Once you start, you can’t help but see them everywhere when it comes to the design and illustration world: the yellow, the spiked or towering blue hair, the weathered brown couch. The Simpsons, it seems, is a show that’s been a perennial influence on the creative community. And unlike some trends that come and go (remember when every UK illustration grad show was brimming with bears in party hats?)—the creative offshoots that fictional American family once decried by George Bush (he wanted to make American families “more like the Waltons and less like The Simpsons”) haven’t waned.
In recent years many have bemoaned the show’s decline throughout its whopping 28 seasons. The “Golden Age” is often seen to be the ’90s; later seasons are often dismissed as “zombie Simpsons.” The hugely popular 2017 YouTube video below, The Fall of The Simpsons: How it Happened, has clocked up almost 5.5 million views. It suggests that the show was once “seen as an expression of anti-authority that challenged every convention of prime time TV… The Simpsons was counterculture… shining a spotlight and satirizing every wart of American society that so many others ignored.”
Although most agree that the show’s decline has meant more recent seasons can never live up to its heyday, the graphic design and illustration worlds return to it time and again, and we can’t get enough. But why today, when people think the show is kinda shitty, does the design world come back to it time and again?
The satirical illustrator working under the moniker Chris (Simpsons artist) soared from his beginnings as a niche creator of Simpsons-based, weirdo doodles to a hugely popular meme king who now draws hilarious, baffling, and slightly disturbing, faux-naif images that anyone who uses Facebook (or indeed, the internet) will have undoubtedly seen. While little is known about the anonymous cult artist, he’s said to have first been inspired to draw having watched The Simpsons episode ‘Crying Out For Love’ at the age of five. Homer and co. remain a crucial part of his oeuvre, though it’s now expanded to include anyone from Prince William and Kate Middleton to a pretty gnarly milkman and a radical reinterpretation of Pikachu. Even IKEA recently got in on The Simpsons love, using the iconic “couch gag” scene that opens the show as inspiration for a homeware collection. A setting also depicted by the brilliant Babak Ganjei as part of his series of paintings depicting sitcom living rooms, sans characters.
It could be posited that the perceived lack of creativity in the show itself in recent years is coming out in the designs of others. One studio demonstrating just that is DR.ME, a duo based in Manchester, England, which in 2010 published Art Simpson, a zine showing the results of asking a number of artists to draw Bart Simpson from memory, “with varying degrees of success.” This year, its sequel arrived in the form of Art Simpson II, a zine presenting around 30 new Simpsons-leaning collage and mixed media pieces created by DR.ME themselves.
“When I was younger the only thing I wanted to be was a cartoonist, and I’d instantly caught onto The Simpsons—I had all the memorabilia, the comics. Then at uni I was introduced to graphic design, and realised being a cartoonist wasn’t going to happen, but that I could still incorporate cartoons into the work I do,” says Ryan Doyle, one half of DR.ME. For Mark Edwards (the ME half), the reason we see so much creative work inspired by the show is because of the generation that grew up during the show’s golden era. He adds, “I think most of the people working with The Simpsons grew up with them as kids; but it’s not a kids’ program—it grows with you as an adult and is still relevant, with jokes you might not have got when you were younger.”
Art Simpson II is published by indie publishing press Zine Tent, which started out as an “obsessive collection,” as founder Tim Bell puts it, before evolving into a publisher of original Simpsons-related zines. Its debut was Homage to Homer, a collection of photos of real-life people in real-life Homer fancy dress, though Bell is a longtime lover of printed matter of all kinds—especially Simpsons related—having amassed literally hundreds of bootleg, self-published zines over the years.
“Whether you like them or not, they’re so instantly recognisable as a key element of pop culture.”
He agrees that much of the ongoing love for the show and its characters is the generational aspect, coupled with the show’s longevity. “It’s just so iconic, and it’s been around for so long,” he says. “It started when I was 10, in primary school—the same age as Bart—so I don’t think you can help but love it. Even my kids love it too—the old episodes and the new ones—and it crosses cultures, as well. I’ve got zines [inspired by the show] from all over the world—from Brazil, Chile, Australia—everybody knows it. Whether you like them or not, they’re so instantly recognisable as a key element of pop culture.”
