Sam Ashby: Graphic Designer, Magazine Publisher and Movie Fan

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Filmgoers may not know the name of London-based designer Sam Ashby, but they’ve probably seen his work. He created the posters for acclaimed independent releases like Archipelago, A Prophet and Weekend, British director Andrew Haigh’s microbudget gay romance. A keen cinephile, he embarked on an ambitious side project in 2010, with Little Joe (“a magazine about queers and cinema mostly”). The third issue went on sale this month, and covers a diverse range of film-makers, from underground figures like George Kuchar, to Ken Russell and Terence Davies. He spoke to me about some of his recent projects and his preference for print, in a marketplace dominated by all things digital.

Who or what gave you the impetus to become a designer?

My father is an architect, so I think I spent a long time running away from design and not wanting to follow in his footsteps. I always wanted to try something different and for a while design was too close. I left university having done a theory course (art history essentially) and I then spent a year twiddling my thumbs. I tried to get into film production and eventually found my way into a film company [Empire Design, based in central London] that was producing posters and doing trailers. I got very interested in the poster side.

Did you start out working on campaigns for mainstream films?

Empire was mainstream, but it also had a very good ethos that was all about good clean design. I really loved what they were doing. I was just a runner for 8 months, delivering packages and making tea. But I did spend a lot of time hanging out with the designers, asking them annoying questions. That’s basically where I learned what I do. Then when I left I asked them for two weeks’ work experience and they gave me one, in the design studio! So I did a few posters and it turned out I was quite good.

What was your first poster design?

It used to be on my website. It was for Breakfast on Pluto [Neil Jordan’s 2005 comedy drama with Cillian Murphy as the flamboyant Patrick “Kitten” Braden]. I’m not even sure whether they ever sent it to the film company, but it was in our portfolio and I think it got some good comments. It’s one of my favourites.

Now that you have your own company [Sam Ashby Studio], how does the commissioning process work?

It depends on the level you’re going for. Most of time you’re working with UK film distributors. Then there’s a whole other section of the industry which is the sales side and they’re trying to sell to distributors at markets like Cannes. So there you’re working for the sales agents who produce the films. In those cases the film is often not even finished, so as a designer you’re working with minimal tools. For most part, though, it’s distributors and we’d normally be pitching against one or two other studios.

Do designers usually rely on looking at trailers and stills, or is it important to have seen the whole film when you start work on a campaign?

I always see the films. I’m trying to distil an entire film into one image. But I don’t know about others. Book jacket designers don’t always read the books!

Andrew Haigh’s Weekend was different though, because the posters were developed from the work of photographers Quinnford + Scout ( How did you get involved?

I’m a friend of the director Andrew Haigh. I worked with him on Greek Pete, which was his first film. We did three versions of the poster for the festival release, all based heavily on the photographs by Quinnford + Scout. Andrew was very inspired by their work and tried to carry it over into the production design and cinematography. I don’t know how much my work was tied up with the film’s success at the 2011 SXSW (South by Southwest) Festival, but I remember Andrew saying people were asking to buy the posters even then. When the film got picked up in UK by Peccadillo Pictures, they wanted to do something different. Initially I was quite reluctant, but in the end we went with a design that tells more of a story, which they felt they had to do. I’m much happier with original posters.

How frustrating is it to see your pristine design concepts buried under lots of poster quotes and star ratings?

It’s something I get very angry about. With Weekend in particular I had real wrestling match with them over quotes. I felt I had a beautiful balanced composition and then they wanted to throw loads of quotes at it. So my job now as a poster designer is to shoehorn in loads of superfluous quotes and try and make it look nice. Sometimes you get companies who are brave enough to go for quad poster with maybe just one quote. Sometimes I have to tell myself you’re in advertising, you’re not an artist! Though I like to think there is still a level of artistry in what I do.

How did you approach designing new posters for this year’s four classic Ealing Studios releases [Whisky Galore!, Went the Day Well?, Kind Hearts & Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob]?

