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AOI Prize for Illustration

I haven't posted here in a bit for the very reason I have been incredibly full-on both with day-work and home-work. I'm not sure if it makes me happy or sad about my life that last week I had a week off from work and I spent it doing exactly what I do for my job, only more so. I guess it's a good sign I'm in the right job...

It is an AOI Prize for Illustration year. Every two years the AOI in conjunction with London Transport Museum run a competition for new illustrated posters, the long list of which is exhibited in LTM the following year.

As an illustrator and designer specialising in posters who also happens to be a HUGE tube geek (I am a Friend of LTM. I get their quarterly magazine. I go to Acton depot open days. The one and only time I have been to New York I skipped the MOMA and Guggenheim and went to Brooklyn Transit Museum) this is My Jam.

To a kind of difficult degree actually. Having been impatiently checking by the AOI website all Spring to see if they'd launched this year's competition, when they finally announced it I kind of got frozen in the headlights. The possibilities were just too endless, the scope for brilliant imagery too vast and my ability to achieve anything worthy against those possibilities, in my mind, entirely inadequate.

I had no filter through which to start processing all this possibility into a particular direction. I'm not an artist with a firm single style that guides my choices. This year the competition theme was 'London stories'. Oh yes, I'm massively into London history too?

I read books and blog posts and polled friends, gathering dozens of interesting stories but never hitting on the perfect blend of non-obvious/interesting/suggesting of great visuals/of personal interest. I was of course falling into the old trap of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I am a perfectionist. By which I'm not doing the old veiled self-praise 'what would you say is your worst quality?' interview answer thing. Perfectionism doesn't mean 'having high standards'. It means insecurity. The wedge that gets in-between the words in the phrase 'good enough' and drives them apart to unbridgeable distances.

I've got better at combating this as I've got older. Working as a full-time designer has been the biggest boon there - the fact that you really can't argue with those deadlines, and the regulation of the standard working week. I am working on writing a graphic novel, and the ideas have been stewing in my head for more years than I care to remember but I would not have been able to get to where I am now - really writing it - without learning how to trick and cajole and bully myself into creative work despite the voice of perfectionism reminding me whatever I make will be inadequate. My mantra, the magic spell I use to break the spell of writer's block is: "It doesn't have to be good. It just has to exist."

But it’s a lesson I will spend my life learning and every time a variation on the challenge of 'make something you care about' comes up I manage to forget how to do this. The illustration/design aspects of this particular challenge I knew how to walk through from 'I can't do this' to 'oh actually this is pretty good' (via of course 'OH GOD THIS SUCKS'). But the selection of an idea in a field I am passionate about? That froze me.

And I missed the deadline. Didn't produce a stroke of work.

I had a bit of a long dark teatime of the soul about that. What is the point of me if I can't produce a poster about London stories? And then the AOI announced a two-week deadline extension. I'd been half-hoping for that possibility and half-dreading it. I had a week's holiday coming up meant to be for writing.

But it (and a couple of other things) were freeing. Having a short window had the old ''you can't possibly make anything that great in that time so the pressures off' effect that also resulted in me doing my entire dissertation in the 48 hours before deadline back in the day.

You really can't produce something to your highest standard in that time reliably because the vital ingredient you lack is time to put your work away and come back to it. There really is nothing that comes close to that for improving your work... but the next best thing is having another contrasting project to work on concurrently. And luckily there is no limit on how many images you can enter into this particular competition.

Having a second project on the go is also a great perfectionism hack. As soon as you start thinking what you're working on is irredeemable you can hop onto the other track where by contrast things are looking very salvageable. It's a variation on the previous mantra: "this doesn't have to be that great, my money's on the other one".

So after about ten days of solid work, I had two posters ready for submission. The first came to me when I flipped my thinking and instead of trying to pick an interesting story and think of how I would depict it (which is an approach which doesn't really tally with my strengths or usual approach) I started thinking of some striking visual ideas I had used before and how I could develop them. I thought about this book cover design, which in turn had influenced this Waterstones poster. A bus was obviously a good starting place for a London transport poster. Maybe because I'd just seen Othello at the Globe I doodled the idea of this stylised bus shape being half-timbered like a Tudor building. The combination of something modern with something ancient pointed towards a comment on how timeless something was - in this case the excitement and freedom of London, the fact that Shakespeare was one in a long line of people to move here and be stimulated by the movement and life and characters of the city.

The subject pretty quickly suggested the styling. Half-timbering just looks like lino cut with its rough-hewn lines and stark simple lines.

Because I'm me I'm particularly pleased with the detail of the bus number and route. The 388 really does run from Stratford Bus Station to the Globe Theatre (though it doesn't terminate there - it goes on to the Elephant). Different Stratford from Shakey's hometown of course but it allowed me quite accurately to describe the story on the side of the bus both in literal and figurative terms.

I'm also pleased with one of the last details to go in, the TFL roundel formed within the timbering. For most of the project I had roundels on the wheels instead (cos you gotta have roundels). But I decided they needed to look more definitively wheely to sell the fact the shape was a bus clearly enough, and then it occurred to be to incorporate the roundel shape on the side where the logo has actually appeared on several generations of London busses. It works really well compositionally, balancing out the number on the front and the aforementioned destination board. I'll do a post about the process of this one at some point.

The second entry is much more in my usual vein of illustration. I was looking at the finished(ish) version of this poster and thinking that since I haven't used it anywhere and I like it such a lot, it would be ripe for cannibalising into a London-story-themed poster. A bit of googling turned up the image of Marjorie Annan Bryce dressed as Joan of Arc and riding a white horse at the Women's Coronation March for suffrage in 1911. I suppose it was the fact that the photos of the event are all in black and white as well as the pale monochrome nature of that central subject that immediately suggested a creamy colour scheme. And then it made sense to make spot colours of the other two colours of the suffragette flag - purple and green.

And I suppose it was all part of seeking to do something wholly opposite from the first idea, with its bold dark colours, choppy lines and texture. About halfway through it occurred to me that the statue of Boudicca and her daughters at the head of Westminster Bridge should be overseeing proceedings (the marchers MAY have passed the statue, they did march to Westminster after all) and that helpfully turned a striking image into a real story. It's the story of the relationship between women with righteous causes and an ambivalent relationship to the English and London.

Boudicca and Joan of Arc foreshadows even amongst the early pageantry and festivity of this particular march of he fire and war to come. Boudicca burned London down and her slightly sentimental Victorian statue now looks protectively over parliament. Joan of Arc led armies against the English and English activists later look to her for inspiration. The suffragettes blew up houses and underwent force-feeding amongst other violence on both sides and it took the horrors of WWI to move their cause to any kind of victory, but they too have been memorialised by the people who once opposed them. It felt important to include a child. If this girl is about six in 1911, she would not be able to vote till she was twenty-five and female suffrage was finally brought fully in line with men's.

Well, I have submitted them and must now put the images away. But right now, I feel very happy with what I have made here.


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