Jonathan Barnbrook: David Bowie is

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Jonathan Barnbrook

Bowie just phoned me up, I think it just proves that he’s always very actively looking for people he wants to work with, the people with the right voice, the right tone, that match his work.

Record covers were the thing that attracted me to design, it was because you could create a universe. You had to music, but to control the visuals around the music was incredibly important as well; to say this is a complete, unique creative voice, so I think he understands that. I do believe he worked in design a little bit when he started out, so he understood the value of the cover and controlling all the visual aspects.

Heathen (2002) album design

I did look at the previous album covers and I thought possibly things were becoming too complex and I wanted to take it down to what, basically, an album design is, which is a picture of the artist and the title. With David Bowie you’re in a pretty unique position, he’s one of the few musicians who people know without saying his name, you know David Bowie when you see a picture of David Bowie. So, to make a cover that had that fresh simplicity and directness I thought was quite important here, so that’s why I took his name off the cover.

The thing that we did on the album, which there was a lot of discussion about, was put the title upside down. Our primary discussion was with the distributors, who worried that people wouldn’t know what way up the album was. But also, to go along with the directness of the cover, saying very directly that a heathen is someone who is anti-establishment and actually, you know, a heathen was the symbol of Bowie at that time, who was discontented with the world he was seeing around him, but also a symbol of him as an outsider, which I think is a role he’s had throughout his career really.

I think what David Bowie does is that he summarises that feeling of being slightly outside, for people who don’t want to move too much outside the mainstream. He isn’t something which everybody will get, and he isn’t a point-of-view which everyone has, and yet he has this mass connection with people, it’s very interesting.

The inspiration for the defaced paintings came from a real image I saw in a conservators book, which had a real Rembrandt that had acid thrown at it. It was an amazing image because it’s a sacred object, Rembrandt is high culture, and somebody had tried to destroy it. So it was a sacrilegious act almost and it seemed to be a way of talking about the idea of ‘Heathen’ and the two sides of it, the beauty and the violation in the work.

Personally, crossing out text is about existence – you know, you have existence and you’re embarrassed by your existence – therefore you cross it out. That may sound like a very abstract way of talking about it, but as a typographer, you are trying to understand how letter forms make themselves known in the physical world. Also, the album existed in a world where the internet is, and if you want lyrics then they are there, so you can play with legibility and illegibility and things out of focus - that’s often how people hear a song - so crossing out was to make it a little bit difficult to read.

The spiral was actually about the process of lyric-writing. I’m sure that people who got the album didn’t realise this, but it doesn’t matter, it’s a place to start from a creative source, so the spiral is about taking meaning out of your soul and externalising it. 

I was really glad that we did get a vinyl version just because it’s a wonderful format, it’s absolutely physical, if you look at the size of it it’s like a Russian icon painting and in the process of listening to an album you have the cover there, and there is an element of worship in it - the cover, you, the music – there’s some kind of golden energy triangle created.

The Next Day (2013) album design

BBC Radio 4 newsreader voice 1

It’s 7 o’clock on Tuesday 8th January…And talking of culture, we have a cultural event of our own coming up, the first new track from David Bowie in ten years. It will be released at 7.15am and you’ll hear it here.

BBC Radio 4 newsreader voice 2

It is David Bowie’s 66th Birthday today and guess what, he’s released a new single, not something he’s done for quite a while

Victoria Broackes

So how did you work with Bowie on this one?

Jonathan Barnbrook

Well, the cover for ‘The Next Day’ was basically done in total secrecy, that was the order of the day for it. Everyone wanted to keep it a secret because it was such a fantastic thing to drop on everybody on Bowie’s birthday, because we knew this album was happening and there’d been a lot of conjecture about whether Bowie was ever going to do some music again. Nobody wanted to spoil the surprise, for instance, in the [design] studio, me and only one other person knew about it. When we had a phone call about it, I had to go outside to talk, on the emails we couldn’t mention the album name directly in case they were intercepted. In this time it’s very difficult to keep a secret, but we managed to do it.

 What I think is unique about the design of the new album cover ‘The Next Day’ is the re-appropriation of ‘Heroes’, the Bowie album from Berlin. ‘Heroes’ really is the iconic Bowie album and do something like put a white square on it, or cross out the title, we felt was almost sacrilege, but that really is the point of contemporary pop music, it spits on the past. However, with Bowie, it’s slightly different, because that album cover is such common currency, it has so many layers of meaning, it’s not just about that, it’s about he’s living with his history. The songs are much more reflective and because he’s obviously a little bit older now and hasn’t done an album for ten years, there is some aspect of looking back on the past and one of the songs particularly refers to Berlin. So all that was going on on the cover and of course,  there’s the other aspect, that he’s always identified with his past and people always compare every single album that he’s produced to what he’s done before, so he’s never free from it. So there are all those layers of meaning going on in the design. Some people will have called it lazy, but it actually it took a long time to get to something which is ostensibly quite simple and actually, I think, quite daring.  


 On Tuesday 8 January 2013, the world awoke to the news that David Bowie was releasing a new album following a decade-long hiatus. Graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook talks to 'David Bowie is' exhibition co-curator Victoria Broackes about his work on the album cover and the secrecy that surrounded it. The film also includes Barnbrook's thoughts on his design for the cover of Bowie's 2002 album, Heathen.   

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