John Coulthart Interview

April 14th, 2009


We’re only a few days away from April 17th when we’ll be announcing who won our Figment Album Cover Design Contest.  With the big moment right around the corner we thought it might be a good idea to introduce you a bit more to John Coulthart who will be picking the winner and four runners up.   John is a very successful graphic designer who has designed artwork for a variety of mediums including album covers, book covers and graphic novels.   Although his work speaks for itself, he was kind enough to take the time to talk with us about it.

Figment:  How did you get started as a graphic designer?  Was it something you always wanted to do?

John Coulthart:  When I was at school in the 1970s I was interested more in book illustration initially although record sleeves were a big inspiration. That decade was a great time for cover design, especially in Britain where you had people such as the Hipgnosis team (Storm Thorgerson, Aubrey Powell, Peter Christopherson and others), Barney Bubbles, and Roger Dean designing very lavish and inventive covers. When punk happened in 1976 you got a change of direction which brought in a new range of creative influences and a new generation of designers–Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett, Peter Saville et al–who went on to make a big impact in the 1980s.

The earlier group of designers got me interested in the pictorial content of a record sleeve, I bought Roger Dean’s Views book and later the first Hipgnosis book. Roger Dean’s style was illustrational while Hipgnosis used collaged photographs to create surreal scenes; Barney Bubbles could illustrate as well as produce amazingly inventive pure design. But I was mainly looking at things from the outside, I didn’t have much idea about how the world of print operated. The Hipgnosis book goes into some detail about the creation of a piece of design including the typographic elements so that told me something about the print process but design still wasn’t something I really wanted to pursue, I was more interested in illustration and image creation. It was only when I started looking at Neville Brody’s work that I began to get a proper sense of graphic design as an integration of pictorial content and typography. This was still only an outside interest, however, I didn’t have any intention of pursuing this as a career. For a variety of reasons, I left school at 17 with no intention of going to art school or college so I never gained any of the qualifications which would have got me a place in a design studio.

Figment:  What was your first commissioned project?

JC:  In 1980 I had a temporary job printing T-shirts and by chance met someone who knew Hawkwind. I mentioned that I’d been doing some illustrations inspired by their songs (and by Barney Bubbles’ graphics for the band) so he sent copies of my work to Dave Brock. That led to the illustrations which appeared in the Church of Hawkwind album booklet in 1982. It was a lucky break especially since a lot of the things I did for them were very amateurish.


Figment:  How did you begin working with bands like Cradle of Filth and Steve Severin?

JC:  Cradle of Filth contacted me when lead singer Dani Filth bought a copy of The Haunter of the Dark, my book of HP Lovecraft comic strips and illustrations. Steve Severin got in touch after I helped put together a book of his poetry for Oneiros Books. He’d been doing a few solo CDs of soundtrack music and needed a new one designed.


Figment:  How collaborative a process is album cover design in general? Do the bands provide you with any input or are you allowed complete creative control?

JC:  This varies widely from project to project. Some artists have a very clear idea of what they want; work I’ve been doing recently for various dubstep acts tends to begin with my being sent a selection of photos which the artist wants used. I choose the best ones and place the type over these. Metal bands on the other hand may only have a vague idea in mind which we then thrash out in back and forth discussion. My being able to do a quick sketch of something often helps narrow down the range of options. The Jon Hassell album I worked on, Maarifa Street, went through several very different stages until we got something which we were both happy with.


Figment:  Is listening to a band’s music part of the conceptualization and ultimate design process?

JC:  Occasionally but it’s more important to be aware of the music genre which the album will be a part of. That can dictate the nature of the design even if you’re reacting against it, you might want to create something which doesn’t look typical, for example. Lyrics and the album theme (if any) tend to be more important than the music. I’ve done albums for Cradle of Filth and Turisas which had elaborate storylines evolving from song to song. In both those cases it was this which directed the artwork more than the music. The Steve Severin album was music for a theatre production of a Japanese story, The Woman in the Dunes. Again, it was the story that dictated the design.

Figment:  What do you think is the key to creating the right cover for an album? Any tips you can pass along to the budding designers on Figment?

JC:  That’s a difficult question since an album cover is only limited by the margins of the artwork, within that you can do anything at all. People can often find or create a good enough image, the greater challenge comes with the choice of typefaces and where they’re placed. You need to think carefully about how the typeface relates to the design, whether the type elements are too big (a common problem) or too small and where they should be positioned. There’s often pressure from artists (and record labels) to have all the relevant information placed at the top; that isn’t always the ideal solution. Many famous sleeve designs–Atom Heart Mother by Pink Floyd, Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division–have no words on the front of the album at all.


