Fleur Isbell: from graduate to global grandeur

Published:  September 15, 2014

Fleur Isbell is a recent graduate from Bath School of Art and Design, who landed the brief of a lifetime and gained international attention when D&AD ex-president Neville Brody noticed her work in their student competition, put her in charge of the 2013 awards annual. For Fleur, it was like being thrown in the deep end, but one that allowed her to shine.

She talks us through her course and student experience, and what it was like to design the D&AD Annual – the designer’s design bible.

The course

Before my degree I studied A Level art and design and product design at John Cabot City Technology College in Bristol. Here I was immersed in a technology and science setting – making things with laser cutters, 3D printers, CNC (computer numeric controlled) machines.

I spent my university days at the Bath School of Art and Design (Bath Spa University) studying graphic communication. The number one thing I got from the degree was the pursuit of great ideas and problem solving through experimentation. This enabled me to push beyond the boundaries using experimentation with different techniques and ideas. It is now that I am working I realise how much this has helped me in my career. For instance, when I work on typographic pieces I think in terms of letterpress – I treat the type as physical objects; each character is separate, it can be rotated, placed in reverse or overprinted.

I believe I was very privileged to be in a working environment where there was this complete freedom to experiment and to be ambitious and to know it was OK if sometimes I failed.

I loved: going to the print room, using the dark room, hiring out sound recorders, projectors, microphones, and cameras, etching, ceramics, textiles, letterpress rooms, and just playing. It was great to explore hands-on in digital and analogue ways. On the course there was a real emphasis on combining conceptual idealistic thinking with excellent creative visualisation – not just using your head in the work, but your hands and heart too.

I owe a huge thank you to the course – I had an extremely enjoyable experience, which I still miss! The amazing facilities at my disposal or the encouragement of my tutors and technicians – I doubt that without them I would have been able to obtain the skills and confidence needed to get where I am today. I have always had a passion to learn, make and design and the course was a great learning ground, preparation and opportunity to do all those things.

Favourite student project

Being a big fan of Kraftwerk, I chose two of their tracks for the D&AD Diesel illustration brief. I started by trying to interrupt and analyse the two tracks; for example, ‘Intermission’ (Radio-Activity, 1975) used repetitive pauses, beeps and static. I realised that its experimental, raw sounds were akin to a user trying to find a radio frequency. With ‘Pocket Calculator’ (Computer World, 1981) I worked with the lyrics “I am the operator with my pocket calculator… pressing down a special key this creates a little melody”.

I decided I wanted to reflect the simplistic eight-bit sounds of ‘Pocket Calculator’ with this notion of an operator, as well as to echo the analogue nature of ‘Intermission’. In response, I combined mathematics, physics and fan participation to create a simple program where each block in a formation of 16 by 12, either rotated 90 degrees or flashed variable to a microphone input. Tapping, clapping, shouting or whistling, the microphone detects the amplitude changes created by the individual user or audience and the block’s movements respond. This response affects the permutation and sequence of the block formations.

The fan is a ‘controller,’ ‘operator’ or ‘composer’ – determining the illustration’s scope. Using this program I played each track to an audience and recorded the permutation and sequence generated. I then formulated this into an illustration by drawing each frame and placing it in a sequence and frequency order.

I placed the fan-created patterns onto wallpaper, chairs and items, and used this to create an installation.

The big break

I was immensely privileged to be asked by the then D&AD president Neville Brody to design the annual for 2013 with a completely open brief. Given that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and a project that has the world’s creative eyes on it, I knew I had to create something truly outstanding.

This was going to be the 51st annual with 50 years of creativity behind it, so I thought what might lay ahead in the next 50 years? Could this annual be a benchmark and set an agenda for the future? I asked myself: what’s the future of design, what’s changing about how we create, what’s the role of technology and digital media – and, particularly, how does this influence how we can connect globally?

Putting all these things together seemed a perfect opportunity for the annual. With my aim figured out, I began a lot of process and experiment work, with ideas ranging from a tracking device and placing sensors in the annual, to a self-drawing cover. While these ideas never made it, they were crucial in helping me to get to the final outcome.

Eventually I settled on the cover with patterns created from code generated for all 193 UN member states. Merging technology and creativity, the pattern’s outcome was based on coordinates and meta-data from the day the call of entries was made (01/11/12). Each pattern’s horizon line is determined by latitude and its colour by meta-data: meteorological and time, e.g. the UK’s northerly latitude and cooler climate created a blue-green colour pattern.

Australia’s meta-data using Isbell’s visual system

With 42 countries represented in this year’s awards, these were printed in large format in fluoro inks at the beginning of the annual. To maintain the concept, each entry had its location, coordinates and meta-data visible next to its work.

It was important for me that the project could live beyond the limitations of a book, so we made a program where users could create patterns specific to their location and continue the story: http://horizons.dandad.org

The cover of the completed D&AD 2013 Annual

Fleur currently lives in London and works for Wolff Olins. You can see Fleur briefly talking through the process of designing the Annual for the D&AD here.
All images: Fleur Isbell.


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