Designers > Peter Saville > Tokion #39 'Creativity Now' Interview

"Tokion Magazine announces the First Annual Creativity Now Conference, to be held at Cooper Union's historic Great Hall on September 6th and 7th, 2003. This unique symposium will bring together top figures in art, design, fashion, photography, film, new media, publishing and marketing. In the same room for the first time, the people shaping today's popular culture will spend two days exchanging their ideas, methods and inspirations before an audience of 2,000."


Over the past, 25 years no graphic designer has been as iconic, influential, varied or downright confusing as Peter Saville. Despite having created some of pop culture's most memorable images-for hands such as Joy Division, New Order, Suede and Pulp, as well as designer Yohji Yamamoto and photographer Nick Knight-Saville himself has remained willfully obscure. As a featured speaker at Creativity Now, the design legend attempted to punch some holes in his Aura:

I've been working now exactly 25 years. I left college in 1978 and got involved with Factory (Records) that year. That means I started producing things probably before some of you were born. It's embarrassing standing up here and talking about something you did 20 years ago and thinking that a 25-year-old is thinking, 'Ugh, this then, that first album cover I did - Unknown Pleasures is just like a history lesson and it's not interesting.' But for Joy Division-still follows me around. I see it everywhere. I even see it as a tattoo these days, which I think is a great... commitment.. (Laughs)

There's kind of one thing I can say before you ask me questions. The theme for this weekend is 'Creativity Now.' So before coming here I was thinking, 'How do I feel about creativity?' I think my feeling about creativity is that, in itself it's kind of fascinating and intriguing, but it's not massively interesting to me. It's clever, and all the time we see things that are 'clever,' But the things that I'm personally most interested in are the kind of moments of creativity that help us understand where we are or who we are at a moment in time. You can't define all things for all people all the time, and what mattered for me 25 years ago, when I was leaving college, is obviously totally different to what would matter to someone in their early 20s now, because the world has changed a lot and moved along. So in that sense, creativity and its relevance is just related to the moment.

I had a kind of completely, um, unprofessional situation when I started with Factory (Records). There was no client - there were just some friends. We kind of came together to do something that we all felt like doing. There was no business. There was no profitability. For me, as a designer, there was no brief (of instructions). There was no one to give me a brief. Well, the brief to me was, 'What do I care about?' So I had freedom to put on Joy Division covers, and then on New Order covers, the things that I wanted (to see). I guess that I just kind of kept my fingers crossed that, if I wanted it, then maybe someone else would like it or appreciate it.

I think it's really important to hold on to some kind of personal connection with the work that you do. There seems to be too many professional situations where the designer or the creative person has to distance themselves so completely from the product that they give up trying to identify it by their own values. I think that really is a big problem. Once your own values and the work you're doing part company... How can you judge? You throw away the judging system. Obviously, I appreciate that lots of people have to work in very disciplined, very demanding circumstances, where their own freedom is left at the door. But I think, as a designer, it's very difficult to continue when you lose any sense of yourself or your values in your work.

As I've said, 25 years ago my concerns as a 20-year-old leaving college were quite different to a young person's now. Actually, my own concerns are very different now. Design has kind of transformed in that period. When I looked around the U.K. that 25 years ago, 1 thought it looked a mess. I felt all kinds of things could look better. When I look around the U.K. now, it looks like a designers layout pad. And more often than not I can't bear it. There's a piece of work in my (museum) show in London that says, 'Be Careful What You Wish For.' That sums up my feelings about what happened with design in Britain.

But America is different. Just the brief ride from JFK into Manhattan yesterday reminded me that design hasn't quite taken over the U.S. yet! (Laughter.) But it's very contradictory, because as I came into Manhattan, 1 saw a kind of corporate and social design, which actually is stronger here than it was in Britain. As you get across Manhattan, you begin to see big status design and great lettering outside municipal buildings, and you think, 'Hmm, they do have it.' I guess you all, living here, working here, understand better than a visitor does just what the public perception of design is, and why is it sometimes difficult to make things happen, and then in other situations it's very easy.

But at home in Britain, I've gotten a bit exhausted by (design). I've worked mainly through two eras, two decades. In the "80s there was a sense of challenge. As a designer you had to enter into a kind of act of coercion to get business to appreciate that making things look better would ultimately pay back. Malcom Garrett, who some of you may know, (and I) were in school together and we set out working together designing for music... Malcom and I both had this naive post-teen ideal that things could be better and things could look better. We looked in the history books and we saw how things could be done and we didn't understand why they were done that way. So we just set out to do it ourselves. And everything was a little bit of a battle. And sometimes you had to do it kind of covertly and in a way, somehow trick the system with what you were doing.

Then there was a recession - '92 to '93. Coming out of that recession a new generation of marketing people-in the U.K. we call them 'design buyers'- suddenly emerged. And they didn't need to be coerced. In fact, they embraced design. At first I thought, Wow, this is great.' Slowly I started to think it wasn't so great. The last few years I've seen, certainly in Europe, design become the new advertising. That, as consumer belief in advertising completely disintegrated, and advertising took on a new role as a kind of irritating entertainer, design took its place. Marketing people figured out that you could sell things by making it look as if they were better. This isn't really design. It's like a 'design look.' There is an untold hunger and demand for a 'design look' in the UK now. Most of the things that are being sold aren't any better than they were the year before. They just look like they're better.