Among the publications Zine Tent has released are two from claymation animator Lee Hardcastle, who creates gore-laden representations of the characters as three dimensional models. Produced in runs of just 100 (the idea is to ensure they sell out, and the publisher can “move on” without being landed with boxes of unsold stock), the zines present a screenshot narrative of the show “so it’s limiting and covering the key moments to give an arc of the narrative without taking too much of it away,” says Bell.
This almost universal love of The Simpsons means that it’s also a lucrative avenue for designers to pursue—an ideal stocking filler gift for pretty much anyone. And as Bell points out, many big brands such as ASOS and H&M have released ranges relating to the show. “The Simpsons started in the late 80s, which was around the time the idea of merch really kicked in,” says Bell. “Now it’s immediate: after the first few episodes of Rick and Morty for instance you’re getting toys and merch, but The Simpsons was there for that kicking off.”
With pop and cult shows alike having firmly latched onto the benefits of merch a few decades on, we’d suggest that today’s Simpsons-swooning may also be partially down to the well known 20 year cycle phenomenon. We see it in fashion (hi, fanny packs, Kappa sweaters, and Adidas popper joggers!) and graphics alike (just look at the rave-leaning acid graphics trend, for instance). Many of today’s creatives working with The Simpsons as a starting point are just in their early 20s, debunking the generation idea suggested by DR.ME and Bell. This does, however, make a case for the love of the show as tying in with the idea of things from around two decades back swinging back into favor again.
One such creative is Lucien Hughes, the guy behind one of the strangest but most brilliant internet phenomena of recent times: Simpsonwave. A play on the music genre vaporwave (as such, properly spelled out S I M P S O N W A V E), Simpsonwave uses footage from the show painstakingly spliced together and edited by Hughes to create videos that are somehow both wryly funny and incredibly poignant. The project began as a little light relief for Hughes, who was studying a physics degree when it all began. He sees his love of the show as a sort of nostalgia—if one for a time he was never actually alive. Making the videos was “an escape from day to day life,” he says. “I was never one of those people who had a grand creative vision. But I spent a lot of time around internet subcultures and memes, and that made me create things in that vein—I was just interested on a hobby level.”
Little did he know that his love of Facebook groups like Simpsons Shitposting—an online community of hundreds of thousands of people “making crazy weird surreal memes and jokes, but with art within it”would lead him to the huge success and press attention that Simpsonwave quickly amassed in its short lifespan (Hughes started the project in 2016, and stopped earlier this year). As well as his creations being the product of a love of The Simpsons, they also hold up a mirror to the counterculture of today—something Hughes describes as “post-irony” and a sort of “meta art which doesn’t lie totally in the vein of serious art, but isn’t a meme or a joke—it’s that blurred line.”
For Hughes, vaporwave music felt the perfect match for The Simpsons because it too evokes that strange sense of lucid yet indistinct childhood memories. “When we’re children we experience things in a much more vivid way: things that remind us of childhood can even be just certain colours or visual aesthetic that make you feel a nostalgic twang,” he says. As such, vaporwave, with its “post-consumerist aesthetic,” brings about a sense of a false nostalgia for something you might not have even seen, and probably wouldn’t have liked anyway. “For art to be successful, you emotional engage with it,” Hughes says.
It was projects like this that taught Hughes the ropes of working with animation and music software, such as Adobe Premiere and FL Studio—and he now works as a freelance 3D artist and director outside of his unrelated day job. But eventually the project was taking up too much time: it’s a painstaking process to search through episodes to find exactly what he was looking for on both an evocative, emotional level, and an aesthetic one.
Someone who understands such time-consuming Simpsons-related tinkering all too well is Paris-based graphic designer Olivier Le Brun, who created two books published by Rollo Press, A Pocket Companion to Books from The Simpsons and its followup, Another Companion to Books from The Simpsons. These present screenshots from the show that feature publication titles, ordered alphabetically with no explanation. The weird thing is, Le Brun is not even a huge Springfield enthusiast. Instead, he was inspired by a catalog he’d designed for an art exhibition to “extract something from the internet and make something you can carry”—in other words, a book. “I was really inspired by all the titles [of books you see in the show], and I was really interested in the critical power of the collection and presenting it as more like a mass culture library.”
