Killen’s design practice; for him the two seem completely entwined, whether that’s through obsessively listening to an artist or album whilst creating a work, or basing a series around the relationship between sound and art. “Because I do a lot of my work at night, most of my playlists tend to be a mix of jazz and downtempo electronica. Lots of Underworld, Skalpel, Morphine, Depeche Mode and Miles Davis as well as stuff like Devastations and Pivot. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Nick Cave. I’ll kick things off with Abattoir Blues and then wind down with The Boatman’s Call. Music really affects my mood, and this in turn affects my work. It’s very important.”

The ‘Modernist Edition’ series of illustrations takes this link between music and design further, in an almost reductionist sense by distilling album covers to their bare essentials according to title. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea becomes a jet plane over swirling seas, drawn in simple line art set against a lime green background, while Mogwai’s Happy Songs For Happy People becomes a smiling face offset against yellow. “I have felt as though regard for the importance of design for music has been diminished. Most people (myself included) experience album art these days as a little square JPG on their computer, so we’ve gone from having a big gatefold vinyl sleeve, to a CD, to a bunch of pixels. The thing is, once you shrink down an artwork that’s been designed for a record sleeve to something that can fit on an iPod, it loses a lot of its impact. It becomes more of a tool for identification than a piece of art in its own right.”

The key to these pieces is that they are completely scalable. Killen comments, “the artwork itself essentially takes the album title and distills it down to a pictogram, a single and simple icon that can represent the album… It’s all just a bit of fun really – I think it would be a great way to do a re-issue series though.”

When it comes to designing cover art, Killen counts himself very lucky with the freedom he’s been given. “I think that trust comes from me really immersing myself in the project, and wanting to create something that everyone involved can be proud of. As with any project I work on, I get a number of ideas quite quickly, and throw them all into the mix. From there it’s a process of refinement, subtracting all the elements that are superfluous or just don’t work. Usually the best and strongest idea will start to emerge, and then it’s all about refining that idea until I start looking for things to add – at which point it’s time to stop! Like with most of my work, I really try to avoid anything too literal. I’m much more interested in finding a strong image, and trying to evoke a mood rather than is just a literal translation of album.”

He cites the ongoing collaboration between Stanley Donwood and Radiohead as one example of the organic development of album art and a visual representation of a band, and hopes to be involved in a long-term project like this in the future. “Design critic John O’Reilly talks about how cover art isn’t a translation, it’s more like a mask, and that musicians inhabit the visual imagery in the artwork. I really like this idea. I think album artwork is a very powerful tool – there are so many times I’ve been seduced by album artwork.”

More of Heath Killen’s work can be seen on his website, Made By Heath Killen. The SPASH can be found at http://thespash.com

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