Sailing the seas of poster design with The Good Ship

Brett Harris and James Lees of The Good Ship. Photo by Sam Scoufos.
Brett Harris and James Lees of The Good Ship. Photo by Sam Scoufos.

Sad news has reached the Unpaved desk that The Good Ship, the riotous and frequently bawdy Brisbane folk-rock ensemble, is about to make its final voyage. In these days of sometimes slapdash social media marketing, The Good Ship have always gone the extra mile with the design of their posters, so we thought it would be a good idea to ask drummer James Lees, also the founder and former owner/director of Posterbill, to have a chat to Brett Harris, singer, multi-instrumentalist, professional designer and Renaissance man, about creating compelling band artwork when your creativity exceeds your budget.  

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The Good Ship pride ourselves on writing and performing dark, dirty and frequently blackly comic songs in a humorous, occasionally debauched and chaotic fashion. But here is a little known fact – across our seven members we have two university project managers, a financial adviser, a doctor, a film producer, a social worker and a graphic designer. This makes us a highly functional little ecosystem – we can run the business, balance the books, manage our projects, make film clips, design posters and album covers and even, if required, write a prescription. Being the drummer, I am usually the most organised person in the band and so it falls to me to write design briefs and work on branding and marketing with our resident graphic designer Brett Harris. This usually takes the form of me harassing him via text and email about looming deadlines. Even so, over our six-and-a-bit years together we have produced a huge amount of ideas and imagery that have gone out as album covers, social media, posters, T-shirts and postcards. The band is calling it a day soon with two final shows coming up in May, in Melbourne and Brisbane. We decided to corral almost all of our posters for a bit of fun. While I was at it, I had a (rare) serious chat with Brett about what it’s like being in a band and also being the resident designer.

How is designing original artwork for your own band different from designing for a project you are not creatively invested in as a musician and songwriter.

Designing original artwork for any project is like putting cream on a cake. Designing original artwork for your own band is a bit like putting the cream on a cake and licking the spatula. When it’s your own creative project, it means you can transfer that artistry into a new medium. So you love the visual aspect almost as much as you love the song; it’s all part of a greater whole. You don’t get that same sense of connection when you do it for other people.

The street poster has a long history of being used as a promotional tool to reflect and support arts and music events, going back centuries, and also as a very European tradition. How do you see the role of the street poster in our current era of social media, digital technology and decline of printed ephemera?

I’m still a big fan of the street poster. It’s tactile and ephemeral and it rots on walls and it reminds you of the local scene even when you’re not looking directly at it. It’s the wallpaper (literally) to our venues. Social media is a fickle bitch. It might be cheaper (currently) than a poster run, but you have to work it twice as hard, to make any effective contact. Besides, no one ever comes up to you after a show and asks you to sign your event page. Posters live on bedroom walls long after the band has packed up and gone home.

As a designer and artist, what do you feel looking back over 6 years of poster and album cover artwork of The Good Ship? And how would you evaluate your progression as a graphic designer?

As a designer and artist, looking back at six years of poster and album artwork for The Good Ship makes me feel great, and also cringe a little. You’re never really happy with the finished art, no matter how much time you spend on it. But regardless of how critical I might be of my own work, you look back and know that it did the job it was purposed to do. It brought the people in and it helped share the idea. Only a few people will be as hung up on the kerning sins of a poster, as I am; most people just see a good memory of a great night out. As for progression as a designer over the years, you can certainly see my style evolve. But I’ve always been that same designer, it’s more that the style of the band evolved. Our content and our message changed, matured even (slightly) and the artwork followed suit. For example, we realised people responded well to photos of us, more than faceless illustrations. So I started spending more time collaborating with other people and conceptualising photography. It helped having a producer in the band; she always sorted us out with the best photographers.

Is it the graphic designer’s job to reflect the content of a project? Or bring a new dimension to it.

I really think it is the designer’s job to reflect the content of a project, first and foremost. Then afterwards, if you can at all bring a new dimension to the table, you should do it. Being so close to the projects made that difficult for me, at times. Perhaps in hindsight, having another artist do the work would have surprised us with a fresh perspective – like getting a music producer to develop your album. But we’re an independent band. That means we never had a lot money to pay for art. And artists that work on your posters and album covers deserve to be paid as much as you do as a musician. Maybe even more so, when they are not invested in the project. So yeah, we did it ourselves, indie and impoverished. It all paid off.

Are you going to miss me screaming at you about artwork deadlines?

You’ll always be screaming at me. We live together.

The Good Ship poster collage

Brett & James along with the rest of The Good Ship are doing their farewell tour, dubbed ‘La Petite Mort’ with shows at The Spotted Mallard, Melbourne (16 May) and The Zoo, Brisbane (23 May). Full show details and ticket sales are on their website www.thegoodship.com.au

About Les Thomas 26 Articles
Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor Follow @les_thomas on Twitter