GARBSTORE MEETS...

Chris Ashworth

Amidst the era-defining music from Radiohead, The Verve, Blur and countless others, Chris Ashworth was carefully deconstructing how we thought about magazine design. Originally designing lo-fi gig flyers, Chris shot to notoriety as Art Director for revolutionary magazine Ray Gun. His labor-intensive, hand-applied style, known as Swiss Grit, broke all the rules about layouts and page design, whilst establishing Ray Gun as the cultural centre of the bustling music scene of the time. We caught Chris at his home on the West Coast and picked his brain about what it was like living in that moment, establishing his unique style and his complicated relationship with a certain sans-serif font.

Words by: Robert Seneschall

Garbstore: Hi Chris! I first connected with your work a while back during an interview you did with Maekan, in which you talked about the various aspects that make up your work. For the readers not as familiar with you, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?


Sure, I have a double life. By day I’m a Creative Director at Microsoft and by night I’m an experimental designer and typographer. The latter is how I started my career back in the early nineties – flyers for club culture up in the north of England, followed by a stint at MTV in Camden Town working on the Music Awards with Anton Corbijn and then getting into designing 2 iconic alternative music magazines – the first was a UK title called Blah Blah Blah Magazine and then over in LA designing the ‘West Coast Bible of Music and Style’ called Ray Gun Magazine.

Over the last 5 years I restarted my personal work in the evenings and weekends which has included commissions by Diesel, Monster Children Magazine, WeTransfer and Adobe.

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David Bowie Opening Double Page Spread, Ray Gun Magazine Issue 44, 1997.
Design by Chris Ashworth.
Photograph by Ian Davies.

Garbstore: You are perhaps best known for your work with music magazine Ray Gun, where you oversaw the design of 15 issues. With the music that was coming out at the time and the artists gracing the covers, it must have been an exciting place to work. What was your experience of working at the magazine?

When I left design college in 1990 it was an incredibly exciting time for music and design. Electronic music was evolving towards an ultimately Nirvana-inspired alternative guitar-driven scene and a handful of UK designers/studios including Why Not Associates (Next Catalogues), The Designers Republic (Warp Records) and the west coast-based Rudy VanderLans (Émigré) and David Carson (Beach Culture Magazine) were spearheading a graphic design revolution fueled by experimental typography.

So when I cut my teeth in the north of England on graphic design work for lo-fi youth culture events it gave me an avenue to explore my own vision of what the revolution I found myself immersed in might be – and this experimentation ultimately landed me what was literally my dream job at Ray Gun Magazine. I designed 15 monthly issues, starting each from scratch – no grids or approach carrying over from one to another – burning three out of every four weeks including weekends pouring my heart and soul into designing the magazine.

Can you imagine being given advanced copies of music that was being featured in the mag – to play in my studio whilst I designed layouts to it…here’s a snapshot of what came out when I was there…Ultra, OK Computer, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, Urban Hymns, New Forms, The Fat of the Land, Dig Your Own Hole, Vanishing Point, Homework, In It For The Money, Portishead, Blur, Be Here Now, Homogenic, Dots and Loops…

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Petrol/Gas Station Sign, Cle Elum, WA, USA.
Photograph by Chris Ashworth.

Garbstore: During that time, you pioneered a style which came to be known as Swiss Grit, a style that can still be seen in your personal work today and is very distinctive, a kind of typographic collage maybe. Could you break down the elements that define the Swiss Grit style?

Yeh it wasn’t something that I set-out to ‘do’ but more of something that ended up getting originated out of two distinct influences over a long period of time. The first ‘Swiss’, references the Swiss Graphic Design of the 50s and 60s – a principle based, rigid approach to graphic design in service of delivering ‘clarity of communication’, think grids, negative space sans serif typography (E.g. Helvetica) and a fierce reduction of elements. The second ‘Grit’ in part was kickstarted by the grunge music scene and the energy that created but became much more about the ‘visual language of the street’ for me. I have a love of naturally distressed type, signage, posters…any ephemera one sees in the wild which has taken on a life of its own through natural distress – for instance a poster that’s weathered over time or a sign that’s been damaged in some way…these things to me begin to have a life and soul of their own which I find both fascinating and attractive. So ‘Swiss Grit’ is a blend of the two – the Swiss principles yet with a typographic aesthetic that has a soul.

