An Edited Interview: Vaughan Oliver, Album Designer

Minotaur, by The Pixies. Designed by Vaughan Oliver

Minotaur box set by The Pixies, designed by Vaughan Oliver

Vaughan Oliver cemented a name for himself in the world of graphic design by redefining album covers for the seminal British independent record label, 4AD. Similar to the Factory Records creative team of Tony Wilson and graphic designer Peter Saville, Oliver and 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell gave the label and musicians a distinct branding identity unseen in contemporary music. This collaboration led Oliver to establish two studios: 23 Envelope with photographer Nigel Grierson and v23 with designer Chris Bigg (their partnership dissolved in 2008).

Over the years, Oliver has created classic album covers for the Cocteau Twins, Ultra Vivid Scene, His Name Is Alive, Pixies, Throwing Muses, the Breeders, Lush, This Mortal Coil, Scott Walker, and Bush. His iconic use of typography, coupled with his stark (and sometimes humorous) imagery, reflected the somber and mysterious sounds emanating from what many considered the “golden era” of 4AD. In one of his first trips to New York City in 10 years, Oliver presented a lecture spanning his 30-year career as a graphic designer. Titled as “Visceral Pleasures” and hosted by AIGA/NY, the packed-to-capacity lecture included a presentation of his work (he later dubbed the lecture “30 years in 60 Minutes”) and a discussion about the impetus for each album cover. He illustrated how record sleeves, from front to back, acts as a relative and communicative tool for the listener. “My album covers are not meant for punch lines,” quipped Vaughan as he compared Joy Division’s seminal “Unknown Pleasures” cover to a close-up mock image of an open rectum. The discussion ended with a 5 minute montage from selected album covers with a song by David Sylvian playing in the backdrop.

Prior to the talk, I met up with Vaughan on a balmy and humid afternoon at the Desmond Tutu Center where he was staying with his son, Beckett. Sitting outside in a small patio area, we touched upon various topics: his long relationship with 4AD; his views on the difference between a graphic designer and artist, and the “demise” of music packaging.

Guy Anglade: I’ll admit, when I listened to a record from the Cocteau Twins or His Name is Alive in high school, your album designs puzzled me just as much as attempting to decipher the meaning and inscrutable lyrics from Elizabeth Fraser. It’s all a mystery.
Vaughan Oliver: That’s why I like working in the medium of music sleeves. I enjoy working there as well because of the collaboration with the music. Kind of working in tandem with it. The goal what we’re (graphic designers) aiming for is to reflect the music; the sleeve should be a gateway into what the music is about without defining it but also providing a suggestive mood and atmosphere. A sleeve for Lush, or Pixies, isn’t interchangeable for a sleeve for the Cocteau Twins. The music has led each design. I always start with the music, read the lyrics. Because I think it’s such an otherwise simple or superficial exercise—take a fabulous image, and a bit of wonderful cutting-edge type and, oh, wonderful sleeve. But if it doesn’t connect with the music, it’s worthless. I think the strongest sleeves are the sum of the parts.

Front cover for Spanglemaker by the Cocteau Twins. Designed by Vaughan Oliver

What introduced you to graphic design?
As a teenager, I wanted to do record sleeves. I didn’t know that was graphic design. I liked the combination of art and music, image and sound. It was always the ones that approached the design in an imaginative way. I was never interested in the sleeves with the bands on the front, so I liked seeing the imagination at work. You mentioned the Cocteau Twins. I think there’s something typical to Cocteau Twins sleeves that runs through most of their work, there’s a sense of ambiguity and mystery, you’re not quite sure what the hell all of this is about. You want to know more, but it allows you to bring your own interpretation. It stays open.

In other words, viewing the sleeves is a three-part collaborative process between the artist, designer, and listener. It forces the listener to participate and dive in to the music.
It’s lovely because that can cross-pollinate into different exhibitions, different locations, and different continents. A number of times people would come up to me and say, “You know that Cocteau Twins sleeve … I see this in it.” And I would respond, “Oh, that was never intended, but that’s bloody marvelous.” So you brought your imagination to it, it’s been open enough. Without being vague, there has to be something there that takes you in.

Album art now seems to be just an extraneous icon. As a graphic designer, what are your impressions with the current rise of digital technology when you started out, how are you adapting, and how do you bridge the gap from all of these diverging areas?
Well, I am someone who is in a specialized field in kind of objectifying and packaging that music. I can’t turn back time. We’re latching on in pursuit of an ever-more convenient performance. We’ve lost touch (touch being an operative word) with packaging. It’s still a niche market and there are generations of listeners who rediscover these bands and still do not understand the value of a particular record sleeve. Even bands don’t even understand how a sleeve might signify to an audience, crowd, or an area. It’s part of my generation to remind people in a sense. It’s not like we’re going to turn back to vinyl, but there’s still (and it goes hand in hand with book culture as well) something innate within us to collect things. In our nature, we are collectors. A record sleeve is not something you simply put on a record to stop it rolling off the shelf.