Figment:  What tools do you use to create your designs?

JC:  I use Photoshop for processing photos or creating the kind of detailed photo-collage work I produce for metal bands. Illustrator is used for all the typography and preparation of the print files. As far as the artwork itself is concerned, anything goes. I’ve used bits of painting and drawing collaged into some designs and also use elements from my own photos. A couple of title designs such as the Turisas name started life as hand-drawn pieces which were then polished in the computer.

Figment:  Art and commerce are often at odds, but what part do you feel album cover design plays in both? Do you think a good album cover design can actually enhance both the art (the recording) and/or the sales of a recording?

JC:  Led Zeppelin heard some music business wag joke that they could sell their albums even if they were packaged in brown paper bags so that’s what they got Hipgnosis to do for their final album, In Through the Out Door; a very detailed photo shoot was printed on the sleeve then the whole thing sold in a brown bag with the album title stamped on the front. That didn’t affect their sales at all. Successful bands sell whatever the package looks like. For unknown bands a good cover design is far more important since they want their work to stand out. Beyond that, a very striking or unusual design can make people curious about the music and help garner additional publicity. Peter Saville did this with his sleeve for New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies which had no words on its cover but used instead a colour coding system you needed to decipher. The cover picture of a still life painting by Fantin-Latour also bore no relation to the music.  Coldplay did a similar colour coding thing on the cover of X&Y and generated a lot of discussion about the album as a result.


Figment:  You also do a lot of design work for book covers and graphic novels.  How does that type of design work differ from your work with musicians?

JC:  The general process is very similar–authors often have a say in how they want the cover to look–but in other ways book covers are quite different. For a start you may have to create a hardcover dustjacket and a paperback design for the same book. Then there’s the way that book covers get replaced very quickly and vary from country to country. Album covers rarely get changed at all once the album is released and the artwork becomes permanently associated with that release. Very few book covers, if any, have that kind of longevity. It helps to bear in mind sometimes that an album design will be around for a long time.

Figment:  You seem to do a lot of work that is influenced by horror and fantasy type imagery. Is that a personal choice or merely a reflection of the clients you work with?

JC:  That’s the kind of art I was inspired by as a teenager. I have an aptitude for creating certain kinds of horror and fantasy imagery so I regularly get asked to do that based on past examples of my work.

Figment:  “The Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases” is to fantasy medical conditions what Figment is to fantasy bands. How did you get involved in that anthology project and what’s your favorite fantasy medical condition?


JC:  Jeff VanderMeer was the co-editor of that collection and I’d already provided some designs for his earlier book, City of Saints and Madmen. The Lambshead book was a lot of fun to work on, especially in the parts where I was doing pastiches of book design from earlier eras. My favourite piece is the Michael Moorcock one, Samoan Giant Rat Bite Fever, a very funny parody of Victorian magazine articles.

Figment:  You’ve done a lot of illustrations for Savoy Comics – The Lord Horror Reverbstorm series, etc. Are you a comic book geek at heart?


JC:  Not really. I started adapting some HP Lovecraft stories as comic strips mainly as a chance to illustrate the whole of a story. That coincided with the sudden flush of interest in comics in the late 1980s so for a while I was working at the edges of the mainstream comics medium. I lost interest when I realised I preferred doing one-off pictures rather than drawing the same character over and over. The best part of that association was getting to know writers like Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) and Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Coraline) who are now a lot more well-known. I’ve been fortunate to work with Alan on several occasions as a consequence of this.


Figment:  I love the artwork you did for the cover of the book “Finch” by Jeff Vandermeer.  How much time goes into a project like that?

JC:  That took about two weeks altogether. That’s about average for a detailed piece of Photoshop collage work.

Figment:  What projects are you currently working on?

JC:  I’ve just finished an illustration for a short story and I’m doing a T-shirt design for a US metal band called Cyaegha whose album, Steps of Descent, I designed last year.

Figment:  If you had a fake band what would its name be?

JC:  I’ve been listening to a lot of psychedelic music from the late Sixties recently, one of my favourite periods. Many of the obscure Brit bands of that era had ludicrous names like Mandrake Paddle Steamer, Wimple Winch, The Orange Seaweed, Felius Andromeda and so on. I think a silly psychedelic name would be ideal but I’d have to give some thought as to what that might be.

We’d like say thanks to John for taking the time to speak to us.  He’s been a pleasure to work with throughout this contest and we look forward to seeing what design he picks as the winner!  Do yourself a favor and visit his website and buy some of his work.  He’s a great designer.

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