I recently took part in a debate in Manchester, England, with Ian Anderson of The Designers Republic and Ben Drury of Mo Wax fame. The debate, which was moderated by Tony Wilson, the founder of Factory Records, was about the future of the record sleeve. All the panellists (me included) took the view that sleeve design was a thing of the past, and that as designers we should 'get over it, and get on with our lives.'

All of us admitted to loving record covers, but we all agreed that the record industry would go over to digital delivery the moment it became economically viable, and that sleeve design would be downgraded still further. We all agreed that there will always be small labels that will support good sleeve design. But it would be hard to make a living working for small labels — although it might be enjoyable.

The thing that surprised me was that the audience disagreed strongly with us. I got the feeling they thought we were being wimps. It made me realize that there is still a big interest in sleeve design. But, it's been coming for the past four or five years. The big labels have been downgrading sleeve design, budgets have fallen, and if it wasn't for bands insisting on good sleeves, there wouldn't be much good work around.

And it's not just the MP3 issue: it's the fact that the world has changed. There's so much media now that the album cover is only one tiny part of the label's promotional activity. It's more important for labels to get artists on magazine covers and TV shows than it is to have a cool sleeve. The big labels just don't need to spend money on sleeve design anymore.

I wonder what you thought?

EIKE KÖNIG: I must confess that this subject touches me very much emotionally.

When I started working for the music branch 13 years ago, I thought I could do it forever. But even at that time, changes quickly became apparent. Record labels didn't act — they didn't even react. They just closed their eyes. And so did I. Until the first change concerned me personally.

Controllers found their way into the companies and exactly assigned the budgets for us, the graphic artists. I reacted by reducing my salary in order to keep active in this domain. Today the budget is less than half what it was before. I still stuck at it. For romantic reasons? Because to do anything else would be a change for me? Because it would mean a rethinking and new orientation? Anyway, I protracted it all until finally I said to myself: 'this can't go on like this'.

But when I did start to reorientate, it was almost too late. I realized that we were very quickly written off as 'hip record cover designers producing nice pictures'. I got to know people in my profession who did not have the ability to differentiate the graphic performance of a record's cover from the product itself and who weren’t able to figure out how differently the same thinking can be applied. They didn't understand that we develop systems and visual concepts behind our 'pictures'. I got my act together and there's one thing I have learned from this: nothing remains forever. Freely adapted from Goethe, the only completely consistent is the change.

Today, I like to be unconcerned about the survival of the vinyl as a product. I don't want to decide on something but to save my energies in order to be open for whatever comes along next.

But to get back to the subject. Yes, I think the end of vinyl is a given. The music will go on but the younger generations have a totally different relation to it. They consume music, but not in connection with the medium. And this can surely be put down to the branch. It's a great pity as an important part of our culture is lacking in profundity.

And, of course, for us, it is a great pity as the design of record labels has always been a field for experiments out of the ordinary, the engine for graphic design, a playground amongst the strictness of the economic world. Romantic people like me will still exist in the future who continue to buy vinyl – but it's going to become a niche product. The big money is made somewhere else and, well, other rules are dominant there.

I know you as a designer of record sleeves. Do you consider that the English market is more receptive to the idea of designers moving to work in other fields or was it hard for you to break out to work in another area of design?

ADRIAN SHAUGHNESSY: There used to be a tendency for record cover designers to be seen as second class designers. They weren't given the respect that other sorts of designers were given. It wasn't seen as serious 'problem-solving' design. But I think that has changed now. In the UK, Neville Brody, Peter Saville, Mark Farrow and others proved that you could design for bands as well as for non-music projects. So, nowadays I'd say it is possible to break out of the music design ghetto. During my time at Intro, we didn't have too much trouble moving between music and non-music projects. In fact, our strategy was to use music industry work to wow 'straight' clients.

However, I think in the design establishment, design for music is seen as a second class activity. And everyone knows the money is terrible. No big design groups could survive on record business budgets, so it is looked down on as not real design.

But without music design, graphic design would be less advanced, less rich. Design for music has always opened up new directions. This is why Julian House and I did the Sampler books. We wanted to show everyone that there is still great design work being done for music, it's just that no one sees it. But I suppose the Sampler books feel a bit like elegies now. I'm convinced that sleeve design is dead. Sure, it will linger on with small labels, but in the mainstream it is dead.

I wonder how you see the downloading phenomenon? Do you think it will wipe out sleeve design, or will music designers find ways to do interesting work to accompany downloadable music?

EIKE KÖNIG: Hi Adrian.

As a record cover designer, I've also had the experience of being sniggered at a little. Once we were invited by the German Art Directors Club to give a lecture about us and our work. As we already had the feeling we had been pigeonholed, we showed a silent movie, with no explanations for the things shown. Our intention was to raise questions in order to initiate a discussion. Indeed, there was a discussion but we, Martin (Lorenz) and I, weren't involved in it at all. The participants divided themselves into two groups. One part called us cursory — nice pictures without substance — and the other stood up for us to praise us and our work and to defend us. We didn't even have the chance to get a word in edgeways. At that point, we realized that many designers, even if they have been visually trained, are not capable of differentiating their work from the medium (cover) to see other possibilities, for example in the media they work with.

