Barnbrook is an independent creative studio based in London, founded in 1990 by one of the UK’s most active graphic designers, Jonathan Barnbrook. The sense of social conscience and political awareness is prominent in Barnbrook’s work, through which he makes bold statements about corporate culture, international affairs, and consumerism. In 2001, he created a billboard that shed light on the ethical implications of design which read, “Designers, stay away from corporations that want you to lie for them”. Barnbrook has also worked on five of David Bowie’s albums, the last of which being the prophetic Blackstar—released only a few days before Bowie’s death. In this interview, graphic designer Marwan Kaabour (Barnbrook Studio), talks to Jonathan about the process behind the album design and the collaborative nature of the work between the designer and the iconic star.

MK: Producing artwork for a legend like Bowie must be a daunting, especially that so many of his past albums artworks are so iconic. How did you approach a project of such magnitude knowing that it will inevitably become part of popular culture?

JB: It is daunting, but it also means that you have a chance to do that amazing thing, which is to add directly to pop culture. Most times you never know what effect your work has, so rather it being scary, it’s an incredible opportunity. That doesn’t mean to say that you don’t feel terrified when you sit and start designing. What it means is that you are playing a high-risk game, but a very exciting and interesting one.

MK: You could either end up on the best album covers of all time or the worst album covers of all time.

JB: In the case of “The Next Day”: both!

MK: Yes exactly, but we’ll get to that later.
Can you elaborate a little bit more about whether there was a collaborative nature and if so how was it working with him?

JB: The nature of the relationship working on his covers changed over the years. I think he became more trusting. It was also a case of being on the same wavelength culturally. He would always have a few ideas, but he would also be up for listening. There are artists that I’ve worked with, visual artists and musicians, with very different ideas of what they want. He was very different in that he was open to surprise, and regarded you as an equal. People often are quite surprised about that. They’d think he must want to dominate everything but I think he works in the way of encouraging people to do the best work, and then working with them to pinpoint the right thing.

MK: Generally with design projects that come into the studio, there’s a brief, followed by a design proposal, and then the client’s feedback and so on. It’s a process that all designers are accustomed to. However, I’ve heard you say before that at some points you would sit down and discuss decisions together, or he would give an idea that you would respond to.

JB: Of course he is the client, but he had a very unique deal with the record company. They didn’t see anything until he gave it to them right at the end of the project. That meant we could work without worrying about the commercial aspect. He’s a smart person, and he understands what his audience expects, and what would make a good album that would stand out in adverts and music stores. The first consideration was: are we portraying the music well? Is it an accurate reflection of where he is philosophically at that moment? It wasn’t about selling more records. He was always prepared to try something different, and that shows in the covers. The exchange in this case was difference, we didn’t have to go through the normal channels, it was all very direct.

MK: In our profession, it’s always a nightmare when the client starts making design suggestions, but I’m under the impression that you were both in sync.

JB: Yes. We’re both interested in music and visuals, and know how they interrelate. It wasn’t like it was a field that he didn’t know anything about. He had a very long history of using fashion as part of his image, that’s a visual aspect. He understood what an album cover could do. More importantly, he understood how to subvert what people expected. That’s what good rock music or pop music does, it subverts your expectations and presents the world in a new way. I’m not making these great claims for the album covers we did together, but I think we didn’t give people what they wanted. We made them think about what we did.



MK: Listening to the music before beginning the design process will inevitably affect some design decisions that you make. In that same vein, do you feel the album art affects the way people see or perceive the music?

JB: That’s exactly the thing that got me into graphic design in the first place. I would buy records as a teenager and if the album cover was good it would make the experience of listening to the music better. The relationship is not always with the artist, it’s with yourself. If the music confirms something within you, and the album cover reinforces that, then something greater happens in the songs. It is really important, because it gives the chance to create meaning within it, but remains appropriate to the artist.

