“I was worried that as music fans are so into credibility,” says designer David Turner, “if people knew that an agency that worked for Waitrose were doing Metallica, it might make the band look uncool. But Lars [Ulrich, from the band] said that was bollocks and that they just wanted the best people to do this.” Turner Duckworth talked to CR about their latest project: branding the rock beast that is Metallica…
In an unlikely move for a studio more famous for designing identities for Coke and Amazon, London and San Francisco-based agency, Turner Duckworth, recently took on the design of the latest album from Metallica, Death Magnetic, as well as a complete overhaul of the band’s identity.
In fact, it’s fair to say that TD have “re-branded” the band. Not a concept that necessarily sits well with your average metal fan, but then Metallica, it could be argued, are one of many bands within the metal genre who have long since acknowledged the value of their image and identity. Like Slipknot and countless others, Metallica’s own take on the metal aesthetic is something that their fans cling to: from scrawling a band’s name onto their bags and jackets, to having it tattooed on their arms.
So for an outfit as big as Metallica, surely it makes sense that their identity is given the chance to behave as well as it can? Especially in the current climate, where sales of the CD album, the physical incarnation of what they do, are still falling. And that’s where TD come in.
CR: So how did this project, which is rather unusual for Turner Duckworth to work on, come about?
David Turner: Lars [Ulrich]’s kid and mine go to the same school and I think I was the closest they had to another arty person. I’ve since known Lars for five or so years. He was interested in what we do and has seen us work on lots of projects. He was talking about the changing nature of the music industry and how they didn’t want to take the usual approach for the band’s next record. CD sales were declining, but they were still where the majority of their music sales were. So they knew that good design was an investment.
Bruce Duckworth: Of all the band members, Lars is probably the most into design and is very brand aware. While the word “branding” is abused these days, they do see themselves as a brand: they’ve been going at this for 27 years.
DT: The first meeting we had with the band, Lars brought me in and the rest of the guys were there with blank expressions. I didn’t know if they were into this or not. I thought that if we’re going to bring anything to this, it’s the principles of branding: to make everything coherent.
So, they said that they had four album names and that I should tell them which one was the good one! That really put me on the spot. I said that I needed to understand more about the album, so I talked to James [Hetfield] about the lyrics and themes.
As he talked about them it was clear that they were all linked to death, facing up to the nature of death, and the fear and attraction that surrounds death. So then, from the four titles, they had their answer: Death Magnetic. And if we were to come up with a graphic representation of that, people would see how everything was all linked together. So from a show of hands, that became the title.
We then had a great brief to work from – we knew it was about attraction and repulsion and wanted an iconic image that was expressive but also open to interpretation. A great sleeve has a strong image but also things that you can read into it.
BD: And those levels of communication are what you find in branding everyday, whether it be Waitrose or Metallica.
CR: So how do you go about bringing those branding concepts to a band? It’s surely an entirely different entity from a supermarket?
BD: With branding comes an awareness of what consumers like and don’t like. We spent a lot of time with the band and at gigs. You could immediately see the type of people you were targeting. There’s a world they’re comfortable with, they have expectations and this influences the communication you need to create.
DT: While the band have generated their own artwork ideas in the past, the great thing is, like a brand, they also have their own point of view. They stand for something. They’re full-on and they have something they want to express.
And people really care about any new artwork. They released our work online, prior to it coming out – to get the excitement going – and we’ve never been blogged about so much before! There were reactions from ‘this is the best ever’ to ‘total shit’ – it was very passionate.
How did you tackle a discernable ‘identity’ for Metallica? Did you want to create one for the band name and also the album sleeve?
DT: The logo itself was a big deal and it convinced me that we were a good fit with Metallica. We looked at their history, how they’d adapted a logo they’d originally created, but it had been taken beyond recognition. It runs parallel to the Coke identity work we did where people had designed the soul out of it. Lars said that he would love it if we would look at the old logo and see if there was something in it; an authentic quality to it. The interesting thing was, once we put the logo on the web, the response from fans was great. It’s very important to them. And there’s an iconic M that works with the title of the new album. It all fits together.
We’ve always liked a simple logo, too – like the one we did for Amazon – where you look closer and see the smile, the connection from A to Z. That makes people engage with it.
BD: And we wanted people to engage with the CDs – so there’s a real benefit to having something simple to print, that you can spray on your amp stack, stick on T-shirts. When it all ties together it makes the impact so much stronger.
DT: So the white coffin was a key element as well. James saw that as a door, to another experience, or consciousness, while the other guys saw it just as a coffin. So even within the band there were these differences.
BD: It’s a coffin with a magnetic field, the soil has come out as it’s been in the ground. We were combining several images there to create the cover image. And the grave used on the sleeve was a model shot by photographer Andy Grimshaw in London.
CR: An album launch is a huge undertaking these days. What else did you work on as part of a unifying package for the release?
DT: We also designed a vinyl box-set, some flags and T-shirts, there’s so much stuff produced for the launches now. And they have two record companies that we have to give pieces to for them to work with. I think only designers would get upset by people taking on what you’ve created and be upset by any changes that then occur. But like any big brand, you have to give them the freedom to use the components themselves.
I think Lars was actually keen to involve people who weren’t from the music industry, who weren’t jaded. People who wouldn’t stick to a jewel case.
There’s now this atmosphere that budgets have really narrowed over the last 20 years and that, in the US, there are only about three stores most people buy their music from – like Walmart – where it’s so consolidated, so conformist, in terms of size, using shrink-wrap, that the label were excited to do something different. And Metallica have an interesting arrangement. They share the costs of packaging with the record company. It’s an unusual deal but means that they call the shots and can make something more elaborate. That’s how much they believe in the package.
CR: So are rock bands something Turner Duckworth would work with again?
DT: If the respect was mutual – I’d love to do it again. I’d want to meet the band and see if they get what we do. When we worked on this, the energy in the studio was great. The wall was covered with work, all the designers were having a go. But I wouldn’t want to become a music industry design company. What interests me is a project as an adventure, a learning experience. I can see how design companies get slotted into the music industry, it’s cool and fun, but you don’t want to be pigeon-holed. The variety of work is important.