Sound and Vision: David Bowie's relationship with graphic design

David Bowie leaves a towering creative legacy, but what of his influence on graphic design? Lynda Relph-Knight examines Bowie's relationship with designers and the impact his music, artwork and even stage personas made on visual design.

In death as in life, David Bowie continues to inspire artists and illustrators. The imagery and characters he created have fueled an array of colourful tributes since his passing on Monday aged 69. Who could ignore his iconic style and rich visual diversity? Even the poses he adopted have become classics.

Bowie touched the lives of designers too, defining youth for many a creative star. Most embrace his sheer bravado and eclectic spirit. All talk of the music. But his actual impact on visual design is variable. It depends where you stand.

Neville Brody describes Bowie as “one of the biggest influences on my growing up in London. Being exposed to his design sensibility and music was huge.

“I was motivated and encouraged by his creativity and ability to challenge the norm and make it work joyfully. He was brazen.”

Fashion designers took a more direct cue from Bowie’s spectacular stage costumes, particularly in the glam rock era of the 1970s and 1980s. He popularised Kansai Yamamoto’s kimonos, counted Paul Smith as a friend and inspired the likes of Alexander McQueen, Dries van Noten and Tommy Hilfiger.

The outfits he wore with such elegance and overt confidence were star turns at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 2013 blockbuster ‘David Bowie is’.

The V&A’s Victoria Broackes, co-curator of the show with Geoffrey Marsh, spoke on BBC Radio 4 this week of Bowie’s extraordinary breath of influence, from film, music, kabuki and the like. But in graphic design the impact is less palpable.

“He wasn't actually strong on ‘design’ per se,” says Malcolm Garrett, creator of seminal album sleeves for the Buzzcocks, Culture Club and Duran Duran in the 1970s and 1980s. “But he obviously pioneered the way in which sound and image could be harnessed and manipulated by mainstream pop artists.

“Since I was about 13 he has always been there, creating soundscapes that helped define cultural moments in time and set visual standards for successive generations. It is a tremendous shock, then, to face the fact that the starman has finally fallen to earth and his immortality has been tragically disproved. The irony is that all of those iconic images we each hold of him will now be forever preserved in our minds.”

Like Garrett and Brody, others are enthralled by Bowie’s eclecticism. For Jamie Ellul of Bath-based Supple Studio, the influence was real. “I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t be a designer if there wasn’t a David Bowie,” he says.

“I recall finding a battered copy of Ziggy Stardust in my dad’s record collection as a pre-pubescent kid. It sounded like music from another planet and I was instantly hooked. It spurred me on to pick up the bass guitar, which led me to join my first group and design my first gig poster aged 18.

“From there I found a love of design and blagged my first work placement at Stylorouge while still on art foundation. When I found out they’d designed the Best of Bowie cover I was star struck and it confirmed to me that design was my calling.”

A defining moment for Paul West of Form was the release of ‘Heroes’ (1977) during Bowie’s Berlin years with mono photography by Masayoshi Sukita “in an era of DayGlo and process colours back in the UK”.

Again Bowie bucked a style trend to present “yet another way of seeing music”. “The cover will always personify this great artistic sword swipe to me,” says West. “It makes me question. It intrigues me because everything about it will always be slightly out of reach from the visual, to the music, to the era.”

Jonathan Barnbrook’s work with Bowie has raised many questions. He worked on the albums from Heathen (2002) onwards, Bowie’s website and “a few personal things, some silly private stuff as a joke between us”. But the covers for ‘The Next Day’ (2013) with its stark, white square, and now ‘Black Star’ with its ‘hieroglyphics’, have provoked most comment.

Barnbrook’s designs were inspired “by the emotion of the music, the place where Bowie was when the music was made and the intangible magic that came through him”.

“He was very involved,” says Barnbrook. “It was just me and him, going back and forth in a very intense way. He cared a great deal about every aspect of his album. His references were very wide in discussions, deeply intellectual and full of pop culture. He was always very witty and gracious.

“He trusted me and I hope he felt I could express his ideas interestingly. There would be times when I would ask what he wanted and he would tell me I knew best, just to be brave and trust my instincts.

“I think he made me do something ‘new’ with The Next Day (2013) and it is not often you can say that in your career.”

The idea of entering unchartered realms underpins everything French experience designer Nelly Ben-Hayoun does. She is greatly influenced by Bowie, she says, and ‘Ground Control’ was the theme for the first International Space Orchestra she devised with space agency Nasa in 2012.

“He focused on the narrative, which is so important for design,” she says. “He was bold enough to look for complexity when we are so often told to keep it simple.”

She talks of him being her “partner in crime”. “Every creative has to have someone who makes us believe we can achieve the impossible,” she says. For her Bowie was that.

Barnbrook says Bowie “brought the avant-garde to the mainstream and made the mainstream acceptable to the avant-garde”. That surely describes great design.

Garrett concludes prophetically: “Black Star has a sense of mystery about it that seemed to reaffirm that he exists beyond time.” We can expect the flurry around his death to fire the imaginations of designers, ensuring his creative spirit lives on.

Lynda Relph-Knight is a design writer and consultant, and a former editor of Design Week


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