In Germany, everyone is very anxious. We are incredibly arrogant and bigheaded, we adhere stubbornly to the old rules and are not capable of opening up to everything else. For years, this ran quite well. But now, being in crisis, almost all the big agencies realize that something has to change and they open up their own design units. In more and more cases, the big agencies ask us if we could organize a creative workshop with their creatives. There seams to be a great demand on 'breaking down structures'. In this respect, I also see here, in Germany, a diffident acceptance (or should I say obsessive?) of designers working for the music industry.

For me, downloading music, movies or whatsoever, is deadly boring. And I refuse to work on something that does not really touch me personally. For me, there's a piece of soul missing. Of course, there will be designers who try to do their best in this segment. Why not? I think Apple should expand their download range. As well as downloading the track for 99 cent, for another 19 cents they could supply a complete artwork as a PDF file to print on the home' ink jet printer or pre-cut special-CD booklet paper. How awful — but it might possibly work.

Somehow, this reminds me of today's picture agencies. It caught my eye that they frequently offer 'modern' computer illustrations – including Photoshop areas to tinker with. Please tell me, where does the uninspiration end?

I have a Sampler book at home. The content is very British.

Martin and I define ourselves as team. We work in a very open structure which tolerates teamwork of the most different ideas, people and opinions. Our credit is Hort. Some CDs designed by Intro are credited "designed by House at Intro". How did your cooperation with Julian work? How should I visualize the work of an Intro designer?


I'm interested in your thoughts about German design. I've always held German design in high esteem. During my time at Intro I made a point of hiring German designers, especially ones straight from design school. I found them better prepared in terms of basic skills – and they all spoke better English than the Brits! I think in Germany, you study for longer, and there seems to be more concentration on fundamental skills than in UK: would you agree?

Funnily enough, you mention the content of Sampler being 'very British'. I think that was true of the first in the series, but when we came to do number three we had to fight hard to stop it turning into a 'German edition'. This was because we were inundated with good German work from small labels. I'm thinking of Angela Lorenz, who is a great talent, and 08 Design's work for the Morr Music label. I really think the German indie label design scene is strong. I hope you agree, Eike, since you are a part of this! Who do you think is doing good work in Germany?

You ask about Intro. I started Intro with my business partner Katy Richardson (a non designer) in 1989, and I left at the end of last year. After more than 15 years, I felt burned out and needed to do something different. But I look back on my time at Intro as a great adventure. We always tried to do things differently, and in the most part, succeeded. My personal goal was always to be successful, but without resorting to formulaic, bland work. We always tried to do adventurous, groundbreaking work.

We placed huge importance on good studio and business practice and tried to combine this with innovative work. This was why the designers (like Julian House) were always given personal design credits. It was a way of allowing them to claim authorship for their work. Conventional wisdom states that you hide your designers under a studio name. But why? Designers are much happier if the can claim authorship for their work, and they produce better work if they know they are going to be able to sign it.

Post Intro, I am doing a lot of writing on design. I'm working on a new, mainly text-based book (How to be a graphic designer, without losing your soul), which comes out in 2005 (if I finish it in time!); I'm doing some consultancy work; I'm advising one or two design companies; and I'm consultant creative director for This is Real Art, which is a new 'virtual design company', with some amazing talent (Ben Drury, Build, Kim Hiorthoy, and others). We are trying to work in the way that production companies work in advertising: in other words, we have a 'roster of talent'. We don't employ any designers, they all remain freelance, but when we get a project we become a full-fledged design company. It's early, but it looks as if it is going to work.

EIKE KÖNIG: Hi Adrian,

That's an interesting question. We Germans tend to seek the good things abroad. We like to glance up to England and admire the high degree of creativity and professionalism. We like to look up to Holland and admire the courage, the consequence and the autonomy. We like to look up to Scandinavia and are pleased about the bubbling energy stretching across the estates.

I am not acquainted with the English educational system. In Germany, the average duration of study is nine semesters, which means four and a half years. Usually, it begins with imparting basic skills like the origin of typography, layout rules, format specification, etc.

I was rather disappointed with my training. I missed personal support and the promotion of individuality. Even today, I have to realize that many people who apply for a job in our agency have strongly adapted to the educational system – which is, of course, an advantage for the industry and the big clients of the future — but not for us as a small design unit.

For me personally, I don't need someone particularly outstanding. What I look for are characters. People with self-confidence. People who stand behind their work, who want to shake something up. But this is exactly what, in many cases, is not promoted. I think we have both had — and still have — different demands concerning people working with us, whereby I guess that you at This Is Real Art are also rather looking for characters than graphic designers with outstanding educational skills.

