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Image via Crack/Harry Mitchell

Work / Graphic Design

“We all need to spend more time looking beyond the surface”: Trevor Jackson on 30 years of creativity

“There are no universal fixed rules in design, and having an ideal perception of how things should look can seriously hinder the enjoyment of the simpler things in life,” says Trevor Jackson. Given his 30-year long career in design, he should know. Actually, to think of him as just a graphic designer is to do the man a slight disservice.

From T-shirts with Goodhood, to record sleeves for Chromeo, via music videos for Matias Aguayo and Stone Island collections, his work spans the divide between fashion, club culture, and design. That’s to say nothing of the countless incredible musical releases he has under monikers like Playgroup, Underdog, and Pink Lunch, nor of the outstanding compilations of EBM rarities he’s put together, or the genre-defying mixes he occasionally releases. In short, Trevor Jackson is a creative powerhouse.

Earlier last month, Trevor launched a brand new website. Featuring an extensive, exhaustive, and excellent digital archive of his visual and audio output from 1987 to the present day, it was created with Our Place studio and features an exclusive, custom-designed typeface called Mode.

We’ve spent hours poring over it all, feasting our eyes and ears on a treasure trove of immaculate work from a musician and designer as interested in keeping things fresh today as he was back before acid house changed contemporary culture forever. Offering visitors an insight into the mind of a man who produced iconic record sleeves for everyone from Eric B and Rakim to the Rapture, it is essential viewing for anyone with even the merest hint of interest in design.

With that in mind, we recently caught up with Trevor for a wide-ranging chat about the past, present, and future of a multi-disciplinary stylistic nomad who continues to refuse to stand still.

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Trevor Jackson: Science Fiction Dancehall Classics

It’s Nice That: Does having a deep understanding of how and why design works the way it does mean that you’re constantly offended by just how terrible most of the world looks?

Trevor Jackson: There are no universal fixed rules in design, and having an ideal perception of how things should look can seriously hinder the enjoyment of the simpler things in life. Applying the same set of strong beliefs you have in your work life to aspects of your everyday will drive you insane. The natural world is full of beauty, man-made also, I disagree most of the world looks terrible, It’s possible to see good in anything if you’re in the right headspace and look hard enough.

Imperfections and mistakes are attractive and exciting to me, my personal understanding of design is that in a world of good looking things the intention behind what you do can be even more important than a finished result. With the current tools at our disposal it’s simple for anyone with minimal experience to create professional looking results, most have the ability to view an infinite amount of ‘inspirational’ images with very little effort or need for a deeper understanding of what they’re looking at. The democratisation of the creative process via technology has generally been positive but also helped create a culture of false idealism, unobtainable aspirations and too much disposable, generic and meaningless content. We all need to spend more time looking beyond the surface.

It’s Nice That: Growing up, did you gravitate toward certain designers when it came to picking up records blind in stores?

Trevor Jackson: I was privileged to be a teenager record collector at one of the most creative times in music industry design. I remember Peter Saville’s sleeve for Confusion by New Order totally changed the way I thought about typography and print. All of the work Keith Breeden did for Scritti Politti, Vaughn Oliver’s material for Colourbox, the stuff Neville Brody was doing with Cabaret Voltaire, and what was coming out on Stiff Records via Barney Bubbles – these things were massive influences on me. But I never bought a record if I didn’t like the music, regardless of how great the sleeve might have been.

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Trevor Jackson: System

INT: When do you feel like you really developed your own style?

TJ: Over the years I consciously made an effort not to have my own style. When I started out, I definitely did, but the subcultures I was involved with were evolving so quickly that I became concerned that it might become restrictive. Also, I never wanted to impose any kind of house style upon the projects worked on, approaching each one individually. It really bothered me that many design agencies at the time seemed to churn out derivative work stamping a distinct visual style so strongly on everything that it was disrespectful to the artists they worked with.

Since the early 90s, I’ve had parallel careers in music and visuals. That isn’t unusual now, but early on it was a bit problematic; some bands didn’t feel comfortable with another musician working on their visuals, and some clients didn’t take my design work seriously. So I did my best to keep those careers separate from one another. For years I didn’t feel there was a relationship between them, and it was only in 2015 when I worked on the Format project for the Vinyl Factory that I felt I’d successfully managed to combine my skills in a way I was happy with. That was a multi-format album release of my own music, along with an A/V gallery installation featuring 12 short films I’d directed.

I’ve always been fascinated by the connections between audio and visuals, my breadth of record sleeve work led to a greater understanding of the relationship between these elements and enabled me to successfully develop my practice into larger moving image, art and installation projects, something I’m passionate about continuing to develop. I’m fortunate enough to have an equal balance of commercial and personal projects that allow me to experiment within these mediums, it’s taken a while but I feel I’m finally at a place where my output genuinely represents what i’m really about.

INT: In general, do you look back at your archive with pride? Or are creatives – if that’s a term you use and subscribe to – doomed to a lifetime of criticism and regrets?

TJ: It has taken years to appreciate much of the work I’ve done, and with my early work actually it took decades. I was embarrassed about it for so long. I’m highly critical of everything I do, and always have been. I never feel content and always feel I can do better, which makes looking at anything you’ve done without picking holes in it, or pulling it apart, difficult. Oddly, the more experienced you get the worse it is; the more you think, the more you ask questions. When I started out it was just fun. I was naive, and in many ways, better for it. Now I strive to keep some of that energy in everything I do. I don’t ever want to lose it.

Working on this new site has been cathartic, emotional, and reflective. It’s a full digital archive of virtually everything I’ve done throughout my career. Revisiting the archive projects was very difficult, because not only was I judging myself creatively again but also I was vividly remembering what was going on in my life at those points in time. Most of my best personal work has been driven by personal circumstances (good and bad) and commercial ones usually driven by an all-consuming passion for what I was doing, and that was very hard to process. I often think I could have improved something, wish that particular client chose a different design, or question bad career decisions I may have made, but I don’t have many regrets. I’ve been fortunate enough to of been actively working during many incredible moments in British creative culture, met and worked with many of my heroes too. These experiences far outweigh any concerns about what I might have done wrong. Being there and still being here 30 years later enjoying what I do is an achievement, keeping my integrity throughout even more so.

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Trevor Jackson: Format

INT: Do you consider the CD to be a neglected format when it comes to graphic design?

TJ: Thank you! I love CD’s, and have many 1000’s of vinyl records but have a huge collection of CDs too, Its demise as a mainstream format was inevitable but they do appear to be becoming the physical format of choice for many smaller artists and bands who can’t afford extortionate manufacturing costs and refuse to wait three months for product to arrive. I’m hopeful they’re not quite dead yet? Design wise I enjoy limitations, great ideas are what really matters, they can be expressed on anything,

INT: What was the design trend in the last few years that you could not abide?

TJ:I’ve never consciously abided to any design trends, if anything done my utmost to avoid them or move in a totally opposite direction.

INT: Finally – how important is a good record sleeve? For me, sleeves are things that can change lives forever.

TJ:Yes very important — but the music inside much much more so.

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Trevor Jackson: RGBPM

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Trevor Jackson: Leon Vynehall – Nothing is Still