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cover stories behind the iconic images of storm thorgerson

richard carter

Cover Stories

Behind the iconic images of Storm Thorgerson

2011 Richard Carter

Cover Design, Book Design and Text | Richard Carter Editing | Richard Carter Research | Richard Carter All images owned by Storm Thorgerson. All rights reserved

Serveral images from this book can be purchased via:

Cover Stories

Behind the iconic images of Storm Thorgerson

Written, Designed and compiled by richard carter

Cover Stories

Behind the iconic images of Storm Thorgerson

contents 1 Introduction 2 Changing Canvasses 3 Why cover design? 4 The Design process 5 Storms iconic covers 6 commercial design 7 Biography



usic and design go hand in hand. They are both an art form and to some extent, one couldn’t survive without the other. They compliment each other, work off of each other and fit perfectly together. Whether its on a T-Shirt, a button badge, a bag or a poster, packaging for a band owes much to graphic design. But the most interesting, creative and iconic medium to master in this field is without doubt, the album cover. It has it’s own distinct aesthetic, one that has evolved along with changes in technologies and advancement in formats. The sleeve design has remained. Its loved by many, hated by few. It can help sell the music if done correctly but at the same time can be ignored if not. It’s an extension of the album. Taking on the mood, lyrics, sounds and feelings behind the music and translating that into visual communication. On some album covers the image could mean nothing, on others its clear what is being communicated. The message album covers convey can be vast. Often they can confuse or excite in equal measure, which helps make them so special. The power such a small canvass holds is unrivalled and the time scale it has lasted is testament to its power. But, if the future of music lies in downloads, one man will suffer more than most. After 39 years as Britain’s foremost designer of album covers, during which his canvas has already shrunk from 12 inches of vinyl to 5 inches of CD, Storm Thorgerson will be out of a job. Storm who? 8 Cover Stories


torm Thorgerson fell into designing album sleeves quite by accident. He was doing a two year course at the Royal College Film School with aspirations of becoming a filmmaker. It wasn’t until a friend of Storms was asked by Pink Floyd to design a record cover for them. When he declined, Thorgerson offered to do it. “I was standing in the doorway.” He recalls. Without a second thought Thorgerson stuck up his hand. “I had no idea what I was doing!” But Storm certainly made the most of his chance and has since gone on to design for artists such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, 10CC and Black Sabbath. All of which helped define an era for music and design. Thorgerson’s distinctive style has made him one of the industry’s most recognisable artists. His work has an element of performance to it, which Storm says provokes the audience into asking whether the imagery is fantasy or indeed reality. He even describes his shoots as “performances” because at times the sets are so big and with so many people working on site at any one time. “I’m more like a choreographer; and the choreographer needs the f***ing dancers, doesn’t he?” Storms work has inspired many designers to enter the field of record sleeve design. This has led to many trying to imitate his style but most having little success. Storms style is timeless, challenging, unique and individual. Something that all graphic designers should strive for.

Pink Floyd The Devision Bell 1994

“I’m more like a choreographer; and the choreographer needs the f***ing dancers, doesn’t he?” STORM THORGERSON cover stories 9

Changing canvases


rom the 12 inch vinyl to the modern day thumbnail which sits neatly on our computer screens, Storm has ridden the wave of change and continues to design relevant art work for a modern age. In the 60s 12 inch record sleeves came into their own as a canvas for graphic artists who used its ample dimensions to spin elaborate visual and conceptual fantasies. These covers went on to become icons for a generation. In the late 80s and 90s when the CD replaced vinyl as the format of choice, a new 5.5 by 5.5 inch canvas was introduced. This offered the designer far less space to manipulate. Many images from LP covers suffered in transission 10 Cover Stories

to the new format as their intricate details shrunk into obscurity. This gave the designer something new to take into account when designing memorable album covers for an ever decreasing canvas. It would decrease further by the late 90s with the introduction and growing popularity of MP3s. Would the album and its cover join the 45s, 78s and 8-tracks in the format graveyard? Now, the album cover has shrunk to just a splotch of pixels on a screen. Barely reconisable from the days of the 12 inch vinyl. The best a design can now hope for is a 240 pixel square image. The tiny JPEGs displayed on iPod screens

demand simplicity, bold colour, stark imagery and unadorned type. But, Storm doesn’t do simplicity. He’d rather stage events, build sculptures or organise a load of models. The digital age may have changed many things but for Storm, the process remains the same. The space allotted to an album may be a fraction of what it once was, but that just sets the bar higher. If musicians can continue to innovate in the digital age, then designers must take up the challenge too.

