Brian Eno

Not quite like the posts so far. Not a linear tale, which given, the exquisitely non-conventional nature of the subject, is probably apt.

Art School, Brighton. Student. Main-lining music without frontiers. Captain Beefheart, Joni Mitchell, Velvet Underground, Dylan, Roxy Music, Bowie, Frank Zappa, Toots. But finding gold in the crevices. Peter Tosh, Brian Eno, Winston Rodney, The J.B.s, Lee Perry, Fela Kuti. I loved the line, “The matchless privacy of the obscure.” Now I can’t remember if it was Peake or Joyce.

Nigh-time DJ for Soul Society and Friday Night Club in The Basement. Playing Funk not Disco and clearing the dancefloor with a compulsive obsession with Dub Reggae that I used to buy in a record shop in Brixton Market that was the size of a phone booth. Putting Stevie Wonder on to get them back dancing. I hated Glam Rock. They were all a bunch of over-weight Kwik-Fit fitters in glitter. But Bowie and Eno, they were the real deal. Exotic explorers.

And there I was one day with performance artist, Charlie Hooker, listening to Eno’s solo album “Here Come the Warm Jets” and I was away. Unusual, pioneering and no big fan base intruding in my private pleasure. “Taking Tiger Mountain“, “Before and After Science“, the playful, determined, occasionally bonkers vocal albums. It seemed most people just sniggered when I went on about it. And, clutching the purist badge of the completist, I took to the early Ambient Work. 

Blissful, straining, serene, epic emotional landscape . . .

Anyway, back on earth I am to be found later working for a living at Pan Books. The logo (called a ‘colophon’, in Publishing) was a hairy-legged fellow with a flute. To me it was Pan as in Panorama. Breadth, Scope. Jackie Collins’ “Hollywood Wives” in the morning and Samuel Beckett in the afternoon. The Becketts, and many other design projects were collaborations with my 80s soul-mate Russell Mills. More of that another time. But the initial bonding with Russell was music (and Guinness). He was the first person since Charlie Hooker that ‘got it’ with the Brian Eno thing.

Excuse the fan bit here but Eno’s music was ubiquitous for me. “On Land” in particular seemed to just be around, like breathing. It influenced me in haunting ways. When I could escape meetings and the cacophony of studio days, I would slip into my office and listen on the Walkman as I worked. Shifting between Eno, John Hassell, Harold Budd, mixed in with Ennio Morricone, I worked on my personal passion, and challenge, on the Pan Catalogue – Picador.

I struggle to relate this without sounding a bit of a tosser. If you think that, tough. This my story and my truth, so blame the writing not the wiring. So there.

A new writer to Picador. Graham Swift. Publisher, Sonny Mehta and editor, Tim Binding had impressed on me how highly they rated his new novel “Waterland“. You become immune to pressure. It doesn’t produce results with Literary Fiction in the same way as it does for Mass-Market Properties. Great writers have a unique voice. I had to ‘feel it’, become attuned to it. There was an elusive atmosphere to this novel I was struggling to identify. Frequently attempting, with Picador cover designs, to avoid the graphic mini-poster of the mainstream. Seeking the sense of expectation as the house-lights go down and the curtain rises . . .

With “Waterland” I found the muse in music. In an early morning black-bean soup of a fog, driving at a snails-pace, “On Land” loud and all-pervasive on the stereo, all the windows open in the BMW320 with my future wife, Sandy and Russell & Annie Mills, off for a weekend in Norfolk. This atmospheric moment was the inspiration I needed and I commissioned photographer, Charlie Waite. Murphy’s Law stepped in and Charlie had the misfortune of beautiful weather. We had to grossly over-enlarge a detail for one shot to get the effect we needed. Charlie is one gracious gent and he went along with it. The result was  a piece of work that pleased the author and sold very successfully. That year, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Graham Swift referred to me a the ‘genius who produced his cover’. And I nearly died with pride. Good times. 

Later, I was able to feature Brian Eno’s installation work on the Picador catalogue above, and I went on to design the original Opal Records branding, for Brian, which Russell Mills developed beautifully. Graham Swift’s writing continues to be true ‘genius’.

