If you were asked to name the seminal, discipline-shifting “movements” that shaped graphic design, chances are they’d include Swiss International Style, Bauhaus, punk, psychedelia, and maybe even Constructivism, De Stijl, and Pop Art on the more fine art side of things.
Most people would be fairly unlikely to include new wave, yet the graphics that emerged around the music of that era (late ’70s–late ’80s), and then reached far beyond it, synthesized all of those prior graphic styles and more. New wave melded its influences into more than a sum of its parts, transforming niche visual reference points and repurposing them in a way that still feels decidedly “cult,” yet with one eye firmly on the realm of pop culture. “To date, in the world of rock-music posters, new wave has been regarded by graphic designers and poster collectors with disdain and condescension,” says Andrew Krivine, who owns one of the largest private collections of punk and post-punk graphic design and memorabilia in the world.
He hopes that his new book and accompanying exhibition, Reversing Into the Future, will “spur a reappraisal of both the music and the graphics.” Focusing on the period of 1977–1990, Reversing Into the Future reveals a glorious, technicolor smorgasbord of wild typography, tongue-in-cheek image appropriation, and art school weirdness courtesy of the likes of Barney Bubbles, Tibor Kalman, and Peter Saville.
As a musical genre, new wave is tricky to pin down. “Unlike punk, if you ask 10 different people what new wave is, you get 10 different answers. It’s more expansive, elusive,” says Krivine. For many, it “connotes a diluted, more tuneful, commercially acceptable version of punk.” Though it also incorporates elements of ska, reggae and synth-pop, and directly intersects with everything from no wave to post-punk to punk itself (the term was first used by the likes of Malcolm McLaren to describe bands including Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, etc.).
New wave music embraced an arch playfulness that combined influences as varied as disco, French nouvelle vague cinema, suburban boredom, and multiple things in between. That postmodernist stance is reflected in a graphic language that has impacted design ever since: a riotous mix of old and new influences blending high and low cultural and aesthetic references. As Krivine points out, while the type styles found on the album covers are multifarious, new wave graphics are united by an “emphasis on text—a fascination and fetishization of typography.”
Curator and graphic designer Andrew Blauvelt, who penned one of the essays in the book, sees new wave design as a direct reaction to the way the Swiss International Typographic Style (flat, abstract symbols and logos; minimalism; sans serif type) had been widely disseminated and then codified by 1960s and ’70s corporate branding. New wave graphics, however, either rendered those grids dysfunctional, skewing their angles and incorporating elements like drop shadows, or they eschewed them altogether.
Manchester-born designer Peter Saville’s Factory Records designs exemplify this devotion to Modernism. Swiss-style lettering is replicated in Laurence Stevens’ Eurythmics designs, while the quirkier work of Saville’s childhood friend Malcolm Garrett plays out in a simple, smart double-D, drop shadow–esque Duran Duran logo.
Primary shapes (such as circles, triangles, and squares) reminiscent of movements like Bauhaus, De Stijl, and Constructivism are abundant. These shapes moved away from their reference points through the avoidance of primary colors in favor of tertiary tones like orange, purple, and green (as seen in Garrett’s Buzzcocks designs). There’s a hell of a lot of pink, too, which was frequently used as a deliberate reassignment from its “feminine” associations and applied to musicians of all genders. You see it on sleeves for The Boomtown Rats, and tons of Barney Bubbles’ creations for Stiff Records artists like Ian Dury and Nick Lowe.
Where punk embraced the photocopier in its ransom note–like collages of letters, new wave lettering delighted in mixing and matching typefaces, with classical serifs often appearing alongside stencil-like fonts, script lettering (as seen in a defiantly brash yellow on Blondie’s Eat to the Beat, for instance), 20th century fonts like Helvetica, and chunky slab-serifs. Another distinctive element of new wave graphics is the use of texture and pattern in repetitions and layers. The effect often intentionally made designs look like printing errors using tools like photocopiers and Chartpak films (self-adhesive textures printed on clear substrate that could be layered to create a moiré effect). The fact that full-color printing had not yet become ubiquitous and was still expensive meant that black-and-white images were often colored using translucent overlays.
New wave ushered in the definitive “art school bands,” like the under-the-radar CalArts group Suburban Lawns, as well as Devo and Talking Heads, who famously met while studying at Rhode Island School of Design. It’s been said that the musical genre celebrated the very idea of design: “The presence of the designer was brought to the fore, symbolized through the application of random paint drips and ink splatters,” writes Blauvelt.
