Where does your inspiration come from? My Interview with Vaughan Oliver

Vaughan Oliver is an award-winning, legendary graphic designer, artist, and author of several books, including Exhibition/Exposition and This Rimy River.

James Grady
6 min readApr 3, 2018
Vaughan Oliver workshop RISD: James Grady, Camila Afanador, and Milan Nedved

James Grady: I had this revelation, and it was through my daughter, Joy, and all of these different things going on at once. Then reflecting back on the workshop I had with you where I felt really liberated, and I wasn’t forcing a conceptual narrative or social policy on what design should do instead of designing and letting the design influence me. That was the shift in my thesis, and that’s where it is now. It’s really about the everyday — I’m equating the everyday with my surroundings and asking what is observed with these surroundings? I wanted to know where inspiration comes from in your work? Does it come from your surroundings, or does it come from another place?

Vaughan Oliver: Well it’s going to be a mixture of both. I get inspired by high art and high culture. Exhibitions inspire me. Documentaries on art, and documentaries on politics inspire me, that kind of feedback of information. But I can be just as inspired by a walk across the park, and seeing somebody interact with somebody else, or interact with his dog. Being a graphic designer, I might get inspired by new posters that are put up in the park or old posters that have decayed. There are two maps in my park about the park and the local surroundings that have been totally washed out with time. They’re fairly modern maps — they might go back twenty years. They are on metal. All of the information that was on there and that withstood time in full color is being washed out and it’s almost like an old engraving — well, what’s left. I still haven’t used that in my work yet, but that touches me.

It’s that kind of thing. I think I was kind of inspired hugely by my tutor at college thirty years ago [Terry Dowling]. He used to work in the same space as us. I was very inspired, and I think I told you guys that you have a studio environment, and that is so rare in the U.K. now. You have your books in there, you have your bikes in there, you have things to inspire you, and that’s good. On top of that I used to have my tutor’s work on the wall, which I never understood. He would put on the wall pieces of packaging from Chinese noodle packets, which he got at the Chinese supermarket, which was very exotic thirty years ago in the north of England. And simple crisps packets. When he’d come to visit me, he’d be walking along the street and then just pick up discarded sweet wrappers among other things. Things, which would appear to be rubbish to anybody else, and he’s apologizing for it. So I said, Terry, you were teaching that to us thirty years ago. It’s all around you. In a sense, I think this is what somebody said. For inspiration you don’t have to look far, you just have to look closely. I think that is really a simple observation. If you look closely and hard enough, it’s right there.

JG: I totally believe in that as well, and sometimes it seems over simplistic to feel that way.

VO: You’ve got to be brave enough to go with it.

JG: I think those are things that I am learning through this process, to follow my instincts and not be afraid to not always have the answer or the theoretical backing, or the precedence of where certain things have come from.

VO: Or where they’re going to. You don’t have to have the final solution, and that shouldn’t stop you from accumulating inspiration or ways of seeing. It’s an accumulative effect really. You might see this, or you might see that. It’s a moment in time. It’s a change of light. It’s about just being observant.

Ways of seeing and appreciating what happens with the change of time, with the change of season, with the change of light. Which I suppose is training you to think in an artist’s way. I almost remember the penny dropping on one or two occasions realizing, this is a great view in front of me, and it’s down to light. It’s not going to be like this everyday. It’s down to this real moment in time that illuminates things for you. Does that make sense?

JG: Absolutely. That’s a good segue into another question. It’s about the observation, but it’s also about the transformation, which is something that I really admire in your work. This transformation, where does it come from? In my work I feel it comes from my surroundings, but then it’s transformed into something else. I’m in a class now called, “Betwixt & Between,” and it’s really about the in-between space. There’s a lot of talk about liminality, which is neither here nor there. It’s this threshold place.

VO: That’s great! You’ve just given me a title for my next exhibition — Neither here nor there.

JG: Nice! The work that you create has really inspired my work; sometimes it’s hard to describe your work. It’s not that it’s so abstract; it comes from someplace. It’s not so abstract that it doesn’t mean anything, but it really oscillates between reality and this other place. Just like the project we worked on, the thirteenth month, which was a fictitious month where anything could happen; it could represent anything, it really frees you. It puts you in this space that I think a lot of graphic designers are afraid of because they can’t quantify it.

VO: That’s right. I find it difficult to go further than that. You know you’ve kind of intellectualized that very well for me. Again I struggle to quantify it. In a similar sort of way people have commented and said to me, You’re really brave highlighting that, going for that. You’re a free person. You seem free from the intellectual quantifying of things. It just is. Not sure where to go from that to be honest.

JG: When you look at your work after you’ve gone through the process and edited it down, when you’re looking at it, is it amazing you, or bewildering you when you look back at the work? How do you edit?

VO: I suppose that’s where intuition comes in. It might seem an airy-fairy concept, but it feels right. I don’t know why it’s right, but it feels right. The majority of my work is dealing with music and the nature of music. This feels right for that sound. It’s the old concept down at post design analysis is a better way of putting it. But I can explain it to myself later in time. That’s why I did it.

Hopefully the musician is on my wavelength. Hopefully I’ve connected with the music. That’s why it makes sense, but I’ve been working intuitively. I’ve never tried to define the music, just to suggest the parameters of it if you like. There’s a great quote, well for me it was a great quote of course, because it made me feel better, and it made me realize that people are thinking like that. It was a photographer. Robert Doisneau said, “To suggest is to create, to describe is to destroy.” Now I don’t know about the second half of the quote, but I believe in the first half. This idea of suggesting — and I think that’s a really powerful thing. It puts something on the table, for people, that’s not defining. They’re not totally describing, and it allows room for interpretation. I think that’s kind of a sensible philosophy in the kind of field that I’m specializing in.

During my time at RISD, I had the pleasure to participate in a weekend design charrette with Vaughan Oliver. It was a liberating shift in my work and thinking. I look forward to future conversations with Vaughan about design and life.

This is a series of posts revised from my MFA thesis Shift, that I developed at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Please keep on the look out for updates.

Take a look at my website axl.design

Or send me an email james@axl.design



James Grady

Principal, Design Axl & Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, Boston University