Art director Alice Ray reveals five key influences behind her concept-driven images
The Tank Magazine contributor on mistakes, climate change, and the tyranny of minimalism.
“Occasionally when I have enough time I like to just get on a bus and get off at a random stop to find different parts of London I didn’t know were there,” says art director Alice Ray when asked about her daily routine. “It’s strange that we spend most of our lives thinking, I have to be here at this time, and here at that time, and then come home by this time and before we know it we’re dead.”
It’s this type of irreverent humor that the 30-year-old Londoner channels into the editorial spreads she directs. For the cover art of Tank magazine’s summer issue, for instance, Ray used the tagline—too hot to handle—as the inspiration for an image that depicted the Tank logo sunburnt onto a woman’s chest like a name necklace. In this character’s hand, an ice cream drips pathetically, no match for the bright glare of the midday sun.
While subtle, the cover design references our rapidly warming planet as well as iconic photographs of British tourists by Martin Parr. “I think when an image draws you in it’s usually because something’s being communicated to you, even if you don’t immediately know what it is,” Ray explains, adding that she’s drawn to covers “when there’s really a story there, instead of just decoration.”
Accordingly, Ray says her process starts with “a lot of information, questions, feelings, imagery, observation” that she starts to filter and edit as if through a “subconscious sieve” in her mind. Organization is key. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without having some sort of filing system,” she says. “I use Pinterest boards as my sketchbooks and I’m constantly adding to different projects on there, as well as a more general board, which is a jumbled up mess of photos I take, pieces of text, a load of found imagery, and sketches.”
“For years I thought I should be like other people because they impressed me a lot more than I impressed myself.”
Like many British millennials, the first magazine she bought as a child was Smash Hits, a music publication geared towards teenagers. Later, she graduated to alternative rock magazine Kerrang “because you got free CDs, and I played the tracks with the most amount of screaming at top volume to annoy my parents.” Surprisingly, one thing she was never really into was fashion magazines. “Honestly, the first one that was not completely underground that interested me was Tank—but then I would say that.”
After studying illustration at Camberwell University of the Arts, Ray began her career in display and visual merchandising and then brand consultation before moving into art direction. “For the first time in my life I feel like I can use my voice and express myself in a way I haven’t let myself before,” she says of her career transition. “I think for years I thought I should be like other people because they impressed me a lot more than I impressed myself. I’ve been through a lot of phases, and I’ve tried out different things, but they all made me feel like I had to change in some way to be able to do it.”
Now, though, Ray is free to make the kind of images she felt were missing in the world. “It’s interesting,” she says, “because the journey to what I’m doing now has been this messy, long fractured road towards something that feels a lot clearer.”
Five topics and visual influences behind Alice Ray's work
"My first thought [when planning this cover] was about what’s going on environmentally because I couldn’t get it out of my head. And I thought of the tagline 'Too hot to read'—so it started with that.
I thought of how Martin Parr photographs British holidayers with unvarnished surveillance, and I wanted the image and character to have that feeling. But also to add this layer of a not so far away moment in an extreme climate that we can no longer ignore, one that’s ruining our ice creams and our tans. People really start to care about issues when they see how it could affect their comforts. But I think I was just processing this on a subconscious level, I wasn’t trying to force the subject at all. And the image also has a light side; there’s something funny about this moment because people’s ice creams melt all the time, and especially in Britain, people are always getting burnt as soon as the sun comes out."
Mud in an anime film.
"For me, the beauty in advertising is in the surface of the image. I think surfaces are selling us what we want to embody—an idea of our own perfected youth. But what they’re encasing with that surface, someone else’s perfect body, for example, is what makes it seem more problematic. If the nature of the content underneath it is changed I think something interesting can happen.
A more specific observation that stayed with me after I binge-watched a load of anime a few years back, was thinking how the surface that is presented in anime made everything look so clean and so ideal looking, even things like mud became clean, unreal, polished, and kind of aspirational. After that, I saw this image in my mind of this shoe with loads of mud on it, which was the starting point for the project. We collaborated with an artist called Reva who I found on DeviantArt to add a layer into every picture."
Pictures of print gone wrong.
"There’s a tendency to only look at things that have been made to be looked at, which feels very obedient, and I think it’s why we live in a world where we see so much of the same of everything, same imagery, same designs, same stories, and the same ideas of beauty.
This also influences what people ascribe cultural value to, and why other things might not be included in our understanding of what is considered cultural, which for me is just another way of saying something is worthy of our attention.
This project was just all about looking at those things that I think we see all the time, particularly within print and how mistakes can happen and contexts change with this format. That seems funny as well as beautiful to me and just something I see as part of our culture whether we try to ignore it or not.
The beauty that occurred felt like the least important thing going on, but also a result of something unexpected. I think by not taking beauty in and of itself so seriously, we can look at everything instead of blocking out or trying to escape the mess or mistakes."
Screenshot of a Sim walking into a pool with her baby.
"I rediscovered this twitter feed a while ago called @thesimslogic that I used to have an unhealthy obsession with. It was basically a bunch of found screenshots of these ridiculous moments in The Sims caused usually by a glitch in the game with a meme caption accompanying it. I started playing the game again, which made me want to recreate some of these moments that happened, as well as making up some imagined moments like the image of our ‘sim’ throwing grass in the air and rubbing grass in her face. Pretty much every other image, including this one, came from a reference from the game. Sometimes the odd scenarios were to do with the common glitches that pretty much everyone who played it experienced at some point, as well as the combined personality traits you got to choose for your sim which made them do these really strange but also hilarious things."
The Minimalist Epidemic.
"In the last decade or so, there’s been a clear change in the definition of good taste; it’s minimal, it’s Scandinavian or Japanese influenced, and vaguely wholesome in its apparent rejection of decoration and exaggerated displays of wealth. While some of these developments can be seen as positive, at the same time, I think it has come to signal a fearful avoidance or rejection of complexity. I wanted to reframe the way that you might look at what is usually seen as the messy, out of control aspects of design; the parts of our homes that we want to hide away, the wires behind computers and under the table that become dusty because we forget to clean what we don’t consider a part of our furniture. I love looking at wires for some reason. I do actually just find them beautiful, but I also know most people prefer that they remain hidden, so we can believe in a reality that is seamless, wireless, smooth, and more simple."