Barcelona’s hottest illustrator talks to Digital Arts about his type-driven illustrations.
“More is more,” announces Alex Trochut in the introductory statement of his website – and this is a fair description of his artworks.
The Barcelona-based freelance illustrator and graphic designer has earned himself a name for his striking, geometric images, in which no curve is left without a little flourish, no line is left without a slight gradient to give the image depth and sheen.
You get the feeling that he works zoomed in to about 800 per cent. Yet despite this, his designs have a crispness that makes them instantly recognizable: Trochut knows when to embellish, but he also knows when to stop.
And even if you don’t recognize the name, you probably know the work – Trochut designed the cover for the launch issue of Peaches Geldof’s heavily touted magazine Disappear Here, creating a semi-abstract black and gold skull design with the headline embedded in the image.
His work has also appeared on ads, posters and other projects for superbrands – including Cadbury’s, Adidas, Nike, and British Airways – while his editorial commissions include the Guardian’s G2 supplement, the Economist, Wired, Channel 4 and US art magazine Beautiful Decay.
He alternates these projects with designs for smaller brands, events, and festivals, where he can push the boundaries. It’s an approach that works – he’s won a devoted international following that covers the whole spectrum, from cutting-edge art directors to type geeks.
When we caught up with him he was preparing to give presentations at conferences in Mexico, Spain, Ireland and Switzerland.
Does your interest in lettering come from typography training?
I didn’t do a lot of typography at art school, but I did get a chance to explore it when I was working at Explicit, a studio in Berlin. They were developing a typeface, and I had the opportunity to work with them on one or two weights, from light to bold.
That was a really good experience for me – I learned how to look at shapes, and how to understand the proportions of letters. It was only for a summer, but I learned a lot of visual discipline from it.
You’re the grandson of a famous typographer, Joan Trochut. Did this lead you to typography?
My grandfather worked in the 1940s – he developed a system for giving fast, easy, cheap solutions for lead type for printers, but he died before I was born, and the connection with design in my family was lost. I was keen to learn about typography when I was studying design, and many of my teachers taught his typography.
That’s where I learned that my grandfather wasn’t just a printer; my family had always called him a printer and a painter. My own interest in lettering before I knew about my grandfather was totally coincidental – but it’s also been nice for me to follow in his steps – it’s a kind of connection to history.
Do you feel that you’re at risk of being pigeonholed?
Yeah, of course – you get a little drowned by your own style sometimes, but the thing is, that’s your own responsibility: you have to find a style, then it will work for a while, because it will become your own formula, because you know how to do it, and people will like it for a certain time.
But then you have to force yourself to be bold and not stick to that, because it will expire. So what I try to do is this: commercial work doesn’t often want to take risks, so they refer to your other work, to things you’ve done before, and although they don’t want you to repeat it, they want you to adapt it slightly.
So I do my own projects too, in between commercial ones, so that I can experiment and find styles. So you keep generating more styles to show to clients in the future so that I don’t stick to only one style.
Who are your biggest influences?
So many people – from Alfons Mucha [a Czech Art Nouveau artist] to other people from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movement. I really like the designers from the 1960s who were working in a more illustrative, more experimental way, people like Milton Glaser, and also people from the 1980s – like [US skateboard artist] Jim Phillip.
From today, I’m a big fan of people like Mayo Hugo, Si Scott, and Non Format. Also, I’m really influenced by nature – I think that’s my main source of inspiration. When you run out of ideas, the thing to do is go to the Discovery Channel or YouTube and find some weird images of nature.
What current illustration trends do you like at the moment?
Let’s see. I really like the combination of geometry and organic forms. I’m also a big fan of lithographic imaging: it’s really intricate and detailed, so you’re mixing simplicity with something imperfect and natural – that can sometimes have surprising and amusing results.
I also like the trends that use other materials outside digital tools – traditional oil painting, or paper folding, which I really love at the moment.
How would you define your style?
I would say that it’s a mix of geometry and organic shapes, like what we were saying earlier. Also I try to be really detailed without constraining myself, trying to make things fit into a bubble sometimes, and trying to contain shapes into a general structure. So it’s baroque, but it also has to be very controlled.
What’s the role of symmetry in your work?
I don’t like to just flip images – it’s an easy solution that doesn’t always work. I really like it if the positioning has an element of symmetry, but not so much that both parts are exactly even – it’s just like a visual balance on both sides, you see a symmetry in that, but it’s not like having a totally symmetrical image.
Do you create your work digitally?
