The Atrocity Exhibition


Asylums with doors open wide,
Where people had paid to see inside,
For entertainment they watch his body twist
Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist.’

This is the way, step inside. This is the way, step inside.
This is the way, step inside. This is the way, step inside.

No, the title does not refer to the J. G. Ballard book – it is however the inspiration for the song with the same title by Joy Division. Although some of the book covers are atrocities.

I am a Joy Division fan. More lately than in my younger years. Not sure if this is because I now live in UK (this surely gave me a more intimate relation with Marillion) or because I am older. Ian Curtis and company have become a part of my design process, the same way as Marillion, Pink Floyd, Alan Parson, and Fields Of The Nephilim had previously. While some of these bands influence the “inspiration” on a musical + lyrics basis, others do for their own designs and visuals – be it the ones they were supported with or the ones they allow you to create with them. Some of these album covers did influence my style, and some have done so in terms of construction, or in terms of seeking a image that would capture the reader’s attention. 

Some would say there is some Dave McKean influence  in my work and it is difficult to deny some similarities. However, as embarrassing as it may be, one of my main influences growing up was surely Fields of the Nephilim cover artist Sheer Faith. Well, Chris Bigg would be the designer and Sheer the artist. I always thought these albums looked great. The music is even better. Oh Earth Inferno, such good memories! Fields covers usually deal with the occult and the dark, complex visions of Carl McCoy, the front man and one time actor in Hardware movie. Legend says he bought the entire wardrobe of the film to dress his band.


Anyway, Fields artworks always caught my eye and their music is often present in my design process. The movie also had a great soundtrack, and the main title is just great!

Alan Parson’s Project on the other hand, gave me visions a world that is human, sometimes too human, where jealously, fear, hope, and anger are normal because they are normal and we are normal. Well, mostly.

In my humble opinion, Alan Parson is a genius. One of the most underrated musicians ever. His covers (below) are mostly very impressive, too. Not only the Storm ones, these ones too. Because they present you 2 very different designs – and 2 ideas that work really well.


Pyramid cover is a great still of the concept of letting thoughts dissolve through time.  Liner notes read “…this album seeks to amplify the haunting echoes of the past and explore the unsolved mysteries of the present. Pyramid…the last remaining wonder of the ancient world.” The cover sure captures the haunting bit. Some say it also represents the human capacity to dream, some say it is about the need to get away and the demands of the modern world.

The Turn of a Friendly Card is a cover that would only be fulfilled if you do listen to the whole album. “It focuses on gambling, and loosely tells the tale of a middle-aged man who grows restless and takes a chance by going to a casino and betting all he has, only to lose it all“. While the music is great, many songs do contain some sound effects of the casinos and this adds a lot to the songs.

These covers are 2 examples of creativity that I always try to bring to my covers.

A cover I designed intimately connected to Fields of the Nephilim:

Ever Fallen In Love – Zoë Strachan | Sandstone Press

You can check it on Sandstone Press page here and read a The Guardian review here.
You should also check Zoe’s website and the great reviews it had here.

The process for this book was complex. The brief had been very good but the book is as complex as it is great. It took me a lot of reading (I will talk about this process in future posts) and a lot of researching to set my mind into the life and times of the protagonist. And the music was very important for the characters – and so it was for the cover. I will always be quite proud of this cover for many reasons, one of them being my first work for Sandstone. During the process I went for different directions, focusing on the landscapes described in the story for example, only to turn to a more ethereal side of the book – the growth of the protagonist and the outcome of it.

Looking from afar, I expected the book to be released in hard back and have a jacket. So I portrayed a butterfly that looks mummified to represent a stillness and a present conditioned by a past. I add lines of code as the protagonist is a game designer / creator, and the type was supposed to be dominating, almost carved into the wing.

It was late in the night when I decided to listen to something just to get me good memories and ease off the pressure of working for a new publisher. I was reading a very intense chapter of the book while a song was playing and I had my eureka! moment  Last exit for the lost.

And we’re getting closer, and we’re getting close now, Last exit for the lost!
(take 10 minutes to listen)

There is an element of accepting fate and sadness as a part of your life in the book and I felt it was brilliantly written. I thought it was the key for the cover and would set the tone. I think it still does, however sometimes I feel I could do better – I dont know how. Loving the book as I do, I am frequently haunted by these thoughts.

