Five Questions with Peter Gifford
While many people have visited the visually stunning Tekumel.com website, only some of them are aware of who put it all together, Peter Gifford. We thought it would be a good idea to get to know the graphic design wizard behind the curtain:
Who is the fellow behind the Tekumel.com website?
An Australian graphic designer, working freelance under the name Universal Head (www.universalhead.com) for almost 20 years. I recently left the city of Sydney and moved to New Zealand, where I’m having a great time rediscovering the great outdoors.
On top of my usual commercial work – websites, branding, packaging etc, I occasionally manage to combine my two main interests by designing graphics for boardgames like Tales of the Arabian Nights, Ninjato and Aztlan. I’m also known among gamers for creating hundreds of boardgame rules summary sheets, which you can find at my blog site, http://www.headlesshollow.com. And I’ve played drums in lots of bands over the years.
In 1997 I rediscovered Tékumel after a long absence and, as a personal project, decided to create a professional-looking website celebrating Professor Barker’s creation. It eventually became the ‘official’ site and I had the honour of exchanging emails with the Professor and getting to know the Tékumel community. The site has been redesigned several times and, despite the occasional long hiatus, is still expanded and improved now and then.
How did you originally get involved with Tékumel?
In the distant, murky past – 1978 to be exact – I was in my first year at high school and walked into the library to see a couple of guys sitting at a table rolling some funny-shaped dice. After walking back and forth a few times I finally asked what they were doing, and one of them answered “this is a game where you make up your own game.” It was Empire of the Petal Throne. With the occasional lapse, I’ve been playing role-playing, board and miniatures games ever since – though, funnily enough, no Tékumel-based games since those very early days.
What intrigues you the most about Tekumel?
As a young person first discovering Tékumel it was the exotic scripts, the weird nonhuman races and monsters, and some of the other things we all associate with Tékumel – the underworlds, impalement, Sakbe roads, the Ssú, Eyes, the Petal Throne … actually, now I think about it, all those things still intrigue me! Tékumel has an imaginative weight, a remarkable sense of alternative reality, that is incredibly rare among creations of fantasy.
You’ve done a lot of creative work on the web and elsewhere – how has that shaped your approach towards envisioning Tékumel?
I approached the design of the site the same way I would any professional project – I wanted it to be beautiful, useful and well-designed – but in this case I also had the luxury of doing exactly what I wanted visually. It was also in the early years of the internet and games like Myst and Riven, and there was a real feeling of excitement around creating ‘worlds’ on the web. I tried to capture my own vision of Tékumel in the site’s graphics – the textures, the logo, some interactive graphics in the original version of the site – and fortunately I travelled to India around that time and took a lot of photos of textures. In fact I remember seeing a sign one night in Varanasi that I could have sworn was in Tsolyáni! Those photos informed a lot of the design choices, as have subsequent travels to South America, Mexico and Morocco (you can find my travel diaries at www.petergifford.com), and some excellent contributions by a few professional illustrators.
Strangely, no one has ever asked me what the object is next to the main logo. It’s a portable communication device I designed for a computer adventure game proposal many years ago, but it just ‘felt’ right to be reused on the site.
If there is something new you would like to do for Tékumel, what would it be?
I’d love to get more professional illustrators visualising Tékumel. I think that one of the problems people have with approaching Tékumel is that there are too few high quality illustrations that really capture its unique atmosphere. As wonderful as all the descriptions are, most people respond much more quickly to visuals. A few good conceptual designers need to get involved creating images exploring the world in the same way John Howe and Alan Lee have explored Middle-earth.
Oh, and I’d really love to design an Empire of the Petal Throne boardgame. I must get to work on that!