You could say that record collecting is a source of identity.
Yes. If the package is going to disappear altogether, I don’t know how is that going to be satisfied. I think because of the technological revolution and disappearance of music packaging, something else might take its place. So, for example with itunes, you can’t download miniature versions of the artwork, then what the fuck are you going to do with it?

Cover of Head Over Heels, by Cocteau Twins. Designed by Vaughan Oliver.

Album art is placed in the backburner.
Yeah, it doesn’t really serve a purpose … You know, a well-designed package or digipak. There’s a tactile even an aromatic aspect to record collecting. The new work won’t replace that and I’ll suggest it will probably be motion graphics or typographic-in-motion or a new media will be involved. I could see a moving version of the Cocteau Twins sleeve—that’s something I would really like to look into. At the same time, of course, I am still designing sleeves. When I worked on the Pixies box set [Minotaur], it was like putting up the biggest middle finger in response to the disappearance of album packaging. Minotaur is an antithesis of what’s happening in album design and, if it’s done properly, this is what a package can be.

Basically you’re pushing the limits of visual communication.
Yes. For the Pixies Box Set, there was no new music; we repackaged the entire thing. Charles (i.e. Frank Black) from the Pixies said that this box set was mainly an art thing. The answer to music is not an art thing, but it’s a combination of packaging and how it can be done.

Do you think advertising and marketing plays a role in the demise of collecting album sleeves?
I think it’s more than that. With the creation of a CD—that’s when the music industry pretty much shot themselves in the foot. By diminishing the packaging and making music collecting less desirable, the music industry didn’t know what they were doing. CD and plastic packaging? That’s the biggest misnomer; there’s nothing “jewel”-like about it. We are reduced to having these horrible discs in a plastic case, compared with a wooden box and a beautiful image, printed on the sleeve. Then you take out that sexy black vinyl, and then you put the needle on the record. There’s a whole ritual behind playing a piece of vinyl, and it’s a marvelous thing. And I am not saying this process should go on forever, but to replace it conveniently with a CD or that little disc, that’s where it stops.

Album cover for Ultra Vivid Scene by Vaughan Oliver

Album cover for Ultra Vivid Scene by Vaughan Oliver

At what point in the design process do you consider liner notes?
There’s really no formula to it. I like to consider album liner notes simultaneously with the image and type. It’s so important, considering I can use 10 different types of font for the same word and you will get a different message. A designer might use an extreme and extended sans serif blocky face on a street sign and, then, use a more exquisite, crafted, and calligraphic type; you communicate different messages to the viewer. So I am very aware of the feeling and atmosphere a choice of font will bring to a job and, as a designer, you use it in conjunction with the image.

It’s an ongoing process?
It’s all an intuitive process. I wouldn’t say it always comes from there, but I feel my way around the job. It’s poetic. I have an illustrator’s approach to typography, and I wanted to become an illustrator. I studied illustration from a graphic design course and I hated typography. I didn’t understand it and there were too many fonts! I thought you had to know all of the names before you could use one of them. And there’s a whole different measuring system at place: picas, point sizes, and all of that is jargon to me. It nearly alienated me. So, when I was in college, I never really understood the artistic value of type. Once I started to get into it, I started out in packaging design and didn’t get much work as an illustrator. I started working in the studio and was obliged to use these fonts on drink labels. I looked at all of the skinny fonts and big fat fonts and the scripts that went through them. And I thought, wow, the variety of it all. And then I started to see that typography as mark making. It carries the information, and it can be illustrative. It’s information as illustration. When you take this idea from drink labels to the realm of record sleeves, it has a greater potential to be much more expressive.

Can you explain the amount of input the clients or bands have had in your work? Do you sometimes feel as if you act as a vessel for the client?
Well even at 4AD, I didn’t have much free reign. I would say there’s compromise to every job I’ve done. It’s a nice compromise, because I am working with the Pixies or any other band or Ivo Watts-Russell. I want to make the band happy. It’s not as if I come with an idea for a sleeve or package and then I am looking for the piece of music to put it on. I like to know what the band wants and what they’re interested in. As said before, a particular design needs to fit with the music. I am not saying it does every time, and I am not 100% successful, but where I am being fortunate—generally, in particular with 4AD—there was no marketing department. I was the marketing department and there was rarely any manager with the band. I worked directly with the band. “What do you want? What turns you on? What’s this piece of music is about? How do you want your sleeve to look? You’ve spent 6 months writing this thing, maybe 25 years building up to it, and spent 2-3 months recording it.” I want the bands to be happy. It’s the music that inspired me and the music I would buy.

Album cover for Lush's Split, designed by Vaughan Oliver

You’ve developed quite a long relationship with significant bands within the past 30 years, obviously the Cocteau Twins, Pixies, Lush, and the Breeders. What was your experience like working on the Pixies box set, Minotaur.
The essential core was the music. That’s it. They’ve trusted me in the past and I was dealing with all of the same music. And that could be the hardest thing! You have no parameters if you’re not showing people stuff all the time.

