Rick Poynor | Reviews

Barney Bubbles: Optics and Semantics

“Get Happy!!” poster for Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 1980

Barney Bubbles has a unique place in British graphic design. Even more than Robert Brownjohn, who also died much too soon, Bubbles feels both known and unknown. If only we could interview him now we could finally get some answers. Why refuse to sign your designs when you knew they were so original? Why the repeated desire for anonymity when your work sometimes includes stylized self-portraits, a blatant assertion of your presence on equal terms with your clients, in a way that most of your colleagues in graphic design would never have dared at the time? Bubbles’ suicide in 1983, at the age of 41, ensured that we will probably never get to the bottom of it. Only one hesitant interview with him exists, reluctantly undertaken and published in The Face two years before his death.

Colin Fulcher (aka Barney Bubbles). Photograph by David Wills, 1966

No retrospective article about Bubbles — not that there have been many — neglects to mention his anonymity (he was born Colin Fulcher in 1942) and how this has obscured the full extent of his oeuvre and restricted a proper appreciation of his work. It makes a nice myth, but it has been overplayed. Younger post-punk design colleagues such as Neville Brody, and in particular Malcolm Garrett, have publicly praised him as an innovator who inspired them, and Bubbles’ key designs of the New Wave period, from 1977 to 1982, are well known to anyone familiar with the music scene of the time. But Bubbles had been around longer than that. I first noticed his name as a teenager in 1971 in issue 38 of the wild underground magazine Oz, where “the magnificent Barney Bubbles” is the sole editorial credit (he didn’t do the cover). I must have seen it again in my copy of Hawkwind’s extraordinary folding, hawk-shaped In Search of Space LP, bought the same year, though here, too, it wasn’t clear to the uninitiated exactly what Bubbles did. “Optics/semantics,” it says. Known but unknown.

The design establishment overlooked Bubbles, but this is hardly surprising. After three years working for the Conran Design Group he turned his back on the emerging London design biz and joined the counterculture, swapping Habitat calendars — see the 1966 Design and Art Direction annual, where he’s still Colin Fulcher — for rock concert lightshows (whence the bubbles) and record sleeves. Despite the impact of music graphics as popular culture, as something thrilling you might genuinely love, this branch of design wasn’t taken seriously by the profession. Even if the perennially shy and periodically absent Bubbles had been prepared to talk, which is doubtful, there were few British design magazines to do it in back then, and profiles focusing on individuals were rare. That began to change with the arrival of the monthly Creative Review in 1980 and the significance of music graphics — the place where the most exciting design was clearly happening, if you had half an eye open — could no longer be ignored.

“Existence is Unhappiness” fold-out poster from Oz no. 12, 1968

By 1987, Bubbles had been given equal billing as an influential New Wave designer alongside Brody, Garrett, Peter Saville and Vaughan Oliver in design historian Catherine McDermott’s Street Style: British Design in the 80s, published by the Design Council. When we ran a 16-page profile in Eye in 1992 (now available online), it seemed the case for his significance had been made, at least for British readers, and this was confirmed by his appearance in Richard Hollis’ Graphic Design: A Concise History (1994). There was still a lingering sense, though, that somewhere out there must be some amazing unsigned work that still needed to be tied firmly to the BB oeuvre.

What Bubbles has lacked is international recognition as an important designer. How does he fit into the global narrative — or, more correctly, narratives — of graphic design? Philip Meggs overlooked him in three editions of his history, and the 2006 posthumous update by Alston Purvis didn’t correct that omission, though Oliver was finally given a dutiful mention, and Saville will make a belated appearance in the fifth edition, now in preparation. The key question that needs to be answered, if we think Bubbles merits more than local attention among a nostalgic ageing fanbase, concerns the nature of his achievement as a designer. Are there aspects of his work that makes it of enduring wider significance to design history, beyond his secure position in the history of British rock music, spanning the hippy counterculture and the New Wave?

Bubbles badly needed a monograph and now, finally, he has one, Paul Gorman’s Reasons to be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles. Gorman has pulled off a feat no one else has managed and I wish I liked the book more. Bitten by the Bubbles bug as a teenage music fan, he is a journalist and music writer, with an interest in fashion, and he published an excellent oral history about the music press.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t know enough about the history, culture and practice of graphic design to analyze the visual aspects of Bubbles’ work with any precision or nuance, or to locate him with authoritative detail on the maps of British and international graphic design. The book continually asserts BB’s brilliance without explaining it convincingly. Gorman has structured his text as a chronological narrative heavily based on what Bubbles’ friends such as David Wills and Brian Griffin, and admirers such as Garrett and the singer Billy Bragg, have told him. He threads brief, prosaic descriptions of individual pieces into the biographical story, with no attempt anywhere at deeper thematic or contextual analysis — Bubbles’ interest in concrete poetry, for instance, is noted in passing but not explored. The haphazard placement of images in Reasons to be Cheerful, far from where they are mentioned, is a pain: the book is not well designed. My guess, having spoken to Gorman during his research, is that he sees all this as a strength, a way of connecting with a broader (less demanding, less design-aware) readership. But Bubbles is first of all a graphic designer and it is on an understanding of his designs, rather than on the affection of his fans, that his reputation must rest.

