john christopher burns DESIGN

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Home Kind words Kirk Varner

An unsolicited endorsement.

by Kirk Varner

If you are here looking through, chances are that you are evaluating the work displayed here and the artist behind the remarkable images. Since it really is impossible to get a true sense of any person through their digital homestead on the web, please allow me a few moments of your time to tell you I believe the designer is worthy of your consideration.

I first met John Christopher Burns in 1983, after unknowingly admiring his work for years as a watcher of WTBS in the late 70s and early 80s. This was when it was truly was the first "SuperStation" of the cable television world that was just beginning to explode with national channels delivered via satellite. SuperstationTBS was the first cable offering of what would become the cable empire of Atlanta media maverick Ted Turner, but for those of us working in the local television business, TBS was this amazing laboratory of mad scientists who turned out this funky and appealing blend of old movies and sitcoms, Braves baseball games, endless commercials for those ridiculous kitchen gadgets that "really, really worked" and odd news in the middle of the night that would often make you laugh out loud.

The thing about TBS, was that it always had a look and style about it that was bolder and sharper than most anything else on the dial. Remember that this was in the time before the tools to create such a look could be put into a folding computer that could fit on your lap. Television technology of that day was contained in rooms filled with boxes and wires that were somewhat mystical and lorded over by people who sported thick glasses and pocket protectors as badges of honor. (Bill Gates had not yet proven this to be the wardrobe of future billionaires.)

JC, fresh from his tenure in the land of TBS, was striking out to bring his talents to other television outlets who were willing to hire him to bring a new look to their screens. He had landed in Hartford, Connecticut at the forebodingly named "Broadcast House" facility of WFSB Television, a station then owned by Post-Newsweek, the broadcasting arm of The Washington Post company. WFSB had been sporting a quirky looking numeral three, designating its place on the television dial, and a blue, white and red color scheme that had been all the rage of a number of TV outlets for about ten minutes in early 80s. It was known by the slogan of "The One and Only."

I was a young television news producer at the time, who was charged with orchestrating the nightly 11pm newscast at WFSB. It was a successful station that was trying to be more contemporary, though it had always been pretty conservative in its approach to most everything. JC was charged with giving the station a bold new visual identity. He worked hard to wrangle technology that wasn’t always the most cooperative, into generating this highly stylized and colorful template that was one of the strongest looks that has ever been put on a television station.

What was so unique about the design was that it featured a palate of strong colors and contemporary typography merged with a simple graphic device of three bars that matched up with the station’s existing number logotype. It was so strong as an identification that after a time, it was possible to identify the station just by seeing this graphic device without direct reference to the station’s channel number.

I was so impressed by the work and the person behind it, that it stuck with me for quite some time. Though we had not really worked directly together that much during his time in Hartford, I kept up with his work over the years that followed. In 1996 when Time Warner Cable had hired me to figure out how to duplicate the success of New York 1 News, its 24-hour local cable news channel in New York City, one of the first things I thought was that I would be able to hire JC Burns to design the "look" of this new television channel for Tampa Bay, Florida.

Tracking JC down, I commissioned him to begin working on the logo design for the news channel that I had named Bay News 9, the first of a series of such operations to be built upon the trail blazed by New York 1. NY1 had gotten the design treatment of a major New York City firm that specialized in corporate identity plans. I was putting the look of its successor into the hands of a guy working out of his house in Atlanta. There were those among my colleagues who were skeptical to say the least.

But I knew the talents of the artist, not just that he knew good design and how to make it work on the television screen, but that he also could figure out how to take the technology we were assembling and use it to make the design even better and more easily expanded and maintained on a day-to-day basis.

JC and I wrestled with the first creation of the Bay News 9 logo, shooting files back and forth between our email programs and having endless phone calls debating the merits of each contending design. I pushed for the best features of each successive draft to be incorporated into the next revision, and at one point had covered the walls of my office in the Time-Life building with color printouts of each design.

What we arrived at was a logotype that was so clean and strong that it still works for the channel today. This logo would be the foundation of a complete design program that covered all aspects of the on-air look of the channel, as well as its application in many other respects. It's strength demonstrated by the fact that it was subsequently adopted years later by the cable company's local news channel in Albany, New York, well after I had moved on to my next career challenge, and had no part in the decision-making.

In my time with Time Warner Cable, JC would work on half-dozen such projects both as designer and co-conspirator in the idea that local news on television could be done with small groups of dedicated professionals on a 24/7 basis. The projects would involve design details from the design of the logo down to the way the type would look on the tiny copyright notice that would appear for just a few seconds each hour of the day. Because I was a typical meddling client who thought he knew enough about design so as not to be too dangerous, we would discuss, debate and dismiss each other in a collaborative fashion. Somehow JC would take my ramblings and rants and extract from them the key values to making something that not only looked good but did the job in identifying these new information-driven channels in a clear and distinctive way.

Obviously, I can't presume to know what has brought you here to his website and what project he might be able to help you with. I can tell you that while you can see the quality of the design work that he has done here, what you can't see is the quality of the man behind it all. It is my pleasure to recommend him to you. And while you are going to have to take my word for it, it is my firm belief that you will not find a designer more capable of bringing your ideas to fruition or a person more interesting to know.

Kirk Varner