John Singleton's magnum opus, Boyz n the Hood, turns 30 years old this week. While much of the praise focuses on the gritty depiction of life in South Central, there is still an under explored aspect of the film. The film's logo — designed by graphic designer Brent Rollins — feels both nostalgic and avant garde. This, of course, is a testament to Rollins' desire to create a logo that didn't necessarily scream "urban."
We caught up with Rollins to celebrate the anniversary, and to also understand how his artistic journey ultimately shaped what went into the iconic logo.
I have to assume that as a kid, you were naturally artistically inclined. Is that fair to say?
My dad was an artist and also doing graphic design stuff as well. He was wildly talented, and that was a good influence for me as a child. I had an interest in doing art in some form and was sort of steered conceptually towards graphic design just because it was a practical application for creativity.
This is pre-using Illustrator, and Photoshop, and that sort of vibe?
Oh, absolutely. Everything was done by hand, drawn, and there's a whole photographic process that happens. Any kind of text that you would see in a magazine, you'd have to send it out and have it professionally typeset onto this photo paper that you then cut out and put wax on. It's when I'd literally do paint stuff layout boards and a lot of surgery to create the layouts. That was the world that I learned under, and then computers came while I was in college. But my initial history was to do everything by hand.
Do you miss those days?
I miss the slower pace of those days, but there's definitely things that you can do a lot easier and faster by computer. For projects, I would literally have to draw fonts and try to replicate things as best as I could either for reference or for the finals.
Did you go to college for graphic design?
Yeah, I did. I mean I studied graphic design. I was fortunate enough that my high school had a design class. I worked for the school newspaper. That's where I learned all those kind of layout skills formally, besides emulating my father and watching him work. Then I went to UCLA because I wanted to get a decent liberal arts base education, and then they had a pretty regarded design school.
When did you get the first inkling that you could actually make a living at graphic design?
I saw my dad do freelance projects, so I knew that that was a profession. I had no idea what it paid. For whatever weird reason, I had this interest since I was a kid in marketing or advertising. I would make fake advertisements for fake movies that I would want to [watch]. I was thinking already in terms of logos, and ad copy, and all those kind of things. I know it's weird.
What do you credit as your "big break" or the break that set you on your hero's journey?
My friend's sister was casting for Spike Lee's movies early on. She did School Daze and Do the Right Thing. I met the art director who did the poster for Do the Right Thing and he needed some extras in the poster. The poster was shot in Los Angeles. I had probably a few design projects from school — high school — to show at some point, and so he just got me working on freelance, apprentice kind of projects for things he was doing. . Some of my designs didn't get picked, but the one that did get picked was for the Spike Lee film, Mo' Better Blues. That is technically the first thing that was my big break, but it was under the auspices of another art director, and so I never got credit for it. I didn't properly get paid for it and all that kind of stuff, but it was all intents and purposes my design. It got cleaned up by the studio, but that was my design.
Your first taste of Hollywood was a bad taste...
Yeah, it's bittersweet. I mean you don't know what's going to happen. You don't know how people act. Yeah, you kind of go with your idealistic way, and the thing about it is my dad had had history in doing things, so he would advise me about certain things, but there's also a point where... When you're younger, and people start pushing you to do something or say, "Don't do this," but you get a little bit nervous and scared because you don't really understand the reasoning why you're telling to act this way or to come at people a certain way. Yeah, you kind of get screwed the first time around. I'm not going to say it's okay, but it's what it is.
Are you still at UCLA when this John Singleton movie that people are talking about comes about?
Yeah. Before I went to UCLA, I went to Long Beach State, and Long Beach State was further away. It's probably a 27-mile drive, so I never hung out on campus. I used to hang out at the USC campus because my other good friends were going to USC. That's how I actually met John was just hanging out at USC campus.
Did you think from the beginning, "I'm about to be part of history in some way," even if you weren't designing the logo? Had you read the script for Boyz?