“Lives” exhibition postcard for the Arts Council, 1979

In an attempt to establish Bubbles’ greatness, Reasons to be Cheerful makes a predictable claim for his work’s status as art. “Bubbles broke out of the commercial constraints of his given trade and emerged as a pure artist, one whose silent influence lingers,” claims Gorman. Peter Saville, who contributes a self-involved essay about Bubbles, imagines the work plucked from its context and placed in the white cube of the gallery; there, he suggests, it would get respect. If Bubbles really shared this view — “He wanted to be an artist with a capital A, not a graphic designer,” says Pauline Kennedy, who worked with him — then this is no different from the envy many designers feel about the freedom and acclaim enjoyed by fine artists. In the Face interview, Bubbles is skeptical about record sleeves as art, yet he also declares that “commercial design is the highest art form.” This ambivalence is not unusual among dedicated designers who bruise themselves on the shackles of the trade, convinced of their own talent yet painfully aware that the world doesn’t get it.

Gorman shows a few examples of the paintings Bubbles did for friends in the last years of his life. They use the same motifs found in his earlier designs: bars, rules, dots, zigzags, splatters, squiggles, planes of intersecting color, ragged lines playing against sharp edges. They are good but they are not as original, measured against other paintings, as his record sleeves are, measured against other designs. Bubbles had a finely calibrated graphic sense (it’s present in the paintings, too) just like a drummer has a natural sense of rhythm, but it needed the boundaries of the printed rectangle, the tension of a smaller frame, to concentrate it and make it special. Paintings are big and ponderous. Surrounded by white space in the gallery, endowed with a dignity they might not deserve, they make large claims for their importance. Bubbles — it’s there in his name — is a master manipulator of fleeting, everyday optics and semantics, to be absorbed browsing the sleeves in a record shop, or lazing about at a friend’s house listening to the music. The speed, ephemeral lightness and disposability of the mass-produced image made it the perfect medium for his humor, his love of visual games, puzzles, diagrams and codes, and his delight in marginal devices such as inexplicable symbols, which add a layer of intrigue to sleeves, pages and ads that could have been ordinary in someone else’s hands.

“Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” 7-inch single sleeve for Ian Dury and the Blockheads, 1978

The intricately reflexive nature of his work made Bubbles a true original in his day. No previous British designer had produced mass-market graphic communications this playful, personal, freighted with allusion, or tricksy. Bubbles was a postmodernist before this new category of graphic design had been identified and defined, and he is as significant an innovator as his American contemporary April Greiman. His designs refer to art history (Mucha, Lissitzky, Van Doesburg, Kandinsky, Picabia, Mondrian, Pollock); to popular culture and kitsch (the wallpaper on Ian Dury’s Do It Yourself, the shagpile rug on the Attractions’ Mad About the Wrong Boy); to graphic processes and the nature of the printed medium (the color bars on Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, the scuff marks on Get Happy!!); and — never letting us forget his “anonymous” authorship — to the designer himself. Two of these oblique self-portraits, showing Bubbles’ large nose, are well known (Costello’s Armed Forces and Dr Feelgood’s Fast Women & Slow Horses), but there are other graphic faces placed where you wouldn’t expect to find them, such as the image on the copyright page of the “Lives” exhibition catalogue (1979) designed for the Arts Council, and the monumental (block)head in Brian Griffin’s book Power: British Management in Focus (1981), which could be intended as cheeky substitutes for Bubbles’ inevitably absent design credit. When The Face asked to photograph him, he made them a picture out of fragments instead.

Barney Bubbles by Barney Bubbles, 1981

Attempts to hoist Bubbles out of graphic design and claim he was an artist all along do him a disservice by downplaying his achievement as a designer, and denigrate design by implying that anything this good must belong in another category. In reality, Bubbles’ work, like Greiman’s or Saville’s, revealed what can sometimes be possible within applied visual communication, in spite of all the constraints, when a gifted graphic designer finds imaginative client collaborators willing to allow some space to experiment. Compare his work with many classic late 1960s and pre-New Wave 1970s record covers: usually they are composed of a single commanding image with the artist’s name and title. Bubbles’ sleeves are graphic constructions, offering multiple points of interest, dispersing the viewer’s attention. He showed that the visual language of design — type, symbol, pattern, shape, often reassembled in unfamiliar configurations — could be a powerful, exciting and subtle medium for involving a popular audience. Although conditions often conspire against such freedoms now, he is a leading figure within the evolution of intelligently reflexive design. Known but unknown. It’s about time the slower moving design history books caught up with him.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History

Comments [49]

God Bless Mr. Fulcher. Wherever he is…

Joe Moran

I appreciated the clarity in your comparison of Bubble’s design and his painting by weighing the two—not against each other—but against work in their respective fields.

And bravo on the following: “Attempts to hoist Bubbles out of graphic design and claim he was an artist all along do him a disservice by downplaying his achievement as a designer, and denigrate design by implying that anything this good must belong in another category.”

Coming from a fine arts perspective, I find it curious how often fine art is viewed as the pinnacle of creativity and a venue of absolute freedom. There’s lots of crappy art out there and art, too, has limits such as a poverty of resources and an isolation from mainstream life; the decontextualized white cube is a perfect example of the latter.
Miriam Martincic

I didn't even know this man existed. Thank you for bringing light to him and sharing his work.
Nikki - Logo Design Guru

Not sure what this says about the cult popularity of either Bubbles or Hawkwind, or the combination of the two, but this past Summer as I trod the used vinyl record stores of New York looking for Bubbles' work, every store employee told me Hawkwind's stuff flies off the shelves the minute it gets there.

