Q&A: Monster shopkeeper and designer Alistair Hall on the question of play

When he’s not running a general store for vampires, werewolves and zombies, Alistair Hall is creating award-winning design for the likes of Penguin Books and The National Trust at his studio We Made This. I asked the co-founder and art director of children’s literacy charity Ministry of Stories and its fantastical shop Hoxton Street Monster Supplies to share his thoughts on play.  


alistair hallHow does the idea of play fit into your work?

Heck, that’s a tricky question disguised as a simple one. Hmmm. I suppose that play, in its purest form, is without objective. It’s that special state of being where you’re just doing, almost without thinking—or certainly without thinking about your destination. That can be a very useful place to get your head to when it comes to design, and to creativity in general. I’m not sure I’m that successful at getting there to be honest. Sometimes getting out of the studio is the way to do it. Sometimes just a chat with one of my studio mates does the trick too. Sitting on a train and looking out of the window helps as well.


How do you make room for play in your life?

Friends and family are key to that. Whether it’s an afternoon with my young nephew and nieces, or a lazy afternoon with mates, time spent with other people keeps things fun right?


What have you learned about playfulness from Ministry of Stories and Hoxton Street Monster Supplies?

Playfulness is very different from frivolity—play can be taken very seriously. Even though the main notion of Hoxton Street Monster Supplies is essentially a joke—a shop that sells everyday products for monsters—we treat it exceptionally seriously. We imagine the lives of our fictional customers, and work out what things they’d need to make their lives better. We’ve had in-depth discussions about the exact flavour of dragon treats for example, or whether human snot can really be considered a monster delicacy. And we really craft every bit of design, every line of text, and every piece of packaging. By taking that playfulness seriously, we make sure that the narrative is watertight and utterly convincing.

Other than that though, the children who attend the Ministry are inspirational because their imaginations know very few limits—logic weighs far less heavily on them than it does on adults.


alistair hallIt’s not all fun and games, right? What do you take very seriously?

I’m very serious about typography. I can get disproportionately upset about an abused apostrophe, and can derive a vast amount of pleasure from a finely designed ligature. I’m also putting a book together about the street nameplates of London (the signs that tell you the name of each road), and have become really quite serious about those.


What’s your favourite game?

I’m a sucker for a game of frisbee. Partly it’s the sublime simplicity—all you need is a bit of open space, two people, and a plastic disc. There aren’t any rules, there’s no winner, there’s no time limit, you just throw the frisbee back and forth. It’s quite meditative, but with enough physical activity to exercise your body as well as your mind. And the frisbee itself is a great example of a product that has evolved into a perfect form—cheap, simple, robust and long-lasting.