People who know those films can see that I’ve cherry-picked ideas from different versions. So Whisky Galore! has previously used the idea of a giant bottle. This time instead of being bigger than an entire island, it’s a giant, surreal washed-up bottle. Went the Day Well? is referencing a propaganda poster from the 1940s, but maybe it’s one of the more idealistic countryside visions of England. The one I was least happy with was the tree motif for Kind Hearts & Coronets, because there was so much referencing of different posters. I’ll be doing some more Ealing re-releases next year and I’m working on some older films for the BFI, including [Terrence Malick’s] Days of Heaven. I’ve just done Meet Me in St Louis, which was fun!

What do you think is the main challenge of designing for independent releases, as opposed to blockbusters and franchise movies?

Well, something like the Twilight campaign would be challenging for my Photoshop skills! Unfortunately the nature of the market now is that smaller films are still struggling to do well. Marketing people seem to be taking a lead from the mainstream cinema and trying to appeal to as many people as possible. They think they have to spoon feed audiences because people will always just go with what’s familiar. So comedy posters always end up looking white, with big, bold red type . . . It makes my job quite frustrating to see that nice ideas still get watered down even within this smaller, art house market.
How successful are you at striking that balance between commercialism and art house with your designs?

There are definitely concepts I’ve pitched for posters where I felt I toed a very good line between the two camps – only to see the final product being completely for the mainstream. I feel I did perhaps my best ever work on a pitch for We Need to Talk About Kevin – it almost made it through. I used same font [as the final version], because it’s the one that’s used in the film, but in a much more interesting way. My design was playing off the mirroring and the idea that she [Kevin’s mother Eva, played by Tilda Swinton] sees herself in him. It’s the conceit of the film, which I think they weren’t prepared to deal with because they just wanted it to sell on the name.

What about the impact of digital technology – do you ever use a pencil?

Yes, often I’ll sketch drawings that look similar to my final concept. I like to have one stage in the “real” world — it helps develop the composition. I’m working now on the designs for Soda Pictures’ new documentary about WG Sebald, which is based on the path he took for The Rings of Saturn. There I have a clear concept of how I want it to look and I’ll do variations on that central idea. I don’t think digital has made people lazy, though. If anything, it’s had a democratising effect — there are just so many different areas you can design for now.

There are websites and blogs catering for all cinematic tastes, so why launch Little Joe as a limited edition film magazine?

That’s a very good question and one I’m still struggling to understand. I design for print essentially. I’m not interested in designing for online. When it came to my own project it was always going to be a physical object. I’d always wanted to do a magazine; it was just a question of what it would be about. At one point I wanted to do an architecture ‘zine, but when we finally came up with Little Joe it was such a clear quick idea, that it just stuck.

Did you read a lot of magazines when you were growing up?

I grew up at same time as the internet, but there were no online magazines and no iPads. I was growing up with The Face and i-D. I was completely obsessed with magazines as a child. I would pull out whole pages and create wallpaper for my room from images I found in magazines. My bathroom wall is still plastered with images from The Face.

Is there a theme for Issue 3 of Little Joe?

The whole issue is bookended by loss. George Kuchar [who features on the cover and is interviewed by Ed Halter] died in September as we were planning. Then Ken Russell died just as we were going to press. So the issue itself is dark and preoccupied with death in some ways, but I think it’s also a forward thinking issue compared with the previous two, which were quite nostalgic. I’ve also written for this one. It’s the first time I’ve presented my own work (other than design). I did interviews with [Tomboy director] Céline Sciamma and with Andrew Haigh. I also wrote an essay on Derek Jarman’s sets for The Devils.

How do you see the magazine developing?

This is a labour of love and seeing how people have responded has been incredible. The fact that we’ve doubled our print run each time proves that there is a need for it. [Issue 3 is a run of 1,000 copies.] Next year we’re also doing a monthly screening programme in London. One month it will be at the Rio in Dalston and the next month it will be at the Cinema Museum in Kennington.

Are there any contributors on your “wish list” for future issues?

I’d love to get Todd Haynes and Tilda Swinton. But I like the idea of people you wouldn’t expect and who are not necessarily related to film. I’d also like to talk to Madonna about all her strange film choices!

Little Joe No. 3 is out now and is available from

Susannah Straughan

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  1. […] Sam Ashby: Graphic Designer, Magazine Publisher and Movie Fan …By SusannahFilmgoers may not know the name of London-based designer Sam Ashby, but they've probably seen his work. He created the posters for acclaimed independent releases like Archipelago, A Prophet and Weekend, British director Andrew …Sound On Sight […]

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