33 adventures in The Designers Republic

Duncan Stephen
Jul 14 · 14 min read

33. Angrymahn™

“On July 14th 1986 The Designers Republic was declared.”

Released to celebrate the 33rd birthday of the influential graphic designers, the Designers Republic, this t-shirt brings together several of my favourite things:

  • The Designers Republic, and their Angryman™ mascot
  • Kraftwerk
  • The British road sign designs of Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert
  • Sheffield — — home of Pulp, Warp Records, and the Designers Republic — — all of which will be running themes here

Junction 33 is the Sheffield exit from the M1, as well as the age of the Designers Republic.

Aptly, I share my birth year with the Designers Republic. Alex bought me this t-shirt as a 33rd birthday present.

Warp Records, whose visual identity has mostly been forged by the Designers Republic, have also recently celebrated their 30th anniversary. Alongside, the Designers Republic’s Ian Anderson has been interviewed for Warp’s website, looking back on 30 years of his collaboration with the record label. This has all put me in mind to celebrate 33 years of Brain Aided Design.

Here are 33 TDR designs that have made an impact on me over the years.

1. Common People

I first came across the Designers Republic at the age of 9. Pulp were the first band I truly loved. Common People was one of the first CDs I bought.

Many things drew me to Pulp. One of those things was their quirky visual identity. A lot of that was created by the Designers Republic, including this iconic logo.

On the Common People CD cover, the shiny silver logo adorns a grim-looking chip shop with the band seeming truly glum — — not like they were on their way to pop superstardom. (That was something else I liked about Pulp too.)

4. His ’n’ Hers

As I began to explore Pulp’s back catalogue, I became familiar with peculiar phrases that were the hallmark of Pulp’s liner notes.

“NB: Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings.”

“Contact Rough Trade Management…”

“Matching accessories from The Designers Republic.”

5. Masters of the Universe

Pulp’s former record label from the 1980s, Fire, cashed in on their new-found stardom so that people like me could access their lost classics. Masters of the Universe was a compilation of EPs that had originally been released around the same time as their 1987 album Freaks. This sleeve recreates the same eerie feel as the Freaks artwork, with distorted photography, retro typography and a dark philosophy.

12. Wip3out

To this day, this epic futuristic racer remains my favourite video game.

Imagining awesome futures isn’t fashionable any more. The water changed in the late 1990s. Now we tend to think of dystopia, fearing the untold damage humanity is causing to the planet and, by extension, the future.

Before then, we mostly imagined utopian futures. Cheap energy, teleportation, and anti-gravity racing — — why not? Wip3out was the last gasp of that utopian dreaming — — and what a way to go out.

Everything about this is on-point. It’s fantastic fun to play, the music still sounds suitably futuristic even 20 years on, and the graphic design.

Oh, the graphic design. It’s sublime. It immersed you into fully-formed year 2116. As well as packaging artwork, they created full brand identities for each of the game’s teams.

Struck by the visuals, I looked it up to see who was responsible. It was all done by the same people who did the graphic design for my favourite band. How interesting.

19. Claro

A few years later, perhaps partly spurred on by my love of Wip3out, I discovered a love of experimental electronic music. By extension, that meant coming into contact another Sheffield musical institution: Warp Records. By further extension, that meant discovering a huge pile of work by the Designers Republic.

The first Warp album I bought was Claro by Brothomstates. The highly minimalist but modern artwork, set against an upside-down photograph of a chilly-looking sandscape, neatly introduced the listener to the cool and unusual world of Brothomstates’ music.

11. Windowlicker

One of the greatest singles of all time, and another of my first Warp purchases. Windowlicker saw Aphex Twin at the peak of his powers, and the Designers Republic at the peak of theirs.

Imagine having the brief to design the artwork for the B-side track ΔMi−1=−αΣn=1NDi[n][Σj∈C{i}Fji[n−1]+Fexti[n−1]] — — and pulling it off.

16. Blue Jam

One of my other early ins to Warp Records was the CD compilation of sketches from Blue Jam, Chris Morris’s woozy BBC Radio 1 comedy, and one of the greatest radio programmes of all time.

The Designers Republic’s artwork depicts the faces of the actors mashed-up with each other, pulling uncertain expressions, juxtaposed with low-contrast, tightly-kerned, all-caps, borderline-unreadable text. It all serves to replicate the uneasy experience of the radio programme.

12. WipEout

Wip3out may be my favourite in the series, but the truth is that each of the first three games are top-notch, for the same reasons.

The first edition of the game saw the Designers Republic truly flex their muscles.

