In March this year, Peter Saville’s design for the Blue Monday sleeve celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of its release. Its many anecdotes are widely known; That its inspiration was a computer floppy disc, found in New Order’s recording studio as they embarked on ever more sophisticated computer-generated music. And that it was so expensive to produce each copy sold made a financial loss for Factory Records. The sleeve’s colourful edge design may initially have been presupposed as continuance of the floppy disc’s appropriation – assumed simply as techno-digital decoration necessary to complete a picture. Yet three months later when the band released their critically acclaimed second album, a colour chart on the back cover revealed to those who studied carefully; these eye-catching arrangements conveyed information. The transformation of Joy Division’s legacy into New Order’s electronic new sound could not have had a more appropriately enigmatic start.
Paul Hetherington: What lies behind the thinking of the colour code?
Peter Saville: There are a couple of factors which are precedents. One is something I was reminded of recently when I contributed to the Barney Bubble book Reasons to be Cheerful. On the cover of his design for Elvis Costello’s album This Year’s Model  the printers CMYK proofing strips are still visible, evident down the side of the cover. It’s one of those ‘unknown knowns’, something I would have seen in the field of progressive pop I was working in the late 70s and early 80s.
Also something outside of pop which I was very aware of around 1982 was Studio Dunbar’s poster series for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Illustrating historic works from the museum’s collection, the posters cropped into paintings and overlaid what we would call the ‘technical graphic language of production’; colour bars and registration marks. So in the same way the Elvis Costello cover declared its existence as an industrial product in revealing the fingerprint of industry through the process colour strips, similarly the Studio Dunbar work declared contemporary provenance by juxtaposing a 16th or 17th century oil painting with the language of modern print production.
That particular juxtaposition of contemporary technology with historic culture really impressed itself upon me. That collection of posters – which won a D&AD award – were a very postmodern convergence. Aware of these kinds of aesthetic progressions, I didn’t want to copy or repeat them. Whilst I was comfortable to ‘quote’ lost or forgotten language from the design or art canon at that time, I was not keen to directly reference or copy contemporary work. I had no problem referencing Berthold Wolpe typography from the 1940s – because no one else was – but I didn’t wish to merely follow other current work. But I felt really strongly there was something in the dichotomy of old and new. So I wanted to have some form of technical language, and that was what was on my mind.
I dwelt upon imagined notions about . How would the process of locating and sourcing historic works be done in modern times? If you were to visit a gallery or museum to search for a work from the 16th, 17th or 18th century, then a digitized system might involve computers rather than a ledger or some other type of analogue record. That was really interesting to me, and I tried to imagine it because we didn’t have computers in the design studios at that time. I imagined a computer screen and historic works appearing on that screen. I thought maybe it’s like television but not the same, what I did realise was that if and when a particular historic work appeared on a computer screen, it would be a visual occurrence that was utterly new. The size it would appear, the frame it might be presented within, the image quality of glowing dots or pixels and any information pertaining to the work and any necessary calibrations of the computer. All these factors would bring about a new visual composition, of .
I was fascinated to think what that might be like and I brought that together in my search for a technical cultural collision. Knowing nothing about computers nor having access to any information about computers I began to dream of a language of . I was making up a pseudo-coded aesthetic and I decided that colour might be a way to represent information and that simple bars or blocks creating combinations of colours could act as a form of code or language.
PH: Up until this time, perhaps the only thing the general public were aware which was remotely similar, was the television test card…
PS: The colour test card, yes, exactly. The test card is a really good example of something that you know is saying something but you don’t know what it is. You know that it’s not an ornamental, decorative pattern and that all of those boxes and lines are there for a reason and to provide information to a television technician.
The proofing strip and the test card are very similar to each other. The irony is that I sat with some and in an entirely analogue way I created my simulation of what we would now call a digital code. So this was a train of thought running parallel to other aspects of visual content that I was working with. Around this time I came across a computer floppy disk in New Order’s rehearsal studio. I was fascinated by it, it was a totally new aesthetic to me. Technology always provides us with things we have never seen before, they’re forms that follow on literally from function and I found the disk a curiously attractive item.
That first day I saw it, I concluded that I could enlarge it to create a cover for ‘Blue Monday’, cutting shapes into the outer sleeve, combined with a silver inner sleeve. With regard to the colour code itself, I decided I did not want a gratuitous representation of technology, I wanted something that actually had a function. I knew the only information I would be given to communicate would be the band name and the track titles. So therefore, I had to come up with a form of techno-code that could give me a font – effectively an alphabet by which to convey this information.
