Poyner On Ballard and Adaptation

In today’s lecture, Spencer introduced to us that we will be looking closely at Rick Poyner in association with author J.D Ballard, and adaptation. This topic will be split into two sessions in which will focus separately on Graphic Design/Illustration, and Animation/Motion graphics.

Spencer informed us that we will be looking J.D Ballard’s book jackets for the novel “CRASH”. Book jackets are essentially the cover of a book, and should represent and reflect on the content. CRASH is quite a controversial novel and film due to its pornographic and explicit nature, however it also has quite a complex concept. Due to his post modernity attitude and exploration of adult content in his book “Pornotopia”, we were to be considering Rick Poyner, or “Porner” as accidentally quoted by Spencer., in relation to design criticism and interpretation of the novel.

Rick Poyner 

Rick Poynor is a writer, critic, lecturer and curator, specialising in design, photography and visual culture. He founded Eye, co-founded Design Observer, and contributes columns to Eye and Print. His latest book isUncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design. He is Visiting Professor in Critical Writing in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art, London. (http://designobserver.com/profile/rickpoynor/81)

Poyner and Postmodernism 

Spencer kick started the topic by asking us what we already knew of Rick Poyner. One student asked if he was a modernist; but in fact he was quite the opposite. Poyner was an innovator and leader within the postmodern period. Spencer then asked us what buzzwords define or sum up postmodernism. Words such as: Chaotic, Interpretation, Experimental and Expressive were used.

We then began to discuss postmodernism in terms of typography. Spencer explained that postmodernists used typography to tell something about the ambiance of the current culture. It was often used experimentally and wasn’t restricted to grid formats or structure. Therefore it was not always legible, and more so expressive. Some postmodernists even attempted typography mutation.  A key example Spencer used were Hieroglyphics as they provide a sense of the current culture.

Moving on from typography, we began to focus of Rick Poyner and discussed his book “Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture”. This was very much linked to the novel and film CRASH in which I will later explain. Poyner was very interested in the idea of desire and sexuality in terms of postmodernism. His book explores the way in which in contemporary culture, pornography is linked to commercial organisations. The example he used was WHSmith selling playboy branded products to children next to Hello Kitty. Over time, sex is becoming more normal to talk about, discuss and associate with. Although interested in desire and sexuality, Poyner has a problem with its representation. Poyner foregrounds how desire and pornography is everywhere and is interested in the artificial nature of pornography. When looking at the history of CRASH, it tells you about the culture at the time.

Spencer then gave a brief summary to the plot of CRASH:

James Ballard (Author’s name) meets Doctor Vaughan. Vaughan wants to die in a collision with Elizabeth Taylor. A small subculture of crash victims form. It focuses on re-enactment of celebrity car crashed and the derive for erotic pleasure.

Spencer than showed us a few clips from the film. This gave an insight as to the tone, and tests the audience’s controversy, taste and sympathy. Ballard describes it as a “Psychopath Hymn”. Like many cult books, such as A Clockwork Orange or Naked Lunch, it is quite surreal and open for interpretation- something that Ballard is very interested in. Rather than showing the exact clips, I have provided the trailer below.

To conduct a comparative analysis of existing covered Ballard collected different book jacket versions for CRASH. The core theoretical tensions are links to Freud and the dimension of surrealism. Poynor likes these representations and is a little biased towards them. Spencer explained that are are issues of fidelity to the text. author.


Chris Foss illustrated the film The Joy of Sex (1972). This was a pulp style exploration and had issues of fidelity to the author as it ad to be true and ambient to the novel. The illustration is realistic and appears to show a scene from the film- however there is no scene. The woman is naked on the floor and there is a ruined car in the background. Chris Foss considers the the principle iconographic elements. This version of book jacket is Ballard’s favourite as the image is striking and surreal but intrigues associations of the crash.

There is quite some difference between Chris Foss’ cover in comparison to the first book jacket published by Jonathon Cape in 1973. This cover shows a jutting gear stick presumably intended to be phallic. In the background shows a towering 3d title that takes up most of the cover. There is no sign of a particular scene, nor sexual references. Ballard thinks this is the worst interpretation of his novel and states it as “Monstrously bad”. The cover links to the bashed chrome lettering of the film’s title sequence, but Ballard didn’t think it reflected on the complexity of the novel.

Another version is from Cronenberg, who’s interpretation was also rather different. The cover shows the actors together in car, confronting the idea of sexual interplay, however other than that Ballard was disappointed with the lack of complexity and desire. The image shows nothing perverse and is actually quite normal- not surreal. Ballard likes certain aspects of the cover, but generally feels as though it doesn’t sell the story as well. In saying that, the normalization of the cover may have worked to its advantage as they might not have wanted something too controversial.

Ballardian: Crash

In 1973 there was a french version in which Ballard didn’t like. The cover shows the grille of the car morphed into a tongue. Although it misinterprets what the novel is saying and associated the vehicle with sexuality, I would have thought Ballard would like this cover as it quite surreal.

Ballardian: Crash

The 1985 version implied themes of fetish by focusing on S&M. However it was still quite normalized. Spencer commented by saying buying into this existing fetish is like buying into social representation. Portraying a known and average fetish makes it normalized- not challenging or surreal. This last is by James Marsh and shoes a red-lipped Amazon at the wheel, clad in studded leather. By 1993, the woman was reduced to a pair of pouting red lips framed by a shattered rear-view mirror. Although the cover is designed cleverly and effectively, it doesn’t quite show the controversy that CRASH implicates.

Ballardian: Crash

We then moved on to looking at book jackets designed by women. In these signs, the subject of knowledge is evaded and portrays a different engagement. Carin Goldberg’s 1985 cover received a negative review from Ballard. The use of New Wave typography transplants CRASH into an American Desert- similar to Chris Foss’ illustration. Ballard was very interested in Surrealism, in particular Salvador Dali who painted in the setting of deserts quite a lot. Spencer explained that there is a strong idea of Elizabeth Taylor in the novel and the whole story is frames around re-staging celebrity car crashes.

‘Photographer Clare Godfrey’s cover image for the 1995 UK edition treats Crash as a kind of ecstatic fairground ride. The hot neon colours and chaotic superimpositions relate to a scene in which Vaughan and the narrator cruise the expressways while under the influence of LSD, but the image is strangely depopulated and Crash’s relentless sexual content is suppressed.’

Ballardian: Crash

Poyner’s Favourite? 

Out of all the versions of Book Jackets, Poyner said that his favourite was Noonday Press US edition (1994).

Poyner found this cover to be interesting. He likes the fragmented grid structure and at the time, collage and photo montage was very popular. Poyner thinks that the glimpse of images intrigues the viewer and provides suggestions. Although peculiar, I didn’t mind Spencer’s lecture, and surprisingly understood it all. I quite liked analyzing ans comparing book jackets for CRASH. It is interesting how there can be so many interpretations for the same story.  The lecture was better than I had expected, brought some humour to the day and was definitely memorable.