And I would love to see the work he did at Conran.

I was a devoted Elvis Costello fan in the late seventies and early eighties, so my enthusiasms bore the imprint of Barney Bubbles. Yet like so many others, I barely knew his name — and then even thought for a time it was just another of Declan MacManus's several aliases. What confounded me, I suppose, was Bubbles's stylishness combined with his seeming unwillingness to commit to a specific style. His work managed to suggest both anarchy and craftsmanship, another baffling combination.

Barney Bubbles has been called here "influential," but I wonder if he was too unique to be imitated. If he represents a strand of design history, perhaps he was the end of his own line.
Michael Bierut

Good to see Bubbles getting some more worthy column space over there. I've/We've been waiting years for'something' to come out about this extraordinary character and his work. This recent post only added fuel to getting something out there and now we've finally got it. It's not a great book, it could have been better but it's here and I'm/we're happy for that.

I'm not too bothered about the fact that it's lacking an historic context as far as graphic design is concerned, though I understand that many 'younger' designers will be asking 'Where did all this come from?' The book does, however, touch on the era(s) in which he worked and does, in parts, create an intriguing backdrop.

Personally, I think it's scandalous that we've had to wait so long considering his 'influence' (most eighties post-modern graphics) He wasn't a contemporary of Brody, Garrett, Saville and Co., he came before them - with really only Garrett continuing to acknowledge his influence/place in history. I never understood why Brody hardly mentions him, considering his own early work - at least he met him - Saville didn't.

I agree with Michael's comment that he was too unique to be imitated, but disagree that his strand of design history was perhaps the end of his own line - he kick-started one, at least in the UK, influencing many, primarily in record sleeve design and magazines and eventually reaching, in much cruder form, the high street - maybe it was indirect, because he was virtially 'anonymous' but he's there. Look at the period.
Derek Stewart

Rick does an excellent job of outlining the questions and import of the magnificent enigma that's Barney Bubbles. I share the concerns about the book, though it's a revelation that it even exists (how did I not realize he designed that amazing Go! Discs logo, too?!). Bubbles' work demands many more words—and one of those cinder-block sized monographs that used to be so popular.
Kenneth FitzGerald

RP's failure to declare interest

I have read Rick Poynor's article and the subsequent commentary with great interest; thanks for dedicating so much digital space to the great BB and for mentioning my book.

I won't take up any more of that space correcting his multiple misreprentations beyond making what I believe to be a serious point: Rick has failed here to declare a significant editorial interest.

The fact of the matter is that Rick commissioned and worked on a book on Barney Bubbles for a leading British book publisher in the early- to mid-Noughties. After two years of effort he failed to bring this book to publication.

Rick's omission of this pertinent fact does Design Observer and its readers a disservice. In addition, it also casts his critique of my book in an entirely different light.
Paul Gorman

As editor of the Monographics series for Laurence King Publishing/Yale University Press, I asked a British design duo called Rebecca and Mike, who have a long-standing interest in Bubbles, if they would like to write about him for the series.

They were interested but wished to do further research before entering into a formal arrangement. After two years they decided not to go ahead and no contract was ever signed. There was no "commission" in the sense that Paul suggests. I hope one day they will share their remarkably detailed knowledge in a book.

This information is freely available in the comments thread of John Coulthart's much visited blog about Barney Bubbles.

I have a long-standing interest in Bubbles, like a lot of people, including Paul. I hoped to raise some issues here that seem significant to me in relation to Bubbles and the book. Readers will make up their own minds about the quality of Reasons to be Cheerful.
Rick Poynor

One of the worst things a book reviewer can do is criticize a book based on what it isn't and, particularly, what the reviewer would do instead.

Rick Poynor's review does not show any signs of this kind of indulgence. In fact, it offers no indication that he had an alternative book in mind or on paper.

What he does do, however, is address what he considers to be critical failing to analyze Bubbles' design significance. Mr. Gorman's perspective is certainly valid, but as Poynor indicates it ignores a major part of the story. It would be like saying Andy Warhol was only a graphic designer. Instead each feeds the other.

It is great that this book exists - not enough people know about Bubbles' brilliant work - but to eschew the graphic design imperatives does leave the story half told.
steven heller

This is a wonderful article! I will definitely research more on Barney Bubbles.

great great great! happy to discover this dude!

Hi, Your Most Esteemed Honour

Having had a few readers sent my way from your good site, I read your review of the Gorman 'book' on Bubbles and wondered if you'd mind if, wIth all due and proper credit, I extensively stole from your review as a post on my web log? I find your words refreshingly apt and to the point. Thank you.

I am about to post some notes about the incorrect captions and missing credits in the Gorman 'book' for my work on 'Oz 12,' 'Inspector Burge Investigates' and the 'Image' poster. Also, what I feel is the missing element therein of the ongoing importance of the A1 GoodGuyz influence in Barney's work.

Your review would make a fine and independent viewpoint to back me up. Thank you for expressing so well what I have only thought. It should be you who writes the needed book on Fulcher and his merry ways.
david wills

David Wills, thanks for your message. I couldn’t find your email on your blog. Please email me and I’ll get in touch.