PH: How did you arrive at the colour palette for the code?
PS: I initially contemplated twenty-six colours. Today would not be a problem given the accuracy of computer screens. Back in the early 80s – – I had to work within the limitations of process. I was nervous about twenty-six distinctly different colours being successfully rendered, particularly when I would not be controlling the combination and frequency of colours. I thought about how I might describe characters and realised I could describe ‘A’ as the number ’1′ and ‘Z’ as ’26′ and so only nine colours were needed with zero being white. Character ‘A’ would be represented by colour ’1′ and ‘B’ by colour ’2′ and so on, so that eventually ‘Z’ would be colours ’2′ and ’6′. Then I just had to select nine colours, which I did by trial and error on paper. I played around until I found a sequence of colours for one to nine which made pleasing combinations with some of the words I would be using.
The Blue Monday sleeve was the debut of the colour code and its presence was purely enigmatic, entirely appropriate, but abstract. The floppy disk given to me had nothing written on it, there was no name, no branding, no maker’s logotype. It was a totally enigmatic black object – it didn’t tell you what it was. I was comfortable with the idea that my twelve-inch floppy disk would be equally abstract. I considered that I might present it as technology and not a consumer product. Reducing it down to an industrial object which didn’t carry any evident information, seemed very appropriate for a track which the group originally created as a computerized instrumental track which their equipment could perform and allow them to leave the stage for encores.
PH: After the Blue Monday twelve-inch single, you then quickly moved on to New Order’s second album, Power, Corruption and Lies (1983). What were your initial ideas for this design, and was it a given that the colour code would continue onto the album?
PS: Yes, they were conceived together. The way of working that developed between Joy Division, New Order and myself was one of autonomous partnership. It began with ‘Closer’… I would be informed that they were working on new material and then it was expected I would have something I wanted to do. The covers were rarely direct responses to the music. I would always ask if there was a title and sometimes there was, sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes there would be something to listen to, I remember distinctly listening to Blue Monday in their rehearsal studio some weeks prior to the release. I didn’t hear any of the other tracks for the album but I did hear Blue Monday. Other times, covers were done without hearing anything, so in a way, this was the practise that evolved between me and them; they did what they did, and I did what I did.
When I heard the title Power Corruption and Lies, the first thing that came to mind was the dark side of the Renaissance. That was because I had been watching the BBC television series The Borgias [1981–82]. I was fascinated by the sinister political machinations during the Renaissance period. We always think of the art and architecture that the Renaissance gave us, but it was the darker, political underside which the Borgias story had made me aware of, the Machiavellian dimension.
My ideology at the time was that cultural history was a continuum in which everything could be simultaneously ‘in the now’. Something from the 1980s didn’t have to live in isolation, it’s relevance was part of a greater continuum – . Thirty years ago this was very much the exception rather than the norm; there was still a compartmentalised approach to culture. The eclectic mélange that we experience now in art, design, fashion, music was quite singular then.
To me a record cover is part of the everyday, the now. And regularly there were phases of reference and quotation that – for whatever reason – I found relevant or pertinent. There were things going on in fashion or architecture that I would be aware of… things that I would take a reading from. I was interested in how the arts in general, but in particular the applied arts, were in some way evoking the mood, the appetite or the direction, the direction of the now. I always had a sense of what direction ‘the now’ was, it started with my own senses and then I would double-check and double-check to determine that what I was thinking was not merely insular. Around ’82 to ’83, I began to feel confident in my own sensibility.
PH: So how did that painting of roses get there?
PS: I went to look for a Machiavellian prince in various museums, and I found some, but a corrupt despot was painfully literal when confronted with it. I ended up in the National Gallery where I ‘gave up’ and decided I’d need to re-think. On the way out of the gallery I stopped for a moment to buy some postcards, independent of my search for the cover. I was with Martha Ladley and she saw I’d picked out this painting of roses – I simply liked it – there was a kind of elegant kitsch to it. I always liked that style and I still do, it’s my mother’s living room. It also felt ‘in the now’, my friends Scott Crolla and Georgina Godley were making clothes using Sanderson prints, as an ironic gesture. The Fantin-Latour painting was very reminiscent of that, and Martha – not realising I’d given up searching for the day – saw me holding this painting and asked if I was considering it for the New Order cover. I replied ‘I wasn’t. But I am now’.
I realised it was such a foil to the literal meaning of the title but such a perfect cypher, it was charming, seductive and apparently innocent. And in that sense, a more insidious evocation of corrupt strategies. We’re more usually corrupted by the things we like, the things we fall for, that’s one of the mechanisms of power and the way we are deceived. When the traits of power are blatant, we intuitively defend ourselves against them. They come into play most effectively when we unwittingly succumb, so actually the painting of roses was perfect. It was both ironic and yet perfectly evocative of the spirit of the title.
