Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Decoding Coldplay's X&Y

X&Y by Coldplay, designed by Tappin Gofton, EMI, 2005.

At a time when invisible data streams of binary information fed straight to our desktops are doing away with the need for album covers, it's odd to find a record sleeve as the subject of media comment and speculation. Odder still that the album cover in question — Coldplay's X&Y — should contain binary data as its central motif. Prophetic or what?

The Coldplay sleeve has been designed by hot new graphics duo Tappin Gofton. They have good pedigrees: Mark Tappin was at Blue Source, Simon Gofton at Tom Hingston Studio, both important studios in the UK music design scene. Until the appearance of their Coldplay sleeve, Tappin Gofton were best known for their 1960s-style "agit-prop" cover for The Chemical Brothers album Push the Button. Their work for Coldplay's third album establishes them as a new force in contemporary music design.

With the record industry's habitual love of hyperbole, Coldplay are being touted as the "world's biggest band". They certainly sell records. Earlier this year, their British record label EMI was forced to issue a profits warning to its shareholders when the band delayed the release of X&Y. Lead singer Chris Martin (referred to in the UK tabloid press as Mr. Gwyneth Paltrow) responded by announcing: "I don't really care about EMI. I'm not really concerned about that. I think shareholders are the greatest evil of this modern world." Martin is an unlikely candidate to announce the end of capitalism. Middle class, privately educated and married to Hollywood royalty, he and his band generate enough income to equal the earnings of a small corporation. Their last album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, sold 11 million copies and it's easy to imagine EMI's shareholders forgiving Martin's lippiness if sales of X&Y exceed that figure.

The X&Y cover is agreeably eye-catching. You wouldn't call it a classic, but it has an unexpected severity that lifts it above the anodyne and cosmeticised design currently favoured by multi-platinum selling artists. It has dark echoes of Peter Saville's epochal Factory covers. To render the Coldplay name and album title, Tappin Gofton use Albertus, a typeface Saville deployed to memorable effect on the cover of New Order's single "Ceremony" in 1981. And just as Saville did on his notorious floppy disk sleeve for New Order's 12-inch single "Blue Monday" and his album cover for the same band's Power, Corruption and Lies, both from 1983, Tappin Gofton use an enigmatic colour code and invite the viewer to decipher its meaning. It's this graphic puzzle — rather than the "design" — that is causing the sleeve to be subjected to the sort of scrutiny not normally given to contemporary album covers, or graphic design in general, for that matter.

Blue Monday by New Order, designed by Peter Saville, Factory, 1983.

As early as April, Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones noted: "The designers, Mark Tappin and Simon Gofton, have created a digital logo which echoes every modernist school of painting from suprematism to De Stijl. They themselves cite 1940s mathematical abstraction. To the NME and the websites apparently obsessed with this image, it is, however, a cross between the Da Vinci Code and Fermat's last theorem: the great brain-teaser of our time. Is it phallic? Is it a coded celebrity portrait? Guys, guys — have you thought of asking: is it art?"

More recently, in the same newspaper's weekly science supplement, Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at Oxford, wrote gleefully: "If you don't want me to spoil the excitement of working out Coldplay's new album cover, look away now. First, the colours are irrelevant. The cover translates the album title into a binary code where each block of colour represents a 1 and a gap 0."

Du Sautoy proceeds to decode the symbol. He identifies it as an example of a system devised in 1870 by Emile Baudot for telegraphists, where each letter of the alphabet is represented by a series of five 0s or 1s. The letter X, for example, is represented by 10111, and Y by 10101. Referring to the Coldplay graphic, he states: "The first column of colours on the cover shows a black and grey block representing a 1, followed by a gap representing a zero, then three more blocks of colour giving three 1s. The first letter in Coldplay's title is the letter X. The last column gives us 10101 or the letter Y."

On its website, the NME, the last of Britain's weekly pop music journals, takes a less highbrow view and likens the design to the 1990s computer game Tetris.

So: no oblique message announcing the overthrow of western governments and no coded references to the home addresses of EMI shareholders. Instead, a striking cover that has succeeded in exciting widespread comment — something that hasn't happened much since David Bowie donned a dress for the original cover of The Man Who Sold the World and McCartney-is-dead theorists subjected the Beatles' Abbey Road sleeve to forensic examination in the late 1960s.

