Integrating Design into the Narrative: An Interview with Rian Hughes

Photo: Steve Cook

Rian Hughes is an Eisner-nominated graphic designer, author, illustrator, comic artist and typographer.

He has published two novels, XX and The Black Locomotive. He has also written graphic novels, the first of which was The Science Service.

Rian has worked for British and American advertising, music and comic book industries, and has designed several logos, including ones for James Bond, the X-Men, Superman and The Avengers.

He is a prolific creator of typefaces.

Talking About Books interviewed him about his work and how he creates his novels.

TAB: XX is an unusual book, and vast in its scope. What made you write it and what was its germinating idea?

RH: I had the idea—some years ago now, maybe over 25 years ago—that it must be possible to produce a book that uses the wider range of graphic design ideas to tell a story. Fonts, layout, point size, etc.—a kind of narrative design.

TAB: One of the things I loved about XX is the array of elements you use: Wikipedia pages, journal articles, emails, a short story from a magazine, and even an album that the reader can listen to. How did you manage to bring all of these together to form a coherent whole?

RH: Attention to detail, and a lot of tweaking—it went through 14 major iterations, each with edits and reordered sections. I took out around 350 pages of a sub-plot so that I wouldn’t go over the 1,000-page mark, but it’s still a chunky book, and I’m probably still taxing my reader’s patience.

TAB: The use of fonts is central to your books. In XX, you use different fonts for some of the characters, and in The Black Locomotive, the font changes with the point of view. What led you to use this device? Did you design the fonts especially for these books? 

RH: Some of the fonts I did design, others I used because they had a specific period flavour—London’s POV in The Black Locomotive uses Johnston Railway, the classic Underground font, for example. Fonts have a “tone of voice”, so it seemed like an obvious idea, one I’ll probably find out has been done before.

TAB: The Black Locomotive reads like a love letter to London, both to the city itself and its complex layers of history. The narrative is interspersed with diagrams and photographs of urban spaces and their components. Why did you choose to focus on—and almost anthropomorphize—London?

RH: London has a character and a history like any flesh-and-blood person, but London’s character is syncretic—it’s developed over centuries and been guided by many different people, all without a pre-existing body plan, and will continue to evolve. Rutherford, the artist, is fascinated by its spaces and textures, and dreams of becoming one with London—and in the end he achieves something very close.

TAB: One of the things I enjoyed about The Black Locomotive is the way older technologies come to the rescue when a power outage brings down the newer ones. Do you think that, in our world, there is room for older technologies? Are we losing something important by consigning them to the scrapheap?

RH: It was a device to mirror the major themes in the book—a last hurrah for childhood, a simpler age saving a more sophisticated but perhaps less robust age. There will always be the “keepers of the flame” of old technology, even recent computer technology. Progress is inevitable, but there is still a beauty and elegance to be appreciated in an obsolete machinery, the push and pull of wheel and piston.

TAB: Your books are beautifully designed. It feels as if every page is thought through, whether it is the way you use type or artwork. How do you create these books? Do you write the story first and then add the elements, or does it all take shape as you go?

RH: I type directly into InDesign, in the font I intended to use, so I can see how it appears as I go. This helps me get into character for each POV.  It’s not written in Courier, double spaced, then formatted later, which made life very difficult for the proof-readers and editors.

TAB: You have been involved in comic books for many years. How have they changed over time? Is the format taken more seriously now?

RH: There are definitely newer generations of talent coming up for whom the medium has always been diverse, both stylistically and content-wise. I think it’s been part of pop culture for decades now, so it’s almost mainstream. The Marvel movies are top grossers, many comic heroes are widely recognized, and non-superhero fare is also crossing over.

TAB: You have had a varied and interesting career: typographer, comic book artist, logo designer, author. Could you share with us how you began your career?

RH: Using my father’s Letraset to decorate my matchbox cars and schoolbooks.

TAB: What advice would you give a writer starting out?

RH: I am a writer starting out myself, and I’ve no idea if my experience should be taken as a good example. I’d imagine writing a first novel of almost 1,000 pages using experimental typography, then handing it to an agent or publisher as a finished object is not the way to go. I hear you’re supposed to write just one chapter then provide a synopsis of the rest, all in a specific font and layout. But my approach here suited this project—I needed to make it to see it. And I hope that that physicality would also sell it. Which I’m very grateful that it did.

TAB: I love your books and the way you use type and design to tell a story. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Looking forward to seeing what you do next!

Read my reviews of XX: A Novel, Graphic and The Black Locomotive.

Go to Rian Hughes’s website.

2 thoughts on “Integrating Design into the Narrative: An Interview with Rian Hughes

  1. Pingback: The Black Locomotive: Rian Hughes – Talking About Books

  2. Pingback: XX—A Novel, Graphic: Rian Hughes – Talking About Books

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