As clients go, surely there can’t be many a designer would be prouder to work for than David Bowie. The musician’s career has been defined almost as much by his visual image and aesthetic as his music, so to work with someone that iconic (and I don’t use the word lightly), is something of an honour. Artwork for Bowie’s forthcoming new album ★ (pronounced Blackstar) was unveiled last week ahead of the record’s full release on 8 January, Bowie’s 69th birthday. As with 2013’s The Next Day, Bowie’s most recent album, Jonathan Barnbrook was brought in to create the design work. The designer has a long-standing relationship with Bowie, having also created the covers for the 2002 release Heathen and 2003’s Reality, as well as designing the graphics for the V&A’s 2013 exhibition David Bowie is.
“It’s lovely that he trusts me, but I don’t always expect to be asked,” says Jonathan. “He could choose any designer in the world.” The designer was brought in to the project having met Bowie in New York in June this year to discuss the ideas behind the album.
For The Next Day’s artwork, Jonathan took an unusual direction where a square shape became an icon that was symbolic of the album, and by extension Bowie himself. The shape was used to obscure Bowie’s face from the design on 1977’s Heroes, and was said to hint at the singer’s absence from the music scene. It became a signifier that was used across visual materials and unusual marketing campaigns: when you started to look for it, it could be found across the pavements of London.
“I think I learnt a lot from The Next Day about interacting with the people who listen to the music,” says Jonathan. “From the start this album was designed to be inclusive, so the typeface [Virus Deja Vu] is open source, and we’re going to put a download of the logo on our site when the album’s released. Someone’s already put one up though, as I’ve seen someone already has a tattoo of the logo.”
Where The Next Day showed Bowie’s face but obscured it, the designs for ★ take things further by using only symbols. “This is the first album he’s done where there’s not a picture of him on the front,” says Jonathan. “The use of basic shapes is partly about the union of archetypes, but it’s also about cutting through the visual noise. There’s so much visual clutter around now that I want to be simple to the point of excluding all other elements.”
The main star graphic is split into elements across the bottom of the sleeve that spell out “Bowie,” as an extension of the main mark and also a nod to Bowie’s glam rock heritage. Certain points in the record are influenced by A Clockwork Orange, and the use of symbols hints at the graphic use of the letter “A” on its cover. Jonathan explains that the approach examines ideas of legibility in design: “Once you take the text away and you get those symbols, it just means Bowie. In using a symbol it differentiates the album, this graphic encapsulates everything.”
“When you’re designing a record cover, it’s about getting the atmosphere, not taking things too literally and doing something cheesy,” says Jonathan. “It was record covers that inspired me to get into design, looking at how people interpreted the beauty of the music on a cover.
“Blackstar is a dark album about dark times. I hope in what I’ve done there’s something that resonated with the darkness of the music in some way.”
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.