As Derek Stewart notes above, it’s true that Malcolm Garrett has been much more forthright than Brody in recent years in expressing Bubbles’ influence and place in history — he participated in the discussion on John Coulthart’s blog and he contributes a brief foreword to Reasons to be Cheerful, as well as being interviewed by Gorman. An enthusiastic fan when it comes to this period of rock history, as well as being a participant, Garrett has been unusually generous in making his debt to Bubbles public.

This difference of emphasis may be no more than a matter of temperament. However, it’s also possible that Bubbles was less important to Brody than he was to Garrett. I believe an examination of their early work would bear this out. Brody did, nevertheless, acknowledge Bubbles’ importance to him (among other influences) as soon as he was in a position to do so. In the best early article on Brody, published in The Architectural Review no. 1,074 (August 1986), he is quoted as saying that Bubbles was “an enormous influence on me”. The article shows images of Bubbles’ cover for the Damned’s Music for Pleasure, inspired by Kandinsky, and Desmond Dekker’s Compass Point, inspired by Matisse. (It’s worth noting that Bubbles’ use of Kandinsky had already been publicised by Jon Savage in his article “The Age of Plunder” in The Face no. 33 (January 1983) — none of this information was hard to come by at the time.)

Jon Wozencroft’s text for The Graphic Language of Neville Brody (1988) confirms Bubbles’ significance for Brody, who is quoted as saying, “As for design in 1979, I was most impressed with the work that Barney Bubbles was doing for the small independent company, Stiff Records, where I would work soon after leaving college.” Bubbles’ work was one of Brody’s reasons for wanting to work there. A similar quotation is used in Wozencroft’s text for the poster/information sheet that accompanied Brody’s 1988 retrospective exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Brody’s debt to Bubbles has been acknowledged since the early days of his career.

Questions of influence are notoriously difficult to pin down. In Reasons to be Cheerful, Gorman mentions that Bubbles’ “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” artwork for Ian Dury and the Blockheads (shown in the post above) is based on one of El Lissitzky’s prouns — abstract works in which smooth geometrical forms slide together in spatial arrangements that suggest new kinds of architectural or utopian possibility. This is a typical Bubbles high art/pop culture joke. The mysterious angular flat forms are the separate components of a prancing toy dog, which can be seen on the back of the record.

While Bubbles treats his art historical source as a starting point for graphic wit, Lissitzky’s work — like that of other European modernists — was a source of growing interest among designers in the late 1970s. The back cover of Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine (also released in 1978) quotes a detail from one of the pages in Lissitzky’s About 2 [Squares] (1922), a picture book for children. A similar fascination with Lissitzky’s dynamic spatial geometries can be seen in one of Brody’s student projects, shown in The Graphic Language and dated 1978/9, where Brody applies the imagery to a record cover for a collection of disco hits (see page 6).
Rick Poynor

i dont understand any graphic designer who actually reads graphic design books. look, yes. read, no - i have like a million better things to do than spend my free time learning about the dismally boring subject of commerce and creativity and the interplay between.

i wouldnt read about about how a postman posts letters, even an especially good postman who posted letters really really well, so the thought of reading about a graphic designer graphic designs seems painful.

in fact, i would go further and say the only people who read graphic design books are steven heller and rick poynor, who by a unfreakish miracle of tedium, tend to write them all too. i wonder how many more thousands of words (millions probably in mr hellers case) are left to be written about grpahic design by these crusaders. alas, i doubt i'll be reading them.

i would rather insert a blunt pencil into my eyeball than read someone "locating (barney bubbles) with authoritative detail on the maps of British and international graphic design". a little biog about the designer, a few interviews with colleges and clients, and then the work, thats all you need. what is it with people who need to flow-chart the world, to order it and bend it into a shape that helps their limited undertstanding?

it seems apt to quote elvis costello "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture...it's a really stupid thing to want to do", i think the same could be applied to graphic design writing.

Brain Griffin commented to us that Barney never thought of himself as an artist, because he was commercial, but he wanted to be an artist, because then he felt he might have been able to receive acclaim.

We guess that the most obvious stepping of Barney's 'design' into 'art' was when Barney jointly exhibited with photographer Chris Gabrin in the 1979 exhibition 'Lives' at the Hayward Gallery London (they used the pseudonym Ovski). However, it should be noted that their mixed media installation was in the section which the curatorial paperwork referred to as 'Functional art section'... it was still stepped away in that sense. Amongst the elements of their installation were 2 actual Hawklords '25 Years On' record covers (and inner sleeves).

More clues on this debate can be found in the catalogue Barney designed for the exhibition: he included the phrase 'Elitism is the Curse of Creativity' on his and Chris' spread.

The self-portraits which Rick comments upon are also interesting in the sense of this discussion, simply because 'self-portraits' are such a dominant 'artist' thing to do. Perhaps if there is a psychological understanding of why artists do self-portraits so regularly then a key may be turned on the mind of Barney. It must be to do with more than model availibility surely? Understanding the self seems to be more like it...
rebecca and mike

I was just looking at top-type-of-the-moment and noticed crackhouse, which I believe has a Barney antecedent; for a freelance job for Conran in 66, he used scratched caps Futura condensed letraset, about 2 1/2 inch cap height, fubbed with a blade and creased. This was before I any had ever seen such a thing used anywhere.
But me, a bit not quite hip here, I'm all, "It looks like scratchy Leltraset."
Barney goes, "Yeah, that's what it is."
Incidentally, Barney was good friends with the guy, a printer, who invented the screen process used to make Letraset, poor bloke never saw a penny out of it.


