Being a huge fan of Vaughan Oliver for many years, it was with huge anticipation that I awaited his talk at Typo London. He didn’t disappoint.
He started off by declaring his nervousness with “I’m an anti-fucking social person” and getting the lights turned right down so we were in total darkness. Then after a few moments of awkwardness, started to explain that he’s spent his whole life going against the grain, always feeling slightly on the outside of things. The punk years were a massive influence on him — not so much the punk aesthetic, but more the attitude of DIY and an alternative to the mainstream, something you can identify clearly in his work. Studying under Terry Dowling at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Polytechnic, he absolutely hated typography, declaring a distaste for the rules and jargon that came along with it.
In the ‘80s society as a whole became more design literate, with the influence of people like Neville Brody this combined the independent record industry were a real source of inspiration for Vaughan — placing authority and creativity in the hands of the bands, rather than with massive corporate labels who held all the cards.
4AD — First Decade boxed set, 1987
Continuing in his endearing and nonchalant way, he begins to explain his burgeoning relationship with 4AD, the record label that he worked with to produce some of his most famous work. Speaking admiringly about the value placed by 4AD on packaging the music with care, quality and attention to detail — and the obvious implications of cost, effort and time, Vaughan says he was in his element, literally designing his own record collection.
Of his process, he places huge importance on connecting with the music and reflecting its qualities in the visuals he creates. Inspiration came from the most surprising places and he would often subvert pre-existing imagery to create his signature style, full of contrast and critical tensions. Being so close to the record label, he had access to the music as it was being developed, so had longer to think about the music and develop his ideas than most designers would have.
His passion for the music is evident; “If there’s no connection with it then the design is worthless and self-indulgent.” As a working class boy growing up in the north of England, he sees design for music as an introduction to art, something that for many working class people seems obscure, irrelevant and inaccessible, not to mention indulgent. But records were a signifier of your identity, a badge of honour and an expression of difference.
Pixies — Surfer Rosa, 1988
Upon leaving college he moved to London with the intention of working as an illustrator. He lasted just two weeks however, before somehow finding himself a job in a packaging design firm, where he unexpectedly made his peace with typography. The pieces clicked together, and he began to interpret type as image, a theme clear throughout his work to date.
Anyone who’s familiar with Vaughan’s work will know that he is very experimental, using materials, textures, found imagery, and putting them altogether in those pre-Mac days, never quite knowing what the final result would be.
When showing the Pixies’ 1988 Surfer Rosa LP sleeve to a student, he was asked “How did you do it? Which layer is she on, which layer is the background on, which layer are the effects on?” To which Vaughan replied “No. It’s a fucking photograph” in his endearingly abrasive way.
Pixies — Come on Pigrim, 1987
His Pixies work in particular has a very dark and surreal quality, reflecting what Vaughan calls the neuroses in the music that is reminiscent of David Lynch movies, which he also loves. Apparently on seeing the final cover artwork for Come on Pilgrim, Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago blurted out “What the fuck is this?” followed immediately by “It’s perfect”.
Another great anecdote for me was hearing how the famous 1990 Pod album cover for The Breeders came into being — the idea was to get a bloke to dance around with peeled eels strategically strapped onto his naked body. Surprisingly, this turned out to be quite a hard sell to potential models, so Vaughan ended up himself as the subject, with photographer Kevin Westerberg, shooting it in his London flat.
The Breeders — Pod, 1990
Looking back on his body of work for 4AD, his aim was to create a distinct visual identity for each band, though on reflection he acknowledges common themes and a distinctive aesthetic thread running through.
Finally he sums up by paying tribute to 4AD, acknowledging the fact that it really does take great clients to facilitate great work, the value of building long-term relationships with clients and collaborators, and finishes off with a fittingly self-deprecating statement:
“It’s not art. It’s fucking words and pictures that package music.”