While I am aware that the cover may not reflect the richness of the music as I am telling this story, inspiration is one thing and making it real or tangible is another. Inspiration sometimes adds on the type, on the colors, on the vibe, but not necessarily into the visual itself. In this case I felt the answer was in the message and so I tried to give a sense of silent cry.

Peter Saville, or the UK’s most famous graphic designer, was the designer of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (featured in the beginning of this post) and Closer – so he does know something about music and visuals. However he is also the example that sometimes, authors and bands are better off if they just leave us designers to do our own work.

The bands never told him what to design, he says. Joy Division were too busy trying to work out how to play their instruments, and when they regrouped after Curtis’s death, New Order were too busy arguing with each other. “I was left to my own devices and it turned out that I had my own agenda. In no other circumstances would that happen. If I’d gone into any other kind of design practice, forget it.”

Sauce: the link up there

Lets look at his covers (not my assemblage):

It does make a difference when we are allowed to do our job. Look at them. Blur, Pulp, New Order, Suede. I now, this all has a context and a specific time and its opportunities. Yes, the Factory years were a great way to get your name out there. But what exactly makes a time and a place? I think the time and the place is now. And we can all make a difference. There is so much going on in publishing and in the world in general. /end self help quote

Factory records had a big advantage in terms of image and that was a good designer and freedom to create. In the recent Joy Division documentary, Saville talks about how he got into the covers for Unknown and Closer and as I am talking primarily about Joy, they are good enough examples for me. In the same documentary, some contemporaries also talk about how the Factory dealt with design and how it allowed experimental approaches (with some fails in the way – .it is part of it!). Other documentaries talk about the creative vibe all around the label and how it set the tone for a design that would last and inspire.

Sometimes I see fellow book designers forgetting that inspiration is universal – influences are vast and everyone has his / her own. Some great covers were molded with the same tools that gave us New Order covers. And that is great, as far as I am concerned. In my days as a lead designer I would rather see boldness than laziness. Books are, for many people, all alike. They are not, and it is our job to make sure they are unique. A designer that works in publishing lacking the passion can be competent, but a designer that thinks reading is boring, books are boring, will only create boring designs. Or rip them off just to look cool.

A publisher does not need to be cool. Just needs to let the designers be who they are while saving keeping the commercial aspect of the book as well as assuring the design wont get you lawsuits.

A publisher does not need cool authors, they need to teach the authors to let the designers do their job, if they have the portfolio to prove they are capable of going above and beyond the brief.

I took some liberties when designing Ever Fallen in Love, sure. I always do. I have done so all my career and sometimes I get lucky, sometimes I don’t. But I always try. It is far better to have a book you feel as yours, as if it is now a part of you as well, than to have a book that you done the cover. Selling books is hard business and having an atrocity exhibition as your catalog will not help neither the publisher or the author. Some publishers have good books lost in bad covers, some good publishers have bad designers. It is a world of some this and some that. But there is also a world where publishers allow authors too much say, others have fear to change their dated design, others are not bothered by the design at all.

Lets not make any mistake here. I am no hypocrite. I am a professional, and as I said, I always try to bend the rules, but this does not mean I am not aware that there are wars not worth to fight and after all, you are a designer and you follow instructions. All this talk about creativity is fine, cool actually, in reality the should is different from the would. Should I do better? Always. Should I fight for a design? Sometimes. Would I risk losing a client over my vision of how the world should turn? Absolutely not.

My very very honest humble advice is: ask. Ask the editor, ask the author, if you can go the extra mile, over the top, whatever. Do learn when to give up. Do learn when to shut up. Do understand when you can and when you can’t bend the rules. This takes time and it is never a perfect science! But hell do it.

I rather read a “no, not this time” than a “well, you could have done some more effort on it”. And now, to end this self-help post, of course, not all of us are Storms and Peters. So here is the atrocity exhibition I promised:

Starting with this gem, made out of the best James Bond spit mixed with the greasiest sweat from Miami Vice:

Via this tumblr, one of my best finds this week.

And this link too.

And I finish with the best of 2 worlds: Daily Mail and anything with the word “bad” on it.

Or you thought I would post a publisher’s “new arrivals” section?


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