The Next Day’s cover artwork was one of David Bowie’s most divisive, with some observers dismissing it as lazy and derivative, and others marvelling at its boldness.
The Next Day was the most divisive one, because we didn’t do quite what people expected, which was a nice new picture of David Bowie on the front. We decided to play with that idea of image expectation.
Some people thought they’d been cheated because it’s a reprint of an old album cover, which is a bit ridiculous, because the cover was in the concept. I think it just puzzled a lot of people too who just “didn’t get it”, which we thought would happen.
However there were a lot of people who also recognised it was a very brave thing to do, something quite new. I don’t think anybody other than Bowie would have taken that risk. He was really interested to see how people were reacting to it.
Barnbrook adapted the cover of Bowie’s 1977 album “Heroes”, positioning a large white square with the new title in the centre.
As a symbol it worked very well, it had to be an event not just a physical cover (shows the reaction on social networks with fans’ selfies with the white square). The big thing for me was first it has to be pure and it was because being direct with him, and we kept all the crap off. They wanted the compact disc logo, and this logo and that logo… no!, this is a moment of stillness that’s what music is about in the end.
Rebel Rebel Music
The cover was the work of Jonathan Barnbrook, who had previously designed the artwork for Heathen and Reality, and who later worked on Blackstar and the compilation Nothing Has Changed.
We went through many different designs for the album cover, but the starting point was an image he had of this concert he did at Radio City. He was telling me about how isolated he felt at that time, and that was the basis of the feeling he wanted. We tried out every single Bowie cover there’s been, but it ended up as “Heroes” because it’s such an iconic album, and the image on the front has the right kind of distance. Originally the album was going to be called Love Is Lost, which is one of the other tracks. But The Next Day, in combination with the “Heroes” image, and what the album is saying about somebody who’s looking back at his age… it just felt appropriate.
Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups were among the designs considered for subversion by Bowie and Barnbrook. Intriguingly, one of the rejected designs was of a large black star obscuring Bowie’s face, pointing the way to the design of 2016’s Blackstar.
Bowie and Barnbrook used the codename ‘Table’ when discussing the album. During the lead-up to The Next Day’s release, Barnbrook was also working on the David Bowie Is exhibition at London’s V&A museum.
Because we were using the cover of “Heroes” for the artwork, and because we were involved with the V&A exhibition, I just told people it was to do with that. But I think people were starting to suspect. I found out about the album in September, and the idea was always to release the track on his birthday. It had to be out by then. We worked on his new website and couldn’t tell the programmers why it was being restyled … All along the way, we had to lie to people about our reasons for doing things.
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg
Barnbrook published a self-interview in January 2013, in which he explained some of the thinking behind the artwork.
– Why not a new image for the cover?
We wanted to do something different with it – very difficult in an area where everything has been done before – but we dare to think this is something new. Normally using an image from the past means, ‘recycle’ or ‘greatest hits’ but here we are referring to the title The Next Day. The “Heroes” cover obscured by the white square is about the spirit of great pop or rock music which is ‘of the moment’, forgetting or obliterating the past.
However, we all know that this is never quite the case, no matter how much we try, we cannot break free from the past. When you are creative, it manifests itself in every way – it seeps out in every new mark you make (particularly in the case of an artist like Bowie). It always looms large and people will judge you always in relation to your history, no matter how much you try to escape it. The obscuring of an image from the past is also about the wider human condition; we move on relentlessly in our lives to the next day, leaving the past because we have no choice but to.
– Why “Heroes”?
If you are going to subvert an album by David Bowie there are many to choose from but this is one of his most revered, it had to be an image that would really jar if it were subverted in some way and we thought “Heroes” worked best on all counts. Also the new album is very contemplative and the “Heroes” cover matched this mood. The song ‘Where Are We Now?’ is a comparison between Berlin when the wall fell and Berlin today. Most people know of Bowie’s heritage in Berlin and we want people to think about the time when the original album was produced and now.
– Why the white square obscuring the image?
We worked on hundreds of designs using the concept of obscuring this cover but the strongest ones were the simplest – it had to be something that was in direct contrast to the image underneath but that wasn’t too contrived (we know all design is contrived, that is the essence of the word ‘design’). It would have been clearer to many people if we had scribbled all over the cover but that didn’t have the detachment of intent necessary to express the melancholy of the songs on the album. Obscuring Bowie’s image is also reference to his identity, not only in the past when he changed endlessly but that he has been absent from the music scene for the past ten years. Was this an act to hide his identity or that he has simply become more comfortable with it?
– Why is there no colour?
The title of the album The Next Day evokes numerous reference points, notably Macbeth’s speech ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’ which deals with the relentless onward push that any unnatural position of power requires. It also has the existential element of Waiting For Godot with waiting for The Next Day – these all seem to question the nature of existence so a monochrome palette seemed most appropriate to this feeling.
– Why didn’t you do a logo, or new design of his name on the cover?
We wanted the cover to be as minimal and undesigned as possible, we felt the most elegant solution was to use the original one from “Heroes” and simply cross out the title of the old album. It has the detachment appropriate for the atmosphere of the new album.
– What is the font you used for the main title?
It is a new font that we are working on called Doctrine – this is the first major use of it. Doctrine will be released in the coming weeks at VirusFonts.
– What is Bowie like to work with?
He is quite a private person, so no need to say too much about him other than that he is a pleasure to work with. Very intelligent, funny, serious when he needs to be and generous in his thoughts and actions.
– Is there anything else you can add?
Yes, having said all this, we know it is only an album cover with a white square on it but often in design it can be a long journey to get at something quite simple which works and that simplicity can work on many levels – often the most simple ideas can be the most radical. We understand that many would have preferred a nice new picture of Bowie but we believed that would be far less interesting and not acknowledge many of the things we have tried to discuss by doing this design. Finally we would like to give David Bowie great credit, he simply did what he always does which is to go with a radical idea and that takes courage and intelligence. That is why we love his music and love working for him.