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.
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.
I have been fortunate to work with some really great people. Authors, Composers, Entrepreneurs, Actors, Publishers, Creatives. Working with the best is very demanding but it makes you raise your game.
I relish that challenge.
My latest project has been working with a very talented Musicologist in Chicago called Doug Adams. More on that project in a later post. But it’s a good excuse to start this Blog with the similarly named, Douglas Adams. I love to listen to BBC World Service. That’s where I first heard the radio broadcast of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – at 3 am on a sleepless night in West London. I liked the way it played with the Science Fiction genre. So when editor Caroline Upcher bought the rights for Pan Books I already knew the nature of the beast. And together we were able to spread the word that this was more than the SF designation it had on the list. But initially that is where it stayed. Mick Brownfield produced worthy cover art for the first edition. The series grew. It became a Trilogy.
Now, this is what I mean by massively late. Sales needed a cover to rack up the orders. I had to deliver the design for the hardback jacket before Douglas produced the book. I made him promise to tell me what he had in mind. On his way out of the Fulham Road offices, unaware of his imminent incarceration, he stuck his head round my office door to brief me. He said, “It’s called So Long and Thanks for All the Fish“. And left.I sat, lost for words. A few minutes passed and his head re-appeared, “But there are no fish in it.“, he declared – and fled.
This left me license to match enigma with enigma. And when the penny eventually dropped, it landed in a pint of Guinness and produced a ‘lenticular print‘. I found one of a walrus that morphed into a dinosaur, originally produced as a give-away for a cereal packet. Douglas Adams wrote in my copy “The silliest jacket in the history of history itself“.
An Olympic level of silliness reached (that, of course mirrored the product) we were able to cap it off nicely when we eventually produced a unified design livery for the whole series. Adams hard-nosed agent demanded that we get the new paperback editions in bulk display bins in WHSmith. Trouble was their policy was no bins for re-issues, which three of the four were. It’s never just simple! It was going to take a real eye-catcher to encourage WHS break the rules.
I played around with some nice images. Chris Foss produced a classy SF illustration of a spaceship in the shape of a Rebok training shoe. Fate demanded a fish this time. A very small place in North London produced a towel with the legend “Don’t Panic!” woven in. And Douglas had made a self-portrait on his early AppleMac. But felt none of them were strong enough to stand alone. Off to our author’s house in Islington. Unable to hear over the most sophisticated sound system I had ever seen we played games with paper. Marketing Gods would call it brain-storming. I chopped copies of the images into pieces. Then settled on cutting each image into four. So by reconfiguring them you see the whole of each image. Just out of devilment, the spines, when in chronological order spell out “42”. In Luscher Colour Test colours. Nobody got that.