As a long-distance enthusiast of Bubbles' work, I always regarded the missing and misleading credits as part of the work. It was identity game-playing, paralleling the graphic games literally and symbolically going on in the designs. Bubbles was willing to go all out and toy with being recognized for his work, something few artists' egos would permit. I admire that intellectual thoroughness as much as the optical delights. And I can also allow that he might be conflicted about this, having an ego and wanting to get into new pursuits—which would require a reputation. The hide-and-go seek with attribution also can draw more attention to you. Overall, I (still) love the game of trying to winkle out new BB work, while simultaneously being frustrated by it!

But as Rick points out, it wasn't impossible to find out who did those sleeves, at least the masterworks. By the mid-80s I'd found out who designed those Costello covers, via an anthology of contemporary LP covers I thumbed through in a bookstore (wish I could remember the title).

As for the supposed neglect of BB in (the still rare) design histories, I'll actually cut folks like Meggs a little slack. I see and greatly admire the designers BB influenced but other people will have to describe where—if anywhere—it goes beyond them. Even if no one was influenced by him, Bubbles' work stands on its own merits. Barney would have a chapter in my design history were I to write one (which I assuredly will not) and I could gussy it up with intellectualizing but those were formative years for me and I simply love the music of that time and the graphics. That's my prejudice, which I'll own up to, while still singing praise to BB. We can only hope for another generation of design writers who will follow their blisses, illuminate new areas and flesh out the story of design.

Lastly, a suggestion to "dadif": rather than simply forgoing design writing, how about giving up reading altogether? The amount you've done so far obviously hasn't served you well.
Kenneth FitzGerald

dunno kenneth.. im doing pretty well thanks, but im not a man to gloat. and i read all the time, but just not design books, and i certainly wont be forgoing that, for that is where you lurn fings. unlike design books. but thanks for the advice. happy new year.

While, like Rick, I find the distance in the book between the images and their actual mention in the text a little irritating (you have to keep flipping forward to find the piece Gorman is talking about) and while I understand that with book layout it's not always easy to have the ideal placement of words and images it could have been handled better.

But I did prefer the more autobiographical slant of the text. The stories of the UK counterculture are far more interesting to read than some dry analysis of the work itself. Pity that no one ever sat Barney down and asked him the question that always comes to mind when I look at the staggering quality (both technical and creative) of his work: "where the hell does all this come from Barney?"

WORDS VS. IMAGE: See the Mona Lisa. See the cover of an Elvis Costello album. What's the same? An image. No?

To analyze the image, that takes words. To explain -- takes words (even to ourselves). Words x1000 = one image. But 1000 words can help us understand it. And possibly incite more images.

Word! Image! Life! What's the hubbub? BUBles!?


Joe Moran

Dadif’s post would be easy enough to ignore (what’s it to me, after all, if anyone chooses to ignore graphic design writing, those pesky words getting in the way of the pretty pictures), if it didn’t reiterate a narrative painfully all-too familiar to those of us who make our lives writing and teaching the history and theory of design.

The story goes like this: images speak for themselves. If we must add words to the images, apart from a few explanatory captions, they had better be those of the designer, his or her colleagues and clients, since they alone have insight into their work. Though perhaps even this attempt to situate a work in its context is irrelevant, if (in an analogy I admit I’m still struggling to grasp) the designer is akin to a postman: a disinterested deliverer of another’s message, to which he or she contributes nothing apart from its delivery?

Graphic design, like any other aspect of cultural production, is a social act, situated in a complex nexus of economic and institutional interests, production and reception, and the internal development of design’s histories. You don’t need critical interpretation and analysis to like a work of design (or film, art, literature, music, and so on). Understanding. it is another story.

In and of themselves, the images that fill the pages of graphic design books tell us little, apart from affirming our own personal likes and dislikes. Particularly, what looking alone can never do, is tell us why: why these works look the way they do, why they were produced at a certain moment and place, why they are significant.

In the end, to reject critical-historical analysis in favor of a putatively pure ‘looking’ is to claim that graphic design is, outside of personal feeling, ultimately meaningless. Which, after all, would support its historical exclusions from academic studies of culture and society, from museum collection and display, and its marginalized position within the creative professions. Perhaps what’s needed is not fewer words on graphic design, but more, many more…?

keith bresnahan

Thanks for that blast of clear thinking, Keith.
Rick Poynor

Keith says "You don’t need critical interpretation and analysis to like a work of design... Understanding it is another story."

and of course, when you understand it, there might be even more to like!
rebecca and mike

my god, ive found someone whose role in life is actually less than mine. ive always thought come the revolution, when all the artifice of this civilisation is gone, all us designers would be good for was making a few letterheads, painting the sign above a shop maybe if were lucky... but now i realise that below us in the foodchain come you idiots, who will actually be taking notes on us designers struggling to come to terms with our career trajectories post-employment; without our audis and roll neck sweaters and with a frustratingly limited access to nostalgic typefaces and spot UV varnishes.

