Storm Thorgerson holds a God status among designers, especially album cover ones. It is impossible not to recognize one of his works, be it for Pink Floyd, Genesis, or The Cranberries (which I will feature a bit further down). He had a style and a flair, and he had great clients. Some say the secret for his & and Hipgnosis success were the clients rather than the art. All we know, is that he is responsible for the cover of the The Dark Side of the Moon, an album that remained in the Billboard album chart for 741 weeks and it is undoubtedly one of the best albums ever. However, it is not about Dark Side that I want to talk today – it is about his landscapes. Like the one above, done for the cover of A Momentary Lapse of Reason.
While growing up, that image haunted me in a positive way. However, while working in publishing, it vanished of my mind for a very long time. Until the moment I designed the cover for Nuno Francisco´s “Golpes de Espelho” (Mirror Strikes). At the time I was handed the job, I was far from knowing the author behind the brief and the cover instructions. I met him in the book launch and understood all the floydian tones of the his writing. A fan of Marillion, Pink Floyd, and Alan Parson, we had a great chat in the event and we still talk till this day. The cover of the book has his face covered by his hands and there was never discussion upon it – he provided the pictures, shot by a mutual friend, we later found out. I often wondered if I could have done something different for the cover, knowing him afterwards – but never ever mentioned this to him. Maybe I always waited the follow up 🙂 We often talk about music and about lyrics, being Marillion our prime subject, and we discussed a few covers by Mark Wilkinson, namely Fugazi (to be feature in future posts). However it was one time we talked about Pink Floyd I decided to check Nuno’s argument about the absence felt in the 90’s covers. I mean, I knew the covers, I could see his point, I just wanted to go further.
This lead me to search again for Storm’s interviews and opinions, because a few years had passed since I had access to these materials. As usual on the interwebs, there was more contents and materials to look on. Maybe because I was so focused on Pink Floyd and Genesis stuff I failed to see the big picture of his work, with the mentioned Cranberries and this cover:
There are more notable clients but I will get there in time. These covers have a consistency and an identity. This is what you hope to achieve while in this business – an identity that will lead you to set your name and style among your peers. I like to think every book designer has it own style, but this is not true. There are many that don’t. As I like to call it (while answering about my work in the pub), there are 4×4 and F1 in the trade. A 4×4 is the designer that is able to produce or reproduce any kind of cover – from romance to war, from academic to children’s books. He or her can do them all almost effortlessly. They all look competent. A F1 designer is able to excel in a specific kind of cover – be it the theme of the books or the style of his / her design. He shines on the covers that cry for his / her style and struggles or is less brilliant in other less artistic covers.
You might tell me that surely there is a grey area in between those designers. And you are right. That is the area where the 4×4’s are commissioned to work on floydian covers and where the F1’s are commissioned to produce covers for a light romantic comedy. That is the area where most of the designers exist and struggle everyday.
While one of the best things about working in publishing is the variety of themes and stories we encounter, it is also one of its nemesis – the variety and how we are “forced” to respond to variety.
Storm’s client list include names like David Gilmour, Mike Oldfield, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and also include Megadeth, The Offspring, and Audioslave. I mean, Audioslave. If any of us with some experience look at our books and authors I believe we will find a list that, to us, will make the same sense as the diversity of the bands I mentioned. And the funny bit is that most of us will have very, very different covers for all these authors. With different styles. With different approaches and results!
Which makes me wonder: in all my years of publishing and having worked for vanity at times, I do understand the importance of a book to the author. It is their pride and joy, their baby, their work and hopes. I really do understand all that. However as Roger Waters said to Storm during the creation of “Wish you were here”, why should the band interfere with the cover artist if they are paying for him to do what he does best? I should say that if you are good at one style, why ask to do something different when you clearly dominate that sort of imagery?
In our portfolios, we tend to present what we believe is our best work. This is always difficult to do as in some cases a book with a famous author has not so good cover, and sometimes a very unknown author ended up with a great cover, one that you are proud of and would like to show the world how great it is. And you get stuck in the bit where you have to choose if you present your style or if you show your diversity.