Devo created its own designs as part of a wider, expansive visual world that became as integral to the band as its music. Like a number of new wave bands, Devo built its graphics around a retro-futurism that appropriated and satirized elements of 1950s culture. “They’re constantly referencing the Eisenhower era in suburbia, technology, the space race, the fashions, the colors,” says Krivine. “Especially in American New Wave design, those colors were ones that existed in the ’50s on cars, furniture, wall clocks, wallpaper…they mined a rich vein of American design culture.”
For Garrett, who designed nearly all of Buzzcocks’ output, one of the most important shifts with new wave was the designer becoming “part of the band,” rather than a faceless entity employed by a record company. While this started in the punk scene—Jamie Reid was synonymous with the Sex Pistols, for instance—new wave truly established the practice.
“Buzzcocks were people I knew: they became mates, and I felt that what I was doing was about them—it was about the punk movement, and by extension was about me because I was the target audience in many ways. I was trying to reflect those surroundings, and that whole movement I was part of, in the graphics,” Garrett says. In doing so, he drew inspiration “subliminally and semi-consciously from the counterculture,” namely Barney Bubbles’ work with Hawkwind. “No one had created what we’d call a ‘visual language’ around a band in the way Barney Bubbles did with Hawkwind before,” says Garrett.
“If people like myself and Peter [Saville] and Jamie Reid did anything at that time to change things, we destroyed the in-house art department.”
The circles Garrett found himself in as a design student retrospectively read as a who’s who of new wave, underscoring the very organic way that both musical and artistic collaborations were formed. He was pals with The Members; introduced his flatmate, guitarist John McGeogh, to Howard Devoto, who went on to form Magazine; and Linder, the highly influential collage artist, was in the year above him at art school.
It was Garrett and Linder’s collaboration on the Orgasm Addict single for Buzzcocks that cemented both parties’ spot in the sleeve design canon when Garrett was just 20 years old. “To use a phrase I really hate, it was a perfect storm: The time was right, the song was right, the image that we wanted to use was right, everything was right,” says Garrett.
“The song title had ‘orgasm’ in it, so it had to have that kind of sexuality that Linder was putting into her montages. I photocopied it, turned it upside down and made it blue and yellow—we didn’t have a full-color facility, so that’s the point where technology takes over.” In a way, the sleeve straddles a lot of the elements that define new wave graphics: duo-tone color palette, Constructivist shapes, and imagery that works to subvert suburban housewife norms.
Garrett sees the biggest shift of the new wave era as a movement “away from art direction and into graphic design; people saw that it could be done, and done well,” he says. “If people like myself, Peter [Saville], and Jamie Reid did anything at that time to change things, we destroyed the in-house art department. Slowly but surely, the idea that a designer was potentially an integral part of the evolution and development of a band was beginning to happen, even before the band signed to the labels, and the labels—either implicitly or explicitly—allowed the in-house art departments to kind of just fade away.”
“If people like myself, Peter [Saville], and Jamie Reid did anything at that time to change things, we destroyed the in-house art department.”
So why has new wave been “regarded with disdain and condescension,” as Krivine puts it? He reckons it might come down to the legacy of MTV, which launched in 1981 (debuting with archetypal new wavers The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star) and led many people, particularly in America, to associate new wave with “cheesy early ’80s music videos,” Krivine suggests. As video “supplanted the poster as the primary means of conveying of promoting records, MTV accelerated the decline of American music poster art,” he adds. “By the late ’80s and early ’90s it was game over.”
“New wave created a better understanding of the power of graphic design to shape language, convey meaning, and communicate.”
Despite today’s designers having any number of digital tools at their fingertips, new wave designs are emblematic of creativity flourishing in limitations—of budget, time, and tools (this being an era, of course, before computers’ widespread use, let alone design software).
Now that such limitations are far less obvious, it’s interesting to see emerging designers emulating the look of processes like Xeroxing, or using duotone colors just because they want to. But the biggest legacy of new wave designs, according to Garrett, is simply a far broader awareness of what graphic design is.
“When Peter [Saville] and I were 15, we hadn’t heard of the term graphic design,” he says. “Now, there’s not only an awareness that it exists, there’s a certain glamour attached to doing it, and that’s mainly thanks to the music industry. New wave took the ideas of punk, but without the aggression that would turn some people away—it had a broader audience, more people began to get a new appreciation of all of the visual elements of music, and therefore by extension, graphic design. New wave created a better understanding of the power of graphic design to shape language, convey meaning, and communicate.”