From Page to Screen

Designers on collaboration: Elwyn Murray

I recently hosted a panel at the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne, discussing the ways designers collaborate with writers/publishers. The panel was lively and we ran out of time before getting to some of the more challenging questions.

I have asked some of the designers on the panel to respond to these lingering questions, and will post them over the coming weeks. First off the block is Melbourne-based artist and graphic designer Elwyn Murray who has designed for magazines The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks and Dude Magazine.

A selection of Elwyn Murray’s covers for Voiceworks magazine. Elwyn Murray
Elwyn’s covers for Voiceworks magazine. Elwyn Murray

On your website you describe your practice as “walking the nebulous line between art and design.” Who draws that line between art and design – is it something you have defined through your own practice, or something you feel imposed on you by others?

An etching (on a mirror) from Reflecting Surfaces, at Counihan Gallery, Brunswick, Melbourne, June 28–July 21 2013. Elwyn Murray

It’s definitely a self-imposed division, but also a logical one. My art-practice is a process of personal self-interrogation, the outcome of which is wholly self-defined. Bringing this process to a design project has never felt appropriate or practical. As a designer I’m also sensitive of the importance of context and personal branding.

Initially, my fledgling art-practice commingled with design portfolio work on my website. But the presence of one distracted from the other, it was confusing. Was I an artist or a designer? Separating my design and art practice was essential in creating the right context for those different bodies of works to be perceived.

The division between art and design is perhaps less a line than it is a venn diagram. Look at the area of photography art-books, where book functions as art object, not as monograph or exhibition catalogue. The photographs are the artworks, but the designed object is also the artwork.

Elwyn Murray’s graphic design work for The Lifted Brow. Elwyn Murray

Most artists work alone, but publication designers never do – collaboration is an inherent part of the process, starting from a brief commissioned by a publisher or editor. In your publication design work for _The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks and Dude Magazine, how have you collaborated with publishers, editors and writers? After the initial brief, how much input do they have in your creative process?_

It varies, depending on the working relationship. I’m fortunate to have worked with some amazing editors who have entrusted me with a lot of freedom, while at the same time reigning me in.

Working on The Lifted Brow was a constant collaboration with the editor, as the content and structure was always shifting. The editor at the time, Ronnie Scott, was an idea juggernaut. Every issue there was some new section, article form​at​ or feature requiring a creative solution to make cohesive with the current layout. We would discuss and sketch out how these ideas would work together, both of us bringing formats and treatments to the table. The process was very organic and collaborative.

In the case of Voiceworks, the structure of the magazine changed less radically from issue to issue and the design process was more autonomous. The design was detailed verbally and then executed with only slight modifications from the initial concepts.

Elwyn’s process drafts (four smaller images) and final cover (right) for a novella published by Hologram in April 2014. Elwyn Murray

Sometimes in the design process, we receive feedback or critique on our work that is hard to take. This can be as unhelpfully blunt as “I don’t like it”, or as unhelpfully vague as “it’s interesting but I’m not sure it’s working yet”. How do you deal with feedback from the publisher/editor that is unhelpful or confusing?

Asking questions, hopefully the right ones is the best way to find a solution. Doing this over email is a lot more difficult than in person, reading non-verbal cues and teasing out the feedback into a dialogue is invaluable in reaching a mutually agreed solution. You can justify your decisions, but it’s only effective if you understand where the critique is coming from. Sometimes it’s merely aesthetic preferences, but other times you may just be way off the mark.

Describe your ideal collaboration.

I would love to work on a publication where all the involved parties share the same physical space. Having access to the writer, publisher and printer/binder during the design process would allow for a totally organic process. The best collaborative relationships I’ve had are with people who are casually accessible in real-time. It makes the process more transparent, and as a result everyone has an feeling of ownership over the final product.