A lack of direction?
Absolutely. If the direction is up to you and it’s wide open, what do you do?

How do you keep it fun and challenging?
Everything I do is fun. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun. And it’s a learning exercise; I am trying to learn something through it. You get halfway through a job and say, yeah, that looks nice; that type looks nice. But it’s just too easy. And sometimes, I overwork it. I am from the Northeast of England, raised in a working-class family and so there’s a Calvinistic streak to my work ethic. I got to work hard before I get my reward. I can’t toss it off, but it’s all about blood, sweat, and tears.

Again, this goes back to what you said about an intuitive process in designing an album cover.
And that’s it. I am guilty, though, of overworking.

Is there such a thing as designer’s block?
I think so, but with experience, I’m getting better at avoiding it. I take a walk just to get away from the desk. Ideas rarely happen at the desk; ideas happen in between jobs.

Cover of Clan of Xymox's self-titled album, designed by Vaughan Oliver

When I view the unpredictable and urgent imagery and history of your work with 4AD, I see a plethora of influences. It evokes the blurred, dark, irrational and open-ended nature of a David Lynch film. It’s urgent, defies  categorizations and resist simple generalizations. Each typeface blurs the line between classic and new styles of font. When listening to the music it’s a bleak, cathartic and—yet—a pleasurable experience; its a visual reality seen anew.
You mention my work being compared to David Lynch. The Cocteau Twins cover was inspired by Andrei Tarvosky’s film The Stalker: Two scientists (one is an artist; the other a writer) go in search for a forbidden zone and, in the forbidden zone, their worldly desires will become realized. They arrive at this lovely setting, this place, where there’s a floor surface and the camera is just flat over this water just a few inches deep and it’s a titled floor that used to be an interior with an object and a fishbowl. And it’s simply just a beautiful image that inspired Nigel Grieson and I to create “Head Over Heels” and “Snowburst and Snowblind.” The petals and all of that stuff mixed in with the aerosol spray on water.

It looked like mercury or lead to me.
Yeah, it does look like mercury doesn’t it? It was cast-spray paint and we thought, fuck, this isn’t working. So we formed a skin and we worked with aerosol spray. It was low-budget cheap stuff, but Nigel could create such marvelous imagery from a simple interior.

What is—if any—the #1 golden rule you teach to young graphic designers?
I don’t know if I deal with golden rules. What I try to get out and introduce to the students is the importance of play and experimentation. Generally colleges have gone in an opposite direction in trying to make it a vocational course. You know, they’re trying too hard to fit students into an industry. In my opinion, if you do that, how does industry progress? You shouldn’t give students a job for life, but simply educate them. And, in an education, they should be asking questions of the status quo. If they’re not asking questions, then we’re not going to progress.

Would you say you’re a mediator between the students?
Yes, I am mediating in a sense and I guess and I try to get the best out of them. We’re trying to teach them that you can be personally expressive as well. And we’re talking not in just record sleeves, but in other areas of graphic design as well. Sometimes I think my work is generally—and especially people in my profession—get marginalized. They would say, “Oh, Vaughan is not a graphic designer, he’s an artist.” I would say, well, fuck no, I am a graphic designer; I am communicating a message—however abstract it may be–and I am dealing with music. And I have to produce something that needs to be sold in shops. And it’s got to be reproduced. I am not an artist, I am a graphic designer and I think some people like to marginalize it. People are a little bit blinkered in their belief and purpose of what graphic design is and could be. There’s a history of us being marginalized where people would say, “oh, go play over there in your corner and little sandbox.” And, to me, I find that a bit demeaning. I take my profession very seriously.

Album cover for Xmal designed by Vaughan Oliver

So how do you describe the difference between a graphic designer and an artist?
I don’t know if it’s distinct. Boundaries blur. 4AD was about giving the man on the street more credit than a mainstream company would. We’re all generally visually educated and a man on the street who’s bombarded with sophisticated images is better educated in understanding the visual world than a mainstream record company who is credited for sticking a head and shoulder shot of the artist on a record sleeve. A regular guy is much more imaginative and visually literate. The general public is a lot brighter, more visually literate than the corporates give him credit for. I firmly believe that.

5 thoughts on “An Edited Interview: Vaughan Oliver, Album Designer

  1. Milan Filipovic

    Thank you so very much for this interview. I must confess that the sleeves for the Cocteau Twins did impress and inspire me a lot in my own work some 20 years ago. If I should make a list of the greatest visual artists of the previous century Vaughan Oliver and Nigel Gierson would be among those at the very top.
    My highest regards.

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  3. isral

    Whoa, i’d almost forgotten that Xymox was at one time a 4AD band. Mr Oliver did that?! Thanks, Guy, for reminding us that our youth truly was an act of beauty, not just an isolated moment of reaction.

    i’ll agree with Mr Oliver that the artist and the designer are two separate beings, even if they are easily confused, even by their own disciplines, as a conjoined twin.

    Mr Oliver, thank you for the interview!

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