Mark Farrow
On Designing Artwork For Manic Street Preachers
August 2011
Interview: Steve Bateman

Since the very beginning of their career, visuals have been as much a part of the Manic Street Preachers’ identity, as their music, theorising and mythology has. With the band having worked closely alongside seasoned designer, Mark Farrow, on a number of record, single and VHS / DVD sleeves, as well as tour programmes, books and promotional items, following their first collaboration with him for the 1996 album, Everything Must Go.

Mark’s Wikipedia listing reads, “Mark Farrow was named Designer of the Year in the Creative Review Peer Poll in 2004, voting him ‘the most important graphic designer working today’. His career began in the early 1980s designing experimental sleeves and posters for Factory Records, and The Haçienda, which placed him at the forefront of contemporary music graphic design. This has since continued with a longstanding creative partnership with the Pet Shop Boys, and other bands such as Spiritualized. His minimalist approach, and a rigorous, highly precise attention to detail defines his aesthetic, and appeals to a broad spectrum of clients, from museums and galleries to pop music and retail, product designers and architects, to restaurateurs and artists. In 2009 he was given the honour of Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) by the RSA.” If you would like to find out more about Farrow Design, please visit their official website at www.farrowdesign.com

As the studio has just designed Nicky Wire’s debut book, Death Of A Polaroid: A Manics Family Album, and along with all of the other iconic artwork that they’ve created for the group over the years – where from concept to layout, imagery to colours, right through to the choice of paper / inks used for printing, each stage is meticulously planned and carried out. It was an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to interview Mark about Farrow Design’s stunning Manic Street Preachers portfolio…


Lucy: Your band have been quite quiet for the last few months. Are you looking forward to playing gigs again?
Katie Jane Garside: I think I give very obtuse ans

1.To begin with, when and how did you first come to work with the Manics?
“Well, I first worked with them on Everything Must Go, but I knew them a lot longer than that, because Rob Stringer is a good mate of mine and he signed them. So, I was obviously very aware of them and I actually knew them quite well for a long time before I actually worked with them. For example, I went on the famous Bangkok trip and I also went with Rob to see them early on – he’d know better where that was – but I think it might have been Leicester, or somewhere like that. We drove up to see them and I thought they were awful the first time I saw them (laughs heartily)! But, previous to Everything Must Go, obviously Nicky and Richey had been a tight unit as far as how the band should express itself visually, and I guess when they came back in 1996 (pausing), this is probably my opinion more than fact, but I think probably at that point, Nicky needed someone else to kind of bounce ideas off. And also, in my mind, it was time for a new feel and a different approach to how they manifested themselves visually. However, I think The Holy Bible was a very strong piece of work, because it was a sophisticated album cover from what had started in the early days as almost – for want of a better word – a ‘studenty’ approach to how they looked.”


2.For people who may not know, which MSP releases have Farrow Design worked on?

“The first thing I actually designed for them, was A Design For Life I guess, because that came before the album. But basically, albums-wise, Everything Must Go, This Is My Truth, Know Your Enemy, Forever Delayed and Lifeblood… I have a slight connection to Send Away The Tigers, because we designed a book for a photographer called Valerie Phillips and I gave a copy of that book (Monika Monster, Future First Woman On Mars) to Nicky, and one of the photos in that book became the cover! But, we didn’t design it."


3.Can you tell us more about the individual concepts for each LP sleeve / campaign, and did the music / record titles inform or shape your ideas?
“It’s going back a few years really, and in some respects, it’s hard to recall. I mean, Everything Must Go is obviously a really strong title and it’s very suggestive of how everything should look and I wanted everything to be very bold and very strong and to almost have an ‘art’ edge to the way it felt. The whole campaign was very tight, and it almost felt like that once we’d got the initial idea of how it was going to look, that all of the singles and everything else flowed very easily from that. It had a very distinctive style using the block, and then with Nicky coming up with the quotes for each sleeve, it took on a very manifesto feel – the whole thing! So, with that title and those quotes, a very strong graphic approach felt right. In terms of the images of the band that we took (with Rankin) – which as you’ll remember, are all close-up shots of their bodies, faces and arms etc. etc. I just wanted to kind of get some kind of intimacy I suppose. There wasn’t really a reason for the wall being blue, apart from the fact that is the colour I wanted it to be. The images and the type on that cover are all in frames, it was real, where as the type and boxes on the singles had been graphic up until that point. I can’t really recall why, again, it was just something I wanted to do. I have a habit of making my life more difficult than it needs to be! This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, again, felt to me like a big statement and an epic title! So, the idea of taking beautiful portraits of the band in amazing settings – in their own land as well if you want – felt right. We worked with a photographer called Andy Earl on those, who I knew was very good and (pausing), I mean, everything’s different now and it’s all digital, but at that time, he used to shoot with a 10x8 camera. You know, at one time, people took 35mm pictures which meant that your negative was that size, whereas with this camera that we used with Andy, we were shooting a negative that was 10 inches by 8 inches. So the amount of information that you get in a photograph like that, is immense, which gave us the ability to make the band quite small within the context of the photograph. We shot some very beautiful stuff and it was all done in Wales on a huge beach (Black Rock Sands) not far from Porthmadog. But it’s funny, because everybody assumes it was shot in America or somewhere like that! Then for the singles off that album, that was around the time that Nicky had just started taking Polaroids. Mitch Ikeda used to take lots of Polaroids and Nicky had a fascination with them, so he started taking them himself. The idea was that we would then use one or more of those on every one of the single releases, so everything had a different feel, because of the different photographs and the different quotes that we used. But at the same time, they all clearly belonged to each other and for all intents and purposes, looked exactly the same.

