Rian Hughes on Storytelling, Making Fonts for Aliens, and Reimagining the Novel

Recently published in paperback, XX is an epic sci-fi thriller that tells the story of humanity’s first contact with alien intelligence via a transmission called the Signal. At nearly 1,000 pages, it’s a radical story told through multiple text formats and layouts. These include newspaper pages, fictional alien languages, Wikipedia entries, and even album covers.

A feast for the eyes and the imagination, XX brings together Rian’s diverse talents in a revolutionary way. Having honed his keen eye for design and storytelling during a career that included designing the covers for the UK edition of the Love and Rockets comic book series, designing logos for James Bond, the X-Men , Superman, Hed Kandi and The Avengers, and by creating his own character foundry, Device Fonts, his first novel is a design masterpiece that has taken years.

We chatted with Rian to learn more about this amazing book and how it came to life.

What inspired you to create a novel that plays so much with design and typography?

For several years after leaving fine art school, I drew comics for 2000AD (among others) before moving on to illustration and mainstream design for advertising, book covers, etc. For this reason, I thought of comics as “narrative illustration” and always wanted to get back to telling a story – to add the dimension of time. I would sometimes use two or more illustrations to show a change, an evolution between the cover and the back cover of a CD, for example, but it was a very limited form of storytelling.

By analogy, I always thought there could be some form of “narrative design” – that rather than the standard novel format, which is usually something like Times, 9pt, set justified, there was a much wider range of possibilities. Different fonts, sizes and layouts can be used to convey character, tone of voice. It seems obvious to me. It just took me 25 years to get started.

There is a fictitious music review in its pages. What is the story behind this?

In the novel, the signal from space is leaked on the Internet. People then start to explore it, to try to decipher it. But they also use it to make art, to make music. I wrote a fictional review on a fictional album in my best style “Pretentious NME Music Journalist”. My sister, a classical pianist, and DJ Food, remixer and musician, then took that review as a brief and made the album a reality.

I’ve included a QR code on the novel that takes you to a Bandcamp page where you can list it as you read. Alex Egan from Utter then saw the Bandcamp page and offered to make it a real vinyl release – so there is now a nice yellow vinyl press available, with a 7 “bonus, also on yellow vinyl, and a print. In what may be a first, the examination preceded the actual recording.

The second side of the album is a three part epic that features the voice of my late father, Alan Hughes, reading a poem. I discovered this recording while searching for other music on my Mac, and although it was recorded on a phone with no specific purpose, the themes – the reincarnation, the wheel of life – were in sync with the novel, so it seemed perfect to incorporate it is here. I think he would approve.

How did your experience as a character designer influence the creative decisions you made in the book?

As a typographer, I had more options. The palette I used shouldn’t just include the existing fonts – I could also design new ones to suit the circumstances. So I tried new forms of punctuation, for example, or explored what alien iconography might look like. When you can explore all the way to the design foundation – and character design is the particle physics of graphic design – it’s possible to get everything to look exactly what you want and shape everything as per your requirements. the story.

I have used existing fonts to evoke a specific historical era or to mimic the design of an old magazine or existing website. But there were also places where I could find completely new forms.

Can you tell us about the fonts you created, especially for the book? We would like to know what influenced them and how you went about creating them.

I created a futuristic inspired font for the XX passages. XX, named after the book, is the spirit of the 20th century, so I needed something that suggests the angular geometry of Fortunato Depero or Marinetti. Something daring, shouting and declarative.

For a later scene in which the Omniscient Narrator (me, the author) somehow comes to life in my own book, I designed a typeface that tries to convey the thought more closely. . There are also new forms of punctuation and weird ligatures that suggest sounds produced by an alien vocal tract. In another chapter, I created a spelling that I imagined a creature like an evolved dolphin could use, based on risers of bubbles of different sizes, and one based on the interference patterns that a creature with a shell of chitin could produce when light filters through. I also used fonts of my own design that are more traditional in shape – Paralucent or Albiona, for example, which had just the right tone I was looking for.

How did you make sure the reader wasn’t confused or overwhelmed by the different designs and text layouts on display?

I tried to have a common thread that would lead you on. The chapters are all very short – just a few pages – so if the typographic shenanigans aren’t to your liking, hopefully the story itself will grab your attention. I didn’t want it to be just design for the sake of design – I tried to read too much – and ignore the real story. I wanted to create characters that the reader is invested with, and the design should only highlight that, not obscure it.

What were the biggest challenges you encountered while designing and creating this book, and how did you overcome them?

He grew up and grew up. I did a pretty heavy edit towards the end and deleted around 350 pages to keep it below the thousand page mark, as I didn’t want to strain my readers’ patience (and money) too much. !) of my readers. This meant removing an entire subplot, but I think it’s better for it – some readers, I’m sure, think I could have edited it even more.

It was written directly into Indesign, in the final fonts I intended to use, so I could immediately see what it looked like on the page. There have been novels that use different fonts before, but as far as I know they were written first and designed later, usually by someone else. It was designed and written at the same time by the same person. The Indesign master file became very unstable and at an advanced stage crashed – when I reopened it half of the pages were blank! For about a week I thought I should rewrite and redesign it from memory, but found that Dropbox archives a version every time you save – and there was a version I could download. just before the crash that had everything, intact. Proofreading and corrections also took a long time, as of course I had to do all of them myself.

Was it difficult to come up with so many different layouts without repeating yourself?

No – in fact, there were a lot of other ideas that I couldn’t use for space reasons, or couldn’t find a suitable place in the narrative. Some of them made their way into my next novel, The Black Locomotive, which was just released in hardback. There is no shortage of interesting ways to use design to tell a story, and there is no shortage of new forms of graphic design.

Do you think that more authors should take advantage of the creative opportunities offered by design?

Yes. I think the novel’s format, as we usually see it, is a product of the limitations of hot metal technology. Books like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski or Tiger, Tiger by Alfred Bester! (published in the US as The Stars My Destination) uses the type in innovative and interesting ways – in Bester’s case to convey telepathy – but you can see the typographer struggles with the limits of the technology a bit. . We have been free from these constraints for at least twenty-five years now, so there is no excuse to make your book “ship-agnostic” – to write something in plain text in which the final visual form is not. taken into account.

Do you plan to go even further in the experimental design of XX? It looks like e-books could offer even more possibilities for creative layouts.

We’ve had issues with the Kindle because readers expect to be able to redistribute, enlarge, reverse text. This just isn’t possible with a fixed format novel, and while we eventually tried to point it out, we pulled it out. Buy the book – this is the form in which it should be read. I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to tell a story that could include animated characters, hyperlinks, other forms of interactivity, but you get to the point where the shape maybe becomes something else entirely.

A few years ago there was a fad for comics that included limited animation, ambient sound, etc. – but, as one reviewer put it, they were less “comics plus” and more “animation minus”. XX’s UK hardcover book features the signature “A Novel, Graphic”, a bad pun that sums up what I’m trying here – although inadvertently this means the book has been put aside in the graphic novel section , so it was deleted from the paperback. Maybe one day there will be a stand-alone “novel, graphics” section.

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