MK: I wanted to pick up on a couple of things specifically in relation to the aesthetic of the last few covers. Your earlier work is characterized by being quiet dense, layered and complex, which is in stark contrast to ‘The Next Day’ and ‘Blackstar’ covers. However, both proved to be equally polarising and controversial. Do you think that is in any way a reflection of how we perceive visual culture between then and now?

JB: No, I think it’s more to do with how musicians were expressing themselves at the time, as well as my own personal approach to design. When I was younger, the ideologies and philosophies that were important at the time was to rebel against modernism, and I very much wanted to go with that. We were all reacting against simplicity. We felt that the world wasn’t a simple place in terms of meaning. It was layered in the way people perceive things, so it seemed right at the time. With time, as with a musician, you tend to start to like what you most hated or you subvert what you liked in order to evolve as a creative person and that’s how I got to “The Next Day”. It was an understanding that actually didn’t make any difference if an object was decorated or not. Politically it was still the same. You should be looking further in the spiritual side of what you know you’re creating. I felt that the modernist symbols, which I’ve previously rejected, had as much spiritual meaning as the kind of layering that I was doing.



MK: You wrote a quite lengthy text explaining the sort of conceptual development of that cover. A lot of others tend to not do that and not to kind of give their reasons behind their work. Why did you feel it was important for you then to explain?

JB: I felt it was important because I felt the cover had been misunderstood and it upset me (laughs). I spoke to Bowie about it and he said that I shouldn’t have reacted at all. You take away the mystery of something, which is the opposite direction I went to with “Blackstar”: I didn’t explain everything and I refused to release any of the roughs because I wanted people to make the meaning themselves. As for ‘The Next Day’, I wanted people to understand that something quite simple has quite a complex foundation and it takes a lot to get to that point. Many people don’t get that. They see an abstract painting or a piece of product design like Apple and think “Oh my God, is that it?”. Getting to that point is incredibly complicated. To simplify things down is a complicated process. There were a lot of jokes about “The Next Day” taking 5 minutes, but the process took several months. I wanted people to get an insight into why we chose to do it.

MK: Bowie passed away two days after Blackstar was released. Following his death, the graphic element of the album became the visual representation of Bowie at that stage and ultimately of his departure. As a graphic designer and artist, how did you feel for your work to take on a meaning that, I assume, was not intended when you were developing it.

JB: It wasn’t intended, but I don’t think it matters if it changes. Every object you design, every visual thing you create, every idea that becomes concrete, changes through time, so I don’t have a problem with that. I especially don’t have problem with it because people thought it was worthwhile enough to signify Bowie. If it had been crap, that wouldn’t have happened.
At the time of designing the album, I was very aware of the way fans use the graphic elements of a Bowie cover. It’s because music means a lot to people, which is why we decided to release the graphic elements as open source. We wanted fans to be able to express themselves. Bowie completely understood that. Sony, the record company, did not. We wanted to get away from this very old notion of the designers or record company that releases stuff for fans to buy and that’s it. If you try to use the graphics in any way, you’d be worried about the threat of prosecution. We wanted to celebrate the fans’ relationship to the artist, and you can express it in many ways and it doesn’t have to be monetary.

MK: If you had to choose one Bowie album to redesign the cover for which one would it be and why.

JB: There has been some good covers and some bad covers. When I was younger, I wanted to redesign the world. I don’t want to do that now. Every album design is done in the style of the time, and that’s how it should be. If I redesign them now they wouldn’t be in the spirit of the age. Maybe I would have loved to do some of the Berlin stuff but that’s just my personal taste.
Bowie said in an interview once, that he spoke to Fellini and he told him that his films were different stations on a long path and things happened at that station, at that moment. Whether they are good or bad things happening doesn’t matter that much. It’s the same with album covers. I look at some of the Bowie stuff and I wish that some of them could have been better, but you need to go with what was right at the time. So I wouldn’t redesign any of them actually.