In March this year, Peter Saville’s design for the Blue Monday sleeve celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of its release. Its many anecdotes are widely known; That its inspiration was a computer floppy disc, found in New Order’s recording studio as they embarked on ever more sophisticated computer-generated music. And that it was so expensive to produce each copy sold made a financial loss for Factory Records. The sleeve’s colourful edge design may initially have been presupposed as continuance of the floppy disc’s appropriation – assumed simply as techno-digital decoration necessary to complete a picture. Yet three months later when the band released their critically acclaimed second album, a colour chart on the back cover revealed to those who studied carefully; these eye-catching arrangements conveyed information. The transformation of Joy Division’s legacy into New Order’s electronic new sound could not have had a more appropriately enigmatic start.
Paul Hetherington: What lies behind the thinking of the colour code?
Peter Saville: There are a couple of factors which are precedents. One is something I was reminded of recently when I contributed to the Barney Bubble book Reasons to be Cheerful. On the cover of his design for Elvis Costello’s album This Year’s Model the printers CMYK proofing strips are still visible, evident down the side of the cover. It’s one of those ‘unknown knowns’, something I would have seen in the field of progressive pop I was working in the late 70s and early 80s.
Also something outside of pop which I was very aware of around 1982 was Studio Dumbar’s poster series for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Illustrating historic works from the museum’s collection, the posters cropped into paintings and overlaid what we would call the ‘technical graphic language of production’; colour bars and registration marks. So in the same way the Elvis Costello cover declared its existence as an industrial product in revealing the fingerprint of industry through the process colour strips, similarly the Studio Dunbar work declared contemporary provenance by juxtaposing a 16th or 17th century oil painting with the language of modern print production.
Rijksmuseum poster, 1982. Studio Dumbar.
That particular juxtaposition of contemporary technology with historic culture really impressed itself upon me. That collection of posters – which won a D&AD award – were a very postmodern convergence. Aware of these kinds of aesthetic progressions, I didn’t want to copy or repeat them. Whilst I was comfortable to ‘quote’ lost or forgotten language from the design or art canon at that time, I was not keen to directly reference or copy contemporary work. I had no problem referencing Berthold Wolpe typography from the 1940s – because no one else was – but I didn’t wish to merely follow other current work. But I felt really strongly there was something in the dichotomy of old and new. So I wanted to have some form of technical language, and that was what was on my mind.
I dwelt upon imagined notions about (retrieval systems). How would the process of locating and sourcing historic works be done in modern times? If you were to visit a gallery or museum to search for a work from the 16th, 17th or 18th century, then a digitized system might involve computers rather than a ledger or some other type of analogue record. That was really interesting to me, and I tried to imagine it because we didn’t have computers in the design studios at that time. I imagined a computer screen and historic works appearing on that screen. I thought maybe it’s like television but not the same, what I did realise was that if and when a particular historic work appeared on a computer screen, it would be a visual occurrence that was utterly new. The size it would appear, the frame it might be presented within, the image quality of glowing dots or pixels and any information pertaining to the work and any necessary calibrations of the computer. All these factors would bring about a new visual composition, of art and science juxtaposed.
I was fascinated to think what that might be like and I brought that together in my search for a technical cultural collision. Knowing nothing about computers nor having access to any information about computers I began to dream of a language of hieroglyphics. I was making up a pseudo-coded aesthetic and I decided that colour might be a way to represent information and that simple bars or blocks creating combinations of colours could act as a form of code or language.
PH: Up until this time, perhaps the only thing the general public were aware which was remotely similar, was the television test card…
PS: The colour test card, yes, exactly. The test card is a really good example of something that you know is saying something but you don’t know what it is. You know that it’s not an ornamental, decorative pattern and that all of those boxes and lines are there for a reason and to provide information to a television technician.
