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Designer Spotlight: An Interview with Phillip Brown

As we move into December 2016, after a long year of enormous change (both good, bad, and in-between), our team here at Backwords Press is grateful for a mainstay: the poet and freelance graphic designer, Phillip Brown.

Given that Phillip has worked with us throughout our 2015 and 2016 years, on two separate redesigns from our Inaugural Issue, and then again on the Spring 2016 Issue, he's long overdue for a spotlight here on the blog that showcases his particular talents and energy. Phillip's own love for—and understanding of poetry—has made our collaboration easy and rewarding: his sense of line, of visual weight, make his designs effortlessly grounding; while his keen attention for how a poem operates means he can translate not only a poem's images but its music or mood into the visual field. In the midst of the work, Phillip is eager and professional—which is why we delight so much in returning to him.

We hope you enjoy this brief interview with him about his inspiration and process.

But first, a little from Phillip's bio: Phillip Brown is from Utah originally. In his own words, “Although I miss those mountains, I love living in Oregon.” Phillip moved to Corvallis a few years ago to get his MFA in poetry at Oregon State University; he never left. After graduation, he taught English composition courses, and now works as a publishing manager and editor for OSU Extension. Phillip is also a poet himself, an avid movie-watcher, and is inordinately fond of oatmeal. Read the interview below:


BACKWORDS Press: How do you begin a design or sketch? What attracts you?

Phillip Brown: For me, graphic design is visual problem solving. I'm pretty evenly left-brained and right-brained, so I get equal pleasure from analysis and artistry. I like to start by laying out all the pieces in a sketchbook. I make lists of concepts and word associations, I write down questions as they come to mind, and then, pretty quickly, I start sketching out rough ideas. I go for multiple iterations, trying to push past the first ideas and get to the good stuff that happens after that.

BACKWORDS Press: How long have you been designing?

PB: I've always been interested in art. I discovered what graphic design was during my senior year of high school, though I had been intrigued by it long before that—I just didn't know it was a profession with a name. I was drawn to interesting and well-designed posters, movie credits, and wedding invitations. After repeating that high school class three times in a row, I majored in graphic design at college, and it's been a part of my life in some form or another ever since.

BACKWORDS Press: Who are your influences? Work you continually go back to?

PB: As a writer, reader, and artist, I love a good book jacket—it's like a small poster you can hold in your hands—and Chip Kidd is one of the best book designers. Peter Mendelsund is a close second. For typography, I'm always so inspired by Louise Fili's lavish, vintage lettering. Some newer finds are Isidro Ferrer, a Spanish designer who can say so much with so little (check out his conceptual theater posters), and Cristiana Couceiro, a Portuguese designer and illustrator who collages old photos, geometric shapes, and scientific ephemera in such a modern way.

BACKWORDS Press: Why Backwords Press? What made you want to collaborate with us?

PB: I met Jenny Chu at a New Year's Eve party in Portland, and we bonded over flatbread pizza, talking about my dual interests in poetry and graphic design. She told me about Backwords Press and this notion of getting poetry out into the public eye, which is something I totally support. I love when I find fragments of poetry in the world, whether it's on the walls of a crowded subway in Madrid, printed on a coffee cup, or tattooed on someone's body. Or silkscreened on a shirt or tote bag, of course. I had the opportunity, once, to design a set of billboards with a poem on them, and it was awesome to see the final result standing tall along the road. I think the world definitely needs more poetry—and more awareness of poetry that's already written—and that's why I'm happy to work together with Backwords Press.

BACKWORDS Press: One of the most rewarding challenges of collaborative graphic design for you?

PB: Over the years, I've come to trust and even welcome constraints in the design process because they force me to get more creative and help to hone my vision. Collaboration is one of those constraints—-it challenges me to mix different ideas and find solutions that please multiple people. It requires humility and listening and clear communication. But my favorite thing is when I show a client or collaborator the final idea and they say, "Yes, that's it!" I take pride in being able to hear and deliver what they hoped for while also bringing my own aesthetic to the table.

BACKWORDS Press: Favorite work-space in your current city? Maybe a coffee shop you can camp with plugs and wifi?

PB: Sometimes I feel like the only creative who doesn't like a coffeeshop environment. It's too busy for me. I'm honestly more of a homebody and prefer to work in the comfort of my own apartment, occasionally in silence, more often with music on in the background. I have a perfectly nice desk to sit at, but you will find me on my couch with my sketchbook, laptop, and maybe some tea.

BACKWORDS Press: Anything else you like our readers to know about you or your work?

PB: Just that I'm grateful to help bring poetry to the public in this fun (and stylish!) way! I love drawing from both my poetry background and my design skills. If you're interested in finding the occasional tidbit of poetry in your news feed, check out my Facebook page, Poetry Sparks, which offers weekly inspiration and some poetry writing prompts.


We'd highly recommend you check out Phillip's work with Backwords Press, over at the Shop. Check out the Inaugural Redesigns RIGHT HERE. And check out Laura Walker's poem, from the Spring 2016 Issue, HERE—which Phillip is also responsible for. Stay Backwords!

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