Storm Thorgeson

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Storm Thorgeson died yesterday. A man who has made a unique and indelible mark on music and design culture.

His death has a unique significance for me, as his design studio Hipgnosis has not only provided much in the way of inspiration over the years, but also, when I actively became a student of design myself, I was lucky enough to be tutored by one of Hipgnosis’s long term collaborators – George Hardie. He was the man charged with the task of translating storms’s design concept for Dark Side Of The Moon into the iconic prism infographic we know and love today.

Storm is credited as being the man that has ‘designed most of your record collection’ his artwork concepts have decorated the sleeves of some of the most iconic bands of the 70’s and 80’s. In fact his visual concepts, sense of humour and surreal, sometimes surprising juxtapositions have had a profound impact on designers the world over, helping to change forever our preconceptions of what packaging is, and the role it plays in the emotional landscape of music.

A founding member of Hipgnosis along with Aubrey Powell his design studio became the practice du-jour after he had completed Pink Floyd’s album cover for ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ in 1968. After that other musicians were soon beating a path to their door. For a brief overview of career highlights and some of the iconic names they have worked with over the years Adam Sweeting’s piece in the Guardian is worth a look.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/apr/18/storm-thorgerson-dies-69-designer-of-album-covers-for-pink-floyd

But it was Storm’s lifelong partnership with Pink Floyd which brought forth some of his most iconic work. ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ cover is rightfully legendary but what is often overlooked is how many rules this design broke from a commercial perspective. No band name and album title on the cover? – You do wonder how he got away with that! Let alone the black shrink wrap that the original release came in.

Surrounded as we are today by surrealism and quirky humour in everything from TV adverts to viral campaigns it is easy to forget how groundbreaking Hipgnosis as an agency were in their day. Take a look at a collection of 70’s album covers and (unless you are looking at a something produced by Hipgnosis) its rare for you to see many that strayed from the time-worn formula of band pic and logo repeated ad-infinitum. The few sleeves that did get creative, were so, mainly from a technical point of view. Gatefold sleeves or lavish paintings might be employed for example, but rarely were the ideas behind the visuals deemed as important and that is what made Hipgnosis unique.

The thing that is most striking about their sleeves is the way they conjure up a feeling of mystique. The visuals don’t just complement the music and the lyrics they almost add another layer of meaning. Symbolism and icons abound throughout their work. You have to ‘read’ the visual as opposed to being a passive receiver of it. You look into the image to help it provide new slants or twists to a song or albums meaning, and this was a completely new way for, what was essentially packaging to work. No one had done this before.

Many of their visuals which weren’t directly surreal were like scenes from a film. You can see there is a narrative there about to unfold. (Unsurprisingly both Storm and Aubrey Powell were trained as film students). The other thing to bear in mind when you look at a Hipgnosis cover is to remind yourself, pre-Photoshop, how difficult some of those images were to set up. The internal sleeve image on ‘Wish You Were Here’ of the diver entering the water and making no ripples was actually posed. A gymnast had to remain rock solid upside down, half-in, half-out of the water, till the ripples subsided. To make it possible, breathing apparatus was hidden under the waterline.

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Of course this level of stage management to get the right shot meant things sometimes went wrong. The inflatable pig that famously broke its moorings and floated away while being photographed over Battersea power station. The 700 beds stretching to infinity on a beach, the arrangement of which drove the set-up crew crazy.

Hipgnosis and Storm were definitely one of the analogue design generation, (a subject I am currently discussing in more detail in Analogue Vs Digital) and right up to the end Storm much preferred to get the physical shot right on location than mess around with it afterwards on the computer. “I prefer the computer in my head to the one on my desk.”