The proofing strip and the test card are very similar to each other. The irony is that I sat with some graph paper and coloured pencils and in an entirely analogue way I created my simulation of what we would now call a digital code. So this was a train of thought running parallel to other aspects of visual content that I was working with. Around this time I came across a computer floppy disk in New Order’s rehearsal studio. I was fascinated by it, it was a totally new aesthetic to me. Technology always provides us with things we have never seen before, they’re forms that follow on literally from function and I found the disk a curiously attractive item.
That first day I saw it, I concluded that I could enlarge it to create a cover for ‘Blue Monday’, cutting shapes into the outer sleeve, combined with a silver inner sleeve. With regard to the colour code itself, I decided I did not want a gratuitous representation of technology, I wanted something that actually had a function. I knew the only information I would be given to communicate would be the band name and the track titles. So therefore, I had to come up with a form of techno-code that could give me a font – effectively an alphabet by which to convey this information.
PH: How did you arrive at the colour palette for the code?
PS: I initially contemplated twenty-six colours. Today would not be a problem given the accuracy of computer screens. Back in the early 80s – before millions of coulours – I had to work within the limitations of process. I was nervous about twenty-six distinctly different colours being successfully rendered, particularly when I would not be controlling the combination and frequency of colours. I thought about how I might describe characters and realised I could describe ‘A’ as the number ’1′ and ‘Z’ as ’26′ and so only nine colours were needed with zero being white. Character ‘A’ would be represented by colour ’1′ and ‘B’ by colour ’2′ and so on, so that eventually ‘Z’ would be colours ’2′ and ’6′. Then I just had to select nine colours, which I did by trial and error on paper. I played around until I found a sequence of colours for one to nine which made pleasing combinations with some of the words I would be using.
The Blue Monday sleeve was the debut of the colour code and its presence was purely enigmatic, entirely appropriate, but abstract. The floppy disk given to me had nothing written on it, there was no name, no branding, no maker’s logotype. It was a totally enigmatic black object – it didn’t tell you what it was. I was comfortable with the idea that my twelve-inch floppy disk would be equally abstract. I considered that I might present it as technology and not a consumer product. Reducing it down to an industrial object which didn’t carry any evident information, seemed very appropriate for a track which the group originally created as a computerized instrumental track which their equipment could perform and allow them to leave the stage for encores.
PH: After the Blue Monday twelve-inch single, you then quickly moved on to New Order’s second album, Power, Corruption and Lies (1983). What were your initial ideas for this design, and was it a given that the colour code would continue onto the album?
PS: Yes, they were conceived together. The way of working that developed between Joy Division, New Order and myself was one of autonomous partnership. It began with ‘Closer’… I would be informed that they were working on new material and then it was expected I would have something I wanted to do. The covers were rarely direct responses to the music. I would always ask if there was a title and sometimes there was, sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes there would be something to listen to, I remember distinctly listening to Blue Monday in their rehearsal studio some weeks prior to the release. I didn’t hear any of the other tracks for the album but I did hear Blue Monday. Other times, covers were done without hearing anything, so in a way, this was the practise that evolved between me and them; they did what they did, and I did what I did.
When I heard the title Power Corruption and Lies, the first thing that came to mind was the dark side of the Renaissance. That was because I had been watching the BBC television series The Borgias [1981–82]. I was fascinated by the sinister political machinations during the Renaissance period. We always think of the art and architecture that the Renaissance gave us, but it was the darker, political underside which the Borgias story had made me aware of, the Machiavellian dimension.
My ideology at the time was that cultural history was a continuum in which everything could be simultaneously ‘in the now’. Something from the 1980s didn’t have to live in isolation, it’s relevance was part of a greater continuum – looking forward glancing back. Thirty years ago this was very much the exception rather than the norm; there was still a compartmentalised approach to culture. The eclectic mélange that we experience now in art, design, fashion, music was quite singular then.
