As the artwork for David Bowie’s new album Blackstar – or ★ – emerges on billboards and social media, its designer Jonathan Barnbrook talks us through his latest collaboration with the singer and musician. In an in-depth interview, he considers his approach to creating a visual language for the album and what designing for music means in 2015.
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.
"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."
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.
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!
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 [cover shown, top of post]. I wanted to make it very much a physical object – vinyl is in an interesting place at the moment, similar to letterpress where the craft and tactile quality of it is everything. So that’s why the cover is cut away and you can see the physical record – the opposite of the digital download, I wanted to give it the feeling that it contained something quite threatening. The label here is part of the design – it is just black, too. In some senses I’ve done the perfect Spinal Tap cover – in the film they receive their newly-pressed album and it is just shiny black with nothing else on it, but the subtleties are what makes the design in this.
The white design is the CD cover. There are other stars that are being used but we are centring on just the five-pointed one for the main releases. You will see the other stars around which I think push the concept of Blackstar more. We have the grid also [shown above], which is about how matter affects space-time.
CR: How does your approach to the typography differ with this record, as opposed to The Next Day? Are you planning to take the treatment used on this release any further?
JB: The Next Day’s typography was very restrained. It was fake-Modernist, disconnected but also with a twist, if that makes sense. Doctrine, the font which was used and released to coincide with the album coming out, was a faux corporate font. It was developed from typography from North Korean Airlines so there was a twisting of the meaning of what something ‘looking corporate’ means. The reason we released it at the same time was because releasing a new font is similar to releasing a new album, they are both ‘new voices’ in the world.
The typography for the new album I hope is elegant, but is big, bold and direct. I do think sensitive use of typography is at the heart of creating an album cover which is a good representation of the music. It is the tone of voice in the music. The font is also open source as one of the things at the heart of this album’s graphics is that they are open to being used and reinterpreted by people who listen to the music.
A special edition of the font – Virus Deja Vu will be released with all the logos etc in for people to use as they wish. This is something I learned on The Next Day when people started to use the white square as a meme. It was planned that we would do a lot of intervention with it, but I didn’t expect people to take it up on Twitter which was amazing. So for this one the system is available to everybody because I do want people to feel included and to be able to use the elements without worry in the way they want to.
CR: Over the last few months there was a lot of Blackstar-related talk on the internet and the star icon was beginning to crop up alongside imablackstar.com. Then earlier this week there was the release of the single with the accompanying film. How easy is it to keep this kind of work secret?
JB: Well, I have to sign a legal secrecy agreement, so although I saw the rumours I couldn’t comment in any way about it! It is very difficult to keep anything like this secret these days. I’m just amazed we did it for The Next Day. For that, Bowie hadn’t been in the press for ten years, and it was wonderful to suddenly put up the website the night before the release of the single and just hit people with it. Silence for ten years is the perfect anti-PR move to make people curious. I woke up quite tired the next morning to hear it as headline news on BBC Radio 4. It was so gratifying that we had managed to do that and that there was no leak.
Here, the circumstances are very different, partly because there isn’t quite the same element of surprise; but it was still nice to keep it quiet, until, well, because there were so many rumours that something had to be said.
CR: Can you tell me about the thinking behind using the star? I was reminded of your Clockwork Orange ‘circle’ cover for Penguin. Here, the shape also informs the ‘logotype’ used on the cover – can you tell me about that?
JB: We are, wherever possible, using the ★ for the title. The original idea came out of discussions with Bowie about ways of representing the album, so this is very much his creativity and his direction. But the discussion was partly prompted by a conversation I had with William Burroughs when I met him, which I have told a thousand times for namedrop effect, but did actually finally give me something usable for this project 25 years later.
I asked him about the future of typography and he said that letterforms would go back to hieroglyphs, similar to the ancient Egyptians. You can actually see it happening with the emoji, they are becoming very common with people creating whole narratives out of them, as well as using them in everyday communication. Will there be a time when we use only these to express thought?
Back to this album though – it was a way of being as minimal with the title as we were with the design and in doing so making it stand out from all of the other stuff you see around you. It was also calculated to work in all different kinds of technologies as it is a recognised Unicode character.
We also have the logo of his name which is an extension of this. There were one or two people at the record company who were nervous about this but I do believe legibility is about familiarity – and once you get used to it you can only read it as ‘Bowie’. This was a painful many hours of working to try to get his name to be legible enough, but not too legible, to read it straight away. I tried many different stars and endless combinations for this one, but I think this has the right balance. There is a hint of the glam David Bowie here. I know it’s just a logo of bits of stars, but I think it is important to have a little of Bowie’s past in it.
In terms of my own work, there has been a playing out of the absolute forms: square – The Next Day; circle – Clockwork Orange cover; and now the star for this album. It wasn’t planned but I think there is something about basic shapes and the way they resonate in the subconscious. If somebody has any projects that need a triangle on up front, I would be very happy to hear from them.
CR: The Blackstar single is out now, along with a ten-minute film by Johan Renck. What kinds of other things might we expect to see prior to the album’s actual release in January?
JB: Well, even I don’t know, because it is part of the openness of the project. I have some stuff in place but I will create more as the project develops. Also it would take away a lot of that mystery if we saw everything straight away wouldn’t it? So the stuff shown here is mainly that which has been seen – although probably not in one place. Let’s leave the rest open, like the music.