With Know Your Enemy, to be honest, out of all the albums we’ve done (pausing), that one was very much led by Nicky. He’d seen this artist (Neale Howells) who he liked and he wanted a piece of his work on it, so although we did the type treatment on it, essentially, the idea for that album and the way that album looked, all came from Nicky. Forever Delayed was quite a nice one to do actually and an enormous amount of work went into the Greatest Hits one! Because we wanted to have a way of taking all of the historical photographs of the band, but give them a feel that felt like they would sit comfortably on the album. I’m actually very fond of that sleeve and we also did a tour programme that was based on that sleeve, that was also really successful! The images are almost like gallery shots and the portraits look huge, but they’re not (laughing), they’re probably about a foot tall each.”
*I ask Mark if there’s any significance behind the different sized blocks of colour on each individual portrait, as well as asking him about the stencilled typeface which references MSP’s spray-painted shirts from the band’s early years*
“To be fair, we were kind of indulging ourselves and they’re things that most people wouldn’t really notice, but I’m pleased you have! With the typeface (pausing), with every album that we’ve done for the Manics, we’ve essentially used the same font, which is ‘Univers Bold Condensed’. Even the stencilled typeface was created from that font! The last sleeve we did for the band, was Lifeblood, and I absolutely LOVE those images! You just see them popping up all over the place, because they’re one of those things that have kind of become iconic in their own right, almost without association with the Manics in a weird kind of way. They’re very beautiful and we shot them with a photographer called John Ross, who’s someone we work with a lot and he also happens to be one of my best friends. That concept developed from talking to Nicky about what we could do, and initially, we had the idea of taking objects and throwing the blood on these objects and then taking the object away – which would just leave the blood and you would see the pattern, the way the liquid hit the thing would define the shape if you like. Then we started talking about if it could be a person, and I think Nicky suggested that it could be quite an androgynous figure. It was deliberately ambiguous (pausing), a lot of people don’t notice that it’s a person, certainly on the front cover, because that’s the most obscure shot and it just looks like a shape, almost like red paint being poured, and it’s only when you look closer that you realise that it is actually a person. Whereas on some of the other images, it’s a lot clearer on some of those and it’s quite obvious that it is a person. But they’re very, very beautiful and very kind of striking – I’m very fond of those and I think they’re one of the best things we’ve done! With all of the albums, I would listen to them beforehand and that would inspire ideas as well, without a doubt! But funnily enough, because the Manics are so strong on titles, I tend to be led by the title, as opposed to the music and certainly with A Design For Life, the way that looked, was all suggested by (pausing), I mean, to give a designer a title like that, is a bit of a gift really!”


4.Were there any unused artwork ideas that you thought could have been interesting, if pursued further, and how much input does Nicky usually have into your designs?
“I can’t give you a definitive answer about unused artwork ideas, but very probably, yes, because there always is – there’s always more ideas! It is interesting, and when we worked with the Manics again at a later date, I went back through the Everything Must Go book – or our job file if you like – and all of the ideas were in there. Inevitably, when you do that, when you go back to something, you end up going, “Wow, look at all this stuff that just wasn’t used or was changed at the last minute.” You know, although it was an incredibly strong campaign and I’m very proud of what we did on it, equally, there’s a high likelihood that there was other stuff that could have probably been used. As for Nicky’s input, we work very closely with him on everything we do and he gets very involved, but there was a good amount of trust there from quite early on, and I think that was probably helped by the fact that I already knew the band!”