the line about the postman (another social act, no?) was to highlight how pretentious graphic design thinking/writing has become. would a postman describe how he/she works, his/her processes? i doubt it. we do a job. were paid for it. to elevate it beyond that is ridiculous. we make things look nice. end of.

but i guess you are paid to do just that, to invest your own limited meaning in the commercial projects of others, and to find insight where none is really required, to teach the more vunerable members of our community that design has histroy, has context, that it requires explanation. its not surprising you run to the defense of yourself.

but its scary that being in such a position allows you the freedom to believe that the images alone tell us little. in gprahic design they NEED to tell us everything, or it is broadly, bad graphic design. if any part of a design requires explanation is has failed. simple as that. failed. this is not art. and from what i can gather about mr bubbles, i think theyre a good chance he would have agreed with that sentiment.

i hope you understand that david. i hope that is some insight for you at least.

and on the contrary, im glad ive stirred you into action. im flattered you describe me as word merchant. im merely a practicing, fairly successful graphic designer living in london. my aim is only to take my head from my arse (or ass) and look around.

so yeah, lets have some more words, let them rain down on us. lets see how much good they do. hey i know, we can cartwheel and dance and spin and splash around in puddles and puddles of words as they gather and drown us all.



I think you're confusing "analysis" with "explanation" - putting a piece of design in historical context and talking about the choices the designer made isn't the same as "explaining" the work is it?

Design does have a history you putz and your "we make things look nice. end of" comment makes me think you only have a superficial understanding of your own job.

me the putz? i think your not very bright mr/mrs london lee.
name a single piece of graphic design that you have done which has accomplished anything more than making something look nice. maybe its you that has a superficial grasp of your job, not me.
but my point isnt about you and what you have or havent done, its that we convolute and navel gaze and imagine our work to have an influence/meaning/historical significance it never does. think of your favourite pieces of graphic design. then reflect on what impact any of those pieces have had in the wider world, outside our little design bubble - beyond a little flutter in your belly when you think of them. would Coke taste any different? would obama have got into power without that logo? would new order have sold any fewer records? and then look at google, surely one of the worlds biggest companies now, with one of the worst logos...
and of course design has a history, but if you reread my comment that was even close to what i said. putz.

Take it outside, please, Dadif. This is a post and a thread about Barney Bubbles. You have made your point and you are now off subject. Any further name-calling -- from anyone -- will be deleted.
Rick Poynor


Excellent article, love his work
Sizzle Creative Agency Manchester

Sorry about the 'putz' (not sure where that word came from, I've been living in America too long).

Moving along...

Mr Fulcher proved himself a master of graphic passion – powerful enough to still arouse a variety of very strong feelings amongst the populace.
david wills

This is a serious question for Dadif about his comment "would New Order have sold any fewer records" - are you saying that you've never bought (or been more inclined to buy) a record, or a book or a magazine, just because you liked the cover?

This is a two-part post, a bit on Dadif, more on Bubbles.

Dear Mr Dadif.

I am really intrigued as to who you really are. You are one of my contemporaries! You are obviously intelligent, and enjoy reading about graphic design (otherwise why were you perusing this website, and bothering to post in this thread?), but you have a powerful urge to deny intellectualisation.

I bother saying this in this way, because this is pretty much exactly my position. Or my struggle. I also sneak onto this, and other sites, to see what sense, or nonsense, is being made of what we do. But even as I doing so, something in me is repelled by the complication, the pretentiousness of much design writing, and the over-claiming of design's effects. And yet, here I am writing at 8pm on a Friday, devoting lots of time to reading and writing about design...

You use the metaphor of designers as postmen, I always think of us as actors. Similar, but a bit more room for creativity and skill. Almost anyone can be a postman, but not everyone can act.

Anyway, this thread is about Barney Bubbles.

Its a sign of Bubbles' marginality that his influence is so vague and hard to pin point.

It seems from the material above, as though he had a vague-ish influence on Brody, and a strong effect on Malcolm Garrett. Well, at least that's two people... which, if you think that music graphics is the well-spring of British graphic design, seems significant. But if you think that British graphic design is vastly bigger than music graphics; with more figures in it, more fields, more significant stylistic and theoretical influences; it seems, well, insignificant.

At the same time Bubbles was producing his modest oeuvre, Michael Wolff was producing internationally influential identities (a consistent influence over 40 years), Michael Peters, Marcello Minale and Brian Tattersfield were transforming British packaging, Pentagram was founded and doing some of its most important international work, and so on. These are all designers (I could add dozens more) with countless clear influences, both in terms of other designers they shaped, and the effect of specific works.

Influence in graphic design is hard to pin down when its weak, and easy to pin down when its strong. I think the main way to identify influence in graphic design is work that presents a method, or a "strategy", that another designer can understand, employ and experiment with in their own work.

This can be at a simple practical level, "how do I do this layout?", or at a theoretical level, "how do I approach this set of problems, and have a reason for it all?". A very simple example is Müller-Brockmann's (and the other Neue Grafik crew) grids. These have had a deep and persistent influence because they work in both ways. They can be used to solve almost any layout problem, and they have a hinterland; a theoretical dimension that extends to include fonts, photography, logos, pretty much everything a designer needs to think about.

Mr Poynor cites Wozencroft who cites Brody saying he liked Bubbles' work, and calls this influence. Liking someone's work, admiring them, isn't influence. Influence in design is something that directly affects the work and working methods of a designer. Influence would be if we could identify a technique, a method, a strategy of Bubbles' that Brody then employed.

