The Miles Davis Online Interview: Heath Killen

(Artist Series, Volume 15)

We recently posted a terrific teaser poster for the Miles Davis Biopic from talented graphic designer/illustrator Heath Killen. Since then I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time checking out Killen’s work on his official website.

Let me say right now that his unofficial gallery of Criterion Collection DVD covers is awesome! A combination of digital and handmade techniques, innovative typography and fresh colors, Killen’s work is a prime example of why graphic design is such a compelling and exciting creative process to follow – and enjoy.

I’ll keep my usual yammering light today because I’d rather get right to the interview with Killen. I recently contacted Heath down in Australia and he was nice enough to chat about Miles Davis, the biopic and design. Heath also said we could feature some of his work, so we chose a few favorites!

Miles Davis Online: Your teaser poster design for the Miles Davis Biopic is terrific; stylish, uncomplicated and cool. How did you arrive at this particular design idea?
Heath Killen: There are so many classic Miles Davis images, but I’ve always loved this one. It just seems to capture the essence of the man and the musician. There’s a raw beauty to it, and feels like an image that appeals to both the hardcore fans and the broader audience. I’m sure that even the most casual fan could identify the image as Miles from a glance. It’s simply a wonderful shape too. I’ve seen it reduced to a simple silhouette and used as a logo, and it’s still just as effective used that way as it is blown up as a photograph on a poster. This makes it an incredibly powerful and potent image in my books.

Another testament to the power of the image is how little needs to be done to make the poster effective, and the fact that it still stands out even with that heavy type sitting over the top and a burst of colour next to it.

Miles Davis Online: What’s the creative process behind designing the poster?
Heath Killen: When I decided to do this, I knew that the poster would have to be centered around an existing image of Miles Davis, as there are no promotional images of the film. I also wanted to select an image that would be familiar and broadly recognizable. It’s an image I personally loved, and seemed to tick all the boxes. The dynamic shape of the image really helped to direct the poster layout and tone.

The idea of having the paint explode out of the trumpet was to make the image visually arresting. I wanted to put my own spin on it, and to transform it into something fresh and new. It’s a slightly surreal combination, but there’s a visual logic to it and some depth to it’s meaning. I feel as though if I’ve made something that’s both interesting to look at and has something conceptual going on – then I’ve done my job.

The typography came about just by experimentation with the layout, but ultimately I wanted it to evoke the Reid Miles/Blue Note aesthetic. Classic. Timeless. Modern.

Miles Davis Online: You feature such a superb variety of designs and illustrations. Would you say there’s a certain style that defines you as an artist, or do you prefer to explore all types of creative/graphic design?
Heath Killen: I definitely like to explore. I think there are crossovers and recurring elements in my work, a lot of it is based around collage and typography, but I don’t want to be defined by a certain style or approach. I have a broad range of interests, ideas and inspirations. I’d love for each project to be completely different to the last, but new techniques and styles take time and practice to develop. Clients will usually come to you because they like something you have done previously too, and so they often want you to replicate that style to some degree. Changes in style occur incrementally in my experience. It’s all an ongoing process for me, and an attempt to distill new ideas and inspiration into something that’s unique and appropriate for each job.

I suppose to this point, my work has largely been defined by abstract layout, texture and bold colours. Recently I’ve been working on things that are a little simpler and more refined. I tend to feel the urge to do something contrasting to whatever I’ve just made. If I’ve just made something quite decorative and complex, my next project will most likely have a fairly clean and minimal look to it. Design really is about the brief, and the particulars of the project, but if I’m able to satisfy the brief through my own point of view – then I’m very happy and hopefully so is the client!

Miles Davis Online: Who are some artists/designers that inspire you?
Heath Killen: There are so many. Julian House. Mat Cook. Neil Kellerhouse. Storm Thorgerson. Saul Bass. Peter Saville. Mark Farrow. Tibor Kalman. I could go on endlessly. Most of my favourite designers work on film posters or album and book covers. I like people with strong ideas and a unique sense of style.

I’m also extremely inspired by classic Jazz album covers and posters. Miles Davis covers like Sorcerer, Big Fun, Bitches Brew and On The Corner are some personal favourites.

Miles Davis Online: Let’s talk about the Miles Davis Movie. If you were directing the marketing, what design ideas would you kick around?
Heath Killen: There really is a wealth of imagery from his career, with over 5 decades of music making and numerous changes in style and persona. Of course it would all depend on what the film is going to focus on, but I think it would be great to draw from the imagery of all those different eras, and find some way to reinterpret and recreate them.