He had another script, I think, at the time that he was trying to shop called Twilight Time. That was the thing that was always in my head was this film, Twilight Time, Twilight Time. This was before he graduated from school. When you're young, you're kind of like, "Oh, man. I'm going to do this. We're going to do this," kind of stuff. You're so ambitious and optimistic, and there was already this model of seeing Spike Lee films. This is all tied into just the energy of what's going on in the culture as far as again this Black film sort of resurgence, and also with Hip-Hop and everything else. Did we know that this was going to be a big thing? I don't know. I can't say that. I don't think so, but I think it was just more exciting to actually do it because how it was received and what it did is the kind of thing that you hope for, but you just don't know. It was the right time.
When does John formally ask you to design the logo?
John looked up to Spike Lee so much. He used to always make really cool crew jackets with all this kind of custom embroidery and stuff like that. In some ways, it was super early streetwear.
John was just super enamored by that sort of approach, where it wasn't just, "I'm making a film. I'm making products and branding myself." Of course, John wanted to have something like that for himself. I would design John's production company. It was called NEW DEAL PRODUCTIONS and designed a custom bomber jacket for him with all kinds of phrases, and patches, and all that sort of stuff.
When it came time to actually do the film, it's generally a tradition to do a crew jacket, some kind of crew swag, right? Yeah, so we did the Boyz n the Hood jacket or the design just for the crew really. He didn't have much money, and so the design was... It had a patch on one sleeve with a fist and a peace sign kind of melded together. Then it had the name of the person, whatever. I think his own special one had his production company logo or something. Then on the back was the logo. At the time, the logo... It was an outline. The reason why it's an outline is because it was too expensive to actually embroider a fill-in. It just became this outline kind of design. I mean I prefer it that way, but it wasn't necessarily intentional or forethought in any kind of way. That was just where the design initially appeared, and it was just for the crew.
Then what ended up happening is when it became time to actually market the film or to do the titles and everything, Columbia... It was Columbia Pictures at the time. Their people hit me up, and because they had seen the crew jacket, they thought maybe this could be the appropriate logo for the film. I look back on it, and I kind of laugh to myself a little bit because I think that they feel that it was probably... Well, they didn't know how to market these kinds of films back then, right? This was really the first. I mean because Spike Lee's films aren't even what ends up becoming... John's films was among the first of what became the hood kind of thing, right? ... I don't think that they knew or felt comfortable about how to market it, and so that's why they decided to use my design. Part of me feels that they thought the design was probably from some kid who was a graffiti writer or something like that. I'm not a graffiti writer, and I don't lay claim any sort of that logo have any sort of authenticity to actual whatever was going on in the streets, right? For whatever reason, they liked it, and I'm thankful for that.
What went into it aesthetically? You can't think of Boyz n the Hood and not think of Eazy-E, NWA, and go to that whole place. Did that serve as a point of inspiration?
It's funny. I've tried to think about why I came up with that specific design or how I knew that was it, and, unfortunately, I don't recall. There's other sketches that I have. I have other sketches from that time, but I'm not sure if these were alternates to the movie logo or these are alternates to the actual crew jackets.
Was the Increase the Peace thing yours? Is that something that came from you?
John came up with that phrase. I think the thing about it is the design... I'm a fan of graphic design and was really studying and voracious about looking at things. I feel like maybe the approach was a little bit acknowledging... There was kind of a graphic design movement in London at the time and which was referencing a lot of actually '50s jazz covers and wonky sort of, cut... Cut being if you have a Helvetic, but then it's kind of chopped, and kind of offset, and kind of funky. I feel like my approach for Boyz n the Hood was probably somewhat influenced by that a little bit when I think about it.
My goal a lot of times just as a graphic designer and specifically being a Black graphic designer, whether or not I'm actually achieving it especially then or not, was to try to add something to it that maybe took it away from what people might have expected it to be as far as it being a street thing or whatever. I don't think that you would have expected.
Is it fun to defy expectations?
Tere's something deliberate in it. I don't know if that's where my head was or what when I did this, but I know that my general sort of feeling is to try to get... How do I mix a raw thing with a very deliberate thing and try to put those together? That's generally my goal whenever I design things. So even though the letters are kind of funky, there's still this structure and this thing that kind of holds them together. That's what I'm hoping people get out of it. I'm hoping that that's somehow people communicate that there's a lot more thought into it than something that feels super just expressive and whatever.