The current issue of Creative Review focuses on a month in the life of Michael C Place/Build. As part of the piece, we asked Michael to cite an important influence on him as a young designer. His answer: Underground, an independent music magazine that ran for 13 issues from 1987. We tracked down its art director, Rod Clark to find out more about the magazine.
CR: Could you explain what Underground was and who did it?
Rod Clark: Underground was published by Eric Fuller (Sounds and Kerrang) who saw a gap in the market, and edited by Dave “Happy” Henderson, who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the indie scene. I got the job by ranting on about the difference between European issues of Vogue and the fact that I’d worked on i-D for 18 months previously and had been producing record sleeves for Street Sounds (hip-hop/dance/rap).
CR: Regarding the design, what were the key considerations? What were you trying to achieve? Were there any other titles or designers who influenced it?
RC: The design of Underground was not really considered, we were a small team and I was the designer. Full stop. No marketing, no meetings, no to-ing and fro-ing. I just laid it out in a style I thought appropriate. I was trying to move away from what the music press had become – rather stultified. It was also aimed at a young-ish, 15-18 audience. I shared a flat with Simon Johnston (of 8vo) and we had studied together at Bath where Wolfgang Weingart was definitely a big influence. There was a change underway in English typography and I wanted to show that to a younger audience, but the design impetus was to make it exactly what it became in style terms – Swiss Punk – a mixture of some good typography and a sort of respect for the material, and lots of bad visual attitude which the reader would identify with, and which suited the content. There were no direct magazine influences on me – Brody’s The Face was too slick, i-D too fashion. I could make it what I wanted – complete control. Remember though, this is all pre-digital. Everything was galleys and cowgum!
CR: What happened with Underground – how many issues were there? Why did it stop?
RC: There were 13 issues. It wasn’t marketed at all and, in a way, it outlived its usefulness as a banner under which diverse types of music could be grouped. Plus the editor and I were probably driving each other nuts after 18 months of sharing a cupboard-sized space – we grew too fat on Camden oysters and Guinness.
CR: Are you aware that it has had an influence on designers of Michael Place’s generation? Do you still get asked about it? What do you think its legacy was?
RC: I am very occasionally reminded of it by people but its reach was so small that I’ve never considered it at all influential. It may have had an effect on design-conscious youths.
CR: What did you do after Underground?
RC: I went to Wolff Olins as a senior designer – plus ça change!
CR: Could you talk about your art, why you decided to pursue this rather than a commercial design practice?
RC: How very dare you! I have never not designed, even when I was teaching for seven years. Art and painting are visual, natural extensions of graphics. As well as design work for print and screen I also now do T-shirts, illustrations, prints, paintings and make objects. I have not been totally absorbed in the business side of design so currently run a small practice and hand-pick my clients. I was taught by a Swiss designer/painter who was brilliant at both so I thought “why not me…” and I always thought there was more to life that servicing clients’ needs. My painting, which is selling, is now for me an alternative from the digital realm of back buttons and multiple undos, but still with the deadlines! It’s more personal, more physical and demanding than design. I really think it’s possible to do many things at once.
CR: What are your impressions of magazine design today?
RC: I’m not so much a buyer now so am not aware of anything really top-hole. There have been some interesting magazines in Brighton recently but they come and go. I think the days of magazines as design innovators are over to a certain extent. A good magazine needs very tight editorial control and a vision so it’s down to individuals I think. Corporate publications have and always will suck to some extent.
CR: If someone was setting out to achieve what you were trying to do with Underground today, should they be trying to do that via a magazine or are there more effective, interesting alternatives in other media now?
RC: Good question. Underground came at a time when very diverse music was beginning to be made and heard by more and more people. All the design did was try to reflect that excitement. It’s unlikely that the same circumstances can ever exist again. The internet is much more direct and has huge reach so I guess that’s unassailable.
See more of Rod Clark’s current work at www.rodclark.org