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Q&A with hyperloop travel poster artist Tavis Coburn

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Read time 14 min.

What was your introduction to hyperloop? And what inspired you to collaborate with HyperloopTT to create these posters?

I was first introduced to HyperloopTT a few years ago, when I was contacted to see if I was interested in creating a series of “Travel Posters” for some of the cities that they were proposing to have the hyperloop connect. It seemed like a really great idea. I’m always interested in working on projects that lean towards the future and futuristic things. The idea of a hyperloop definitely crosses off both of those points. After talking with the HyperloopTT team, it felt like it was going to be a really good fit to make something cool to help promote HyperloopTT and the cities that they were proposing to deploy the HyperloopTT system. 

How do you create art that brings innovative technologies to life?

My art is all digital. I started working in an analog faction, but fast forward 20 years, now I’m working completely digitally. It’s a really interesting way of making art, in the sense that once you acquire a toolbox to create your work digitally, all of the programs and process melts away and you realize that using a computer to make art is no different than using a brush and paint. It makes some things easier and sometimes I think to myself that it would be easier to grab a pencil and sketch something out and sometimes that’s the case.  There is something really great about scribbling something out on paper with a pencil when you can’t get the idea out digitally. It jars your brain to look at it in a slightly different way than looking at it on your screen. 

As far as making my art that helps to expose and promote what HyperloopTT is and what they are doing. My work definitely leans toward science fiction, popular culture and classic illustration from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. There was a really great period of illustration where it was used a lot. You think about Popular Science covers, Popular Mechanics covers, even magazines like Fortune Magazine and movie posters. Illustration was a really important artistic medium in those decades. Photography was really expensive and there was no photoshop so the artist was really allowed to create those fantastical worlds. That’s the really nice thing about doing what I do, is building worlds that are based in reality and in fantasy and whatever I imagine eventually reveals itself and comes to life in the art. It’s nice to feel like there’s no limit like there are no restrictions as to what I can create. Working digitally really helps that a lot and it makes it possible to create art much faster than you would be able to do by hand. Also too, sometimes you get strange happy accidents by just rotating something in a 3D program you are seeing something from an angle your brain never thought about and you’ll realize that it’s quite nice.  That really charges the creative juices as well. I love having technology in my work, if you look throughout my work from the past 10 to 15 years, technology plays a really important part in the images that I illustrate. Having the ability to work on something as cool as a hyperloop it’s a great fit for what my works look like. It’s a vehicle that moves very quickly and my work has a great sense of motion. I have a lot of car clients and I think they come to me for that same feeling of something that is cool, futuristic, sleek and fast. 

What is different about creating art surrounding hyperloop travel?

What’s different about creating art about hyperloop travel is that right now, we don’t have a hyperloop. Companies like HyperloopTT are advancing their designs  technology and the science of it as far as they can which is amazing. Right now, it’s an idea and when it comes to ideas they may change in the end, when hyperloops become a mainstay in the way we travel from city to city. The design of hyperloops and their exterior and interior station structure may change, so as an artist, I’m working off of what HyperloopTT has designed for their infrastructure and capsule. So it was a great starting point for me because I was able to look at the shape of the exterior and structure and think about how that structure would move through a city, how that structure would interact with the urban landscape and parks and even with how people move through a city. As much as it was a blank slate, it was nice that I had a really interesting starting point. It was a really interesting design that was a great springboard for me to start creating from that. Each of the cities we ended up doing the posters for are visibly interesting cities that I was able to take the feel of the cities and work it into the posters.

What inspired your travel poster designs?

The style of my work tends to exist in this place of feeling like it could have been done in a different century but having elements in it that would never have existed in that time. Travel posters have been around for a long time and if you were to look at the history of travel posters there are so many amazing posters. We don’t really have that many that are new. Those classic travel posters that you would see in a travel agency or airport are one of those things that if they were done again people would really enjoy. In this case, with these travel posters, I didn’t want them to feel dated, but I wanted them to feel like they had a little bit of history. 