I remember speaking to George Hardie once about the fate of Hipgnosis. They pulled down the shutters on the agency for the last time in 1983. He confirmed to me my long held belief was indeed correct – that the agency never really recovered from being perceived of as uncool, by the post-punk generation. Umbilically linked as they were to many a ‘dinosaur’ rock band, the work started to dry up slowly from the late 70’s to early 80’s. This was despite the fact that one of post-punk’s finest exponents XTC had arguably one of their most iconic sleeves designed by them. (Go 2 which eschewed Hipgnosis style imagery for plain typewriter text, informing you how you were being manipulated to buy)

If Hipgnosis and Storm Thorgeson have a legacy it was in their ability to reframe the argument about what album artwork should be. They suggested that their prime purpose was not to be a mini-poster making them stand out on the album racks or mere decoration, they should be seen as an extension of the way a band communicates, a continuation of the story being told in the lyrics. They took a medium that was meant to be immediate and made it something that required repeated study. They took risks, sometimes dropping text altogether from the sleeves, so they stood or fell by the strength of the image alone. They introduced surrealism and quirky humour and the influence of this thinking can be seen today in virtually every form of advertising. In essence they took a wholly commercial medium and helped it evolve into stand-alone-art and for that we are culturally richer.

RIP Hipgnosis. RIP Storm Thorgeson.

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Analogue Vs Digital – Are we Happier now?

Something I have noticed recently is an increase in books, programmes and articles critical of our relationship with new media and technology – challenging the preconception that our quality of life has improved through our use of them.

A few months ago we had the excellent series by Adam Curtis – All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace in which it is argued that computers have failed to liberate humanity and instead have “distorted and simplified our view of the world around us”. To check the series out: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/all-watched-over-by-machines-of-loving-grace/

Jaron Laniers new book ‘Who Owns The Future’ and Evgeny Morozov’s ‘To Save Everything, Click Here…’ have added to the debate. Jaron’s book is of particular significance, in that he is as The Guardian calls him ‘one of the most respected voices in tech, a visionary who has helped shape our digital culture.’ One of the original digital utopianists Lanier is now a dissenting voice arguing that the business models set up by the internet are making it increasingly difficult for certain types of worker to earn a decent living and his predictions for the future are even less hopeful.

This got me to thinking. The views I’ve started to see expressed feel like part of a bigger sea-change in public opinion and I’ve begun to wonder is the digital honeymoon now over? Do we see ourselves as the colonizer or the colonized in regard to the machines we use. Analogue vs Digital – Are we happier now, than we were?…

Being an illustrator who has managed to make the career-hop over to graphic design I know I have definitely benefited – at least in the short term – from the advent of the computer. In fact it is the arrival of the apple mac that facilitated it. I left college at just the right time for someone who might want to make a career diversion. The introduction of computers into the world of graphic design and publishing in the mid to late 80’s had just started to dissolve the boundaries between creative disciplines for the first time. Hierachies which had hitherto been strictly governed had started to break down. I still have a copy of Creative Review while I was at college which advertises the required needs of a graphic designer: paste up and scalpel skills, the ability to visualise with magic markers! Nowhere was there an ad requiring someone to use a computer.

The analogue design world had rigidly defined job roles and requirements. Account managers and studio heads would have frowned upon anyone regarding themselves a designer, unless they had the requisite 3 years training in typography branding and marketing and a degree to prove it. However the introduction of digital working methods from the mid to late 80’s transformed this situation out of all context. Knowledge of the right digital applications, keyboard shortcuts, speed and technical knowledge in front of a glowing monitor suddenlly counted a whole lot more than knowledge of typography.

So the desktop publishing revolution and access to cheap affordable ways of getting copy and images to press felt like being given keys to an otherwise locked building.

But I like to define this as the soft revolution. Digital work practises filtered in inexorably as invited guests into our homes and into design practises up and down the land. It was a slow and organic change-over from analogue to digital and it wasn’t really till the early to mid 90’s that computers even started to live up to their potential. For the real bloody revolution, where people literally fought in the streets to save their old analogue working methods you would have to rewind a few years to the unassuming borough of Wapping. A story I’ll pick up on in my next blog post.

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