Diversity is the key when applying to jobs, I would say. But then again, I know nothing. That diversity is nothing if it is not diverse enough 😀 and what is that, I don’t know too. What I know is that while some publishers want a diverse, dynamic designer, others prefer a style-focused one. And as far as my experience goes, you can only know what they want from you when you actually get the job. In one publisher, I realized I am the man for the covers that require a uncanny feel, the strangeness of the collage or the out-of-the-box thinking I am proud to have. In another, I sometimes design covers that I wonder why the author chose me in the first place. I mean, I do this:
and I do this:
– this cover perhaps tell a bit more about my process. So, I was in the meeting with Maria Amalia, author of this book we see above, and we were talking about the story. It would be early 1900, about a particular boat and the plot would go from the boat, the journey, and the author suggested a few ideas. I was happy to do them, the key words were actually good for me to work with. But them she mentioned she had a original postcard of the boat (as in that time, it would common for the sailing companies to promote themselves that way) featured in the story. I asked her immediately if she would let me scan it and work from there. The result is the one you see above. Apart from the photo and the author’s bio, and of course the title and spine, all is pretty much the original postcard – that capsules the whole feel and time of the book. We had a great feedback on the cover and the author was really happy. I was really happy as well as I could work on original, real material. It is rare, especially when working from home.
So, it is expected that I would shine in a nontraditional style of design. In my portfolio, I try to show a vision. A way to think the covers and a way to show I can actually go the extra mile. These 2 examples show covers that were actually published, the author’s liked them (or loved them, in the case of the later) and I could have books that show a bit of my magic, or style. Even when it is a good photo, there should always be more to it, if the book allows that liberty or that detail. To produce something that it is not a photo with type on it. Of course when the photos come from Storm studios, well, work is pretty much done.
Or is it? Was he getting away with murder (using the same formula over and over) or was he using his unique style? Let us look at 2 examples of similar ideas and executions:
Where is the line between a one-trick pony and a personal style?
I don’t have the ultimate answer for this. I do however know that a style defines you, and it would be your best ally in any work you might get. Sometimes you can use it, sometime you can’t, here in the grey area. But Storm & Co can.
Why? It takes years, good clients, and above all, confidence from the client or author. Confidence is the key. After all, if he picked you, or if the publisher thought you were the man for the job, then you should do it without restrictions, because it is your style that got you the job in the first place. I am sure Audioslave and Muse knew Storm’s work pretty well when they commissioned him & his studio to design their new covers. They were expecting some haunting image, with the surreal and dadaist tones he usually done.
Like the examples above, with the flags or huge flowing fabric, you can find parallel ideas in Storm’s work without being copies of each other. It is us, in the grey area, that are often pointed out as copying or referring to a Storm or a Mark Wilkinson. However, in my opinion, there is a big difference here:
* Storm & Co are studios with a defined style, they will mostly work on that – and they were approach by clients;
* The rest of us have different clients, with different books, that require different approaches and concepts – and usually it is because we had approached publishers that we get those jobs.
I was looking into my portfolio to see if I have those floydian covers, either because the book was “asking for them” or because after reading the brief and the instructions I felt that this was the correct approach. I have one that is clearly reminiscent of this Storm school, and the others would have hints at a type of construction. I will talk more about the one I feel has those elements:
The book is essentially a young man’s journey through philosophy. The author, as far as I remember, just wanted a hint to enlightenment and a reference to reflection. Chiado Editora was very fast paced back in the day (sure it is now, however I was the lead designer so I had all these books under my responsibility), and many of my covers had to rely on wits, quick thinking, and capacity to understand the brief yet be capable of exploring the concept. I don’t remember discussing the cover as it was a winner from the beginning – well, I was never happy with the type, however the author was. So lets get that out of the way. It was one of those covers you can actually go conceptual and push the envelope. I choose to portray a clear young man (the informal clothes should pass that message well) and I looked for a landscape that would invite to reflect, contemplate, and wonder. That is why I picked an image where the man is standing on rocks, to enhance his individuality and to graphically show he is not on the same ground as his peers.
The lamp is a bit obvious, one would say, to represent the knowledge and enlightenment. Yes, but have a look at it. It is not lit and it is awkwardly big. That is to represent the weight and the responsibility of knowledge. It is also build to represent a moment where the man with the street-light-lamp can be himself – in all his strangeness, stripped of people and their opinions and judgments.
To this day I feel I tackled the book perfectly. It is still one of my favorite covers. Because I could work on the concept, make it real, and set the tone for the book.
I have only one regret. I wish the book had the exposure the cover deserves. I am saying this very selfishly. The cover, I wanted the cover to be seen, to be held, to be thought of.
To end this long reflection, I am aware there is much more to be talked about Storm, and there is more to be told about the selection of designers, and yet more about teaching the author to use the best out of a designer and not to drown him / her into a pool of keywords and concepts. Or worse, in the “I’ve seen this cover in a book shop and I want something like that”. I will leave that to future posts. Additionally I will talk about a topic of conversation I had with a couple of fellow book cover designers – do you feel you spoiled a great idea on a cover that will not have exposure or can we re-use that formula in the future?