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Magma editors meet designer Emmi Hughes

We were lucky to have multidisciplinary designer Emmi Hughes creating the cover or Magma 84, on the theme of physics. Here, Magma Editors, Stav Poleg and Susannah Hart, talk with Emmi about the process of creating the work.

Recurring Dream by Emmi Hughes

Magma: The image you created for Magma is full of colour and depth and yet it is incredibly subtle. Could you tell us about your approach to colours and shades?

Emmi: When a colour moves me, I try to capture it in an image. Colours are very ‘alive’ to me. I see and feel them, and they stimulate me. They can convey emotions and adjust atmospheres. Sometimes they reflect my frame of mind, but more often I’m just intuitively drawn toward certain palettes. I have also noticed over the years that the colours in my images transfer into the clothes I wear.

Magma: You moved from Edinburgh to Cambridge a few years ago. Has this transition affected the way you approach colour, light and pattern in your work?

Emmi: Definitely. Just like people, places have their own characteristics and qualities. Interaction between people and places depends on many factors, and naturally, a complete change of scenery will shape the way we see things. Or perhaps the change is more internal? I don’t think the psychological effects of moving are very visible in my pictures to an outsider, but for me the images act as a map of emotional atmospheres that I have been through. I can trace back my steps and revisit those moments and emotions just by scrolling my feed.

 There are so many similarities, but also differences between Scotland and England. The light in Cambridge is completely different. There is much much more sunshine and the climate is generally milder. Moving was a bit like jumping into a parallel universe! This itself is stimulating and it makes you more aware of your surroundings, makes you really SEE things.

Magma: During your time at Edinburgh Napier University you created a Time Machine. Could you tell us a bit about this project, and the way you found connections between design and physics ?

Emmi: My personal experience is that physics and design are massively intertwined. The idea for the Time Machine originated from my research I did for my undergraduate thesis on time, creativity and technological advantages and their role in design processes (this was back in 2012 when smartphones and tablets were only becoming the norm in the UK). 

I wanted to create a space for switching off from digital distractions and the clutter of everyday experience. Time Machine was a black, sound-insulated booth with a single seat on a revolving door. The viewer would sit down and swivel into a completely different environment that had very limited visual or audial distractions. Time Machine was not about time travel per se, but about re-evaluating our relationship with time and becoming more conscious of how we perceive it. Needless to say, the concept of time is a complex patchwork of many, often contradicting theories and ideas. At times it felt completely overwhelming, trying to navigate through rather abstract straits of thinking and theories with my high school level knowledge of physics. I was fortunate to have the highly talented Malcolm Innes as my tutor. Malcolm is a very experienced light artist and architectural lighting designer, and one of Malcolm’s many strongpoints is his ability to solve problems in a creative way. He pushed me to experiment and explore my ideas of time and place, and connections between different disciplines. During my research I got to visit an anechoic chamber and I interviewed athletics on their perception of time. It was this interdisciplinary approach that made the Time Machine a success in the end. The use of interdisciplinary approach and conceptual thinking was undoubtedly the most valuable learning outcome from the project and I would keep applying them to my future work and projects.

Emmi’s desktop, while working on the cover for Magma 84

Magma: The image you created for Magma seems strikingly abstract and yet, at the same time, it is rooted in concrete objects. Could you tell us a bit about the process of making it?

Emmi: I was really excited when I was approached by Magma to create the cover art for Issue 84 on Physics. I normally start by writing down quick notes on the project in hand. I load my sketchbook with lists, diagrams, thoughts, keywords and reading that might be relevant. Concepts and different angles for the execution of the project will then start to arise from these notes. Later down the process, if I get stuck, I can return to my notes to revisit ideas and find new directions. 

I spend a lot of time just looking around me, observing. When I stop to see, the world starts presenting itself in a very layered, nonlinear and slightly fantastical manner. Simultaneously the everyday life can seem very simple and monotonous – what’s so wondrous about hanging your laundry, right? It is these mundane acts, routines and daily chords that I find fascinating. Imagination takes over and suddenly the wrinkles of my bed sheets become mountainous sculptural forms, rising from illusional water created by multiple reflections seen through a glass door. The final cover image is a play of scale and perception, with space for thought and interpretation. The moment I took it, I knew it was the one. Luckily, the editors and the board of Magma agreed.

Magma: Could you tell us a bit more about the way you work as a photographer? How do you find or create the images in your work?

Emmi: Most of the images I take are just little observations I make. They arise from daydreaming, noticing connections and details in the constantly changing pattern of life. I started documenting when I got my first smartphone and I discovered Instagram in 2012. It felt very liberating to suddenly have a tool that would capture all the colours and textures very close to the way I experienced them. Taking and uploading quick snaps became an antidote to my work as a designer. When you do design work, every single decision needs to be well thought through and details honed to perfection. Instagram offered a simple platform for curating and archiving my photos, and the distinguishing feature of framing all content in square aspect ratio felt bold and novel at the time, something we now take for granted. I think of it as a visual diary and a databank for inspiration where I can store moods, memories and ideas I might want to visit later.

Magma: What links do you find between poetry and design / photography?

Emmi: There is an element of sculpting in both poetry and other forms of creative disciplines; taking away and adding. A poet as well as a designer is a decision maker, hopping between ‘reasoning’ and ‘imaging’. In both poetry and design there is a process and an outcome, and at least in my experience, during the process it is sometimes impossible to predict exactly where it will take you and what the final outcome will look like. You just have to trust the process and believe something worthwhile will come out of it.


Emmi Hughes is a Finnish designer based in Cambridge, UK. She’s currently fascinated with material and movement, light, and the insides of envelopes. For more of Emmi’s work, see Dirty White Design and @emmikainen. 




The completed cover design of Magma 84
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