Yet for graphic designers, two factors stand out amid this flurry of interest. The first is the continuing power of album cover art to provoke emotional responses from people normally unmoved by graphic design and visual culture. The melding of image and sound is a potent mix, perhaps unrivalled anywhere else in graphic design. The second is the perhaps unintentionally prophetic nature of Tappin Gofton's sleeve. It can be read as an oblique commentary on the state of the music industry at a crucial moment in its short history. Digital downloading means that the record business is about to go supernova. It may be that Apple's iTunes will become the world's largest record company. Who knows? The one thing we can be sure of is that downloading music will increase and that, as a consequence, the album cover will disappear, or at least shape-shift into something more discarnate and less tangible.

The demise of the record cover has been under way since the arrival of the music video, followed by the shrunken canvas of the CD. Today, the album cover is just one of a dozen requirements for the successful marketing of music. The most important activity for the modern record company is getting artists onto magazine covers or into hit TV shows: the album cover is just one of many surfaces to be filled, no less or no more important than any other. Cover art will survive, encouraged by small independent labels and bands who crave a visual expression of their music. But as far as the major labels are concerned, if they could avoid spending money on record sleeves they would do it tomorrow.

The Coldplay cover, with its intriguing puzzle and uncommercial design, is an almost nostalgic statement of graphic simplicity. It can be viewed as a neat commentary on the death of the old record industry, but in the future it is more likely to be seen as a last hurrah for sleeve design and the notion of record covers as shared generational artifacts.

Adrian Shaughnessy is an art director, writer and consultant based in London. He contributes to Eye, Design Week, Creative Review, Grafik and the AIGA's Voice website, and is editor of the Sampler series of books about music graphics. He is creative director of This is Real Art.

Posted in: Graphic Design, History, Music

Comments [48]

Thanks for an interesting article!

A quick note: the Coldplay record sleeve is supplied through the Apple Music Store as a pdf, so if not gone, it is absolutely less tangible, yet still there. There is an alphabetic chart on the inside of the Coldplay sleeve that is supposed to decode the message on the front cover, and also a more detailed message on the back.
Jonathan Sluys

Sorry about the multiple posts. The message on the back reads: "Make trade fair".
Jonathan Sluys

Insightful editorial, Adrian.

On first impression, the Coldplay X&Y cover reminded my of Herbert Bayer's style of painting.

Perhaps, Tappin Gofton were inspired by Herbert Bayer's work. Some of Bayer's paintings were featured in both of his monographs. And Container Corporation's Great Ideas of Western Man Series. No secret Bayer was inspired by De Stijl.

Most important, looking at the World News in the States on Monday night, it was mentioned that music CDs celebrated their fifteen anniversary.

Sales of CDs exceeded record albums. Essentially
rendered record albums extinct. As well, World News mentioned the ipod will render CDs extinct within 2-3 years of use.

Technology is amazing, Often causes a ripple effect. For better and worse. I sincerely miss those 12 x 12 Album Covers. The reduction in size of CD packaging did little to preserve the ephemera of Designer and Artist. Albeit leaving nothing to the imagination.

Last night World News peported Coldplay's album was beaten by a ring tone titled Crazy Frog, Which has beaten Coldplay for two weeks on the British charts.

The backlash, another ring tone has been produced to dethrone Crazy Frog titled KILL THAT FROG.

Designers can take inspiration from this illustration. Musicians and producers are creating ring tones for cell phones. Because they see a NICHE. How ingenious. Is there a need for ring tones? I seriously doubt it. Before ring tones, kids just downloaded a few seconds of their favorite song to signify their distinct cell phone ring. Customized ring tones, created by musicians and producers have caught on like reality TV, high speed Internet, and downloading.

Designers must begin to use their VISION to forecast entertainment USABILITY needs for human factors.

I'm already VISUALIZING animated motion graphics to go along with those ring tones.

I don't really understand the attention this cover is getting, after all, as the article states, isn't this just a riff on Saville's New Order work from the 80s?

Albertus has been the type of choice on all of Coldplay's previous releases.
Chris Bowden

At first, I thought that it was an Absolut vodka
ad for fembots ... :-)
Serge Gaiotti

My very first reaction was "bad saville ripoff".

That reaction hasn't really changed. This cover is quite simply a toss, and a predictable reaction to the decline of the importance of album art by the last batch of designers riding this particular gravy train.

And I really hope Coldplay have made their free trade statement somewhere on the album that isn't coded. Otherwise they are firmly planted in the 'toss' basket with their album cover.

Meh. Saville himself retreaded the color pattern in the artwork for Section25's album From the Hip(img), only a year after the original, and much more interestingly.

Who would bother to decode the graphics if it was not Coldplay or New Order...

