While Anthony Burrill’s work has appeared in advertising, on record sleeves and as installations, he is perhaps best known for his pithy, wise slogans that appear on posters and prints, all in bold, distinctive type. His ‘Work Hard and be Nice to People’ poster, arguably his most famous work, was first created in 2004, and is now a fixture on walls of creative folk across the world, as well as a mantra that many choose to live by.
“The phrases in my work have all got a few things in common,” he writes in his new book Make It Now!, published by Penguin. “There’s always an element of humour, a lightness of touch – they don’t take life or the world too seriously. They surprise or provoke, in a playful way, making you think or look at something at big differently – and they speak truth, I try to keep it honest in everything I do.”
Make It Now! marks 20 years in the design world for Burrill, and has provided a welcome opportunity to reflect on his work so far. “Going through the process of it and looking at how I make work, I do feel quite revitalised,” his says on the phone from his studio. “I’m mid-career at this stage and it’s good to get it all in one place.”
Burrill explains how he first got into design and how he has subsequently navigated the twists and turns of his career in a series of loose chapters, each titled by one of his prints. The slogans form launching off points for wider advice, with areas covered including ‘Don’t be normal, don’t be ordinary’, ‘Who are you, what do you want?’ and ‘Say yes more than no!’
A recurring theme is balance: between life and work, and between commercial work and personal work. “In everything I’ve done I’ve always blurred the boundaries between things so I think the book’s about that really,” he says. “It’s as much about career development as personal development as gaining maturity as a person … everything really.”
The hope is that the advice may be useful to others, especially those starting out. Though Burrill acknowledges that college, and what is expected after graduation, is different for students today. “I’m really keen to be as honest as possible,” he says. “When I started out I was completely clueless – I graduated from the Royal College but that was only the first step really. Graduates now feel like they have to get straight into getting jobs and being professional, whereas I had a few years where I could just muck around and do my own thing.
“I think the fact that you have to pay to go to college now, you want to feel with that investment that you’re getting something out of it. Whereas when I was at college it was still free, and it still felt that you were at art school and you could walk around with a teapot on your head all day. I think it was a different kind of vibe in those days.”
Burrill’s interest in blurring the lines between commercial and personal work stemmed from these early days in college. “We were quite encouraged to pursue our own interests and fascinations with things, so in a way we were working more like artists than designers,” he says. “I’ve always felt that I’ve really been in the work, I find it very difficult not to put my personal stamp on things…. It’s never really been a job for me, it’s an extension of me.
“I didn’t want to build a big design empire with hundreds of employees, I always knew I wanted to work small scale and just do interesting projects and not have the overheads that go with running a studio. I think by keeping small and flexible, and then working with regular collaborators – I’ve got a network of people I work with – everything’s very flexible.”
Make It Now! was influenced by other ad and design advice bibles, including Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be, and Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways. Yet, particularly in comparison to the latter, Burrill has deliberately made his book a light read, filled with a mix of lists, short interviews and pithy pieces of wisdom.
“I don’t read long, long text,” he says of the reason for this. “I think you have to be quite concise really. I was very concerned with being concise in the book – knowing that I look at pages of texts and I just skim through them. I think you need to get things instantly, something I’ve always been conscious of is getting things down really simply.”
Perhaps this should be expected from the master of the slogan poster, and it’s easy to imagine extracts of Burrill’s advice in the book popping up on Twitter and the like. Plus as a book, it’s also a beautifully designed object (created in collaboration with APFEL), featuring examples of significant pieces of work from Burrill’s career as well as ephemera from his life and new, text-based works alongside his writing.
Burrill states in the book that he has always been aware of the need to make a consistent, relevant body of work. “The brief I wrote for myself at the start of my career was how to make my work relevant and communicate my personal message effectively,” he writes. “That has always been my personal goal. Early on, I knew I had something to say, but I was unsure about how to say it. I worked towards goals hoping things would find their own way.”
Working alongside this determination has always been a canny knack for self-promotion. In the book he talks of avoiding having to use the telephone to contact people by sending out photocopied books and postcards to attract early attention for his work. Now he makes good use of Instagram.
“It’s just building your own platform,” he says. “When I left college, none of that [social media] existed, so I was sending out stuff as printed material, postcards and posters and stuff like that. But I absolutely love Instagram – the way you can just build an audience. I’ve got a decent amount of followers, when I post stuff you know that x thousand people are going to see it that day, it’s really exciting.
“I still work with an agent, he’s very important in developing projects but a lot of stuff comes in directly through there. You’ve got to be on that constantly and just use it as an amazing channel to get your stuff out there.
“If you’re a communicator, you communicate through whatever means,” he concludes. “Whether that’s through a poster or an image on social media, it’s building a world. It’s building the world that you inhabit as a designer and artist.”
Make It Now! Creative Inspiration and the Art of Getting Things Done is available from Penguin Books, priced £18.99. Burrill will also be exhibiting an installation of new works created with furniture designer Michael Marriott at Clerkenwell Design Week, May 23-25, clerkenwelldesignweek.com