From iconic early work with Factory Records through to a stint as a partner in Pentagram, Saville has carved himself a niche at the very top of British graphic design. He’s now creative director of the City of Manchester and partner in Peter Saville Associates.
What’s the most impressive piece of design you’ve seen recently?
There’s a light installation, Carmina Figurata, by Charles Sandison in the V&A’s exhibition Blood on Paper – I really liked that. I found it an inspiring way to present the fluidity of thought. We don’t think in straight lines, and I thought it was an excellent way of illustrating the connectivity of thoughts in a kinetic, moving piece.
What first made you aware of the power of design?
The Biba shop in Kensington. It was this huge manifestation of the brand – walking into that as a teenager showed how an idea or an attitude could be carried through everything. I bought a box of soapflakes, just Luxe soapflakes repackaged by Biba in dark brown and beige, that I kept for many years.
Who are you most proud to have worked with?
I’d have to say Ian Curtis – it’s at the beginning for me. Joy Division was the first album cover I ever did; without Ian and the enduring stature and resonance of his life and death, I wouldn’t be where I am now. The work was good – much better than I knew at the time.
Are there any trends in current design that you particularly appreciate or dislike?
There’s a trend at the moment towards the undesigned. There’s a lot in there that just gets directly to the point; it understands the truth in something. There are certain works at the moment that are just what they need to be – it’s like walking into Muji for the first time again. The worst thing, though, is ironic un-design that has then become a sort of design, and then become a mess. When it’s still radical – a spread or an ad in a magazine – it’s effective. Once 99 per cent of the publication has adopted a don’t-care poise, it’s a mess and has become that which it sets out to mock.
Which piece of your work are you most proud of?
The cover for Power, Corruption & Lies [New Order’s 1983 album], of all my work, is the most representative of my aesthetic and personality. It’s got a Victorian oil painting and an industrial colour swatch, and my own tastes and interests lie on a sliding scale between the two. When I think of the piece, I think of my mother’s drawing room and the factories and industrial setting of the north of England. It’s also the first thing I did that had innovations of my own, not a reworking of other people’s ideas. It’s a very personal piece.
What are the biggest changes in graphic design since you started out?
It’s not just in graphic design, but the shift from an analogue sensibility to a digital sensibility is profound, and we still don’t know how it’ll play out. It’s a change from a world where things were logical and sequential to a world where all things are possible simultaneously. It’s atomized our experience.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
“The solution is in the problem.” John McConnell said that to me one day at Pentagram. He was surprised I’d never heard it before, but it’s amazingly true – when you get to a problem you can’t solve, the answer lies in the reason you can’t solve the problem.
What gets you up in the morning?
Nothing. I’m known for not getting up in the morning – it’s been one of the greatest handicaps of my career.
Who was your mentor?
From a few of my partners at Pentagram I learned an enormous amount: Colin Forbes, John McConnell and Alan Fletcher, but I had this lovely thing where I learned from working alongside them as colleagues.
What advice would you give to a young designer?
Identify that which you care about and believe in, and hold onto that connection: design is a vocation, and your motivation is intrinsically linked with a belief in the value of what you’re doing. These values can change as you get older, but if you lose your sense of values and beliefs you won’t be compensated by your work, you’ve lost yourself.
Peter Saville is probably best-known for his album sleeves, which include New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies, Pulp’s This is Hardcore and Suede’s Coming Up. The New Order sleeves were designed during Saville’s time at Factory Records, while the Pulp and Suede covers were private projects while Saville was working in commercial communications design at Pentagram and other large advertising agencies.
Peter Saville also completed campaigns for cult fashion label Yohji Yamamoto. “I spent over a decade on the margins of fashion and pop culture, but I didn’t earn any money from it. Freer, more independent artistic opportunities are there throughout your career, but you have to subsidize your position with more profitable work,” he says.
Peter Saville, www.saville-associates.com