While more than happy to discuss his work with David Bowie, designer Jonathan Barnbrook is wary of attempts to tie down specific meanings within it. He’s also keen to stress that, in regards the concept and subject matter of a new Bowie album, it’s the artist’s prerogative to expand upon its themes, or not.
In fact, looking back at his cover for Bowie’s 2013 record, The Next Day, Barnbrook says that it was his own over-explanation of the project that perhaps got the better of him (he was quoted in Private Eye’s ‘Pseud’s Corner’ column – and found this very funny). And at the time, while the sleeve looked like nothing else around and posited some interesting ideas about identity and how we engage with music these days, lots of people were quick to say that they didn’t like it.
“The point behind the lengthy explanation then was just to put into context what was quite a difficult cover for many people to accept,” says Barnbrook of the record that marked Bowie’s return to releasing music after ten years. “Also, I wanted do graphic design a bit of a wider service by showing that design is very much a conceptual process, not just a commercial one. There isn’t enough clear explanation of work by designers, not about why they did such a nice branding job, but the larger cultural and conceptual issues that designers do face when sitting down to do their work.”
For the new Bowie record, Barnbrook has once again taken an unusual path. There’s no image of the artist, no immediately recognisable name or title – instead a star shape is used as a flat graphic symbol and also a cut-out. The work has its roots in the Barnbrook’s previous work with Bowie and also shows how his own approach to design has changed – these days it is stripped back, with simplicity at its core.
Album poster in London
“It’s interesting for me to see how my work has progressed and I do think if your work is the same at 40 as it is at 20 then you’re not being honest with your soul,” he says. “My work used to be very complex – in a world of Modernism that I was reacting to. Modernism for me, at that time, was not sleek European airports but the grim local dole office, or the dirty British Rail train station. It didn’t work so I needed to create design that was a proper human response to the world I hoped to create.
“Nowadays, however, we are assaulted by thousands of images of different ideologies everyday – and the only way to break through this is with simplicity and clarity. I don’t mean ‘simple’ as in ‘legible’ – because something simple can still be open to interpretation – but an aesthetic that is very bold and without decoration.”
The Next Day album cover, 2013, designed by Barnbrook
CR: Going back to 2013, how do you see your work for The Next Day fitting into this way of designing? Even among those who didn’t respond to it, the cover certainly made people consider what it was they were looking at.
JB: I think what The Next Day design did is make people think about the role of the album cover design. My interest in design when I was young was from seeing the record covers of Neville Brody, Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett and Vaughan Oliver. I didn’t understand how someone could represent music so well, visualising the beauty and the belief that I had in the music. It also made the music better.
When I got to college, and was told about the logic behind logos and corporate identities, I just found record covers far more visceral and exciting. Although, of course, I now understand that problem-solving and other elements used in both areas are quite similar. With a few exceptions, since those golden days of covers, it has become the domain of the marketing department – to the point where often the most people will say about an album cover is, ‘Well that’s nice’.
There will be less direct explanation for ★ as it is much more within the tone of the music to leave it open. Bowie also taught me a very good lesson when he saw that I had put the roughs of The Next Day covers in the V&A’s David Bowie Is… exhibition. He asked me to be careful because these change the final design – I think it was a lesson that he had learned through making music. Roughs are not just roughs, they can dilute the concept of what you are trying to say with the final work.
Digital single cover of Blackstar
CR: How did your ongoing working relationship with Bowie affect how this new project developed? And what’s that relationship like?
JB: Working on this job can be terrifying but you need to be equal to that. I know it’s an album cover and it is not helping people who are facing real social problems, but I don’t know any good creative person who doesn’t re-examine everything they have done in a project at some point to see if it is any good.
So there is the pressure of doing something which will be the face of an album which will become part of popular culture now and for the future; there is a pressure of doing something that is worthy to be shown to the super-intelligent God that is David Bowie; there is the pressure also of the thousands of people who follow him not to disappoint them; there is also the pressure of doing something that, in your own terms, moves forward design-wise in some way. I do think this design is a lot less controversial then The Next Day, but then I think it is a lot easier to get than that sleeve.
As for Bowie’s involvement in the process, again, without being too specific – he is very closely involved, there is a lot of discussion about the concepts behind the songs and the artwork. In this instance we met and listened to the album together in New York and started to bounce ideas off each other, and it developed from that. This process takes about three months of intense emailing. There is – I hope I am not saying without being too presumptuous – a trust between us. I will get what he wants to do and respond in a way that I’ll know he will find engaging.
I also know he, like everybody creative he works with, wants you to push yourself and rethink entirely what you are doing. It is such a refreshing attitude. The record company get involved only when the idea is fully formulated, so there is a clear direction to follow – and they cant change it!
Vinyl album grid graphic
CR: In terms of the actual artwork, people have probably seen by now what looks to be a vinyl sleeve (all black, cut-out), but also a white sleeve design with the black star. Can you tell me what we’re looking at here, and how these differ?
JB: Well, firstly, what I am trying to get over with this design is the album cover in isolation – this something I started with The Next Day and is further developed here. Yes, the design has to exist as the album cover, but it is also all of the other stuff that happens around the release of the album these days, the reviews in the press, the pre-order and also social media interaction. So what we have is ‘a visual language’.
Now, of course, you have to be careful with that, because as well as expressing the philosophy of the cover you need to make it clear for people to identify it. So the actual covers are very simple and clear but there is quite a bit of additional visual language around the ideas, concepts and atmosphere of the music. I had it pointed out to me that it was the first cover for full a solo album by Bowie which doesn’t have a picture of him on it but then the situation is different now. There are plenty of new images of him circulating as part of this, too.
The black design is the vinyl release