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No pressure: The designer who has Bowie as a client

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By John Fountain


With a new album soon to be released, a stripped down remix of 'Sound and Vision' on air for Sony and a must-see exhibition at the V&A, it seems that after 10 years of next-to-nothingness, the enigma that is David Bowie is back. And let me tell you, I’m very happy about this indeed.

Bowie is like no other artist. He has pushed boundaries on every front – back in the 70’s the flame haired space-yob not only hit us with some of the best tunes since the Stones and Beatles but he gave us a mighty lesson in branding. It was, and still is, the exact opposite of the usual branding template and the plan was three-fold:

One – never make it easy or comfortable for the audience. Two – remain aloof and distant. Three – no matter how well you’re doing, throw everything out and start again.

As much as the music, it’s the Bowie brand that intrigues and draws us in. Amongst the team responsible for what is perhaps the ‘ultimate brand image’ is graphic and type designer Jonathan Barnbrook. Here one of the truly original voices in British design and typography explains how the idea for the new album cover came about:

‘The design process was all very secretive, as requested, to be safe. And we never use David Bowie's name or the album name - we had a code word for it: he was just called ‘The Artist’ and the album was called ‘Table’. I don't know why. Someone from Sony suggested it and it was that to everyone until two weeks before the release.

I don't know how this album cover fits in with all his others. I think it's a design of this time, you know? I mean, it's not ‘Aladdin Sane’, but that's one of the most significant album covers in the history of music. But for me you can't compare them because this is about this time and who he is now and if this album cover had been done ten or fifteen years ago, people would have misunderstood it even more than they do now.
We wanted to do something different with it – very difficult in an area where everything has been done before – but we dare to think this is something new. Normally using an image from the past means, ‘recycle’ or ‘greatest hits’ but here we are referring to the title The Next Day. The “Heroes” cover obscured by the white square is about the spirit of great pop or rock music which is ‘of the moment’, forgetting or obliterating the past.
However, we all know that this is never quite the case, no matter how much we try, we cannot break free from the past. When you are creative, it manifests itself in every way – it seeps out in every new mark you make (particularly in the case of an artist like Bowie). It always looms large and people will judge you always in relation to your history, no matter how much you try to escape it. The obscuring of an image from the past is also about the wider human condition; we move on relentlessly in our lives to the next day, leaving the past because we have no choice but to.


- Why “Heroes”?

‘If you are going to subvert an album by David Bowie there are many to choose from but this is one of his most revered, it had to be an image that would really jar if it were subverted in some way and we thought “Heroes” worked best on all counts. Also the new album is very contemplative and the “Heroes” cover matched this mood. The song Where are we now? is a comparison between Berlin when the wall fell and Berlin today. Most people know of Bowie’s heritage in Berlin and we want people to think about the time when the original album was produced and now.


– Why the white square obscuring the image?

‘We worked on hundreds of designs using the concept of obscuring this cover but the strongest ones were the simplest – it had to be something that was in direct contrast to the image underneath but that wasn’t too contrived (we know all design is contrived, that is the essence of the word ‘design’). It would have been clearer to many people if we had scribbled all over the cover but that didn’t have the detachment of intent necessary to express the melancholy of the songs on the album. Obscuring Bowie’s image is also reference to his identity, not only in the past when he changed endlessly but that he has been absent from the music scene for the past ten years.


– Is there anything else you can add?

‘Yes, having said all this, we know it is only an album cover with a white square on it but often in design it can be a long journey to get at something quite simple which works and that simplicity can work on many levels – often the most simple ideas can be the most radical. We understand that many would have preferred a nice new picture of Bowie but we believed that would be far less interesting and not acknowledge many of the things we have tried to discuss by doing this design. Finally we would like to give David Bowie great credit, he simply did what he always does which is to go with a radical idea and that takes courage and intelligence. That is why we love his music and love working for him.’

David Bowie is
V&A. 23 March- 11 Aug 2013



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