Your process is totally analogue and labour intensive, instead of using any software to create your work, which means that mistakes can be made and are much harder to correct than in the digital realm. How do you approach mistake making and human error? Is it something that you incorporate into your work?

I finished a new post for Instagram yesterday that reads ‘Make mistakes every day’ which is a quote taken from a great designer called Erik Kessels. The mistakes are what make the work in my opinion. And mistakes for me can mean simply something happening that wasn’t intended, so I guess it’s ultimately about spontaneity, serendipity, and happenstance. I find that the most wonderful things happen when you force-quit, un-plug and take control with your hands and a piece of paper.

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18 Wheeler Truck Siding, Seabrook, WA, USA.
Photograph by Chris Ashworth.

"I find that the most wonderful things happen when you force-quit, un-plug and take control with your hands and a piece of paper."

Page detail from the book ‘Interference by John Holden, 1993.
Design by Chris Ashworth & Neil Fletcher.

Garbstore: The Letraset is a key tool of choice for you which allows you to apply a range of lettering of different fonts and sizes quickly and deliberately. From looking at your social media, you have a serious collection of these sheets, many of them rescued from destruction or sourced at garage sales. As you use them in your work, they themselves become more and more adherent to your personal style. Has there been a point where you considered a Letraset sheet to be a work in itself?

100%. When you have a sheet from the 80s that’s somehow made it to today, it has a quality akin to the ‘visual language of the street’ I was referring to earlier – because the type is ultimately ‘transferrable’ it just can’t help itself sticking to other sheets and over time degrading. I’ve done projects before where people have asked me how I created a particular typeface – when all I’ve done is scanned in a 40-year-old sheet of Letraset that oozes originality and soul. Priceless.

Garbstore: Music has obviously played a massive part in your career, from designing club flyers in Sheffield to doing the promo for the 1994 MTV Music Awards. Each personal work you create is also titled after what you were listening to, and often words and phrases from the songs are in the work themselves. How would creating without music impact your work do you think?

So, I’m working on my book at the moment and the opening sentence reads ‘I could live without graphic design and typography, but I could never live without music’. Everything I’ve ever designed has a piece of music in the background. Maybe I should try designing something in silence?

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Front Cover, Monster Children Magazine, Issue 65, 2020.
Design by Chris Ashworth.

Garbstore: I’m also quite taken by the grids you use in your personal work, which do act as a literal container for your work, although some do spill over the edges. How does your free flowing, scattered style correlate with a solid barrier that you work inside of?

Well, it’s the ‘precise Swiss’ fighting with the ‘chaotic Grit’ and being played out on a sheet of paper. I have this eye that must have a certain amount of order which stems from my design college days and then there’s all the later influences which bring the spilling out of the container…but I sometimes find myself cleaning up the edges!

You have been working in the corporate world for some time now, first with Getty and then Microsoft, which seems at odds to the kind of anarchistic, lo-fi, experimental style that you adopted in your early work. Is there a direct translation between the design work you do for Microsoft and your personal work, either in terms of the product or maybe even thought process?

They are both about communication and ideas. The rest is divergent.

It seems like you have an uneasy relationship with Helvetica, a typeface widely known and used for its legibility, versatility, and unassuming nature. Are there particular typeface’s that you find yourself drawn to and others that you feel you must stay away from?
I only ever use sans serifs. I hate Helvetica. I love Helvetica.

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David Bowie Cover, Ray Gun Magazine Issue 44, 1997.
Design by Chris Ashworth.
Photograph by Ian Davies.

Garbstore: To round this interview off, I’d like to ask about how you adjusted to life in the US when you moved over to take the roll of Art Director at Ray Gun. Culturally there must have been a shift between London and LA? Also, with David Carson having established Ray Gun’s signature style, was it daunting to establish yourself and put your own spin on the magazine?

Great question. This may sound odd, but LA/US felt like home from the minute I arrived. I grew up in the 80s, when the VHS arrived and so I saw the world though american cinema – a lot of american cinema from Lynch to Carpenter to Scorsese to Hooper to Ferrara to Mann to Parker to Cronenberg to Coppola to Kubrick to Hughes to Spielberg to Scott to…

And as for David Carson. You know what they say about your heroes.

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Andy Warhol Cover, Ray Gun Magazine Issue 58, 1998.
Photograph by Greg Gorman.
Illustration by Frank Maddocks.
Design by Chris Ashworth.