Could you make a case that Brody was influenced to do music graphics because of Bubbles? Or to do music graphics artfully? And Bubbles was the main influence for this???

Michael Bierut thinks Bubbles was "too unique" to be imitated, or too unique to be influential. Which is revealing in itself, seeing imitation and influence as essentially synonymous. Which I think is a clear way of seeing it. Otherwise "influence" is so vague, it could sort of be anything. We only need a hint, a colour, a mention, a wisp, for it to qualify.

And why does it matter? Because in the growing world of design criticism – just as in the worlds of literature, art and cinema – influence equals importance.

I think his limit (in terms of influence, and importance on that scale) is that his work was so personal. It doesn't provide other designers with anything much they can use.

Bubbles' work is playful (the work does all look like games or game packaging), its about scattering, its got squiggles – I don't like it, but I can of course accept that others do – but influentially its a cul de sac.
Quentin Newark

Anyone who takes any interest in Bubbles already knows two things. First, that Bubbles is indeed a “marginal” figure – in the sense that a lot of people didn’t and still don’t know about him, especially outside Britain. Second, that his work is much more interesting as graphic expression than this marginal position – which stems in part from personal factors – might suggest.

I deliberately avoided the issue of influence in my original post and the only use of the word there occurs in a quotation from Paul Gorman’s book. About Garrett and Brody I used the word “inspired”. This was because, as I state in my subsequent comment in reply to Derek Stewart’s statements about Brody, “Questions of influence are notoriously difficult to pin down.” I’m always wary of asserting influence where it can’t be firmly established – a basic research error. It’s obvious that Bubbles, as a reclusive figure known mainly to music fans, has no clearly visible legacy among graphic designers. My hope was to introduce Bubbles’ work to a wider readership of designers, following the publication of the book, and to raise some issues that need more consideration when it comes to deciding his significance.

The implication seems to be that because the extent of Bubbles’ influence on other designers is unclear, Bubbles must be receiving attention that he doesn’t deserve, which should instead go to other designers that Quentin Newark admires. To understand why some people feel strongly about Bubbles’ work you would need a sympathetic understanding of the music scene from which it comes and to appreciate the importance the music and its visual expression hold for music fans. You would probably also need to like Bubbles’ work in the first place – Newark says he doesn’t.

Within its context, as popular culture, the work is remarkable. Within the context of British graphic design, as a feat of creative invention, it is highly distinctive. Adding Bubbles to the line-up of significant British and, perhaps, international designers enriches our picture of British design in the 1970s without in any way detracting from anyone else’s achievement in other areas. But, as Kenneth FitzGerald rightly notes above, “Even if no one was influenced by him, Bubbles’ work stands on its own merits.”
Rick Poynor

just been re-visiting the article about Barney that appeared in The Face 1981, and found this direct quote which seemed relevant to the hole design/art thing:
"All it is is rock and roll and it's no big shakes. But at the same time I think commercial design is the highest art form... But I'm really sad the way it's gone. I find all the young designers... and I've talked to a lot of them... they think they're doing Art, and they talk about record covers as Art"
rebecca and mike

Talking of no great shakes (the quote which starts my book by the way) I've just revisited this from the initial proposal which I sent out to potential contributors, including Poynor.

Oh, how RP has misrepesented and appropriated (all the while failing to point out that he in fact had worked on publishing a BB book with R&M.

This is what I sent to Poynor in October 2007:

'Barney Bubbles was in many ways the 70s pop counterpart to the doomed 60s movie graphics maestro Robert Brownjohn, whose short life and prodigious output his own mirrored in many ways.

'While Brownjohn was feted, the self-promoting designer who took film roles and projected onto a gold-painted female form for the iconic title sequence for Bond movie Goldfinger, Bubbles deliberately remained in the shadows throughout his career, shy, self-effacing and resolutely refusing to sign his work.

''“You don’t have the designer’s name on a can of baked beans,” he would argue, “so why should my name appear on a record sleeve?”'

Paul Gorman

Some heavyweight opinion on here.

Barneys modesty and self effacing character was the rarest of things in the Design world or Art world isnt it ?

I am surprised that Theo Cosbys 'This is Tomorrow' 1956 Whitechapel show- and specifically Paolozzi's generational influence and subversion have not been mentioned here regarding 'influence' on young 1970s sleeve designers - his Wit, Politics and aesthetic certainly was loved by BB

Perhaps Cultural osmosis or inspiration may be a better term than influence - but Apart from the obvious visual language EP cultivated and brought to London from his sojourn in Paris - it is Paolozzis 'amalgam' ( to coin a favorite EP word ) of Type and image - found and drawn - Political and historical reference - homage and 'play' and his own special rerum, his visual wit married with that Cultural/social referencing and rigor that so 'inspired' the youth of 1968.

