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Brendan Dawes: ‘own your difference’

Brendan Dawes is an artist and a designer using code often with a mix of analog and digital materials to make visual work across different mediums including print, online, video and physical installations.

Much of Brendan’s work involves using data as a source material and when we learned that Affinity Photo features in his workflow, we couldn’t wait to find out more.

Morfff is a letter and note holder made from a purely digital coded process, yet realised in very analog concrete.
Tell us a little bit about your history as an artist and designer.

I didn’t really start in the design field until I was 29. Before then I’d been a photographer, studied sound engineering for a year, had a record contract during the rave scene in the nineties and worked in an electronics factory for eight years, before the web and the Mac saved me. I always think my career has been predicated on the generosity of others—from the web design agency taking a chance on me to give me my first foothold on the ladder of design, to the people I’ve met by chance who then went on to be important architects on my continuing path through this field.

You’ve created digital art for some of the world’s biggest brands. Do you have a favourite project to date?

I think it’s probably one of my latest pieces—The Art of Cybersecurity for Trend Micro. This was actually the first commercial piece of work I made in Houdini. Since its launch, it’s been rolled out across the whole of the Trend Micro brand, been long-listed in the prestigious Lumen Prize and featured in three exhibitions, one of which will tour twenty cities across the world from November. It also represented something else for me. At the end of 2018, I was dismayed with the work I had been doing, I felt I was just going through the motions, relying on old processes to get the work done. I took time out to re-evaluate my output and looked to learning new things, get new influences and discover new approaches. When I got the brief for the Trend Micro work, I knew that was the catalyst I needed to reboot my whole process.

The Art of Cybersecurity by Brendan Dawes
Tell us a bit more about this commission…

Commissioned by McMillan for Trend Micro, The Art of Cybersecurity is a series of images, together with a 4K animation born from cybersecurity threat data.

The work features three main components—the threats, represented by black obelisk style objects, the system which detects and deals with these threats, represented by an organic mesh-like structure, and finally the creativity that is allowed to flow because the threats have been neutralised.

The main mesh shapes are formed from the process of splitting the data into five different industries—media, banking, government, technology and retail. I then made a simple algorithm which would create a form based on these industries, so that each mesh was unique.

Each threat relates to a threat metric derived from the data, whilst the flow patterns of the creativity strands were influenced from metrics in the data as well as the space carved from the form itself.

How would you best describe your approach to design?

I’m interested in nuance and subtlety—fuzzy, human traits that are foreign to logic or machine-driven thinking. Whilst a main driver for my work is to create something beautiful, it has to be grounded in a solid idea or concept. Yet I also have to leave room in the work for the unexpected or leave space for others to play within. In that way, I like to think of what I make as not a final thing but something more akin to a beginning.

What first inspired you to convert data into works of art? What was the first piece of work you created in this way?

I think I just thought of data as another material to play with. Everything we experience is essentially data in one form or another, everything is number. I was interested in representing those numbers in different ways to hopefully spark conversation and debate.

Cinema Redux was probably one of the first things I did, though it’s not what you really think of as data.

How did your concept for Cinema Redux come about, and how did it become part of the permanent collection in New York’s Museum of Modern Art?

Like much of my work it came about through a process of play and iteration. I was interested in taking frames from DVDs and representing them in different ways. I’ve always been inspired by the work of people such as John Cage and E. E. Cummings—who take the expected ways to do things, be that musical scores or poetry and completely upend them, so you see things through a different lens. Inspired by those processes I began to take individual frames and play around with them, combining them in various ways as a collection of visuals. After a few different approaches, I landed on the thing I would eventually call Cinema Redux, displaying every second of a movie, 60 frames per row, for the entire film. The whole process took a full rainy Saturday.

I then put it online on my website and eventually, it began to be talked about on various blogs and was even in the Guardian at one point. A few years later in 2007, I had an email which I still remember getting to this day from The Museum of Modern Art in New York. They wanted to feature Cinema Redux in a new exhibition called Design and the Elastic Mind, opening in 2008. I remember staring at that email for a long time, not quite believing what I was reading. When the exhibition opened, they had created a 30-foot version of the Vertigo piece which covered an entire wall. My wife and I went to the opening which was absolutely rammed—so much so we could hardly get near the work. It was all a bit crazy. After the event finished, they emailed to say they’d like to acquire it for their permanent collection. Since then it’s been in several exhibitions at MoMA. I think that was a rainy Saturday afternoon well wasted for sure.