Whenever I start a project, I really love Pinterest and I go in and collect a lot of images, so I already had a board with an extensive travel poster collection. It was a good starting point, but for me, it’s just a starting point, it helps to get the creative juices flowing. 

Once I start putting the pieces together, I forget about that initial reference and start letting it grow on its own. In the illustration process, there’s a lot of that. Starting with an idea, some elements, color and a composition and letting that composition sort of grow and flow. It’s your job as the artist to steer that in the direction you want it to go. Having those initial reference points of travel posters is the first spark, but once I get going it really is a matter of composing elements. 

Something as complicated as a city, hyperloop system and urban park areas, that’s a lot stuff going on and it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle and not knowing if all the pieces are going to fit. When you’re composing art, you’re trying your best to make them fit, sometimes you don’t and you have to reconfigure a bit. Sometimes younger artists struggle when they can’t get all the pieces and they get frustrated or give up, but once you’ve been doing it for a while you realize that those pieces not fitting together can lead to the best result or you may have to start removing pieces.

There is a beauty to something that’s really simple. Even in this case, if you were to take a picture of Chicago, Cleveland or Pittsburgh there’s so much going on, so much depth and detail. You have to find a happy medium of what level of detail will be a good fit because yes its about the city, but it’s also about HyperloopTT. How do we make hyperloop the focus without making the city feel like its lost. It’s almost a dance of elements coming to the front and others going to the back until it feels right. 

How did you approach incorporating hyperloop travel into the urban landscape?

With the posters, it was important to have the system be incorporated within an urban landscape. To have a balance of city to greenspace utilizing natural features to showcase where the hyperloop could be located in a city. Also, feeling like it wasn’t going to be an eyesore. If we look at rail systems in the past, I don’t think when they were designing those systems they were worried about the overall aesthetic of how those systems fit in a city or in an urban environment. So now taking that into account when designing the overall interior and exterior structure and creating spaces around the system where it feels really fluid and doesn’t feel like something that’s just plunked in the middle of a  city without any thought behind it. 

When i was creating the illustrations, I tried to create urban spaces that I’ve seen in the cities I live in and in cities I’ve visited where there is a sense that everything can exist together without it feeling overly forced. I tried to make it subtle, I’m not an urban landscape architect or designer so I didn’t want to flex any skillsets that I don’t have, but I wanted to look at the composition, city and colors I was using to create something that felt natural and could possibly exist. I’m sure a landscape architect could do a better job, but for me it was about the hyperloop, the city and an evolved urban landscape using green space to fill empty areas. When it comes to urban planning and cities looking for the future, I think a lot of cities are looking at dead areas and seeing how they can be useful. A lot of that is turning it into parks or bike path and turning them into places that are inviting. For instance, I live in Toronto and all along the waterfront to the east of the city for years and years its been kind of a wasteland which is really unfortunate and it’s slowly starting to change. There are a lot of massive development and construction that are changing it for the better and a lot of that is creating a ton of green space, park space and bike paths and adding really interesting commercial buildings in combination with residential buildings and retail space. Hopefully, it all will mesh together and feel like everyone is getting their fair shake. When I created the posters I really wanted to give that green space as much thought as I could to fill those areas out and make them feel like something that could exist. 

What was the biggest influence when creating the Chicago piece?