The design work for Miles Davis over his career has always been bold, iconic, minimal and tasteful. I think this is important to consider. When you’re dealing with very simple images, such as a man in a singlet and no shoes playing a trumpet – typography, colour and positioning become vitally important. I believe it’s about creating something relevant and sensitive to the Miles Davis legacy, something that is a a nod to the fans and something that’s also introduces the man to a broader audience. I’d love to be a part of that process.

Miles Davis Online: You’re in Australia now. Is that where you’re from, and if not, how did you end up there?
Heath Killen: Born and raised in Australia. I love this country but I’m hoping to get some more traveling done this year, ideally working and living overseas for a while. I think that no matter where I go, unless I really end up falling in love with somewhere new, I’ll always end up back in Australia. Despite the fact that I don’t think I was genetically built for this climate – it does feel like home.

Miles Davis Online: You say you’re ready to move anywhere on the planet for the right offer. Is there a place that would be ‘ideal,’ like the dream location?
Heath Killen: Strangely enough I really like gloomy, wintery conditions. I think somewhere around Europe like Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam or London would be perfect for me. At this point though I’m just really looking for the right work opportunity, which will hopefully bring with it the chance to see new things. If I could have a beautiful, architecturally designed home on the coast of Victoria or Tasmania, with regular challenging freelance work, then that would be ideal, but I’m still young enough to say I’ll go anywhere and do anything just to soak up some new cultural experiences.

Miles Davis Online: Your work touches on film, music, theater, publishing and so much more. Is that what inspires you – just a huge pot of creative ‘stuff’ out there in the world? Or is it something else that pushes you to ‘design’ something?
Heath Killen: Absolutely! I’ve done a lot of work for business and government organisations too, and I’m generally quite happy just to be working, but I really enjoy working with clients whose projects I’m also passionate about, and these are usually arts based. I also find that the type of work I do is better understood and more appreciated by clients in the arts world, and they will often be the clients who most encourage experimentation and pushing the work into new areas.

There is something to be said for the satisfaction of doing something interesting and boundary pushing in corporate design, but ultimately I feel most comfortable working on things like album covers, movie posters and theatre brochures.

Miles Davis Online: Are you working on anything special at the moment?
Heath Killen: I’m about to launch a new blog called Theoryhaus, which focuses on the stories behind creative projects from a range of disciplines. I’ll also be launching an online store selling prints from Australian designers early in the year too. I have a couple of websites to design, and an album cover to finish, but beyond from that I’m free and easy and ready to take on some new clients!

Miles Davis Online: Now that you’ve designed that awesome Miles Davis poster, can we expect anymore Miles Davis-related designs down the road?
Heath Killen: I’d absolutely love to do something official, for the film or otherwise. No plans for any more self-initiated work at this point but you never know. Maybe a re-design of the Doo Bop cover?

Miles Davis Online: Favorite Miles Davis album?
Heath Killen: That’s a tough one, but I think I’d have to say Kind of Blue.

* You can see more of Killen’s graphic designs and illustrations at his official website.

Artwork is © Heath Killen

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3 thoughts on “The Miles Davis Online Interview: Heath Killen”

  1. Great post and interview! I stumbled upon your original site long ago and I’m glad your still at it. As an avid Miles Davis and film fanatic I like many have thought for years what a Miles biopic would look,sound and feel like. After reading both Williams “the man in the green shirt” and Troupe’s “Miles”( I own a signed copy) I’ve envisioned a narrated version with either Miles(Cheadle) himself or someone in his inner circle.

    I think what’s most fascinating about Davis is not so much who he was but who he was perceived to be by the artists, friends, lovers, associates, and fans who either loved, loathed, or simply were inspired by him.

    The images I always go back to that I always thought would work as film posters come directly from album covers. I think the ones that encapsulate his personality and would work as they are so Iconic are:

    The Marvin Koner shot from “Round Midnight”
    The turtle neck shot from “In Silent Way”
    The ominous shot from “Tutu”

    Either shot would be remade with Cheadle in Miles place. This might be far reaching in concept but I think would be instantly identified and leave an air of mystery about the soon to be released(someday) film. I do think the promotional work should stay more iconic than conceptual even if the overall tone film is more avant garde than popular. Just my opinion if this all makes sense. Thanks!

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