5.Which cover was the quickest to create and which one took the longest + did you have an entire campaign ready in advance, knowing what all of the singles were going to be?
“I can’t remember which cover was the quickest to create and which one took the longest, but Know Your Enemy felt like the longest (laughing)! So, I’m not sure sorry, but I don’t remember any of it being especially painful or especially difficult. Certainly, Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth were such long campaigns, they were getting on for 2 years each those campaigns! It was an INCREDIBLY productive period for us and the band – Farrow Design and the Manic Street Preachers both kind of really hit our stride, and as far as the record company went, the campaign and the advertising and the packaging, swept the board Awards-wise you know? The Music Week Awards and stuff like that. They were just incredibly successful campaigns, but to have a really successful campaign, you need two components. You need great looking, memorable graphic design and great sounding, memorable music! I think the stars aligned if you like – for me, on Everything Must Go more than anything else. As for an entire campaign being ready in advance, each one was done piecemeal I suppose, as each single was selected. I mean, they’re not all selected in advance and we do them all at once, we work on them one at a time, as a series. I think the last single off Everything Must Go (Australia) was probably nearly a year after the first one. It had an amazing sustainability and it was packed with singles!”


6.All of the 2CD single sets from EMG, TIMTTMY and KYE – along with the 2CD/DVD set for There By The Grace Of God – featured a pullout sleeve housed inside a card wallet. Was this to create uniformity and to allow you extra space for additional artwork?
“It was definitely an idea that they should work as a set, but then that’s very much what we do here. We like things to look as though they belong to each other, and we like the idea that they build up into a set and we like the idea that people would collect them all. That once a campaign’s over, and you get everything together and lay it all out on the table, that everything fits really well with everything else and there’s a sense of unity about the whole thing.”
*I mention the wraparound stickers on all of the singles released from Everything Must Go, which had to either be cut or peeled away in order to access the card wallet holding the CD, with a number of MSP Fans purchasing duplicate copies to keep in unopened, mint condition*
“It wasn’t really deliberate, it was just that the size of the pochette, meant that when they went into the shops (pausing), it was very easy for the inner pochette to drop out. So the idea that we had a sticker that A. Told you what you were going to get and B. Sealed the inner bag if you like, into the outer one, just became a device for us to do two things. It sealed the package and it told you what you were getting. The fact that people bought two sets so that they could keep one sealed (pausing), I guess you could call it a ‘happy accident’, but, if I’m being totally honest, it wasn’t in anyway meant that people should spend twice as much money!”
*I ask Mark about Lifeblood’s Empty Souls covers slotting together to create a larger picture*
“Well, that was completely intentional and with all of the Lifeblood images that we created, that was the most detailed – it was incredibly fine! So, to place that image on one CD-sized ‘canvas’ – for want of a better term – would almost have been doing that image a disservice. We knew there were three formats, so the idea that you could split it across all three was just one of those really nice ideas!”
*I also mention The Love Of Richard Nixon and Empty Souls limited edition numbered slipcases – designed to hold each set of Lifeblood CD singles / DVDs – which were sent to people signed-up to MSP’s mailing-list*
“Of course, yeah, yeah!”


7.For you personally, what makes a strong design – do you like to use a combination of graphics, photography, typography etc. – and also, do you have any favourite LP covers?
“In terms of what makes a strong design, I suppose it’s like what I said earlier, it’s something that’s memorable, it’s something that makes people want to pick it up, it’s something that makes people want to own it, and study it, and read it! I guess when I was 16, 17, I was kind of fascinated by record covers and I wanted to know every detail of the stuff that was out there at the time – if something came in a gatefold sleeve, it was fantastic for me! I suppose all of those things creep into your subconscious and it’s kind of instinctive, you pour all of those things that I’ve just mentioned into a sleeve. But, we don’t have a set of boxes that we tick where it must do this, this and this. You want everything that you do to be different from the last one, but just as strong and just as good, and people have got to want to own it and pick it up I suppose. Hopefully – although it doesn’t always – it should express the band visually, or the music, or both! If there was a sleeve that I wish I could’ve done, it would be Neu!, it’s very graphic and very powerful!”