If you design book covers don’t look at other book covers for inspiration. Look outside.

The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (I)



What do you think of when I say “The Lord of the Rings“? Hobbits or Uruk-hai? Viggo Mortensen or Cate Blanchett? Epic story-telling or dippy-hippy myths?

I think craftsmanship. 

As a shuffling youth, I read Tolkein’s Trilogy utterly disinterested in folklore and daunted by a book 3 inches thick. I was hooked in a few chapters. Good vs Evil, but many-layered and a complex weave of characters, cultures . . . Enough. You know about it and you don’t need my summary. My point is that it was the skills of the writer that made it work for me. Made it plausible. Gave it vitality.

So it is with The Lord of the Rings Movies. Peter Jackson and his team were so thoroughly committed to the project. They totally immersed themselves and that, in turn, generated a totally immersive movie-going experience.

Alan Lee, concept artist on all three movies, once told me that each actor in the Elvish army had an individual spell, in Elvish, painted on the inside of their breast-plate, over the heart, for protection in battle. No-one saw it. And that is the point. The suspension of disbelief is total. And that carries all the way through to the audience. Keeps it real.

I get poked that, “All designers love special effects”. Nope. On their own they are just pyrotechincs. Flashy ephemera. Movie-makers often throw cash at CGI and high production values and ignore the script. The script is the content. Book, Film, Music, Products, Services, (dare I say Social Media) – Content matters. Content is the core, the essence. With my graphics, I try to take its pulse. Get that right and you can reflect it with visual communication. Without it you are left with, well decoration.

Yes, I’d rather watch The Wire than Transformers any day. But it’s not an elitist thing. Give me a good story, well-told and art direction/special effects that bring it to life and I am all there. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Twelve Monkeys, Apocalypse Now . . . Brill! Bring on the popcorn. And nothing gets the juices going more than a great soundtrack. Imagine Psycho without the violins. The Dollar films without Sergio Leone. Southern Comfort without Ry Cooder. I’d better stop or this will be one long list. But I’d love to see your favourites in the ‘comments’ box at the end of this post . . .

Before I get lost in enthusiasm (that happens). I want to change tack to technology. I am under a publishers’ embargo not to show The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films yet. Must respect that. Hence the wee teaser image above. Maybe more about the design in a later Post. Back story: In 2009 the book design (anon) had been completed. Then they binned it. Totally. In the name of quality. Blimey. No pressure then.

What’s that got to do with technology?

This ambitious book’s author Doug Adams lives/teaches/performs/writes in Chicago. He took on the task of finding a new art director for the project. After a very long trawl, a Google search  found my website. Tolkien found calendars and diaries. Classical Music found my time at Decca Records. And serendipity found Douglas Adams, his namesake. So far, so good. Then he used LinkedIn, which provided my bona fides and the all-important references. E-mail contact was made. 

Wrongly, I used to associate technology with an icey hand – cold, impersonal. Language can defeat that assumption. In a flurry of e-mails dialogue began. Howe Records in New York. A few phone-calls followed. We exchanged thoughts, discussed theories, developed an understanding. I was hired. Time-difference just became part of the process. I worked up designs in the morning. Sent PDFs to Doug in Chicago early morning (which we dubbed Javatime). We discussed/revised and sent to NY as they got to the office one hour later. The book is 416 pages + a rarities CD. There were a phenomenal amount of PDFs, e-mails, Skype calls, Twitter pokes et al. Nancy Starkman, Print Broker on the East Coast. Printers in South Korea. But, because of our wonderful language, we built trust, developed our relationship, crafted nuance. Made a book. And met deadlines.

We have still not met. Hi, Doug! I have yet to meet the guys in New York office, Joe Augustine and Alan Frey. Artists, Alan Lee and John Howe are in New Zealand, their pencils kissing paper in the making of The Hobbit. We will all meet for the first time when finished books are launched at a Howard Shore/LOTR concert at The Royal Albert Hall this September.

The author is now my friend. Yesterday I received a Hand-Written letter of thanks from Howard Shore for my work. Wow!