PH: In regard to the PCL cover, you’ve previously stated the colour code partly originated as a way of communicating information without impairing the purity of imagery by juxtaposed or over-printed typography… a case of ‘spoilt by design’…
PS: New Order enjoyed being covert. Writing ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ over the Fantin-Latour painting didn’t seem to be in keeping. The nature of these words is concealment, things that take place insidiously and undercover, not upfront and evident. So the notion of using an enigmatic but beautiful form of language was in that spirit; the thought that it might offer its . I was also unsure as to whether the National Gallery would allow for such a counter-cultural use of the image, and worried that that title might compound objections. So the fact I had a concept in play whereby the title and all information would be merely an abstract code gave me a little comfort in regards to this.
PH: You have said that the New Order sleeves are not ‘design’ in the commercial sense of that word; that they were closer to an artistic practice, a blank canvas on which you could express yourself entirely and without restriction. What were you trying to express on PCL?
PS: It was a comment, I was expressing what I felt was a pertinent way to handle an album called Power, Corruption and Lies and injecting an aesthetic proposition into 1983. The Factory Records covers in general – and the New Order covers in particular – were a form of curation. Two or three times a year, they became an art show – a show that I was aware of – with an increasingly aware and expanding audience. It was a show for which I had to determine what is interesting now, what’s directional now… the covers were a vehicle of proposition. In the same way that the band had notions of the music they wanted to make, I had visual propositions that I wanted to make through the context of the record cover. You can’t really design record covers along the same principles and methodology in which communications is taught and professionally practised. We are taught to understand there is a ‘problem’ and that through design the problem can be solved. With record sleeves there isn’t ‘a problem’. In fact there isn’t really any function for a cover. We’re talking about a product that people buy regardless; if a person wants a record, they buy it. Occasionally a cover might attract somebody to buy a record. But somebody will never not buy a record they want because of the cover. I’ve been the reluctant purchaser of many records with a cover I’ve found less than pleasing, it never stopped me buying that record.
PH: I recall reading in a music paper at the time of release, that there was an error in spelling…
PS: There’s many anecdotes around PCL and Blue Monday… Yes there was a mistake in the tint-laying [a pre-digital method of creating areas of colour for printing] by the repro-house. Ironically, of all the words, it was ‘corruption’ that was misspelled, one ‘R’ and two ‘P’s, something like that. It was a .
On Blue Monday which preceded the album, the colour code was entirely enigmatic… it was not decipherable. When the album was released, I put a reference to the colour code in its entirety on the back cover. I designed a colour wheel composed of the four CMYK printing inks, a reference to colours contained in the Fantin-Latour painting and an outer ring of twenty-six sub-divisions which were the colour code alphabet. It was not annotated or explained as the alphabet, just an area subdivided by twenty-six which I knew could act as a signal to anyone who might sit down carefully to study and work out what this was about. I didn’t really know if anybody would, and I certainly didn’t expect any people to do so within days of the album’s release. But as you mentioned, within a week there were pointing to the fact that there was a spelling mistake on the album. That was an intervention from the audience that led me to never underestimate the curiosity and the obsessiveness of that particular fan-base…
Twenty-five years later, I eventually met the author of one those letters. Around 2008 I gave a lecture at ECAL, the Lausanne design school. Afterwards approached me, he looked like one of the trustees of the college, but told me he was an accountant from Geneva and had come as he had been aware of my work since the early 80s. He and his sister, who were teenagers at the time had written to the NME pointing out the spelling mistake on the cover.
PH: We have talked frequently over the years about your take on past work, which we now accept is an evolving dialogue. For me, one of the more interesting notions we discussed – is that the practise of graphic design was simply a convenient medium, something you happened to be experienced and adept at. And so it became the medium in which you would express yourself.
PS: The visual culture that I was aware of in the 1970s when I was a teenager was alternative pop culture, usually in the form of a record sleeve, or a journal or magazine that might turn up. There was no popular contemporary arts scene in the UK, let alone Manchester, not one that I was aware of. The visual culture that I was learning from was the more liberal dimensions of pop culture. As a teenager, it was more often than not that a record cover that would introduce me to new visual information.