The WipEout logo itself is cleverly built out of elements of the Eurostile typeface’s 8 glyph. With the addition of prime marks (′ and ″) to denote minutes and seconds, it cleverly evokes stopwatches, therefore speed.

20. Audiotourism: Vietnam and China

Freeform’s Simon Pyke went on holiday for two months and made this album out of it. The artwork eschews the hyper-modernism normally expected from the Designers Republic, possibly reflecting the very different sort of music. However, there are still interesting touches, such as the embossed cardboard sleeve.

21. Warp UV t-shirt

The first Warp t-shirt I bought was this minimalist t-shirt that changed its identity under UV light. In daylight it depicts a record sleeve. In the dark, it revealed the record inside it.

The T of the t-shirt contained a list of ingredients.

The Warp logo itself is one of TDR’s most famous and enduring designs.

13. I Should Coco

Amid the work for electronic acts, the Designers Republic also showed they could produce the good for more mainstream artists. And as well as looking to the future, the Designers Republic could pull off a retro vibe.

The Supergrass logo bears somewhat of a resemblance to the Warp logo…

At the height of their fame, Supergrass let the Designers Republic loose on the cover album of their 1999 self-titled album. In the words of Creative Review:

Record company Parlophone might have been tempted to go for a pretty cover of the band, for Supergrass’ album Supergrass. TDR gave them the portrait, but of course, it wasn’t the most traditional picture.

8. Tri Repetae

The second Autechre album I ever bought had some of the most minimalist yet striking artwork. Not everyone can pull this sort of thing off. Helvetica can be lazy or cliched. But the Designers Republic made it their own.

“Incomplete without surface noise.” / “Complete with surface noise.”

9. Envane

Making overt the influence of architecture (perhaps on Autechre as well as the Designers Republic). Can you spot what building this is?

18. 3D→2D

Subtitled The Designers Republic’s Adventures In and Out of Architecture with Sadar Vuga Arhitekti and Špela Mlakar, this was TDR’s first book.

Published in 2001, it is ostensibly (?) about the then-new Slovenian Chamber of Commerce in Ljubljana. But if the book tells you anything, it tells you more about the Designers Republic.

It is wildly impractical to read. The font is incredibly small, often comes at a perpendicular angle, and with very low contrast. Reading 3D→2D is a physical experience, almost like an adult version of a pop-up book. You can’t recline and read this book. This is a strictly lean-forward, interactive, slip-a-disc reading experience.

26. Park Hill

Sheffield’s Park Hill estate is a controversial building, and it is being given a controversial redevelopment. No-one better to promote it than Sheffield’s the Designers Republic.

A few years on from 3D→2D, they designed a book to promote Urban Splash’s redevelopment of the estate. By necessity, it strikes a softer, optimistic tone. In fact, it’s almost twee.

It’s not without its wit though. Spot varnished text provides semi-hidden commentary with double meanings, often fiercely proud of Sheffield.

This is a bold, smart, but gentle promotion.

14. Warp 10

For Warp Records’ 10th anniversary, now 20 years ago, the Designers Republic’s produced one of their most striking designs. It depicts brutalist buildings being taken over by that particular shade of purple that represents Warp Records.

2. Artificial Intelligence

In 1992, Warp released their seminal “series of ‘listening albums’”. It was intended to promote a new way of listening to electronic music. Music that was for the head as much as the heart and the feet.

At the time, it was actually a change in direction for Warp. But it was a stunning one, and it defined electronic music for the next ten years.

The cover depicts an android relaxing in an armchair with a jazz fag and a tinny, with copies of Autobahn and Dark Side of the Moon sprawled on the floor. The aspiration was high, yet it was reached. This vision kickstarted the intelligent dance music (IDM) scene, and made Warp one of the most influential labels going.

The purveyors of Brain Aided Design complemented this new era of “intelligent dance music” perfectly. TDR and Warp had always worked together up until now — — but from this point on that partnership went into overdrive.

The Artificial Intelligence series also included albums by Polygon Window (Richard D James / Aphex Twin), B12 and Autechre. All of them had covers designed by the Designers Republic.

Autechre’s Incunabula depicts a glitchy, multilayered picture. On closer inspection, it is a picture of Rob and Sean themselves. This visual is somehow prescient, seeming more apt for Autechre’s later work than their debut album.

17. Lipswitch

While the IDM scene centred around UK areas like Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cornwall, soon enough talented artists from the US got in on the act as well. In this case, the graphic design still came from Sheffield’s the Designers Republic.

I’m not too sure what the cover is supposed to depict. It almost looks like wearing 3D glasses would yield rewards, but it doesn’t seem so.

The liner notes display the Designers Republic’s postmodern minimalist style.

