"Losing colour forces you to attract the viewer using only good concepts and powerful imagery." Multi-talented music producer and designer Trevor Jackson tells Vicki Atkinson.
Nobody would expect an established dance act or their record company to accept a sleeve design that, on first glance, you can't read. But that's exactly what Trevor Jackson produced for Belgian band Soulwax for its 2004 album Any Minute Now, a series of black-and-white optical illusions that risked all but the most curious of music buyers to move on. The strikingly obscure designs featured on the album's sleeves and poster campaigns, enticing the viewer to focus on the imagery and what lay beneath the surface. Curiosity won through, the album sold and Jackson won a string of awards for the campaign, including a D&AD Silver Pencil, Tokyo TDC Award and Creative Review Best in Book.
"The Soulwax project was an experiment in subverting the usual record company marketing technique of using big bold logos, release dates and band photos, which although communicate information very directly, are also instantly forgettable," Jackson explains. "I approached this by trying to form a campaign based around viewer interactivity which although not immediately conveying information, created a sense of curiosity which in itself creates a far more memorable (and fun) experience."
An open mind
If you want something done differently, this is where you come. Nothing in Jackson's extensive and hugely varied portfolio could be described as clichÃ©d. As well as becoming a successful music producer and DJ with his own record company, Output (see box on page 37), Jackson has applied his unique creative approach to graphic design and illustration for Stereo MC's, The Rapture, Jungle Brothers, Todd Terry, Nike and many others.
Jackson's 20-something year career began during his teens: while working at a local record shop he developed a passion for both music and design. A degree and higher diploma in Art & Design at Barnet College gave him some essential grounding, but London nightlife provided the passion and inspiration. "The hip-hop, house, rare groove and acid house warehouse parties all had a strong DIY aesthetic to them which made me feel I could achieve anything," he says. "The scene was very diverse both culturally and musically, which also gave me an open mind."
Jackson's college years saw him surrounded by students who were following the styles of famous contemporary designers Pete Saville, Neville Brody and their peers. "I made a conscious effort to try and find inspiration from other sources. I was very inspired by the works of Saul Bass and Paul Rand, commercial artists whose work was full of strong ideas and wit."
On graduating, Jackson took on a lot of work for free, finding that if people liked what you were doing, they would pay you. After a few years of badly paid but creatively challenging and well-received work, he moved towards designing for more established artists. "I started to take on larger, better paid commissions, but for artists and labels that I had no respect for. I eventually became so disillusioned I gave up commercial design completely to concentrate on making music and running a record label," says Jackson.
The creation of BiteIt! Recordings truly demonstrated Jackson's flexibility and drive, to not only successfully produce the music of the artists he worked with but also to design much of the sleeve artwork. In 1996, BiteIt! Recordings became Output Recordings, one of the most respected independent record labels in the UK, touting a range of genres from artists such as Four Tet, LCD Soundsystem, MU and his own project, Playgroup. His renowned talent as a DJ resulted in the 2002 album, DJ-Kicks (!K7). After ten years and 100 releases, Output has now ceased to exist but Playgroup and Jackson's respected creative presence in the music industry is still very much alive.
Much of Jackson's past and current sleeve and promotional artwork is available to view at his website and demonstrates a tactical, perhaps even cautious, approach to the use of colour. Often using just one or two colours and a range of contrasting fonts, he creates a highly attractive and impactful package. Recent work for the Intimacy record label demonstrates his superb use of fonts and a limited colour palette, to create stunning work that is a far cry from the busy photographic or heavily illustrated album artwork churned out by much of the music-focused design industry. "I aim to make strong and simple results that most importantly solve a brief," says Jackson of his approach. His regular return to black-and-white design also shows a desire to challenge and be challenged. "Losing colour forces you to attract the viewer using only good concepts and powerful imagery."
Each brief is approached with a clean slate, without concern for what has gone before or what people will say. "I don't selfishly massage my design ego," he admits. "I'm not interested in having a consistent style and would like to think that I approach every project in a totally different way, free from unnecessary visual noise and devoid of any current trend or visual movement. Essentially, I aim to communicate in the strongest and most memorable (or most immediate) way possible regardless of medium."
In the last few years, Jackson's work has branched more and more into the medium of moving imagery, which in 2004 led to a collaboration with United Visual Artists on an installation to launch the BMW 1 Series. "Video is something that I have always wanted to do," he says. "Now, due to the affordability of software and hardware, it's something that I am more than capable of achieving with my own equipment."
This developing area of Trevor's portfolio complements his DJ role perfectly - creating great music and stunning video for live performances comes naturally. He has performed at onedotzero festivals in London and Tokyo, and his latest venture - RGBPM, a live audio visual show which debuted at the Optronica Festival at the BFIImax - will be touring in 2008 (see box above right). And it's unlikely to stop there. "I hope to do some music videos and experimental moving image work very soon. I would be very happy to work more in this field - I don't aim to keep any balance, just to work on projects that excite me."
While moving-image work is his new passion, remixing, producing and design still form a significant part of Jackson's day-to-day work. "I have always naturally been drawn to music work as that's where I used to find most of my inspiration. But after so long, it has become frustrating," he admits. "Clients are less open and artists think they are designers, so it becomes problematic getting results that I am happy with any more. I prefer working on my own projects such as Playgroup or finding new media to work in."
Aside from a handful of collaborative projects, Jackson works predominantly solo. "Ninety-five per cent of the time I work alone, but will get someone in if I have too much or have hit a creative brick wall," he says. "I never envisioned running a studio and have always aimed for my work to be created solely by myself, but collaborating can be fun and often results in different conclusions that couldn't be achieved any other way."
What's interesting about this diverse and long-running career is Jackson's constant ability, even need, to adapt, move on and find more exciting work to produce. To those young creatives who follow, he prescribes a "passion and genuine love for what you do. If you don't, it'll be conveyed in your work and people simply won't be attracted to it."
He continues with more commandments: "Have faith in your abilities but try to be realistic at the same time. Always aim to create original pieces of work, never follow any movement or current style, and avoid working for the current major music industry, which has very little interest in innovation."