He adds, “The Simpsons often makes powerful critical points about society, and I like books, so I realized by putting the titles alphabetically and applying my professional knowledge to this collection [of images] erased the relationship to seasons or things related to the show. It was a way of exploring another critical side of my practice. It became more than The Simpsons—the titles form a collection in itself, a bookshelf. ”
The tomes were created over months of Le Brun watching the show at eight times its normal speed, often while on long train journeys, before formulating it into a book printed in the same yellow Pantone (Hex color FFD90F, fact fans) of the fictional family’s skin tone. A particular highlight is a shot of Homer in bed, reading a book called How to Read a Book in Bed. The volumes proved a huge success. Two people Le Brun had never even met sent over copies of the book signed by none other than the show’s creator Matt Groening.
It’s interesting to consider The Simpsons’ impact on indie zine and design culture in relation to other shows. Sure, it’s been running a long time, but so have many others. While everyone I speak with for this piece agree that there isn’t really a comparable show in terms of its creative offshoot possibilities, for DR.ME, the ones that might come close—or that we might see inspire similar projects in future, are Spongebob, Adventure Time, and Rick and Morty. Hughes agrees to an extent that Adventure Time will likely have a cultural legacy thanks to its similar universality—the way it works on so many levels, and quite simply, is drawn so brilliantly. For Bell, Spongebob is the only thing that comes close: “I don’t know that Rick and Morty does,” he says. “The target audience to me seems a lot narrower.”
But the ultimate question is, why The Simpsons? For Hughes, the show—at its best—is unique in its unity of humor and sincerity. His videos use sound and motion techniques in similar ways to the show’s own use of dialogue and narrative to evoke emotion in people, but also make them chuckle. “Every episode from the ’90s is so deadpan and brilliant,” says Hughes. “I think something that’s very important in comedy is to have an emotional aspect that it’s tied to—with The Simpsons you can really engage with what’s it’s like to be in a real family.”
Our very own editor Madeleine Morley also drew our attention to the story of Homer’s design, one inherently appealing to designers: his hair is made from an M and his ear a G, the initials of the show’s creator Matt Groening. “I think those little typographic details are something that designers inherently love and are drawn to— there’s a smartness to it, almost like logo design,” she says. “And of course, The Simpsons also used incredibly good branding: instantly, people remembered it for the yellow, but it was also initially a prank”—apparently Groening used yellow so that people seeing it for the first time assumed that there was something wrong with their TV.
Perhaps what it all really boils down to, though, is that whatever you think of its recent outings, The Simpsons is simply really great. It’s funny, it’s heartwarming, and for creative types who likely first dabbled in drawing and so on, its character design, colors, and forms are so instantly recognisable that they’re the perfect creative springboard. “There’s nothing comparable,” says Bell. “It’s such a huge and varied world that’s been created, and it’s based on families and their town, so people can relate to it in different ways. When I was a kid I was all about Bart, then as an adult you see jokes you didn’t when you’re a kid.”
The Simpsons at its best gently holds up a mirror to society. It’s critical but never snarky, cheeky but never brash. For Hughes, its emotional and creative resonance emotes a “bittersweet nostalgia for a non-specific event—being nostalgic for something that isn’t even a real thing—just a sense of how it used to feel to be young.” And that alone is powerful thing indeed.
Really into The Simpsons and design? Check out these other creators, too:
- No Talking Plz (@notalkingplz), an artist who describes himself as as an “internet doomsayer and pessimist” and creates thoroughly disturbing Simpsons-related illustrations
- Artist and dancer Kaleena Chung created the List of Bartisms, a zine zoning in on El Barto’s life, slogans and street art
- Shitty Simpsons (@shittysimpsonsinsta): sort of does what it says on the tin, but not really—these illustrations are pretty great, rendering snapshots of characters in a faux-naif style celebrating the joys of coloring outside the lines.
- Ermsy (@ermsy), the Parisian artist behind the zine Just Say ‘Yes’ To Saying ‘No’ To Saying ‘Yes’ To Soft Drugs
- Lucy and Will Cooper, a production designer and photographer respectively, who collaborated on a project to photograph food-based moments from The Simpsons IRL.
- Seb Westcott, (@iamsebwestcott) who’s based in Brighton on England’s south coast, created the zine Depressing Simpsons: a steal at just £2.50, but sadly all sold out 😪
- Wizard Skull, a Chicago-based artist who’s behind a number of spraycans bearing beautifully loose line drawings of Simpsons characters.