As you have already mentioned, a certain graphic scene emerged from the underground music scene, where people like Angela Lorenz find their platform. Wonderful small labels like the Playhouse in Frankfurt, advised graphically by DJ Ata in a perfect way, show that you can contribute to the diversity of music / design culture with loads of self energy and delight.

I don't really follow the local design scene. There are some I know personally whose work I really appreciate. Marco and Achim from Vier5 or Tobias Röttger who works with us, and my business partner Martin Lorenz, who is a fantastic talent. I also really admire the guys from Reboot Lab, the Timbos and my ancient business partner Ralf Hiemisch. We have consistently great talents here in our agency who will definitely forge ahead. And there are people contacting us who maintain a similar passion for their work as we do — for example Michael Moser.

Your virtual design company is very interesting. A very modern way of a company, rather deriving from the network than from the classical company structure. A job-specific network – I call this optimization on the highest level. Then of course I really appreciate all of the people involved as as graphic designers too.

How has the industry reacted to this structure? Have you already executed an order? And who acts as the team captain to pull the strings? How does the communication among each other work? Who talks to the client and presents at meetings? In principle, this company structure is the continuation of what we practice here. We are a very small unit adapting to the job and its requirements. We fall back on people who do the things we are not doing — even if the heart of the completion and the organisation lies with us.

It was nice meeting you at the GraficEurope conference. It was a very well organised event with high-quality lectures. Listening to people like Peter Saville and Alan Fletcher is very interesting — and it is almost even more exciting to listen to someone like Kim Hiorthoy. Very obvious was that the experience of delight was of great importance of almost everyone there. In turn, it's a pity that such an event is practically exorbitant for students or small agencies.


It was a nice surprise to meet you at GraficEurope. It's a pity there wasn't more time to talk. I thought the conference was great. I felt genuinely inspired by most of what I saw and heard. I agree with you that some of the less famous names were more interesting than the stars. Like you, I thought Kim Hiorthoy was great, and I know he made a strong impression on a lot of people with his funny and modest talk.

For me, the stand out person was Laurence Weiner, the American conceptual artist. I didn’t feel I got to the bottom of his work — which I love — but I found his thoughts about art and the life of the artist to be riveting. I really liked Cyan too. Good German design, I'm sure you'll agree!

One of the things I felt about the event was that it confirmed my long held view that graphic designers — as a rule — are nice people. Perhaps when dentists and real estate agents get together they behave well towards each other too, but I'm always struck by how generous and friendly designers are when they come together. GraficEurope confirmed this for me.

I must find out about Reboot Lab — great name — and some of the other names you mention. I'm convinced that there are now two graphic design worlds. There is corporate design, which is really about branding: this sort of design is entirely client driven, and because of this it has become formulaic and entropic. On the other hand, there is the sort of design where the designer is encouraged to have a voice and to push boundaries. Increasingly these two strands have less and less in common.

You ask about This is Real Art. I'm glad you think it is interesting. It is still in its infancy. It was started by three women (Kate Nielsen, Georgina Lee and Sarah Withers). I joined earlier this year, and together we developed the notion of a virtual design company. After 15 years of being Creative Director of Intro — which often felt more like a family than a business — I needed to try something looser and less structured.

I'd noticed that there were a lot of good designers who were resistant to any sort of studio structure, but who occasionally attracted the interest of big clients. These big clients were usually put off by a lack of organization and structure. Kim Hiorthoy is a good example of this. He is regularly approached by advertising agencies about projects. Some are not right for him, but some are. Yet, Kim doesn't have the structure to deal with these enquiries. That's where This is Real Art comes in. We know how to talk to agencies, and we know how to work with them and how to help Kim.

Our plan is to have a group of artists and designers who are connected in a free and open way. In other words, we have a roster of talent — as I said earlier, a bit like the way production companies work with commercial directors. We don't have contracts. We have a manifesto that we all adhere to, but which leaves individuals free to say yes or no to any project. It is about finding a structure that helps designers do interesting work, be properly and fairly paid, and at the same time remain autonomous. The people we have on the roster all have the sprit of independence. I'm thinking about people like Ben Drury, Johnny Hardstaff and Michael Place/Build. These are fiercely independent people, and yet here's a way that they can keep their independence, but also come together in a group that makes them stronger.

Our aim is to operate just like a good design studio, but without the rigid structure that design groups have and without the overheads. If we are going to attract really big projects then we have to function like a good design group. There will be a need for good project management and production skills, good creative direction, and good design. So far, it seems to be working. We are working with Wieden + Kennedy in Amsterdam, Channel 4, Mute Records, and we are redesigning a magazine, which Michael Place is doing. On his own, Michael would never have got that job, but as a part of This is Real Art he is able to do it really well.

OK, advert over! But I genuinely feel very evangelical (excuse that word) about it. I was very pleased to see that you used the phrase 'a modern way' of doing things. That's exactly it. No one has produced a viable alternative to the standard design studio model. We think this might be one way of doing it differently.

It's been great talking to you, Eike — virtually and physically!

EIKE KÖNIG: Likewise, Adrian! A real pleasure...