15. Grammy Winners

IDM was kicking off in Europe too, with German duo Funkstörung among the artists surfing the wave.

Grammy Winners is a brilliantly bold video for one of the most IDM tracks ever, and among the most the Designers Republic visuals ever. It contains heavy doses of Helvetica, brutalist architecture, parodies of consumerism.

For Funkstörung’s preceding release, Additional Productions, the Designers Republic produced a parody corporate identity manual, which contained instructions on how to not to modify the Funkstörung logo, and how Funkstörung branding should be applied to vehicle liveries.

28. Oversteps

In 2009, the Designers Republic temporarily closed its doors after facing a sudden cashflow crisis. It reopened as a leaner, more focused outfit, returning to its roots after years of expansion.

Their comeback for Autechre was a bold statement of intent. This is perhaps their strongest design.

Ian Anderson described how he was inspired by Autechre’s play on humans versus technology. The artwork for Oversteps displays several human attempts to replicate a perfect circle. He realised that they had the opportunity to create 72 different circles for different media — — the vinyl labels, digital artwork, posts and so on. Each circle is imperfect in a unique way.

The poster and t-shirt both have the track titles printed on the reverse, designed to be seen through to the front.

29. Syro

Aphex Twin’s lauded 2014 comeback required strong artwork to maximise its impact. Here, the Designers Republic produced some of their most striking work.

The cover consists of an itemised list of all the expenses incurred during the marketing and promotion of the album. The CD digipak flips out six times to reveal all.

10. Come To Daddy

The minimalist graphic design helps make Chris Cunningham’s visuals — — of a group of children all bearing Aphex Twin’s trademark creepy grin — — come centre stage.

However, the Designers Republic still flex their muscle here. The liner notes describe the properties of a CD. Perhaps it was in preparation for someone from a future era in which CDs are not well known (like, say, 2019), to help them understand how to play it.

22. 26 Mixes for Cash

A few years later, similarly minimalist artwork was created for this compilation of Aphex Twin remixes. It cleverly plays into the joke that this release was a lazy cash-in, with “lazy” graphic design to go with it. It’s anything but lazy, of course.

23. Sheath

I could have chosen any LFO artwork to feature in this post. Of course, the artwork for the first LFO single and album are pivotal moments in both the Designers Republic’s and Warp’s history.

But even in the shadow of this alien figure, Sheath towers above. It brought the LFO identity smack up to date, showcasing the album in its own plastic sheath.

27. Quaristice

A few years later, the Designers Republic created an even more ambitious sheath for an even more ambitious artist — — Autechre. Quaristice came packaged in a steel slipcase with the track titles and liner notes etched into it.

In the same way that Quaristice is unique musically, it is also unique graphically. The artwork itself somehow manages to be a complete deviation from anything else the Designers Republic (or Autechre) have produced. Yet somehow this could only have come from the Designers Republic.

This also marked the first time they produced artwork for each individual track — — a practice that has been maintained for most Autechre releases since.

30. Ae postcards

Three years ago, to celebrate their 30th birthday, the Designers Republic produced three sets of postcards compiling the artwork from three Autechre projects — — Oversteps, Elseq and Ae_Live, digital downloads of their 2014–2015 tour.

31. Aeonesix

The Designers Republic also produced this classy poster for Autechre’s 2016 tour of Europe. Limited to 100, the 19th takes pride of place in our living room.

6. Succour

Seefeel’s 1994 album Succour looks a little like a periodic table. Each track title is given its own abbreviation like a chemical element, expanding on the Autechre/Ae idea.

“Schadenfreudesigners Republik 14.2.”

25. The Jarvis Cocker Record

The Designers Republic produced typically excellent work for Jarvis Cocker’s first solo album.

All signs point back to Pulp. But not before one last minor diversion.

24. Rktic

In 2003, Warp created a spin-off label, Arcola, to release more dancefloor-oriented 12″ singles. The generic sleeve contained a die-cut slot through which you could see the purple record sticker, revealing the true colours of Warp behind the record.

It stopped releasing singles in 2004, but came back to life in 2018 with a new the Designers Republic-designed generic sleeve.

3. Intro

When Pulp were on the ascendancy, they were signed to Gift Records — — another spin-off of Warp Records. Gift released three of Pulp’s singles, giving them a leg-up before they were signed to Island and pop superstardom awaited. Intro compiled those three singles, and saw them use the Designers Republic visuals for the first time.

“The Designers Republic on the razzle.”

32. The Peoples Bureau For Consumer Information

The Angrymahn™ t-shirt arrived in this package. When even the envelopes are well designed, you are in the Designers Republic.

Duncan Stephen

Written by

User experience and digital consultant — https://duncanstephen.net/

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