There can't be many people who have survived 20 years in the music industry intact.
It's a fickle, unforgiving business - what's considered the height of cool one day is decidedly passé the next. As well as artists, this rule applies to backroom personnel: producers; engineers; A&R people; management. And not least graphic designers. The visual aspect of popular culture is just as volatile as the aural. In photography, illustration and typography, trends shift just as radically or as subtly as in pop music and it takes instinct and adaptability to tap into the nuances of these changes.
When 25-year-old Rob O'Connor set up the design and art direction company Stylorouge in 1981, the national climate was grim. Two years into Margaret Thatcher's draconian prime ministership, the country was in the grip of a recession. There were full-scale riots in Brixton, Toxteth in Liverpool, and the St Paul's area of Bristol. Ten protesters died in hunger strikes in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison. The miners were voicing their discontent, and Rupert Murdoch was tightening his grip on Times Newspapers and the unions. Stylorouge was established against this economic tide, opening for business when most of the news headlines were about closures.
In the more rarified world of graphic design, a quiet revolution was underway. Once dominated by the in-house design departments of the major record companies, a new, more radical aesthetic had developed in the aftermath of punk. T-shirts, record sleeves and fly posters became the most vibrant forms of graphic expression in the UK, steamrollering the fusty design 'rules' epitomised by the producers of airline liveries and annual reports. Freed from such corporate restraint, an uncompromising, expressive - and at times political - visual agenda had started to emerge.
It was in this context that O'Connor left the security of the art department of Polydor Records to go it alone. He named his design practice Stylorouge. This was chosen as a nod to his political leanings and in the spirit of the New Romantic period of the time, but mainly to disguise the fact that his s'company', was actually just himself and a drawing board housed in a small room above Capitelli's restaurant on London's Edgware Road.
O'Connor's old job took time to fill, so in the meantime he was able to continue developing relationships with Polydor artists on a freelance basis. These included Kirsty MacColl, Level 42, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Stiv Bators' new project, The Wanderers. But it wasn't long before the likes of A&M, Island and Chrysalis began commissioning him. After four months in business, O'Connor hired an old college friend Mick Lowe as an assistant, who eventually became Stylorouge's first full-time employee.
Creatively, the highlight of the first year was O'Connor's ongoing collaboration with Siouxsie Sioux. A splinter group called the Creatures (featuring Siouxsie and her drummer/boyfriend Budgie) had been formed and required a visual identity that set them apart from the original Banshees.
For their debut Wild Things EP, O'Connor took up a suggestion from Siouxsie to develop a vaguely pornographic piece of illustrated mail from one of their more deviant fans.
While the Creatures were on tour in Newcastle, a photo shoot was duly arranged in a cramped hotel bathroom. Adrian Boot took the photographs while O'Connor directed both the photos and the shower head. The resulting metallic black-and-white cover images, combined with the large, uncompromising sans type set on the vertical, still conveys a compelling seediness and sense of claustrophobia. Conceiving and executing such appropriate imagery was to become the guiding principle of Stylorouge.
For a designer, there's a major difference between working for a client that produces paper clips or dog food, and an artist who creates music. Or a film maker, novelist, or choreographer for that matter. In effect, your efforts become a representation of their creative endeavour and, on a more practical level, you need to learn how to deal with 'products' that live and breathe, have their own opinions and often answer back.
Around three-quarters of Stylorouge's design output is commissioned by the music industry, so the dilemma of satisfying both client, artist and end-user crops up on a daily basis. In addition, the work must fulfil the designer's personal standards. No two jobs are alike. Debut albums need to be approached differently from fifth albums. An artist may be changing direction and want this reflected in his or her visual persona. The record label may want to appeal to a specific market sector. The band could be on the other side of the world on tour and unavailable for photography. And so it goes on.
The record company usually has an agenda too, and it's essential for the designer to address this from an early stage. Often, bands have a well-defined idea of their image which may extend to printed or video-based promotional material. Before the design process even begins, they may have a full-blooded vision of what they want on the cover of their new album. Worse still, they may have artistic pretensions themselves - or even a boyfriend or girlfriend who fancy themselves with paintbrush or camera. With so many interested parties pulling in different directions, strength of personality and communication skills become an essential part of the designer's make-up.
Having said that, flexibility and open-mindedness are also essential attributes. This dispassionate approach lies at the heart of Stylorouge's design philosophy. Each project is judged on its own merits, with different criteria applied accordingly. Appropriateness often takes precedent over personal style. Every project, from Mozart to Killing Joke to Blur, is approached with this attitude, without musical prejudice. The one constant is a respect for the image as the basis for all graphic communication.
It's difficult to say whether such an impartial, objective attitude has helped or hindered Stylorouge's profile over the years. While contemporaries have established instantly recognisable personal signatures, which have brought kudos and notoriety, Stylorouge has remained relatively anonymous. Certainly, Stylorouge's preferred design aesthetic has never competed with the visual persona of any of the bands it services - a conflict that would be self-defeating. But its public profile has not always been as high as its achievements merit.
This lack of recognition can also be attributed to the company's collective mentality. All work is credited to Stylorouge rather than an individual or team, so a broad stylistic range of work is produced under the one banner. Design personnel have come and gone over the years (though many have stayed), bringing individual skills to the mix, affecting the dynamic of the studio and the direction of the work.
It's easy to see how Stylorouge's attitudes and working methods produce such startlingly different results. From the scratchy, homespun style created for singer-songwriter Mundy, to the slick, bleached-out cover for Geri Halliwell's debut album. The clean, knowing graphic language used for Blur's early recordings, to the cluttered, hippyesque world constructed for psychedelic popsters Kula Shaker. O'Connor constantly refers to the word 'personality', as if he feels the sleeve designer's quest is to eke out the inner psyche of the artist. Work from outside the entertainment industries has always come the company's way, but they have still sought to express this sense of personality, even when the job lacks the central human element.
"The reason so many people are drawn to this area
of design," says O'Connor, "is because in the end it's selling
something interesting, something worthwhile. It's not cigarettes or confectionery. There's an artistic integrity to it, even if it is often only pop music. Designers tend to have a natural empathy with the creative arts." And, despite all the various restrictions and pressures, it still offers the opportunity to be more creative and adventurous than most.
One of the most challenging aspects of the discipline is that it is constantly evolving. It can be affected by movements in the cultural landscape as it was in the post-punk era, as well as by developments in technology, as has become apparent more recently. Smaller music delivery systems, such as the CD, MiniDisc and now MP3, which does away with packaging altogether, mean that companies like Stylorouge are constantly having to adapt and reinvent themselves to survive and prosper. It's not a case of hankering over the 'good old days' of design for print, but trying to redirect the creative focus and core values into new exciting channels as media converge. Hardly surprisingly, Stylorouge has become increasingly involved in video production and web site design in recent years.
Having said that, Delicious is an unapologetic visual record of 20 years worth of design for print. It covers an array of styles from the elaborate to the minimal, the slick to the faux-naîve and everything in between. What's most remarkable is just how much of the design actually stands the test of time. And that's a testament to the power of the rigorous design idea, something that's always been at the heart of Stylorouge.