Interview: Skyping with Noma Bar

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Read “Interview: Skyping with Noma Bar” written by Buzz Poole from the June 2013 issue of Print. The prolific designer and illustrator shares his process for incorporating color into his work. Pick up your copy of The Color Issue to read even more about color!

Even if you’ve never seen one of Noma Bar’s two books (full disclosure: I edited both of them), you’ve most likely encountered his eye-catching illustrations, which deceptively suggest simplicity but are in fact incredibly nuanced visual poems. His work has found its way into countless international media outlets, including “The Financial Times,” “The New Yorker,” “The Economist,” “ESPN Magazine” and “Men’s Health,” has launched novel reissues from Don DeLillo and Haruki Murakami, and has been the centerpiece of huge advertising campaigns for the likes of IBM. With deadlines looming, Bar took the time to speak with me via Skype.

“Pointed Sense” from “Cut It Out” installation at BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK . Photograph by Sarah Deane.

“Pointed Sense” from “Cut It Out” installation at BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK . Photograph by Sarah Deane.

How do you select the colors for your work? Do you think about the color palette as you begin sketching, or do the colors fill in once you’ve fleshed out the illustration?

I follow my instincts. Themes play a big part. The last three covers I’ve done have been red because of the themes: sex, gambling, love. But before color, it is the idea, and I see the ideas in black and white. If you strip down any song, instrument by instrument, to understand the rhythm, you just have the bass. That’s black and white for me. The other instruments fill in after that. A bass line is the foundation of a song, like black and white is for me when it comes to my work. First comes the shape.

But art directors and clients want color and have expectations about colors, so how do you deal with those expectations?

Name me a subject that can’t be associated with a color. All themes have a color. If you talk about ‘health,’ I see the turquoise of scrubs or the faded blues, greens and pinks of capsules. Right now I’m working on a piece about secretaries and bosses and how secretaries have become more significant in the workplace. The background is yellow because of the idea of the blonde secretary—the generic secretary. The article is actually about how secretaries have become more powerful, but something about the blonde secretary, something about the yellow makes it work. There are expectations with colors. In terms of commercial work, the clients know what they want. Culture has created these expectations. I can suggest pink for a business issue, but the client knows he wants blue. I fight for the ideas; I don’t argue about colors. When it comes to editorial, color is helping. Most of the time, I’m not challenging with color. In my case, there is enough enigma in understanding the story inside the illustration. I try not to confuse anyone with color.

Your visual style came into its own by virtue of churning out countless editorial illustrations. Today, you still do plenty of those, but your works also grace book covers, branding and identity campaigns, and gallery walls. Have you always seen your work possessing the potential to reach such a wide audience?

It has surprised me. I started out working on my own visual language. People responded to it—responded in a way that created demand in terms of work but also in terms of helping evolve my ideas.

For your ‘Cut It Out’ project, you designed a die-cutter inspired by the dog and cat image from the cover of ‘Negative Space.’ What was the inspiration behind this installation?

I was looking at my work and thinking, Why use color at all if you can cut out the form, truly emphasizing the shape? In my work, the shape, the idea, is the real experiment and color is secondary.

Read this article and explore more ideas about color in the new June 2013 issue of Print Magazine. Get your copy today!