'It’s the sleeve art that matters' - Guy Cookson pays tribute to Vaughan Oliver, one of the 'truly great record sleeve designers'

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Being a music fan used to be expensive. Today you can listen to almost any song that has ever been recorded, thanks to Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube.

But when I was growing up, you had to make choices.

As a teenager, I got a job washing dishes in a local restaurant just so I could visit the local record shop on Saturdays and bring home something new. I would spend hours agonising over which record to buy based on hazy recommendations and whether I might be able to tape a copy off someone who already owned it.

But sometimes what drew me in was the cover design.

Even if I had never heard of the artist, the design of the sleeve could be enough to make me pause and take a closer look.

This is when I realised the power of graphic design. How the way things are designed can profoundly change the way they are perceived.

At the end of last year, we lost one of the truly great record sleeve designers.

Vaughan Oliver, who died aged 62 in December, grew up in County Durham and studied graphic design at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic.

After moving to London in 1982, he joined the independent record label 4AD as the in-house designer. Oliver found a way to carve out a distinct visual identity for artists, offering an alternative to the mainstream. His sleeve designs were bold, provocative, mysterious and uncompromising. The best known of these included work for the Pixies, Cocteau Twins and The Breeders.

“Vaughan Oliver was one of a small group of British graphic designers who helped turn graphic design into an activity that many young people, for the first time in history, saw as a desirable occupation,” explains Adrian Shaughnessy.

“When Peter Saville, Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett and Oliver became widely known (for the most part through their work for cult record labels), they imbued the idea of being a graphic designer with the glamour of being in a band.”

“I never like to take the easy road,” Oliver once said. “I like to provoke, to be perverse.”

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design