LikeMinds stimulated my interest in Social Media in May. Now I write this new Blog. I will Tweet it to a growing bunch of good folk who follow me. I will meet many of them for the first time at TheMeet 140, in Bristol, next week.

Technology today is impressive. The range of media amazing. The power of language in a 416 pp book or a 140 character Tweet is extraordinary. With great content the potential is limitless.

By the way, I am a Londoner living on Dartmoor, Devon, in England. I travel.

(. . . continued in Part Two)

Shirley Conran



This blog was born thanks to the devilishly smart guys at Like Minds. Scott Gould recognised that I have a compelling track record of successful design selling other people’s products and services. But he also saw that I can become diffident and uncomfortable selling my own skills. This diagnosis took him less than 30 minutes on our first meeting. He gave me what I can only describe as Alex Fergerson’s Hairdryer Treatment. But, and here’s the clever bit, having harshly isolated a problem he swiflty moved to the positive. Scott’s observation was that once I stopped ‘trying to sell’ I relaxed and just chatted about work experiences in my own words and became animated and enthusiastic. Before I had time to be indignant and defensive he instructed me to set up this Blog and tell the stories behind the portfolio.

There aren’t half some clever bastards” as Ian Dury once said. Thank you Scott. Right on the money.

Q:Why is there a “Blockbuster” Jacket up there?

A1: I thrive on variety. With books it is healthy to be able to sell a big airport read as well as a Booker Prize Winner. I have done both. Many times. Only doing the former I would have become a design hack. Only doing the latter I probably would have disappeared up own ego long ago.

A2: Because designers don’t design just for other designers. Designers solve problems, for clients.

Savages is a novel, “Five Rich Women forced to go Native on a Desert Island”. I won’t expand, read it if that appeals.

Shirley Conran had been lured away from Penguin to Pan. I was due to design the paperback but the hardback publisher wanted me to create something early for them. Publisher, Phillipa Harrison flattered my design work and I took the bait. I took the manuscript home to read. Back in my West London flat that evening I turned to putting thoughts to layout pad. Had ideas, like you do.

For some ideas to work I was going to need the pooled budgets of both publishers, and it would make a nice big fuss of the author, I thought. Never a bad move, especially with the big ones. Good ROI, as Pan later agreed.

But for now all I had was crumpled paper. Doodles, random notes, thoughts etc. This stuff is very rough just an aide-memoire to me. No, you can’t see it. My squeeze, Sandy, posed for reference for one idea in a T-Vest holding up a broom handle as a spear-gun (see above).

Next day, back at Art Director central, a normal morning, return from lunch, my quiet time in the Busabong, Fulham Road, with the papers. My recently appointed assistant says, “Shirley Conran called.” Pressure already? 24 hours, Jeez, that’s a record. “What did she say?“, I asked. “Wanted to know if there were designs for her to see yet. Don’t worry I saw them on your desk.” Cardiac arrest as she announced, helpfully, “I sent them straight over by courier.”

Bear in mind this is Shirley Conran, ex of Terence, mother of Jasper. Me, boy-art director. Shortly to be ex-art director. What she has been sent were random ramblings, scribbles, thinking on paper. Un-edited. Rougher than rough. Did I mention they were rough? This was not good.

Phone rings. Assistant says, “It’s Shirley Conran . . . wants to speak to you“.

There is a strange spongy vertigo when you are sure you are about to get fired. “Are you the individual who did these sketches?” Bugger, sarcasm too. “I can explain . . .” I began. “No need” she declared imperiously, “I love one of them. It’s genius!“. Waves of relief, self congratulation, instant conviction I knew it was a triumph all along . . .

“The one that’s got Conran The Barbarian written on it.” she said.

No moral. It progressed to sell shed-loads. And on the way stuff happened – Accounts Dept. imploaded when I commissioned Vogue fashion photographer Tony McGee. Showing a 5×4 transparency to the Sales Force, I witnessed them turn the tranny around to see the model from the front. Same crew managed to successfully block me from carefully placing the ‘A’ in the title neatly on her bottom as they thought it “too suggestive“.

And a week after the shoot Tony McGee called to tell something about the ferry that had tragically sunk recently with serious loss of life. The model had cancelled her ticket on that very sailing to take our assignment.