Don DeLillo

The following post was commissioned by Picador as a part of their 40 year anniversary. You will no-doubt know I was their long-standing art director so I cut the introduction. Picador asked me to recount the process of this specific jacket design

. . . in full flow and inspired by those around me – and, most importantly, the fabulous writers under the Picador umbrella – I was joyfully drawn to experiment. Not from recklessness, as there was a weight of responsibility to the writers, but more a matter of looking to the differences. What made them unique. Special. Inspiration for my design work on Picador would not be other book covers. More likely it would be the text, music, foreign stamps, artists and explorers.

Explorers? Long before the appellation of ‘renaissance man’ was attached to his name, I was intrigued by the work of Brian Eno. I was an art student when Roxy Music was an art school band. And I thought they were pants once Eno left. By the time I was working on the book jacket for Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Eno’s seminal collaboration with David ByrneMy Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was fizzing around life and work. Eno had produced the LP/CD image himself, too. White Noise as a title, and as a notion, seemed to me to resonate perfectly with his work, and I commissioned him to illustrate the jacket.

Over-ambitious? Maybe. But I took a risk. Sadly, it didn’t come off. I didn’t feel I could use the results. Very hard to do when I admired him so much, but the book had to come first. Art directors take the reflected glory from the successes so, we too, must take the responsibility when it just doesn’t work out. No criticism of Brainy Brian from me – his work on the Picador catalogue was fabulous, by the way.

But there was now a big problem for me. A design concept I thought an open goal was now a big headache. (I’m not a writer – well not a real one – but I can mix my metaphors).

Going back to quiz my instincts on the book, I found I was fumbling for a visual equivalent of white noise. The sleeve of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts had put TV feedback in my mind and, in addition to the sonic title/trigger, had led me to Eno. In need of a ‘wild card’, I turned to Oblique Strategies, which is a set of cards Eno produced with Peter Schmidt in 1975. They are sharp notes to short-circuit tired thinking. And this was no time for creative block! The enigmatic messages on the cards are “evolved from our separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition) . . .” Picking up random cards some irritated me in the way fortune cookies do. But one or two sparked across the synapses: “Assemble some of the elements in a group and treat the group”  and “Imagine the piece as a set of disconnected events”. One card read, “You can only make one dot at a time”. These phrases reminded me that a company called Imagine had approached me to demo their new computer graphics thingy. The computer and terminal were huge! This was 1984, so just ahead of Apple Mac’s breakthrough with their first computer that went on to become ubiquitous in the design industry and to revolutionise it in some ways.

In short, I felt emboldened in by the notion that serendipity rather than standard practice may be a more productive way to work around the problem I had with this book jacket design. I called Imagine and booked two hours with a computer operator. I called my creative buddy Russell Mills with the scantiest of outlines and asked him to bring a connected object to Imagine’s office next morning. I think he chose the megaphone, or ‘crowd hailer’ as I called it. I took my Braun alarm clock. And a picture of an F1 driver (Ayrton Senna, I recall) in his flame-proofs from the day’s newspaper.

And no plan.

Around my notional framework of a wall of TV screens with a lot of signal interference, we played with the pixels. Never having touched a computer before. Designing ‘live’, more by intuition than literal reasoning. Flying by the seat of our pants.

The spine is a de-construction of the front. The back a further degeneration of the front.

The result is evocative more than literal. A little oblique? Sure. In that decade Picador was something of a research lab in every department.

Despite putting no physical hand on the design is seemed to me correct to credit Brian Eno. And Russell. As it was, being on staff, to leave my name off.