☆Vaughan Oliver: Graphic Art Work

☆Lecture 2!

  • Date: 18/01/12
  • Lecturer: Vaughan Oliver
  • Topic: Graphic Art Work

Today’s lecture was given by Vaughan Oliver, born 1957. Vaughan is a British graphic designer, typographer & art director who is well known for his work with graphic design studios 23 Envelope and v23. He has worked for many artistes and bands, most noticeably The Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Throwing Muses, The Breeders & Pale Saints.

It was a priviledge to attend a lecture given by one of the prominent figures encompassing graphic design; a person who would give his valuable time to us as young & aspiring graphic designers, to learn from what he has to say. The lecture was full of very interesting facts about himself, the overlapping factors and what aspects influence his artwork- in my perspective, it almost provided a ‘window’ to his mind. It was fascinating to see the way he incorporates different techniques and styles into his designs and has provided me some inspiration for my work!

The very first question he asked us was ‘Who’s moved by music? Who loves music?’ Immediately I could see this sparked the theme of the lecture. Vaughan stated that music has always been his predominant interest, a major component in his life. A quote from him was very noteworthy to me as I agree with him completely, ‘I love the way it changes my mind, it changes my chemistry, the way it changes my mood, it informs me, some may say it is the highest form of art.’

I, myself also think that music is one of the highest forms of art. The compostion of the pieces, the different rhythms, tones that constitute the wide range of genres demonstrates how powerful it is. The capability to complete or rapidly change a mood.

As a teenager, Vaughan had two major interests, a love of art (his favourite artist during that time was Salvador Dali) and of course, his passion for music. He thought what could he do to combine these two loves, or rather ‘obsessions’, the only way he could think of integrating this was to design record sleeves. He goes on to argue that 70% of his work is comprised of designing this, a component being essential to his designs.

Vaughan talked about the various ways in which he likes to work which included collaborations. A key aspect of his work involves working with people who does things better than he does, he regards this as the best of both estectics and cultures.

Vaughan’s future career was already constructed in 1980, when he happened to run into Ivo Watts Russell, a friend who was setting up a new record company called ‘4AD’. During that period of time, there were a lot of new independent record companies being set up whether it was concerned with revolutions, culturally, economically, or socially. He argues that this set up the opportunity for a ‘rebellion’ where bands lead to record companies and back then, independent record companies were all about the philosophy, state of mind and primarily ‘anti-establishment’. Today, as Vaughan mused, record companies indicate lifestyle and fashion but previously, its main focus was doing something different; moving away from what was considered as ‘mainstream’ and  providing an alternative, something he felt strongly towards.

Vaughan said to Ivo ‘you need a logo, you need record sleeves’, consequently he freelanced for him for three years which lead on to a full time job. He revealed that they shared old fashion values, sense of care, quality, attention to detail. Ivo was focusing on new music which deserved to be out there, his motivation wasn’t to make lots of money. It was to allow other people an opportunity to do music he loved and thought deserved a wider audience. It showed how much he cared about packaging of that music to give Vaughan the job; his first employee.

Vaughan’s favourite style of working is the method of ‘recontextualisation’, where he reappropriates an existing image and places it in a new format, a new place which produces a new meaning. An example of him taking an image from a book, he inverted it and liked the way it produced new meanings, a whole more erotic aspect. By simply inverting the image, he confirmed the title. Examples of this he argues, may be a band might give you existing images, an advert for toothpaste eg. In a magazine ad advert for toothpaste will have something to do with hygiene but if you put in on a record sleeve and associated it with music, it will give different connotations; a whole different new meaning.

Vaughan also reveals that when he was in college he barely knew what graphic design was, he studied it for three years and yet only knew one graphic designer ‘Milton Glaser’. He also didn’t understand typography and hated it, stating that ‘it spoilt my illustrations’, literally words that got in the way. Jam packages, baked bean cans were a source of inspiration, seeing the beauty of the typography on the jam labels he took the idea and applied to the record sleeves. ‘Subverting from one format of area of design and putting it in another format, gives it another meaning.

The independent record companies and the fashion and lifestyle magazines gave young designers ideas which then lead to the huge boom that spread the word of what graphic design was. When Vaughan was at college not many people knew what graphic design was, his parents didn’t know either.

Vaughan worked closely with the Pixies which established a close relationship, ‘one of the best relationships I’ve had with a band’ he muses.

He says he listened to the music which he produced covers for, same as people wouldn’t produce a cover without reading the book. He states that it is easy producing a record sleeve, adding an image and typography but if it doesn’t have a connection with the music then it is meaningless and has ‘no substance’. 


A few examples of record sleeves & artwork Vaughan has produced for The Pixies.

