Typographic and illustrative music visuals

Iconic typography once defined a band for ever, but digital media and the short shelf-life of contemporary acts mean music visuals are very different from days of yore. Yolanda Zappaterra visits two shows that return music to typographic and illustrative

If you were trying to conjure up a contemporary band logo – say, for the Black Kids, MGMT, or The Ting Tings – how easy would it be? Easier, perhaps, to remember the bespoke logos of yore: the Rolling Stones’s luscious lips, Roger Dean’s hippy trippy Yes graphic, AC/DC’s lightning flash. Back then, text and music were inextricably linked, the band and its sound expressed by a unique branding system that created a strong bond of recognition between audience and band, and was often an indicator of the genre of music.

Now, it seems, few bands have this relationship with typography. Bespoke fonts play little part in the graphic expression of contemporary music, and if two new exhibitions are anything to go by, text and type in general seem to have little relevance to today’s music. Martin Kingdom, one of the artists taking part in The One Ton Show, for which 100 artists were invited to respond to a brief asking them to interpret lyrics about London, agrees. ‘I think computers have somewhat killed the skill of coming up with an attractive and individual logo,’ he says. ‘It’s very easy to find a funky font and mess with it a bit in Photoshop. Long gone are the days of hairy hippies like Rick Griffin hand-drawing and painting album graphics.’

However, if you look carefully, it’s possible to see that text is present – you just have to search harder to find it in a style of music-inspired visual communication that is a lot more subtle than those bold logos of yesteryear.

Kingdom and his fellow artists in The One Ton Show, along with 74 artists showing at Transition Gallery’s lyrics-inspired Awopbopaloobop exhibition, are notable for using a broad mix of styles, although there are few distinctive type-led pieces. Simon Earith of design consultancy Yes Studio, which has created a range of music branding and packaging, says, ‘I can only think it’s because creating distinctive individual typography is more difficult than creating a point of difference in another medium. Exceptional typography seems a more specialised, rarefied art-form, possibly due to design education emphasising a broad range of disciplines, rather than focusing on this important keystone of graphic design.’

Earith’s own work in music packaging takes a conceptual, expressive approach which shares a certain ethos with fine art. ‘In the initial stages we try to put to the back of our minds the functional/marketing aspect of the sleeves,’ he explains. ‘Trying to concentrate on a more open angle allows us to express more easily the type of music concerned and the ideas that the band are trying to communicate.’

Kingdom puts the lack of memorable logos and typography in music today down to everyone’s urgent need to reinvent, or rebrand. ‘There is less longevity in design nowadays. Bands, companies and even schools rebrand themselves to suit the prevailing trend,’ he says. This is at distinct odds with the logotypes of yesteryear, and is due in part to the changing music platforms and delivery media. ‘Many old bands could be categorised as album acts, which I think made the sleeves much more singular and definitive. From a major label angle, “music marketing” today is much more campaign-focused, and I think an art directional idea, rather than a typo/graphic one, is much more likely to be accepted from a record company perspective because of this,’ says Earith. ‘Having said that, a lot of smaller labels are more open to take risks, as they are, more often than not, selling to a niche market.’

The work on view at The One Ton Show and Awopbopaloobop has more in common with this niche market than with big record label graphics. A terrific range of media and ideas spans everything, from painting and sculpture through to strong graphic work like printmaking and photography. ‘The results have been amazingly different,’ says The One Ton Show curator Helen Edwards. ‘There is obviously something about the music that is very dear to each artist – an extension of self, a memory of time gone by, a hidden yearning or just plain fun.’

What is striking in the work, from a typographical perspective, is the way that text, where it is used, is combined with imagery to create an art piece. Whitney McVeigh, for example, dismantles and works on old texts, and for The One Ton Show uses a shorthand book she found in her local market. She says, ‘The text itself can act as a visual dimension in the drawing. Remove the meaning of the words and it becomes a visual tool, a new texture.’

All agree that text and type are still a powerful form of communication, because, as One Ton artist Richard Ardagh, the only artist showing at One Ton who (with fellow artist Graham Bignell) works exclusively with type, puts it, ‘Words will always be key to musical expression, and whether they appear on a 12in sleeve or on an iPod screen, typography will be used to convey their message.’ •

The One Ton Show, Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London EC1, 4-7 December Awopbopaloobop, Transition Gallery, Unit 25a Regent Studios, 8 Andrews Road, London E8, until 21 December Yes Studio’s work can be seen at www.yesstudio.co.uk

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