The Human League and a vision of the future

Once, the future looked like this. The Human League’s Martyn Ware explains how night shifts as a computer operator helped him create the band’s first flyers

Once, the future looked like this. The Human League’s Martyn Ware explains how night shifts as a computer operator helped him create the band’s first flyers

At this year’s AGI Open, Graphic Thought Facility’s Andrew Stevens delivered a talk on Letraset, the graphic and type system first launched in the 1960s. As part of the talk, he showed the first ever gig poster for The Human League, which was designed by band member Martyn Ware. The image sparked a wave of interest among the audience so we thought we’d ask Ware about the inspiration for the design.

In 1978, Ware was working nightshifts as a computer operator in Sheffield, “doing really boring things like payroll on a computer the size of a house. It was tedious, but it paid pretty well,” he says.

He had also formed a synth pop band, The Human League, with his friend and co-worker Ian Craig Marsh and school friend Philip Oakey. (Marsh and Ware had previously formed a synth band called The Future, but decided on a name change after their lead singer left and Oakey joined).

Keen to present their futuristic sound in a suitably futuristic way, they decided to create posters to promote their first gig using .matrix coding. “We were messing around with different ways of presenting our band to the public, and thought it would be fun to play with inputting info into the computers. I chatted up one of the punchcard girls and asked her to put in the letters for us,” he explains.

“We wanted it to look like something from a sci-fi film. Now of course, it looks retro but at the time, it was pretty futuristic. And there was something really lovely about the misalignment of the letters. I never went to art or design college, but it was something I’d always had a strong interest in” he adds.

Ware and Marsh had also experimented with .matrix coding when trying to promote the Future. “We sent out invites in the same style to a load of record companies, asking them to meet with us, and we got asked to 12 meetings in two days. It certainly got people’s attention,” he adds.

When The Human League signed to record label Virgin in 1979, Ware says the band kept control over and final sign-off on all album artwork and promotional visuals. But when the label’s art department misinterpreted the band’s brief for the cover of their first album, Reproduction (above), Ware says they were unable to organise a re-design before its release date.

“We said we wanted an image of a glass dance floor in a discotheque which people were dancing on and beneath this, a lit room full of babies. It was meant to look like a still from a film – like some kind of dystopian vision of the future – but it just looks like they’re treading on babies. We were quite upset but at that time, it was too late to change it.”

Graphic designer Malcolm Garrett designed the cover for their second album, Travelogue, which featured a shot of a man with a sled and a group of dogs in the snow – and no babies being stepped on. Ware and Garrett are now close friends and still work together on album art: Garrett designed the artwork for House of Illustrious (below), a 10 CD boxset released by Ware and Vince Clarke, and was awarded a D&AD pencil for his work.

“I’m still obsessed with the way bands are visually represented,” says Ware. “The mood you create with your writing and production can be destroyed with the wrong kind of artwork – like the weird abstract nonsense that record companies like to put on compilation and greatest hits albums. For most bands, and certainly The Human League, their look is an intrinsic part of who they are,” he adds.

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