I completely understood the ideas that were being communicated to me through a record cover, so I went to study graphic design because my art teacher told me that was how you make record covers. So graphic design was what I learnt as a discipline, but then because of Factory Records in particular, I was afforded total freedom within that medium. Had I gone into a conventional job and the reality of communications design, I might have dropped out of the discipline within months. But in the playground of music – and particularly the alternative playground of an independent record label like Factory – I had the freedom an artist might experience in a medium that I’d learnt the skills and methods of, and provided with a ready made audience courtesy of the music and the record-buying public.
PH: What I find pertinent is a realisation that separate from arguments as to whether the practise of graphic design can ever be considered art, the craft of graphic design may become a medium for an artist. It comes down to intent.
PS: Exactly. My own feeling about where I sit between design and art oscillates. The issue with communications design is that it is not one of independence, I didn’t appreciate that 30 years ago when I was at art school and I don’t wish to appreciate it now. There are some forms of applied arts, such as fashion, product and furniture design where there is a degree independence for the author. A great fashion designer, a couturier, is expressing themselves through their medium. Communications design is not an autonomous or independent activity, its a service. You are designing, shaping a given message provided by an other to a specific audience of others. It’s not your message and it’s not your audience, and any kind of professional responsibility determines that you truthfully service that message and seek the most effective way of delivering it. What you feel about that message, and what trust or belief you have in it really doesn’t come into play other than to turn down the work if you don’t feel comfortable with it.
But unlike many other forms of communication design, I think the record cover allows somebody’s independence, but more often than not it’s the principal musician who determines the direction of the imagery. To have the sort of autonomous detachment that evolved between myself and New Order was very unusual and I have not experienced that degree of separation with other groups or musicians that I’ve worked with. There are no strategic rules to follow other than sitting down with the client and determining what they want. And in the case of the record cover the client is the ‘significant artiste’, usually the lead. Very rarely is the client the band’s manager or the record company. The client is the person who you are representing through your visual art.
My way of designing for New Order worked, as the audience wanted to like it because they liked the music. The propositions that I made year-on-year, informed, inspired and influenced many of that audience in their own lives. But whether my visual material would have made any impression upon them had it been presented in a form unconnected to music is an unknown. I accept the fact that my visual ideas arriving as a picture postcard through the same audience’s letterboxes might only have gathered a fraction of the interest compared to the same ideas wrapped around a New Order record. It’s a captive and devoted audience.
PH: Power, Corruption and Lies has been cited by many, including yourself, as the greatest of your early works. Are you still happy with this designation? What have you done since that you believe equals or betters it?
PS: It is still my favourite work. I understand it as being autobiographical, in that the romantic historicism of the front cover and the technical coolness of the back cover, reflect my . And in this instance they’re juxtaposed in high contrast. Whenever I see Power, Corruption Lies, I see myself, I see where I grew up, I see my mother’s living room, I see the industrial North West of England.
Maybe equivalent works since then would be… I’m still very pleased about my flat-pack plinth, the way in which that work gives the responsibility over to the audience to ‘do it yourself’. The plinth recognises the public’s own ability and transfers to them the power of curatorial decision, allowing anyone to pass judgement on what is worth looking at. But I’m always quite happy to cite Power Corruption and Lies as the favourite of my record covers.
PH: Your relationship with New Order is one of the most enduring in the music industry. What is your relationship with the band and their sleeves today? The members have fragmented somewhat, does a parallel situation exist with their covers?
PS: My relationship with New Order was unusual and irregular and it evolved quite personally out of the formation of Factory Records, and the formation of New Order out of Joy Division. The covers, Factory and myself became a sort of family process where each party played their role in an event without control by any one individual. Even within New Order themselves there was no one determining individual, they would occasionally agree but more often than not disagree between themselves about things, particularly about something like an image. If ever I asked them for ideas, I would get four different suggestions most of which would be in contention or opposition to each other. So I had to autonomously determine what I thought would be interesting. There was no responsibility to convey any information, to brand the product in any obvious way. Factory Records existed to facilitate artistic expression, not to ‘package’ or market, so we did things in the way we individually felt like doing them. And I had the freedom to do that in my own abstract, reductive way.
My principle relationship with New Order now is ‘archival’. There are frequent re-releases and repackaging of re-releases, and it is incumbent upon me to manage the way that happens. There have been re-issues, particularly in twelve-inch vinyl, which I have been delighted with because production standards have been improved. Contemporary reprographics are amazing, the sleeves have been digitally re-mastered. The current edition of Power, Corruption and Lies is really quite beautiful. But the politics and the dynamic of the group are quite different now to what they were back then – and – I’m not actively designing record covers anymore.
Peter Saville interviewed by Paul Hetherington, London, October 2012.