To me a record cover is part of the everyday, the now. And regularly there were phases of reference and quotation that – for whatever reason – I found relevant or pertinent. There were things going on in fashion or architecture that I would be aware of… things that I would take a reading from. I was interested in how the arts in general, but in particular the applied arts, were in some way evoking the mood, the appetite or the direction, the direction of the now. I always had a sense of what direction ‘the now’ was, it started with my own senses and then I would double-check and double-check to determine that what I was thinking was not merely insular. Around ’82 to ’83, I began to feel confident in my own sensibility.
PH: So how did that painting of roses get there?
PS: I went to look for a Machiavellian prince in various museums, and I found some, but a corrupt despot was painfully literal when confronted with it. I ended up in the National Gallery where I ‘gave up’ and decided I’d need to re-think. On the way out of the gallery I stopped for a moment to buy some postcards, independent of my search for the cover. I was with Martha Ladley and she saw I’d picked out this painting of roses – I simply liked it – there was a kind of elegant kitsch to it. I always liked that style and I still do, it’s my mother’s living room. It also felt ‘in the now’, my friends Scott Crolla and Georgina Godley were making clothes using Sanderson prints, as an ironic gesture. The Fantin-Latour painting was very reminiscent of that, and Martha – not realising I’d given up searching for the day – saw me holding this chocolate box painting and asked if I was considering it for the New Order cover. I replied ‘I wasn’t. But I am now’.
National Gallery Postcard c1983: Basket of Roses, 1890. Henri Fantin-Latour.
I realised it was such a foil to the literal meaning of the title but such a perfect cypher, it was charming, seductive and apparently innocent. And in that sense, a more insidious evocation of corrupt strategies. We’re more usually corrupted by the things we like, the things we fall for, that’s one of the mechanisms of power and the way we are deceived. When the traits of power are blatant, we intuitively defend ourselves against them. They come into play most effectively when we unwittingly succumb, so actually the painting of roses was perfect. It was both ironic and yet perfectly evocative of the spirit of the title.
PH: In regard to the PCL cover, you’ve previously stated the colour code partly originated as a way of communicating information without impairing the purity of imagery by juxtaposed or over-printed typography… a case of ‘spoilt by design’…
PS: New Order enjoyed being covert. Writing ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ over the Fantin-Latour painting didn’t seem to be in keeping. The nature of these words is concealment, things that take place insidiously and undercover, not upfront and evident. So the notion of using an enigmatic but beautiful form of language was in that spirit; the thought that it might offer its title as rumour. I was also unsure as to whether the National Gallery would allow for such a counter-cultural use of the image, and worried that that title might compound objections. So the fact I had a concept in play whereby the title and all information would be merely an abstract code gave me a little comfort in regards to this.
PH: You have said that the New Order sleeves are not ‘design’ in the commercial sense of that word; that they were closer to an artistic practice, a blank canvas on which you could express yourself entirely and without restriction. What were you trying to express on PCL?
PS: It was a comment, I was expressing what I felt was a pertinent way to handle an album called Power, Corruption and Lies and injecting an aesthetic proposition into 1983. The Factory Records covers in general – and the New Order covers in particular – were a form of curation. Two or three times a year, they became an art show – a show that I was aware of – with an increasingly aware and expanding audience. It was a show for which I had to determine what is interesting now, what’s directional now… the covers were a vehicle of proposition. In the same way that the band had notions of the music they wanted to make, I had visual propositions that I wanted to make through the context of the record cover. You can’t really design record covers along the same principles and methodology in which communications is taught and professionally practised. We are taught to understand there is a ‘problem’ and that through design the problem can be solved. With record sleeves there isn’t ‘a problem’. In fact there isn’t really any function for a cover. We’re talking about a product that people buy regardless; if a person wants a record, they buy it. Occasionally a cover might attract somebody to buy a record. But somebody will never not buy a record they want because of the cover. I’ve been the reluctant purchaser of many records with a cover I’ve found less than pleasing, it never stopped me buying that record.