“If musicians can continue to innovate, then designers must take up the challenge too� Storm Thorgerson

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why cover design?


rom his first cover design Storms wish was simple. He wanted to represent the music he was designing for. There was no commercial purpose or any view to promote, advertise or increase sales through his work. That may be the case for some record designers, but for Storm, its not his shared view. When he sets out on a cover design his aim is to visually communicate the music. His wish is to be good, interesting, intriguing, well designed, odd, surreal, funny, well executed, evocative, efficient, effective, eye catching or a combination of all of the above. The goal is to be as good as the musicians aspire to be themselves and the design invented for the specific project and used for nothing else. It has to be original. He tries his best to be original, as much as one can be and as original as the musicians themseleves wish to be with whom he works for. His intentions may seem ordinary to most. Dreaming up visual ideas, which fit to the feeling of the music. But it’s so much more to him than that. He feels its good to get the viewer involved in some degree of dialogue with the design. By seducing or grabbing their interest through subverting expectations, presenting something that may or may not be possible. Occasionally fantasy, usually distorted reality or, reality with a twist as Storm likes to put it. All ideas are usually performed for real as Storm believes things look better that way and also “doing it for real” doesn’t cheat or sell the customer short. Thorgersons staging of events is what keeps him in the business. Yes he could resort to computer aided software to get the same results, but as he say’s, “where would the fun in that be?”

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Deepest Blue Is It A Sin? 2004

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design process


re ideas generated by projects or are they already produced and just waiting for the right slot? “The former.” Storm states. “I’m a gun for hire. I like to answer problems.” When designing an album cover the process is almost always the same, but individually different. No two bands are the same, and neither are two albums. The briefs can be complex with new clients. If there is already a relationship like there is with Pink Floyd, it is more straightforward. Once the brief is set, Storm and his team breaks it down usually into three separate elements. The music, whether its in demo form, trial mixes or unmixed material, the lyrics, completed or not and

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then the words of the musician. All of these stages come together and form the brief from which Storm and his team follow. Now the brief has been established they get to work on the drafts. The team meet up at the studio to discuss the brief and make notes on certain themes they’ve picked up from listening to the music and see if they can pin down any ideas. During these initial brainstorming sessions, private thoughts are made public, debates are held as to what the music is about, if indeed its about anything, initial sketches are presented to the group and feedback on them received. Once an idea has been accepted and approximate budgets been

agreed, the project moves onto the testing stage. What was first drawn roughly now has to be made for the photo shoot. In some cases sculptors are commissioned to bring initial sketches to life. Before the final, full size model is constructed, test models are produced to double check the idea before the brief risks going into debt. Once all has been agreed, the props are given the all clear to be produced. Next stage is the photo shoot. Location is decided months in advance so all props can be finished and sent to the chosen location on time and on budget. The scale of some of Storms work is unbelievable. It can weigh tons so lorries and a large army of people

are needed when constructing them on site. The weather plays a part too. Because Storm insists on doing everything for real, sometimes, his installations are often stood outside for weeks, just waiting for the right weather. After the shoot, the editing stage is when the painstaking selecting process starts. Storm and his team review the film of material taken. There can be quite a lot of it so picking the best out of several hundred photographs can take a bit of time and is a somewhat tedious and stressful part of the process. Once a shot is chosen there may be some computer work to do, but often very little. Once the image is cleaned and tidied its onto the rest of the CD’s artwork.

A completely separate process in its own right Storm states. This involves text, graphics, layout, pagination, cropping and recropping before the final piece is ready for print.

“I’m a gun for hire, i like to answer problems.” storm thorgerson

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Storms Iconic covers


esigning the cover for the hugely successful Dark Side of the Moon was not an easy act to follow. During the first initial meetings with the band a recurring theme of absence was discovered. Absence of commitment either to their relationships or their work. They were there in flesh but not in spirit recalls Storms. The band was beginning to drift apart. Storm and his team racked their brains for good ideas on how they could represent absence whilst remaining present. Shadows, footsteps and items that indicated a presence were all explored in the design process. All of these ideas became intermingled with empty gestures, like a handshake. A grip of a hand, warm but which doesn’t mean too much. From there to absent emotions or a fear of being hurt or burned. Whilst in the planning stages Storm had a conversation with his illustrator in which he said, hurt people were afraid of being hurt or burnt again and held themselves back and became kind of absent. And that’s how the cover came about. Men enacting an empty gesture whilst on fire and paying no particular attention to the flames as it is a metaphor and therefore not real, although of course it is real. Therein lies the conundrum and part of the appeal. Real but not real. Not surreal or hyperreal but unreally real or really unreal. It was photographed in a vancnt film lot in Hollywood, vacant as in absent. Nothing real in films now is there?

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Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here 1975

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Pink Floyd Dark Side Of The Moon 1973

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Biffy Clyro Puzzle 2007


or the Biffy Clyro album Puzzle, Storm fixated on the fact that lead singer and songwriter Simon Neil’s mother had recently died. The figure in the foreground is in a fetal position, something which Storm associated with grief, and the missing piece is just beside him, although he can’t see it. A detail often missed is that of a figure being forcibly removed from the room, symbolic of having a loved one wrenched away. This is Storm’s own story, based on his understanding of the band and their music.

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Anthrax Stomp 442 1995


torm loves to make stuff. This example from Anthrax’s Stomp 442 album was never a whole sphere. Instead it was a quarter sphere, rotated and manipulated to create a composite image. Storm has always had a fascination for spheres becuase as he says, “you never know what’s inside them, are they’re solid or hollow?”