Cinema Redux at Action Design Over Time MoMA
When did you first start using Affinity Photo and Designer, and what made you make the switch from Adobe to Affinity products?

Well, I grew up on Adobe Photoshop, having been shown all the keyboard shortcuts by Julian—a colleague at the web design company I first started at. I think it was version 2.5, pre-layers. So, I’ve had a relationship with Adobe products for a long time and moving away from them wasn’t something I did lightly, but the whole subscription model really stuck in my throat. Then when they started actively turning off old versions, I thought to myself, no, I’m not taking this anymore. This is unacceptable. It was then I started to look around for not just an alternative but something that was actually better, that didn’t feel like it was weighed down by the past, but it had to be professional—it couldn’t be some clunky open source thing. That’s when I discovered the Affinity Suite of products. I think I first started to use Photo, but it was Designer that really sealed the deal for me. In a way it reminded me of the much loved Freehand before Adobe killed it, combining raster and vector graphics. I think the artboards are handled much nicer than pretty much any other software and the export options are really great too.

How do Affinity apps fit into your process alongside other software you use such as Houdini?

In Houdini, I’m often exporting work out as an EXR, which I then bring into Photo to apply the mask that gets exported with it and then add any backgrounds I need to. From there I use Photo’s colour correction to make any tweaks I need to. I love how Photo can handle really huge documents—I think one of the first things I did was load a 28000-pixel wide PSB image as a test to see if it would work. Affinity Photo didn’t even blink and handled it all perfectly. With Designer, I use that mostly for my Produced for Use brand—a place where I sell my own physical products. I have one particular Designer file setup with multiple artboards which contain all the individual brand assets that I can export out however I see fit.

“Silent State” pays homage to iconic electronics, freezing in time popular consumer objects and reframing them as artworks to be hung and displayed in your home, office or gallery. Using a vacuum forming process, impressions are taken from the original objects, mounted, framed and protected behind clear perspex.
How does creating client work differ to your self-initiated projects?

Well of course with client work you have other voices that you need to listen to, as well as other constraints such as brand guidelines together with the goal of what that brand is trying to achieve with the work. Yet constraints are good and often push you to make the work better. Too much freedom can be a bad thing. With my own projects there’s a lot of reflection and going back, and to only release something when I know it’s right or deserves to exist. With Produced for Use—my outlet for physical things—I’m in no hurry to release stuff, only when I feel I have something new to offer. As a self-initiated thing, it’s been very rewarding crafting and iterating the brand to match this thing in my head.

Close up image of a commission from EE to create a digital portrait for each city formed from millions of bits of data as people talked and interacted about the biggest events of the day.
What would be a dream project for you?

I don’t have a dream project, but for me, it’s more about who would I like to work with, to learn from, to be inspired by. Right now, I’m working with Gary Hustwit—director of the Helvetica documentary and most recently the film about Dieter Rams—creating a Generative Film Engine. We’re both excited about where this can lead.

What achievement in your career are you especially proud of?

Probably that I’m still managing to do this and earn a living from it! Other than that, I guess I have to say the whole MoMA experience. As someone with zero qualifications in art, standing there in that moment was pretty special.

Cinema Redux at Design and the Elastic Mind MoMA. Copyright MoMA New York
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring designers?

Own your difference. Don’t try and be like others and don’t follow trends. Put yourself into the work—that’s what people will want if you do it enough. Realise that the older you get the less you know, so keep learning things, born out of curiosity.

You can find more of Brendan’s fascinating work on his website and on his Produced for Use page.

Artist relations

Amy is part of our artist relations team here at Serif. Amy loves going for walks with her little boy and going to the gym, which she offsets by drinking tea and eating biscuits. Get in touch with Amy if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, she always loves getting great creative work in her inbox, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

All images copyright of Brendan Dawes.