In my perception of myself working, I felt like a rebel becoming a mercenary. I used to fight for things that I believed in, and these days you just get paid to kill people. I don't like doing it. If I actually had a part of a business that had a responsibility to 40 or 50 people, I probably wouldn't have any choice. If I got married and had a family, I probably wouldn't have any choice. I sympathize with my contemporaries who basically have to earn a living. I kind of willfully continued behaving like a 20 year old. It's not really very grown up (to be) doing what you feel. I appreciate that. Those of your who are grown ups, I'm not criticizing what you do. (Laughter.)

I'm not! It's very easy to be critical and stand on the sidelines and take snipes at things. I learned a lot when I was at Pentagram in London. I had two years with some grown-ups. And as the design profession goes, Pentagram do as good a job as you can of making a profitable design company. I left primarily because I was just hopeless at accepting the realities of profitability. So I'm not saying, 'Oh, why don't you do things (my) way?'

Creative Review magazine in the U.K... Its readers voted me 'the graphic designer they most admire.' They did the same thing last year. I don't really know why, because I don't even do any work anymore! (Laughter.) Seriously, I don't! I don't know what they're judging it from. Professionally, I'm quite invisible these days. I don't even have a studio anymore. I have one assistant. And it worries me a little bit, because the work that people are judging (me) off of is record covers, and that isn't graphic design. It's not the design profession at all. And my approach to being a designer has been completely and utterly unprofessional, from a point of view of being non-profitable. So I worry about younger designers looking at my work and holding me up as an example. Because I actually think it's quite... well, not dangerous but a little bit misleading.

When you work with a pop group, somebody calls the shots. It's quite obvious, and you can guess who it is. I've been working with Pulp recently, and if you work with Pulp, Jarvis Cocker is the client. Joy Division were very democratic, and they were just four boys who were friends. But lan Curtis wrote the songs, and lan had to sing them. By virtue of that, Ian was the client. As a designer you're performing a service, and you have to identify who it's for. When lan died, he left behind three people, none of whom wanted to be that person. So none of them wanted to talk about the work that I had to do for them. They didn't have an agenda. They got to a point where they would just disagree with each other for fun. Any kind of creative decision-making meeting was just kind of ludicrous. So I was able to do what I wanted to do.

That isn't graphic design. It's not how graphic design normally happens. More often than not I'm at a thing like this (conference), and a few people will come to me afterwards and say, 'I became a graphic designer because of your record covers.' I have to say (sheepishly), 'Sorry!'


I went to college in Manchester, which is where I grew up. The first few things I did for Factory - the first poster, actually -happened in my final term at art college. Then it was the summer break, and I was... I was scared to leave home. One of my older brothers moved, so I got to live in his apartment, and I kind of put off trying to get a job. I was able to deliver some things for my father for £20 a week or something, so I had some cash. But I was just being kind of pathetic and not braving the fact that I knew, to be a designer at any level, I would have to leave Manchester and move to London. I was afraid of that.

I hung around in Manchester long enough to still be there in Christmas, 1978, when Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus and I sat down and decided to do a record. The Factory was a club, and some of the bands that played there didn't have a record deal. Tony (Wilson) thought they deserved one, and if they had a record, that would help them get a deal. So that was the beginning of Factory Records. And I stayed (in Manchester) just long enough to do that. Then, one day in spring, my father turned up at my flat at three in the afternoon, and I was still in bed. He was just furious, and he told me that, if I didn't get a job by the end of the week, he would get one.


Nick and I have been friends since '86. Nick came to see me and he wanted a business card and a poster of one of his pictures. Nick always wants the best of anything - the best prints, the best car, the best camera, the best studio. He doesn't want the best in a snobbish way, he just wants to feel that he's giving himself the best chance with something. Well, we did a nice dark blue card for him, with some ranged left-hand sans serif type. He said 'Thank you, but it's really boring. I came to you because you do these exciting record covers.' He was really quite upset - Nick gets quite irritable when he doesn't get the service that he wants. So he left, and my assistant said, 'Fine, we'll give him what he wants!' He designed this really over-the-top business card that looked like a New Order cover. In fact, it looked like Ceremony. It had a shield with 'NK' on the shield and it had stripes and everything. (Laughter.) Nick came back and he loved it! (Laughs.)

So that's how I met him. About a year or so afterwards he did a shoot for iD magazine. As a result of that he got taken on by a man called Mark Ascoli, who was a fashion art director. During a shoot (for Yohji Yamamoto's '86-'87 Autumn / Winter men's catalogue) Nick asked Mark (about) who would be doing the graphics. Mark apparently said 'What is graphics?' What used to happen is that Mark would do some photographs with the photographer, take it to Tokyo to show Yohji, and the printers would come in and make a catalogue. No graphic designer problems at all! Nick being Nick thought this was a bit cavalier and leaving things too much to chance. As a result of that, I was introduced to Mark, and Mark said, 'Okay, to keep Mr. Knight happy I take you to do the graphics.' That was the beginning of Nick and Mark Ascoli and I working together. We did another ten catalogues for Yohji.

Show Studio came out of that relationship. We all kind of wanted a platform for our own work. So the idea of having a site seemed like a good idea. Foolishly, I thought that multimedia would be quick and inexpensive. I learned really quickly that it isn't quick and it's veiy expensive. Within about 12 months of Show Studio, I knew that you couldn't do it. Well, that's not true-to make it profitable or break even, we would have to make it do things that we didn't want to do. So I kind of drifted away from it. 1 have to commend Nick for having stuck with it. Show Studio costs Nick, I reckon, about £25,000 a month of his own money... Though he's grossly over paid, as are the rest of the world's top fashion photographers. (Laughter.) Well, they're not really overpaid. That's just careless for me to say that. No, not careless... its bitter to say that!

Acknowledgement: © Copyright Tokion Magazine

Thanks to Conor for sourcing duties.