Working and teaching ( at Central School 45 -59 ! way before the RCA tho there in graphic design terms he directly taught and affected Stuart Mckinnon and Dowling and therefore Oliver (not acknowledged enough)

Yes, Paolozzis charm machine spanning 50s and 1960s , 70s and at the heart of mid 60s subversive underground publishing in Notting Hill, Chelsea and british art schools since 1960 - I dont think this has been fully explored fully yet in a text ? - the birth of creative record sleeve design - the ethos os Stiff records etc grew from this pioneering creative melting pot - writers and publishing - International Times - also under valued is Martin Bax at Ambit and many many others

great discussion board. Can you all come to Manchester Met please to debate and indeed grapple, wrestle and spit on stage
( metaphorically of course ) in front of our Graphics students
if so email - we would love to have more of you ( as we have one or two already )
(Mac) Mack Manning

dadif said earlier ( probably a year ago ! ) '' people who need to flow-chart the world, to order it and bend it into a shape that helps ...etc''

Thats a Harsh view dadif - though there is some 'black and white' style truth in that statement - like planning or analysing a kiss !
- though surely it is fascinating to try to do so - but yes, in Ink or e minor preferably

However even seminal Visual, aural or literary Poets like Tarkovsky, Herzog, Lynch, Hughes, Sibelius or Eno - All magical and spontaneous - ambiguous - surreal and emotionally astute designers - still relished investigative inner or open debate and had /have a superb knowledge and respect for the history of their own craft - not from just looking at its visual language but also the context surrounding its birth and meaning - and also importantly the intentions and life experiences of the author of the piece of film, music or artwork

Reflecting and contemplating contextual and historical issues does enlighten an understanding of the work and importantly the spirit of that age and this one - not just for our own perspective but educationally for others - for students and readers of visual language - who read the thoughts and editing of the likes of Steven Heller Jessica Helffand and R.P

Congratulations and thanks to Mr Gorman for actually publishing this book - it was long overdue - in 1988 when i wanted to write my Masters dissertation on BB at the RCA - it was not possible as there was no research available - other than my own small primary research - record tape exchange in Notting Hill ! LOL

Indeed, only 5 years ago a google search proved amusingly vacuous for such a prolific designer - I quite liked that then - but understand that BB is now to be much better appreciated after Pauls book - and another book by someone like Rick, my old Peer Liz Farrelly or Adrian Sh would be very eagerly anticipated - and now be much easier to research due the good work online - the sharing of material - by many of the people above like Mike and Sue and David Wills and Rick - many thanks

"Bill or George! Anything but Sue!"
(Silverstein/Cash courtesy of Rebecca and Mike)
rebecca and mike

Paul Gorman


This is what Rick Poynor eagerly declared two years prior to my book being published and to which he failed to make reference in his compromised and partial review.

Poynor also failed to make mention of the fact that he was interviewed for, and quoted in, Reasons To Be Cheerful ( I have the tape of the hour-long interview at his house in Twickenham - makes interesting listening, R&M/Laurence King editors/fans of the Brownjohn book!).

As posted on John Coulthart's blog (http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2007/01/20/barney-bubbles-artist-and-designer/ )

#19 posted by Rick Poynor

For anyone who cares to track it down, we published a well illustrated, 16-page article about Bubbles by Julia Thrift in Eye magazine (no. 6 vol. 2, 1992) — it remains one of the very few pieces published about him.

More recently, I spent two years (as an editor) trying to encourage Rebecca and Mike, above, to share some of their knowledge about Bubbles in a book that a publisher was keen to do. R and M’s London exhibition about his early years as a designer was a real feat of research.

R and M passed on the opportunity. It’s a crying shame that there is no book about such a significant designer. One day perhaps . . .
Paul Gorman

Talking of what can be found on the web nowadays (as Mac does above) you can see some rare footage of Barney Bubbles working at Friends, on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIgPCDAVTlM

The sequence runs from 2m01s to 2m05s (Barney is the guy in the sheepskin waistcoat who walks across the room and sits down at some artwork). There's some interesting footage of the whole Friends scene here too.

There's some more info about the context of this find on David Wills' blog: http://davidwills.wordpress.com/2009/10/22/world-scoop-see-barney-move-make-your-own-barney-flip-book/
rebecca and mike

LOL .... Rebecca - my sincere apologies - I have no idea where Sue came from - my brothers is a Mike and my sister is a Sue - so maybe in there somewhere !! ?

PS Boy named Sue ... was also one of my earliest 'dance on the Lino song - so maybe there too - .... how do you do'' again apologies

The youtube clip of BB is good - Simon King and Del and Dik Mik about to call round for tea ?!

thank you! That looks like a great resource

Graphic design, as with any other element of cultural production, is a social act, placed in a complex nexus of economic and institutional interests, production and reception, along with the internal development of design’s histories.

To David Wills,

I knew you are out there. You're quite a damn saboteur, David, with your completely unfounded accusasions to my person in the year 1970. Why did you do it? I nearly died on the streets of London, homeless and destitute. And all because of you, damn you.
John Palmer

Not quite sure what to make of the odd 'John Palmer' comment, but it would be more honorable and help explain his pain if the 'author' used his real name. Does anyone have a clue what this poor doorman is on about? Perhaps he could write another badly designed book to explain.

However, since this is obviously the lunatic raving of a nut job who needs to lay off the booze a bit, you might consider removing it (and this reply) to maintain your valued gentle standards of polite discourse.

David Wills
David Wills

"To David Wills, I knew you are out there. You're quite a damn saboteur, David, with your completely unfounded accusasions to my person in the year 1970. Why did you do it? I nearly died on the streets of London, homeless and destitute. And all because of you, damn you."

Damn that's good stuff. I miss the intriguing comments on this post.

Jobs | July 12