Mark Blamire, Helvetica and Trainspotting

So Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting celebrated its 15th anniversary last month. The film’s posters were designed by Rob O’Connor and Mark Blamire originally of Stylorouge. Mark Blamire explains some of the decisions behind the poster’s iconic design…

The film poster for Trainspotting will now inevitable be recognised along with The Face, and Arena for its usage of Helvetica, did you expect that when designing the poster?

Wow, very kind of you to say, thank you. No, I had absolutely no idea the poster would achieve what it has. It was really weird because when I worked on the project [I worked at Stylorouge at the time 1995] the poster was photographed and designed and back from the printers before I had even seen the film and while I had read both the script and the book, it absolutely knocked me sideways when I saw the film for the first time.

I was really worried that the poster was completely wrong for the film and I had just produced a piece of design, which indulged my own tastes. I was and still am a big Saul Bass fan, and it always annoys me that modern day film posters can be so terribly designed and have become pieces of marketing instead of pieces of design.

We were lucky with Trainspotting that there were no contractual agreements with the actors on the size of their names on the poster, so it made the job of creating a piece of design easier as we could control the typography and layout without having to deal with this actors name needs to be this ratio of the film title. I think the liberation of this and not being visually influenced by the film allowed us to create a piece of design which made it slightly different and it is maybe why it is still warmly remembered. I also think that the poster is memorable because the film was a huge hit and if it had been a flop then it would have been an entirely different story.

Did you make a conscious decision to use Helvetica from the start or did it progress?

Yes, it kind of felt like it should be a train timetable so the typeface leant itself to being used and got over the train theme a little. It was also because of the drug references in the film; we did a lot of research into chemical packaging and the font turned up a lot in these printed items, so it felt like the right road to go down. I am guilty overusing Helvetica in a lot of my design work but for this it felt absolutely perfect

In my interview with David Hillman he said one of the reasons the poster worked so well was its relationship with the photography? Why do you think Helvetica worked for this poster?

I think David’s observation is absolutely spot on. That’s why the typeface worked so well alongside it because it communicates what it needs to and the photography is left to do its job, without the font getting in the way. I can remember, at the time of getting the photographs back to produce the design, being overwhelmed on the quality of the images. I didn’t want to do anything to spoil or detract from its strengths so the photography probably has more to do with the poster’s success because of its power and maybe we just made the right decision at the right time to ‘Choose Helvetica’.

Do you have a favourite execution of Helvetica?

It’s too hard to point it at one particular thing. It would be like naming your favourite song, for me it’s just too difficult. Not wishing to cop out of answering your question though, I would say that I think [Massimo] Vignelli’s design work was close to a masterclass on how to use Helvetica to its best effect, the signage system for the New York Subway System probably being the icing on the cake. Even on some of the stations where the old signage using Akzidenz Grotesk creeps up, it still work beautifully. I always find travelling on the Subway really interesting; it feels like an underground temple to Modernism.

This is an edited interview transcript for a feature I wrote published by PrintWeek magazine. The feature remains copyright of PrintWeek and Haymarket Media Group.

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