8.What computer software does Farrow Design use, and has the advent of the iPod influenced your approach to designing record sleeves?
“The software that we use, is all of the things that all Graphic Design companies use, so it’s Adobe Creative, Photoshop, Illustrator and all the rest of it – so we’re no different to anyone else. As for my approach to designing album sleeves now, the iPod does impact – obviously – because you started with album covers, then you moved down to CD covers and now you’re going down to a 2 inch or 3 inch screen on an iPod or iPhone. So yeah, it does impact, but that’s a whole different world of question if you know what I mean, about where music packaging is going. I mean, we do very little music packaging now and that’s for a combination of reasons. One is, is that it’s hard to earn money from music, because budgets have gotten tighter and tighter and marketing departments are less and less brave, in terms of what they’re willing to do. They have less and less money to spend, in terms of what something might look like you know? For example, the idea of doing an inner and outer pochette for 4 single releases off an album, it just wouldn’t happen now – it wouldn’t happen! That’s just the way it is. I’m pretty philosophical about it and I’m not moaning about it, but the last Pet Shop Boys album that we did, Yes, we almost deliberately designed that to look good on an iPod. It had a multicolour tick on it and we very much presented the idea with a photo of an iPod, just for that reason. So yeah, it does definitely impact!”


9.Are you allowed to reveal any details about the artwork and content for Nicky’s debut book, Death Of A Polaroid: A Manics Family Album?
“Well, obviously we’ve dealt with Nicky’s Polaroids before and although we haven’t worked with the Manics on the last couple of albums, we’re still friends and Nicky called a few months ago and said, “I’d really love you to design this book.” We'd previously designed the book of Mitch Ikeda’s photographs (Forever Delayed) – although this isn’t a companion-piece in anyway, it’s different, because it’s more like an art book in some respects. It features the best of Nicky’s Polaroids and Mitch Ikeda’s too, plus a few other things from sessions with professional photographers. There’s some really lovely images – there’s some beautiful stuff by Nicky and there’s some great images by Mitch, who has written little comments on his which are kind of cute! Some of them are really poignant, so it’s going to be a very, very special book. There’s also going to be a Special Edition, which will be a very beautiful thing. We’re very pleased and it’s off being printed now, so we are eagerly awaiting the finished result! It’s been a pleasure to do, but it’s been a lot of work, because we had to edit thousands and thousands of Polaroids… Nicky’s original edit probably took it down to about half of all his photographs.”
*Earlier this year, Nicky told Q Magazine, “It’s the cream of my collection of around 6,000 to 10,000 Polaroid photos.”*
“Then from there, we probably edited those down by a further two thirds. The whole studio was covered in Polaroids at one point! We decided that it was going to be far too difficult to put the images in chronological order, although certain sections are. I guess that Mitch’s are the most chronological, because there are dates on all his. But even then, they’re kind of more in sequences. Otherwise, we would have just had a lot of similar images on the same page which were taken within half-an-hour of each other. The fact is, the book works better this way. The cover was down to Gary Stillwell, who’s the designer of the book and a partner in Farrow. We did a series of cover visuals and tried a number of things, and this one felt very strong! There was a bit of toing-and-froing with the publishers (Faber & Faber), but ultimately, everyone agreed that the one we have gone with is the best. Each Polaroid was put down onto a white sheet and then photographed, so they’re artefacts in effect. Whereas on the This Is My Truth sleeves, we just dropped the image part of the Polaroid into our own graphic white frames. So this time, they’re not as ‘neat’, because Nicky and Mitch tend to draw and scratch onto the physical surface, and some of them are bashed and a bit turned-up at the edges and you see all that, which I think is kind of important. Nicky has painted on some and stuck stickers on others, so all that is there to see. In total, there are 553 Polaroids over about 300 pages.”


10.Do you have a favourite Manics era / any favourite songs, albums and videos?

“For a song, I’m going to go for Horses Under Starlight. Album-wise, This Is My Truth was obviously the most successful wasn’t it really? But I think for me, Everything Must Go – which was the first one we did together and almost the answer I gave you earlier, is the answer to this – but I think it was a new era and a new period and they really hit their stride and we really hit our stride! And so I think that’s the one you want, in terms of the answer to this question, Everything Must Go, for me – and in particular the set of singles funnily enough – is still a very strong piece of work! My favourite video I think, is the one that Martin shot, Motorcycle Emptiness.”


11.Of all your Manic Street Preachers designs, which are you most proud of?

“The posters for A Design For Life, are probably my favourite posters that we’ve ever done I think – there’s one with a forest on it that’s gold at the bottom, and there’s one with a stream on it that’s silver at the bottom. They’re just really beautiful!”


12.Lastly, chips or cream buns?
“Chips!”

A very special thanks to Mark for all of his time and help.


www.farrowdesign.com


“I never wanted to be in a band,
I wanted to do the covers!”

wers to questions...It's never about looking forward to it. Actually maybe I should change the
script, maybe we are looeir musicm the 3rd album?