Their work for Coldplay's third album establishes them as a new force in contemporary music design.

Hah! Please, such undeserved fawning knocks Design Observer down a few notches. The design is derivative and self-important, and at least is therefore perhaps perfectly on-brand for such an insufferable group.
Tom Dolan

While the Coldplay cover design does hark back to the days of classic Peter Saville, what separates it from that epochal work, is less that it looks like something Saville would do, but the fact that it was created for such a medicore band. Part of the allure of the classic Saville covers (the Joy Division ones come to mind first) was the compelling new music (for the time) and the interplay between this music and the cover art. Saville, 9 times out of 10, always seems to ally himself with bands that are his equal in the creative sense. His designs only serve to forward the myth and artistic heft of these bands and vice versa. It's an effective cocktail. That's what is often overlooked in Saville's work—the man has (had?) his finger on the pulse.

It's the content, stupid. You can't polish a turd, and a great design isn't going to transcend the self-important, overblown, middling music of X&Y.

(That said, I freely admit I liked that "Clocks" song when I first heard it.)

Eric Heiman

Mr Maven

A wet blanket: Britain is already swimming in animated ringtones.

Push farther forward.
Jeff Gill

The Honorable Jeff Gill.

Unbelievable, To my knowledge, here in the states
were only in the wallpaper stage. I could be wrong.

I know this is terribly anti design education, but I don't like this album cover cuz I don't get it. Hail the two designers as revolutionaries who have pioneered album cover art, but I don't get their earlier work either, Push Button was not a great album cover... This design work is part of the "too cool for school" brand where hipsters get it and non-hipsters stare at it wishing they can see the sailboat.

I can't see the sailboat and I make sailboats for a living.
Ben Whitehouse

It's an effective cocktail.

...and at least is therefore perhaps perfectly on-brand

Yes, this one is a marketini. With the onslaught of reviews, like the Sunday, NY Times denouncement, I was still humorously caught off guard when I saw it at Starbucks early yesterday morning. As I shuffled in line, the "homage a Saville" was boldly displayed next to the chart topping Ray Charles release: Genius Loves Company. (Coinkidink?) Starbucks was the top retailer of that release, outselling Tower Records and big box franchises. It was indeed a "Gotcha!" moment and perhaps, to be expected for getting my a.m. cuppa joe there. Dohh!
Caryn Aono

Tom Dolan accuses me of 'fawning'. No fawning intended, Tom. By creating a sleeve for Coldplay - 'the world's biggest band' - Tappin Gofton have undoubtedly established themselves as a 'new force in contemporary music design'. The UK music design scene is small, and in the coming months Tappin Gofton will be pursued by major labels anxious to replicate Coldplay's success. That's all I meant.
Adrian Shaughnessy

Adrian, sorry but I don't buy your reverse gear. If you're really meaning that designing a Coldplay album will give you a portfolio piece that will get you more work, I think that's undoubtedly true, regardless of whether it's good work or not, but it's clearly not the tone of your writing. Getting more work migh be termed 'establishing a force in the music business community' but that's hardly the same thing as becoming a force in contemporary music design -- which implies that the design alone is singularly groundbreaking and noteworthy or even influencial. That's a much harder argument to make.
Tom Dolan

I agree here with Tom - the superlatives in the article seem more at home in the dried up pages of "The Rolling Stone" or even rolling off the tongue of Carson Daly.

The puzzle is merely intriguing because there is a puzzle. In the adver/graphic world of today - puzzles mean time wasted communicating a message or brand.

The world's largest band has the luxury of puzzles and visual wit - and the reason they do has nothing to do with their creative talent, but of their commercial success.

This is a sad commentary on musical commericalism and graphic insensitivity than it is to the decline of album art.

As for album art - it is still running strong. Maybe its the deluge of bands the music industry provides that make album "art" currently seem unredeemable - or maybe its the baseless paranoia of digitally distributed music that has leaked into the greater consciousness.

To be totally fair - iTunes, the player used by the vast majority, has album art displayed next the currently playing album. Easier to access than ever. One could even argue that CaseLogic spelled the demise of album art since anyone that uses CD's no longer uses them from their original jewelcases.

I can't stop commenting on the article :/

Adrian seems to imply that album art is somehow better than other methods of marketing the artist and album. But here - truly the medium is the message.

How can a two dimensional media taken in by a single sense compete with 2 dimensions and 2 senses? Is music video art? Sure it can be, and its potential is so much more than staid old paper media. Interactive music videos introduce yet another sense, and will be exponentially more memorable.