At the beginning I sketch a little bit, but 80 per cent of the process is digital. I use Freehand, and Photoshop. I’d love to know how to use 3D packages, but I’ve never had the time. Instead I have to imagine how it would be – 3D packages help you understand how lighting and perspective would work. Instead I have to fake it in Photoshop.
How does your editorial work differ from your commercial work?
I don’t think there’s that much difference – of course, the briefs are different, but the way to handle them is pretty much the same. The editorial work I do tends to be about making the illustrated headlines, so there are a lot of links with commercial campaigns.
Of course, the product is different – sometimes it’s just like selling a beer in a campaign, whereas in editorial it can be more intellectual and complex – the way I approach it is much the same: I try to understand the references, the style we could apply there, and to make a composition that seduces the eye. I try to make it so that you see the text is slightly hidden in the image, so that rather than first reading it and then seeing the image it’s the other way around.
You look at it as an image first, and you then realize there’s text there. Of course I work with the text from the very beginning, but then the image gets a lot more detailed, so that people discover on the second glance that there’s text hidden inside it.
Do you find that your work gets imitated often?
Yeah, it happens quite a lot. But in the end, there’s a good side and a bad side. People often use your style as a reference, a way to understand the style, and I think the best way to understand how something is done is just to copy it.
When this happens people are just imitating your style as an exercise to help their own evolution, to learn how to get good results. It’s actually a really good thing to do – it forces you to wake up and try something new.
What really pisses me off is when you see commercial work [that imitates Trochut’s style] and people are making money from it. I don’t think that’s right – even on a simple design you can spend many hours thinking about it and working on it.
But the Internet is really intelligent in this regard – people know where things come from, and of course there will always be people who are tricky and do whatever they want, but [people on] the Internet usually know and are quick to call out any cheating. So you feel covered by that.
What’s Barcelona’s design scene like at the moment?
Barcelona appeals to many creative people around the world, living in a kind of healthy creative pressure. Everybody is trying to do something different – it’s a good atmosphere.
Then there is the bad side: there’s only one apple for everybody so you only get a bite of it, it can be really, really competitive. It’s especially hard at the moment.
Your cover for Disappear Here got a lot of attention. Could you tell us a bit about the project?
The brief was to have text – ‘50 things we love’ – and a great image inspired by the text to make the cover catchy. They referenced work I did for the Guardian, and from these ingredients the image appeared.
One thing I found when I started working on it was that the inside edge of the ‘50’ started looking like a face, so it was as though the text was giving me the answer: the ‘50’ could be like two eyes, and the letters could be like the teeth, so the face was more complete.
Then the area around the mouth also looks like a heart, which references the ‘love’ bit of the title, so it’s like three images in one: the text, the heart, and the face.
It was a great opportunity – it’s always nice when you work with art directors who trust you, and where the intention of the project is clear. Also, of course, it’s good to work on the cover, as it’s the main image of a magazine.
Which other clients have you enjoyed working for?
I really enjoy working with Non Format, because they’re very good art directors – they know what they want, and what the next step is when you’re lost and feeling like, “What should we do now?” they’ll be like, “OK, let’s try and move this way.”
They don’t tell you what to do, but they know what they want and they know how to use their skills to get to your idea.
It’s always a good process working with them. I don’t have favourite projects – what makes a good project is when the client knows from the beginning that you are on the same side, and they understand what you do, and the way you work.
The worst thing is when you’re trying to do something that the client’s still not ready for, or the client doesn’t know for sure what he wants, or they didn’t clearly imagine what they need.
But it’s getting easier, because I’m working with different clients from all over the world – clients contact me through the website, so they know what I do and they expect something consistent with my other work, so it’s not a big fight.
Do you feel that the web and online publishing pose a risk for type-based illustrators and artists?
I’m a 300dpi man, not a 72dpi man. I really hope I don’t have to adapt to a 72dpi world, because you lose a lot of detail, and that’s discouraging. I’m not keen on the idea of a future where everything’s screen-only – I hope I can stick with paper forever.
I spend a lot of time on the details of an image, and on Internet publications and other screen-based media, it’s faster and you don’t take the time to look at it. I love print much more – you have more detail and more control over the image.
Trochut’s monogram, designed as a personal project.
Detail from Trochut’s G2 cover illustration.
A cover for the Guardian’s G2 section.
A cover design for Los Angeles-based art magazine Beautiful Decay.
Cover image for Spanish art and design magazine Etapes.
Type treatments for watch brand Nixon.
Part of an alphabet project, in which S represented street sports – including skateboarding.
Trochut says that he aims for a striking image where the text isn’t the immediate focus.