Blurred Lines: The Designer-Director


By Alex Reeves

Tom Hingston talks us through his unique flavour of graphic-influenced directing.

We hear it all the time: a new epoch is dawning. With the advent of the Information Age, everyone has had to re-evaluate their position in the world. Roles and priorities have shifted so drastically that many of our old definitions seem futile. The labels we put on people seem limiting in the face of the range of tasks we now perform in our working roles.

Tom Hingston is the embodiment of these blurring lines. The foundation of his career was as a graphic designer, but in recent years his work has spilled over into what we used to call directing. With his studio behind him (aptly dubbed Tom Hingston Studio), he’s represented on RSA Films’ Design roster. His position raises the question – what do we call his job?

The reality of today’s multimedia, multiplatform world is that creative briefs are never as simple as the posters, print campaigns and TVCs of the past. “There are so many other channels that need to be considered,” says Tom. With RSA – a company with a strong filmmaking pedigree – recently launching a dedicated roster of graphic designers, including Tom, it’s easy to see how these worlds are colliding.

So where does designing end and directing begin? Tom doesn’t bother making this distinction between visual channels. “For me, a contemporary visual designer is someone that can work in both print, digital and moving image. I think anyone working in this kind of area and taking a contemporary approach should be able to transfer their skillset and visual sensibilities to any one of those areas.”

Tom’s keen to stress that being able to work across media is nothing new. His design heroes – people like Robert Brownjohn and Saul Bass – were some of the graphic design greats, but they worked across disciplines too, working on projects from film to furniture.

The key difference is peoples’ attitudes to this jack-of-all-trades approach. Technology and converging media have gotten us used to people with multiple talents. It’s easier to learn various skills now and the equipment is not nearly so prohibitively priced. Creative hardware and software isn’t exclusive to individuals or organisations with deep pockets anymore, meaning normal people can make professional quality film, design or music from their bedrooms.

One effect of this democratising change is that clients have opened their minds too. “In the early years it took quite a lot of persuasion for clients to accept that you could do a bit of digital, or more moving image, even though your background is predominantly print,” remembers Tom. “I think that’s changing. Clients are much more open to the idea that one agency has the skillset to look after all aspects of a project.”

Tom didn’t grow up with ambitions to direct film, but was always interested in the visual arts. “For as long as I remember I’ve always wanted to do something visual. I think when you get to your early teens you realise that you’re not going to be able to have a job just drawing stuff, so the next best thing is graphic design.”

He studied graphic design at St Martins and when he left he went to work for Neville Brody, the original art director of The Face and Arena magazines, where he stayed for three years. Designing for clients from Sony Playstation to Deutsche Bank and working on film titles for Michael Mann, he describes it as a sort of pupillage. And it was the ideal place to learn. “It was really mixed and diverse projects and that definitely had a massive influence on me. You should strive not to be pigeonholed. Creatively it’s so much more interesting and rewarding to work across very different areas. And what you find is that if the breadth is that wide then all those things feed into one another.”

When Tom got around to setting up his own studio 18 years ago, the backbone of his professional beliefs and ambitions had been formed. Diversity of styles and mediums became a central tenet of his work.

He produced some applauded work for prominent clients, but wasn’t content with always keeping his design static. “I always felt that there were certain projects where you’d have an idea and when you saw it in print it was frozen in this moment in time. You had aspirations for it to be more than that and moving image allows you to do that because you’re dealing in time as well. There’re more possibilities, greater depth.”

Title sequences were his first step in his transition from static design to moving imagery. Tom agrees it certainly didn’t count as proper directing, but it was certainly a stepping stone. “If you’re a graphic designer with a typographic strength, which I always was, the idea of that leaping off the page and moving is really exciting.”

It was also helpful due to the fact that it meant working with directors, often for months on end. Collaborating with people like Anthony Minghella, Joe Wright and Anton Corbijn, Tom gradually gained an understanding of filmmaking. This was one of the vital periods in giving him the confidence to make himself into a director. “You get more and more comfortable with the idea that maybe that’s something you could experiment [with] or try,” he says.

Having art directed stills for many years, collaborating with photographers to create visual worlds and campaigns, Tom’s foundation of skills was already strong before he first got behind a video camera. “I definitely see directing moving image as an evolution of that process in many ways,” he says. “A lot of the aspects of collaborating with a photographer or DOP to create something visual are incredibly similar.”

His first time working on film was for two Dior commercials in 2004, working with photographer Nick Knight. “That was the first time I was sat behind a camera, albeit with someone else.” He remembers the confidence he gained by being privy to the whole process during and after a live action shoot like that. “Your confidence grows, your ambition grows and the next stage is doing that on your own.”

That moment eventually came around in the form of a unique project for Nokia. They wanted films to display on the interior walls of their flagship stores around the world. “Each store had a kind of inner skin that was pixel based. They commissioned a whole series of image-makers and young filmmakers to create ambient content that would go onto these screens. It was a great project because it didn’t need to be branded, just whatever you produced needed to encapsulate the values of the brand.”

Tom and the studio produced three films – two live action and one animated. He didn’t see himself as a true director yet, but he was building confidence.

Since then Tom Hingston Studio has worked on more title sequences, campaign films for Farrell, Mappin & Webb, and three music videos – one for Robbie Williams and two for David Bowie. Tom really went in at the top when it came to his music video career.

The studio also worked on a huge project for British audio brand Naim that encapsulates everything this hybrid of designer-director promises. The brief was to bring their branding up to date and to create a dynamic, cross-platform launch for Naim’s first wireless system, mu-so. This included the brand website as well as a campaign film – the biggest commercial film project Tom’s worked on to date.

It was a massive job, entailing six months of development from the studio, working in collaboration with Davy Evans, the designer behind the most recent campaign for the xx. “It’s developing a really distinct, strong and contemporary visual language for a brand,” says Tom. The film is halfway between a music video and a graphic design project, “performance but with a strong graphic sensibility. Even the way the dancers were lit was very graphic, treating the form as a piece of design.”

The designer-director fusion is a welcome asset to the diverse landscape of commercial filmmaking, and Tom feels there’s a unique contribution to be made by filmmakers like himself. “Whatever I do will always have a really strong language and look. Colour and composition are both inherent in design and it’s a sensibility that you definitely take into filmmaking. I guess the difference between me and someone who’s come straight out of film school is that they would do something much more narrative based and the focus would be much more about the characters and dialogue and all of those strengths.”

That said, Tom’s keen to expand those parts of his work too. From his Farrell film to his work for Naim, he’s enjoyed working with performance. And says he’d like to do more storytelling with his films, rather than the pure aestheticism he often gets commissioned to do.

The vision of graphic design has often produced work that we’re happy to gaze at in awe, and while designers turning a hand to filmmaking may not be new, we should celebrate that it’s becoming more common in advertising. With companies like RSA opening dedicated design rosters and visual communication flowing more freely between platforms, we’re likely to see a lot more designer-directors like Tom.