Let's celebrate beginnings of new media, instead of losing tears over old.

Another precedent may be Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2," which was released by Sire in 1994. I'm having trouble locating full info and images on the web, but the CD insert folded out to become a poster that had cryptic, pie-chart-style graphics for titles. I spent a lot of time as a teenager trying to figure to unlock the mystery, so to speak. But according to this Wikipedia article, there is still no official tracklisting for the record. It remains to this day one of my favorite ambient records.

The Coldplay album cover design seems an amalgam of Saville and "SAWII"--not bad role models at all.
Brian Sholis

Saville's work actually has context and meaning beyond the graphics. does this? As Eric Helman said, there is an interplay between Saville's work and New Order in that they were exploring new media - the only connection Coldplay has to a digital interpretation of their album title is that the probably used a few computers to record and mix the album, but the album has no connection to computers themselves (computers being the primary users of a binary language)

Now if this was a cover for Gameboy Hacker songs, it would make sense.

Personally i like the way the cover looks, but the context reeks of bandwagoning. eew.

I posted an entry on my site that has the inside cover work. It covers all the letters and some punctuation.
Mike Steinbaugh

If you would like to follow a simmilar discussion about the cover in german, take a look at Slanted.
Lars Harmsen

Well a very interesting commentary regarding x&y... perhaps what is forgotten here is how important music graphics are on design & advertising - considering the popularity of this cover and its continued promotion, would it not be tempting to say that in the coming weeks/months plenty of designers may in fact join the 'party' and go binary in their designs? Whether or not it was a rip, the mere fact it is a distinct visual design (with reference to a few things here and there) would suggest it will tell us more about the next actions of designers, now that Tappin & Gofton have arguable made binary pop...

I'm not really from the Peter Saville era (New Order - Joy Division etc.), so not sure if there was a 'copying' of his style in other design/advertising areas when he had such success with his album art - If not, perhaps disregard my attempt to suggest we will see a 'binary' / 'Mark Tappin and Simon Gofton' appropriation from now on...

From a visual stand point, the cover stands out, especially when compared to other comtemporaries. Saville's Factory work has had 20+ years to be viewed, both visually and within the cultural context.


Cover artwork is one of the reasons I still buy CDs, but also have a look how cover artwork is moving into the digital age at Thinner and how they have become animated art.
Jonathan Poh

No one would give a rat's ass about this album art if it wasn't featured on the cover of CD by Coldplay.

It's not a beautiful compostion, it's not sublimely minimalist, it's not particularly eye-catching, it's just not great design.

It's just a code, a gimmick, and a pretty boring one at that.

As I'm rather, er, cool to Coldplay I wasn't aware of what was going on with the design. Thanks Adrian for a thoughful discussion of the package. I'll have to check it out.
Kenneth FitzGerald

according to what the band said,
X&Y have to do something with "Make Trade Fair"...

a massive enigma for the band fans, some of then said that the band is sending a message in the entire album.

...i think it has to be heared withou ears...

i just saw this cover for the first time today and instantly thought of saville's new order covers. despite the fact that the coldplay cover is such a blatent rip-off, i would guess tappin gofton doesn't seem to mind. the question is, does saville?

I love that cover! ^_^
Andreas Skoglund

X + Y = zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

That goes for the cover art as well as the record.


Peace, Out.

Hi this is Martha, Michael Bierut's daughter.

Me being a somewhat fan (I enjoy listening to "Clocks" and playing it on the piano, as does my father) of Coldplay's work, I should say that the design of the album is a bit abstract, but somewhat attractive. It catches the eye and makes you want to look at it, which is, to my beleif, one way to sell a successful record. Although almost nobody could clearly explain the meaning of the design, it still makes an interesting impression on as to what Coldplay and their music is all about: being different, bold, and interesting? I still have no idea.

In conclusion, I like the design despite what people say to criticize their new album. I also like the song "Speed of Sound" which is on their new album. Did anybody notice that the piano part sounds just like "Clocks"? That's an interesting note.

-Martha Bierut, 12
Martha Bierut

Sorry to post again, but I just discovered the decoding in the booklet in the album.... "The importance to the code is actually whether the coloured block is there or not, so is the graphic a zero or a one? For example on the album artwork the letter X is 10111 and Y is 10101 and the symbol for & has to be firstly activated with a sort of SHIFT character, which is 11011.

"So the & symbol is actually 11011 01011. All pretty confusing, but pretty much explanative when you can see the pattern that is present." this is at Stereoboard.