-Image above. second album for The Pixies called ‘Flavacol. A spanish dancer, the music was infused with such strong, passion and anger, he wanted to subvert it so he told the dancer to take her top off, it changed the mood completely and fitted more into the Pixie’s context than the dancer’s.

Vaughan likes to experiment with different tools and materials to produce the album covers, some techniques include aerosol, spray paint and hand drawn typography.

He likes to do work that stand out as he says that work which is ‘on trend and fits in’ is ‘crap’ as ‘where do you stand?’ Find your own voice though he agrees that it is easier said than done and how do you progress if you stand in?

Working with narrative-he works with two tools, ambiguity and mystery. Vaughan says if there is one key that runs through album work is that ambiguity is a bleak way of seeing. He says that you can be totally struck by an image yet you don’t totally understand it, therefore two factors he incorporates into his work.

His preferance of working is without the usage of photoshop & editing, if you could get everything in one shot then no manipulation is needed. He likes that as there seems to be something more vital about the piece and possesses greater meaning, something he could see the life in without the life being taken out by the layer and layer of photoshop.

Vaughan admits that he knows it seems ‘mad’ that all his working life is dedicated to producing record sleeves but it has given him an opportunity to explore type and image.

I have immensely enjoyed the lecture given by today’s guest as proven by my essay, coveying my thoughts. I’ve felt that each and every piece of work he produced really possesses significant meaning, how he put a lot of thought in producing record sleeves which literally depict the music styles of the artist/s. It seems easy producing an a record sleeve, put an image and some typography and there you have it, but it would essentially be meaningless if it doesn’t have any relation to the music. As quoting Vaughan ‘something with no substance.’

I am now very excited for our next lecture by Neil Spiller who would be talking about Surrealism; one of my favourite movements of all time! With my pen and paper in hand ready to take down important notes and write another section conveying my thoughts…


4 thoughts on “☆Vaughan Oliver: Graphic Art Work

  1. A very good commentary on Vaughan Oliver….. (born 1957) is a British graphic designer based in Epsom, South of London. Oliver is most noted for his work with graphic design studios 23 Envelope and v23.[Both studios maintained a close relationship with record label 4AD between 1982 and 1998 and were to give distinct visual identities for the 4AD releases by many bands, including Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, The Breeders, This Mortal Coil, Pale Saints, Pixies, and Throwing Muses.




  2. Dear Sandie Re: https://omgsandie.wordpress.com/★art-design-in-context/☆gamswen/vaughan-oliver-graphic-art-work/

    You said at the end of the article on Vaughan Oliver, ‘I am now very excited for our next lecture by Neil Spiller who would be talking about Surrealism; one of my favourite movements of all time! With my pen and paper in hand ready to take down important notes and write another section conveying my thoughts…’ Where are this thoughts? I was looking forwarded to reading what you thought about the other lectures as this one was so good. Sometimes you have to write about something that challenges you even if it is something different than you expected? I am looking forward to reading and looking at your final publication which can include work you have done for other courses too. Have a look at: 10 Secrets for Writing Good Blog Posts at

    http://www.typepad.com/tips/writing-blog-posts-tips.html who say: “DON’T sweat it. … the most important thing is to keep writing. If you write with passion and conviction, you’ll be able to connect with other people, and your writing will improve every time you post.’

    You will also find it useful to look again at:



    All your writing should include these elements, (this pattern is often how each paragraph might be structured).

    Describe what it is you are going to write about. Describe what happened? What is the subject of your article?

    Analyse what the subject of article is about. Who has also written about the subject? involve other peoples ideas on the subject

    Narrative: Tell a story; make it exciting, have a beginning middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.

    Contextualise the subject matter of your article. Where does it fit in to other historical/political/social contexts? What other ideas are associated with the subject you are writing about?

    Evaluate what you have written about in your article. What have you learnt from writing this article? What are the main issues it has raised for you?

    You will be graded on:

    1. The quality of the writing for each article, including referencing all your sources. (bibliography that is connected to the references in the text) 20%
    2. The quality and imagination of the design, including the ease of ‘navigation’ (Contents page, good introduction and clear conclusion) 20%
    3. The way the design relates to the written content so that they enhance each other. (Your magazine might have a consistent theme throughout or each article may have its own style depending on what is being written about.) 20%
    4. The professionalism of the psychical or digital ‘construction’ of the submission. (It should look professionally made whether it is printed and/or hand made or be a well crafted digital website or well shot and edited video. 20%
    5. The way you have constructed your blog and the way you have made it easily navigable to make the contents easily be red by the viewer. (To be able to find the relevant information on your blog you have to make it clear to the person reading inhere it is to be found) 20%

    All the best


  3. Pingback: Graphic Art Work – Vaughan Oliver | Kristilicious

  4. Pingback: Vaughan Oliver (1957) | Typography 3: Type in Context

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