Peter Saville and the art of selling out

“As a designer, you can’t sell your soul, because what else have you got?” asks Peter Saville

The bestselling graphic design book of the moment is no flashy monograph or eye candy collection. Adrian Shaughnessy’s How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul is a serious-minded guide to picking a way through the minefield of modern day graphic design practice.

Its success is due in large part to the fact that young designers are increasingly questioning what they do and how they do it. And this questioning extends beyond practical matters. That graphic designers should seek to produce work of some kind of higher meaning is not new – it formed the central concern of the original First Things First manifesto from 1964 – but discontent is growing. This design generation surveys the output of their forebears – all those identities, letterheads and brochures – and asks, “Is that all there is?”

Their heroes are not those who have built the great design businesses of today. In fact, the graphic designer cited most often by CR readers doesn’t even want to be included in their number.

The man himself doubts that his career provides any kind of model for aspirant graphic designers. “I shouldn’t even be a graphic designer,” says Peter Saville. “I never meant to be a graphic designer. I can do it, it’s not rocket science, but I’m not interested in it.”

Saville speaks of the “psychological trap” that he fell into at Factory records. The creation of those New Order covers for which he is rightly famed led him to believe what he was doing was “graphic design”: it was, after all, what he had been educated in. But his experience was very far removed from that of standard graphic design practice. There was no client, no-one to tell him “you can’t do that”, no-one to approve or argue with him. No brief. No brand. He just got on with it.

What he was actually engaged in was self-expression. And if that situation could be thought of as being analogous to art, it wasn’t. “If this freeform activity had been brought to bear in the world of art, I would have had to articulate and justify the work,” he says. No-one asked him to do so. “And if they had, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

Saville’s time at Factory proved to be not a pathway but a cul de sac. There, he operated with none of the restrictions of a designer and none of the intellectual rigour of the artist. It left him ill equipped to be either.

From then on, the practice of “normal” graphic design, with its endless compromises and client concerns, would seem frustrating and dull, but he had nowhere else to go. After an abortive tilt at the New York art scene in the 80s, Saville went back to the only option available to him, design. “I had nearly a decade where I had to go through the motions,” he admits. So did he sell his soul? “It’s in the tradition of the arts that we do what’s necessary, and we shouldn’t get confused about that.” Nor should it be cause for guilt. “There is no free lunch, you have to pay rent, to exist.”

But all the time, he would rather have been doing something else. Saville baldly states, “What I’m interested in is my own opinions about the world.” Not solving problems for clients. It is only now, as those who bought the original New Order and Joy Division records come to positions of power and influence, that Saville is able to pursue the opportunities that his early work promised.

Saville believes that, raised on a diet of Factory covers, many young designers are coming into the profession with false expectations, “My work did inspire a lot of young people, but it has contributed to the state of affairs where the practice of communications design appears to be about self-expression,” he admits.

He can see why “the honey trap” of the graphic arts appears to offer this opportunity. He describes them as “entry level visual arts for children” – not as “difficult” as fine art. But they are not about self-expression “Graphic design is for others to others. It’s the handwriting on the letter, not the content of the letter itself,” he argues.

Saville believes that it is a luxury for today’s designers to be able to question the morals of what they do, but equally, he contends, we have never before faced such challenges to them. In what he terms a process of “post-war socio-cultural democratization” we are now more culturally aware than ever before, which is something that, as a teenager, he had yearned for. But, “the consumer environment in which we now exist has no morals at all. Pop culture when I was growing up was like LSD: it existed to expand your mind and open up new possibilities. Now it’s like crack. The major brands aren’t interested in anything except your money.

“Commercial artists have to negotiate this territory and everyone’s standards are different – some have no problem with it, others find it contradictory to what they thought they were doing,” he continues. “The only thing the individual can do is to look for the opportunities where they can make a difference. You have to find work that means something to you.”

As an example, Saville cites his work with Adidas from 2005. He was invited to collaborate on a project to celebrate the reissue of the adicolor range. This phenomenon of the “designer collaboration” is one that he is deeply skeptical of. “They’ve become standard, gratuitous practice, motivated by expediency rather than any kind of belief. One the one hand you have some huge brand with money but no credibility; on the other you have a designer who has credibility to spare, but no money and they are brought together by a PR agency in a marriage of convenience. There’s no heart there.”

Initially, Saville told Adidas that he wasn’t interested: “I couldn’t see what was credible for my values, by merely decorating a contemporary product.” Had they offered him a million pounds, he says, he might have changed his mind, but the fee was only £10,000, just about enough to run his studio for a month. After visiting Adidas HQ, Saville was still unmoved, except for one thing: the brief. That, he says, was the most interesting thing about the whole project. This lengthy document, which went as far as to explain the meaning of the colour green to him, was something, Saville felt, that would be enlightening to share with the world, revealing as it did the machinations of a brand. So he proposed to Adidas that they make a pair of completely white trainers, with no branding and that he would package them in a sheet of paper on which was printed the brief. Adidas, no doubt realizing that by playing along they may appear coolly knowing, accepted the idea and even helped Saville extend it by explaining how he could print words from the brief on the laces and the lace “jewellery” on the shoes.

It was hardly going to change the world, but Saville had found something meaningful to him in the project, something that allowed him to express his opinions and not just decorate a shoe. “When someone says they’ve designed something, there is a suggestion of enhancement or improvement as opposed to mere decoration, which is a different thing,” he argues. “To me, inherent in design, even now, is an element of truth. The problem with disseminating design that doesn’t have truth is that the perception of design is devalued, which is why the word ‘designer’ is almost a warning now. Who would want to stay in a ‘designer’ hotel, for example?”
It is only by adhering to this truth that designers can save their souls, he believes. “Your work is personal. If you lose that sense of identity, then design just becomes a mechanical process. You have to preserve a feeling of value in what you are doing. As a designer, you can’t sell your soul, because what else have you got?”

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