Thanks for your post, Martha. I agree with you. Whatever anyone thinks of Coldplay's music or the cover design, it is a brave move to make an intriguing and non-formulaic album cover at a time when covers for big selling artists are normally homogenized pap. Thanks again!
Adrian Shaughnessy

Especially bold to put a non-formulaic album cover around a formulaic album! (or one man's big selling artist is another's homogenized pap, no?) Seriously, especially ironic that one would call X+Y "non-formulaic" after discussion of the coding involved. It's quite obviously formulaic, both literally and as in 'following the New Order formula' which has been well described.

Is what we're really talking about here merely the fact that some big mainstream thing doesn't suck too horribly? Like "isn't it nice that Target has nice adverts?" or "isn't the poster for the new Lidsey Lohan movie a cool illustration?" Is it really significant that a #1 band doesn't have a horrible album cover? The wonder here is that a mainstream audience has finally learned how to chew down a New Order style cover? Twenty years seems a pretty typical lag from non-formulaic to completely normal.
Tom Dolan

I can see that I have to watch my language carefully, where you are concerned, Tom. But of course I meant non-formulaic in a design sense. I can't see anything wrong with taking inspiration from a 20-year-old album cover, done for an independent label, and using it on a mainstream release. I make it clear in my original post that I don't think it's a classic cover, just a significant one that coincides with sleeve design's likely demise.
Adrian Shaughnessy

I can't see anything wrong with taking inspiration from a 20-year-old album cover, done for an independent label, and using it on a mainstream release.

I certainly agree that there's nothing "wrong" here (or any moral issue is involved). I think the question is why would one think the approach you describe could yield something of design significance? It's seems simply mainstream appropriation of something that was cool long ago. Happens in every ad agency across the planet every day.

PS: I'm also finding the argument that the design's 'digitalness' is somehow an oblique commentary on the fate of the music industry a serious stretch. And ... pardon for insisting writers watch their language carefully. Wouldn't you expect a designer to watch their colors carefully? ;)
Tom Dolan

The X & Y cover is like a digital, low-resolution image of the cover of Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, rotated 90 degrees clockwise. I believe that's what inspired it. If you'll kindly notice, the colors are the same as in the spectrum on the cover of the original DSotM LP (slightly different from the colors of the remastered DSotM that came out in the 90s).
Mark Brown

It's an ok album sleeve, no better or worse than many others. It's just an abstract x and y. Why the analysis?
It's a bloody good album though.
lee newham

I read some posts ago about ressemblance between "Speed of Sound" and "Clocks". Totally true, they use the same harmonic pattern, so for the ears it's so similar.

Also I can say that the Albertus font was used for some Mike Oldfield covers too ("Platinum"?)

This album only got attention in the media and with the public becuase of it's silly, forced, "mystique". Sorry but what a cheap trick.

This is a homage at best and a rip-off at worst, more importantly, it's NO orignal.

The public finally get a bit of abstract art on there sleeves, which more independent music listeners have been used to for aeons, and suddenly it called ART?! Supposedely the UK is a nation of record collectors, surley the fact that this is just a good piece of design could not have been overlooked. I'm shocked that this can be echoed in these pages.

All this hype around the design of a COLDPLAY album... now theres the ultimate shame.... we are talking New Order, Joy Division, David Bowie... And now- Coldplay?? Welcome to the world of Nice, the world of Pleasant, the world of middle-class outrage while sipping fair-trade green tea and wearing camo jackets from topshop. There is no revolution here. Its just yet another step removed from the original.

I thought the band has gone gay. The cover suggests a succinct derivative of the gay flag.
King J

i'm missing the link to stefan sagmeister, who did a record cover in slightly the same way;

Check Out This Link

(i'm too lazy to check all the comments, so excuse me if i'm double-posting)

Over at The Coldplay X&Y Album Art generator you can make your own album cover.
Michael Surtees

They ripped U2's music and New Order's artwork.
Rick II

When I first saw Coldplay’s X&Y album cover I found it intriguing. Its
simple and beautiful abstract design was visually stimulating. I feel
the design is successful because it is not literal. I see it and
immediately want to know what the abstract image symbolizes. Only
after looking at the alphabetic chart on the inside of the sleeve, and
decoding the message on the front cover did I see what the
combination of colors and blocks symbolized. There is a reason to
the design. It’s not just pretty blocks of color arranged and centered
on the cover.
YayA C. ENG322 Ms. Scherr

It all revers to James Peel. See: http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/22/peel.php
Ype Kingma

Jobs | July 12