“If we get a chance to build something, we do it” storm thorgerson

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here were three minor miracles about Bury The Hatchet. First Storm was both surprised and heartened that The Cranberries, who come from Limerick in Ireland, had chosen his design. They had previously used pictures of themselves, often on a sofa. Storms picture was clearly a departure from that, not a sofa in sight. The second miracle arose after they had decided that red earth was paramount, to contrast with a blue sky, which had to be cloudless and empty in order to echo the empty landscape in turn to emphasize that the All Seeing Eye can get you anywhere. Wherever you try and run, you cannot escape. It was decided that Australia was too far away, Namibia too dangerous, so it had to be Monument Valley in Arizona. They went in November in the wild hope that the weather would be good. When they all arrived in neighbouring Flagstaff, it was snowing, and by the next morning there were icicles hanging off the trees outside the hotel. Storm was crestfallen, wondering how he could explain to The Cranberries that this costly exercise was sabotaged by bad weather. In a desert? As they drove North from Flagstaff, down the hills the weather changed abruptly, and they arrived in Monument Valley to blue skies and clear vistas. It was a miracle. The second miracle. They drove around looking for the perfect spot, in which they found several, particularly the one you see. It was very like the rough that was shown to the band, including the distant peaks. There was not a soul or a tree for miles. The floating, inquisitive eye had cornered its victim even in the wide open space of America’s south west. It so happened that this area was sacred Navajo ground, the preserve for centuries of proud Navajo Indians. As they were filming the naked man, pursued by the evil eye, suddenly out of nowhere roared a truck, screeched to a halt and out jumped an Indian with long black hair and a face like granite slab. The male model was hurriedly putting on his trousers while everyone else struggled to get the eye back into the jeep. A heavy hand landed on Storms shoulder and a deep voice said, “You are trespassing, I confiscate your film and equipment.” GULP. Photo shoot torpedoed. What would he say to The Cranberries? Then the Indian laughed heartily, told Storm he was only joking, got out his mobile and swapped e-mail addresses with the entire crew, the third miracle! It goes to show how the idea of government surveillance, that there is always someone watching you, be it third party or one’s own conscience, is truer than you think. Even in the empty tracks of the Arizona desert. But they got away with it. Must have been the luck of the Irish!

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The Cranberries Bury The Hatchet 1999

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commercial design


torm is constantly battling against the commercial world. His designs are often met with sighs when pitched straight to the label. It’s a continuing area of dispute in the business not just for him, but also between the record companies and the musicians. Storm rages, “most record companies and management regularly feel compelled to take issue with us graphic designers over what promotes sales and what doesn’t. And without research or statistics to support their case they often assert that certain characteristics like big lettering, big objects, big portraits and big tits improve sales and should be part of cover design, nothing too subtle or highbrow.” He continues, “pictures of bands like The Beatles or Take That, what do they tell you? They tell you what they look like, but nothing about what’s in their hearts, or in their music. If you were trying to present an emotion, or a feeling, or an idea, or a theme, or an obsession, or a perversion, or a preoccupation, when would it have four guys in it? In the huge world of things to choose to represent it, why choose four guys?” Storms view of album covers is that they neither help nor hinder sales, though an ugly or boring visual might deter the customer, but he assumes most would acquire albums for the music, the cover design being an added pleasure and not an incentive to buy. The purpose mainly is to protect the product whilst providing additional information in the form of credits and lyrics. The gratifying aspect Storm gets from designing album covers is the freedom. Although it’s a commercial art, like advertising, he’s not enslaved to a product. He doesn’t have to show an item for sale in the same way an advertisement does. Album art can be more concerned with the emotion that embodies the music. A designer of covers can do anything, can design in any style, use any technique, select any subject matter and subscribe to good taste or bad. Working for the music Thorgerson feels is relatively clean and wholesome. But given the emergence of the digital age, where downloading music may eventually alleviate the need for album covers, and therefore graphic designers will be out of a job, including Storm. How does he feel about this? “I don’t think thats the case necessarily, because even though the kids these days might be used to downloading, the tactile, touch quality, having something to hold, doesn’t necessarily go away. Music downloads may be the future, but they will never be this much fun…”

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torm Thorgerson was born in Middlesex, 1944. Schooled at Summerhill, Suffolk, Brunswick Primary then Cambridge High School for boys. He studied B.A Honours in English and Philosophy, Leicester, 1966, M.A Film and TV at the Royal Collage of Art, 1969. Started Hipgnosis design studio in 1968. Produced numerous album covers and posters for the rock ‘n’ roll elite. Storm has also directed Pink Floyd’s screen films, designed DVDs and is author of several books. He continues to design covers, single bags, logos, posters and t-shirts for the world of music. He’s held exhibitions of his work in Tokyo, London, Chicago, LA, Amsterdam, Milan and San Francisco. Storm has one son, Bill by his first partner Libby and now lives with his wife, Barbie. Storm lives and works in North London.

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Storm Thorgerson

Pink Floyd Animals 1997

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“I wouldn’t buy a record for it’s cover, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to.” storm thorgerson

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cover stories

behind the iconic images of storm thorgerson

Cover Stories, behind the iconic images of Storm Thorgenson  

A case studying looking into the life and career of Storm Thorgenson, the graphic designer who has inspired some of the greatest record cove...