My biggest influence while creating the Chicago poster was trying to utilize Lake Michigan and the waterfront of Chicago. Living in Toronto beside Lake Ontario, one of the great lakes, I haven’t spent a lot of time in Chicago and specifically around Lake Michigan, but Lake Ontario I have and I know Lake Ontario can get pretty wild as far as just the fact that it’s such a large body of water. It’’s like an ocean. I wanted to use that idea of big bodies of water and I wanted to create the sense of the hyperloop flowing along the waterfront with the lake and the flow of the water. Coming out of the city and moving its passenger to a different location. Even as far as the colors I ended up using, I started with the type. I’m a big basketball fan and growing up the Chicago Bulls were my favorite team, you know Michael Jordan could do no wrong. However, there was something really nice about leaning more towards the bearss colors of the  blue and the orange. I started with the city and once I had the lighting I liked on the city, what was working best was the little bit orangey and bluey. Whenever I’m making a piece of art those little things happen where the city looks the best when its a little bit blue on the shadow side and its got a warm ambery color on the light side, so why don’t we use that color palette and see what happens if we carry it through. With the type, I made it with a little bit of an outline to it. From there having the hyperloop with the same blues and the water started having those same blues. When it got to the urban and greenspace, I wanted to flood it with a warm sunlit color with the basketball courts and pathways. It’s one of those things that I think when it comes to being influenced by something, it’s never just one thing, it’s a combination of things. In this case, it started off with the bluish and orangish and from there it rolled out and made for a poster that felt like it fit really well with Chicago. 

What was the biggest influence when creating the Cleveland piece?

With the Cleveland piece, I would say the biggest influence was the way that the end composition was very foreshortened and coming towards the viewer. It had a lot of power to it. It sort of felt like it was moving. I’ve been to Cleveland a few times and it always felt like a very blue-collar, hard working salt of the earth place. I think it’s very interesting that it’s one of the cities that HyperloopTT is proposing to have their system. It feels like a city that doesn’t quite get as much of the glitz and glamor and new as other cities. I really wanted to showcase that the hyperloop would be a good fit within that city. I think that mixing the old with the new is not a bad thing. Really with the Cleveland piece, it didn’t really start with me looking at downtown Cleveland and thinking how the hyperloop was going to work with the city. It was more about finding a really good angle of the hyperloop and looking at where that may exist within the overall landscape of Cleveland and downtown Cleveland. Trying to do my best to piece together where the hyperloop might end up and where it might got and what it would look like from that view looking into the city. 

What was the biggest influence when creating the Pittsburgh piece?

With the Pittsburgh illustration, my biggest inspiration right off the bat, once I had the city built and started lighting it, was these two bodies of water that split the city. It was interesting to play with the light, to have the light roll through the city. When I first kinda did it I thought it looked like it was sunset, but as I looked at it I thought maybe it looks a little bit more like morning. Maybe this is harkening back to sports teams, but with Pittsburgh, all of a sudden I had a lot of yellow. A lot of warm colors bathing the piece overall. The first thing that popped into my brain was Pittsburgh Penguins. 

From there it was sort of a no brainer, it really allowed me to play with that idea with the golds and the yellows and even some of the darker colors with the browns and the purples. For me, it started more like the Chicago piece, looking at the city and rotating the lights around and finding tht made the city start to look nice. From there it was almost in a weird way calling out, like oh this yellow is looking great, why don’t you use that sort of yellow palette. From that, there was kind of a good spot that made Pittsburgh feel like Pittsburgh. I just wanted again to use some of the waterfront to guide the direction of the hyperloop. Where I had the hyperloop rolling along the water it had a couple of nice curves, so when I laid out the system it just naturally hugged those curves. It felt like it fit really nicely into the composition. 

It’s weird sometimes for me to deconstruct the influences of the creative process as I’m working through it because it’s more about constantly monitoring what’s happening and how the piece is progressing and from there shifting things one way or the other or making adjustments and thinking a couple steps ahead and behind. A lot of it is based on feelings. It’s those gut feelings, this feels right or this doesn’t feel right. Those are the things that when it comes to the creative process or influences a lot of those are like you know what, there needs to be something here or this color needs to change or this color needs to stay or the way the light is hitting this is really nice let’s see if that works for all of the pother elements that are inside the piece. Obviously for the three posters, classic travel posters were a really big influence, but ultimately when it came to the individual posters, looking at the cities, thinking about what the cities and people who live there are about and from there using that as a jumping-off point on how that hyperloop was going to exist in that city. In a lot of cases, I felt that the waterways or waterfronts were good places for the hyperloop to live.

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