London-based studio Form has established a reputation for great design on music industry briefs, working with huge bands and winning awards. interviews the founders Paula Benson and Paul West.
With a long history of design and art direction for music industry clients, Form has worked with bands as diverse as The Clash, Girls Aloud, Scritti Politti and Pendulum. Having grown to become one of the best regarded outfits in this sector, the designers at Form have branched into various other fields but remain inspired by, and committed to, the whole area of design for the music industry. We caught up with founders Paul West and Paula Benson to discover their views on this changing area of designâ€¦
Computer Arts Projects: The music industry is changing fast, how has this affected the way you work?
Paula Benson: The music industry has been very slow to adapt to changes. I hate to talk about the good old days, but I'm afraid it's true. When working with svengali manager Tom Watkins we used to be working closely with the band before they were even signed, building an identity from the ground up. We were treated as an integral part of the team. Each project is different and, though not always the case, record companies tend to treat us a little at arm's length. Marketing managers and product managers at record companies have so many bands on their own individual rosters now, they are always running around trying to balance a million things, so phone calls or emails might not get answered for over a week.
That makes the creative process very stop/start. You know what it's like when you're really into a project - you just want to get on with it and take advantage of the momentum.
Paul West: Making the shift from print to digital is a pretty big one. Effective iTunes design tends to be more basic or stripped back in its message; more textural and overcomplicated illustration or design for print fails to have the impact in Apple Cover Flow that it would have on a 12-inch or CD. Classic examples are Tracey Thorn's and Bat For Lashes' recent album releases.
CAP: We've heard that sometimes it works the other way and the iTunes graphic ends up on the CD or 12-inch sleeve!
PW: Yes, once we spent a long time producing beautiful designs for the CD and the 12-inch formats. At the last minute the label's product manager asked us to design an iTunes cover as a quick fix design for online. We were a tad deflated to have the band's manager say he wanted the actual print 12-inch design to use the iTunes cover, which we felt more unsophisticated by comparison.
CAP: What new visual formats do you think will become important?
PW: I see the CD becoming less and less important in the marketplace. Its basic function is to deliver digital music, as does, of course, iTunes. I used to fly the flag as a music designer and say that I would never lose sight of the beauty of buying a format and not succumbing to download. But downloading is easy and instantly accessible on your laptop or iPod. When you get over the weird sensation of not buying a CD, and embrace the joy of the instant download and cover art, which does look pretty exciting on your iPod or iPhone, you can't help wonder what the point of a CD is.
Vinyl, on the other hand, can only grow in importance. I've personally been a lifelong fan of vinyl and have bought it for decades. It is the one format that you buy with a feeling of love for the product and the artist. With vinyl, bands combine the aural and visual experience. Radiohead truly express themselves through the design on vinyl. I bought OK Computer when it came out and was utterly turned on by the whole Radiohead world.
PB: Downloads are the future. Actually, they are very much the now. But we tend to create brands for bands. We're good at the overview - from choosing photographers, locations, props, liaising with stylists, designing the logo, the sleeves, the marketing materials, the ads;The sleeve or visual which represents a particular track is just a part it. That's where record companies can make best use of our talents, whether the end expression of all that is a physical sleeve, an iTunes graphic for Cover Flow, a website, a stage set or an advertising hoarding. We're creative directors not just graphic designers. We have so much more to give!
CAP: When it gets down to working with a band on their visuals, what is your approach?
PW: We always start with the logo as the first problem to solve. We have a long list of photographers we rate or who are relevant at pitch stage, and we create campaigns that integrate our graphics with their images. We tend to design with the campaign in mind - three singles and an album - never focusing on individual designs. That doesn't get you past the problem of single number one. Cracking the design problem involves discussion and evolution of ideas with the client.
CAP: Which band has been the most interesting to deal with?
PB: I did my O-level Art listening to Scritti Politti, so it was an honour to be asked to work on their Anomie and Bonhomie campaign. We had a really good relationship with the record company, Virgin, and a great dialogue with Green Gartside from the band, so the results of that could only be a good thing. We were nominated for a D&AD silver award for this campaign, which just goes to show that the best work comes out of good relationships.
PW: For me it would be Everything But The Girl in their drum 'n' bass reinvention period. Ben Watt was a real powerhouse of energy. It took a while to get the concept right, but when it clicked, the campaign just flew.
CAP: How important is creating identity in a music industry job?
PW: We're always proud of the Girls Aloud campaigns because the whole experience is a rollercoaster of ideas and energy. Our first campaign for What Will The Neighbours Say? was inspired by film references. We art directed the Girls in a very Faster Pussycat kind of way, using a lot of white space, cramming the idea with energy.
Other bands rely on an anti-identity to give them an identity. New Order or Pet Shop Boys relied on Saville and Farrow to create a minimal, no frills identity that was in perfect keeping with their image, style of music and reflection of the time. Roxy Music, on the other hand, drew on a mixture of glamour, kitsch and art school in their photography of women which acted as a metaphor for their sci fi- elegance image, and their innovative Glam sound.
CAP: The notion of authenticity is also very important in the context of design, especially where music-related subcultures are concerned. What are your thoughts on this?
PW: Authentic only means something in this context when you look back at a defining era in music history and use this zeitgeist as the yardstick for identity today. The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, The Who - they are the authentic British rock 'n' roll bands. Black Sabbath is the authentic metal band, The Pistols were the authentic punk band.
That identity today, certainly from the 90s onwards, borrows references from those defining sounds, styles and fashion of the past to give their identity an authenticity that the public can understand and relate to, today.
For designers it's a good thing to reference past design styles for inspiration. At Form we love film posters of the 60s, for example. But in music design you must never be openly influenced, or rip off, another record cover or designer. That is the unsaid, understood, golden rule of music industry designers. There are a few people out there that clearly think it enhances their reputation to 'do a Saville', for example. People are not acting as graphic designers; they are leapfrogging other people's ideas and are therefore graphic stylists. I find that mentality extremely lazy.
CAP: What has been your biggest career highlight?
PW: When I was freelancing back in 88 and 89 I was lucky enough to work on my favourite band, the Cocteau Twins, on Bluebell Knoll and Heaven Or Las Vegas. It's been difficult to better that high.
PB: I guess it must be doing a talk in Mexico, where 2,000 people turned up. They had travelled for hours to come and see Paul and I speak about our views on music and the search for identity. We got mobbed in a club afterwards, and as Paul and I are fairly down-to-earth people we found it hilarious.
CAP: If Form was a band, which band would you be?
PW: Kraftwerk meets Denim.