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Malcolm Garrett on his first ever Buzzcocks artwork, and his advice to emerging graphic designers

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Malcolm Garrett: Love Battery

Something of a legend in British graphic design, Malcolm Garrett cut his teeth designing artwork for bands such as Buzzcocks, Simple Minds and Duran Duran but has since become a key figure in the evolution of the sector. While his name will always be synonymous with those iconic music industry collaborations, the past 20 years have seen him develop pioneering work in the digital space, and in 2000 was the first Royal Designer for Industry in the field of interactive media. It’s his beginnings, though, that are the topic of conversation at the Orgasm Addict Reframed show. Organised for last October’s Design Manchester festival (which he co-founded) and now brought to London by G . F Smith, it marks 40 years since his seminal sleeve for Buzzcocks, and sees 120 designers reworking the cover. At G . F Smith’s Show Space, the original artwork is also on display alongside another piece, a poster for Buzzcocks’ Love Battery.

“I was still a second year at Manchester Poly,” Malcolm tells It’s Nice That of the poster, “it was my first piece of professional work, and my first thing for Buzzcocks, which led to a relationship that continues to this day. People don’t really know the story of that original poster. I screen printed it by hand, in college. I was listening to Buzzcocks lyrics and this song Love Battery, from the first album, stood out. It uses a found image from a newspaper, printed really small on newsprint and enlarged by 1000%, hence why the quality of the line is so broken up. It was from a small ad in the back of the paper for someone’s get-rich-quick scheme to sell one-legged tights, which is simultaneously such a brilliant and stupid idea.

“The idea was to mix images of the human form with electrical circuitry, so after this was printed I hand-painted two motifs in the middle, diagrammatic representations of the plus and minus connections of a battery – so it’s literally a love battery! There are plugs in both righthand corners so the band could use it portrait or landscape, and it’s intended to be painted over with gig dates so they could put it up in local venues. It’s also the first time the Buzzcocks logo was ever used. For me, this poster was the beginning of a not-unsuccessful career!” Luckily Richard Boon, the manager of Buzzcocks at the time, kept hold of a few copies and the original films, which Malcolm used to print new versions for this show.

Malcolm says his approach at the time was to make work with longevity and continuity across other work for the band. He says he wanted the rhetoric not to be throwaway, and have “life beyond that poster, though nobody could’ve told me it would last 40 years. You just do it and hope it works”. It kickstarted his career and earned him many more commissions from other bands, and while it was exciting to have most of his subsequent work published, Malcolm comments that as a young designer it meant he did all his growing up in public. And while there are many projects that, with hindsight, he feels could be better, each was a step forwards and “thankfully the unsuccessful things disappeared, and the successful things survived – and the bands did too.

“When you’re in the midst of something you don’t know what’s going to last. For the last couple of decades I’ve been looking at the digital space rather than the print space because that’s where I think communication media has been developing, and has needed new design thinking. There are apps and products now that I think are as significant to the days we’re living in, as the music industry work of the 70s and 80s was then.” With that in mind, I ask him, if he were starting out today, if he’d still target the music industry. “For sure, but I wouldn’t necessarily be trying to design 12" album sleeves,” he says. “I’d be looking at the creative spaces that mean something in society today. People say I was lucky, and I was to a degree, but there were 50 people on my course and only one or two were “lucky” enough to spot that punk rock was happening. You make your own luck, you go out there and find things that inspire you and you get your hands dirty. The stars have to align, but you have to be watching the skies to see when that happens.”

Orgasm Addict Reframed is on at G . F Smith’s Show Space at 27-28 Eastcastle Street, London W1W 8DH, until 23 March.

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Malcolm Garrett: Orgasm Addict