The cover of David Bowie’s Blackstar album was designed to reflect the musician’s mortality according to collaborator Jonathan Barnbrook
“He always wanted to do something interesting, often to the annoyance of the record company,” Barnbrook said. “He understood the value of the image on a record cover, when other people had forgotten about it.”
The designer added that Bowie was, more than anyone else, the artist responsible for bringing “art-school thinking into the mainstream.”
“This was a man who was facing his own mortality,” said Barnbrook. “The Blackstar symbol [★], rather than writing ‘Blackstar’, has as a sort of finality, a darkness, a simplicity, which is a representation of the music.”
“It’s subsided a bit now, but a lot of people said it was a bullshit cover when it came out, that it took five minutes to design,” he added. “But I think there is a misunderstanding about the simplicity.”
The use of abstract shapes was developed from Barnbrook’s previous controversial cover for The Next Day album. The design features a white square covering an old photo of Bowie and was influenced by Constructivist art.
The black star graphic also carries deeper meanings, said Barnbrook.
“The idea of mortality is in there, and of course the idea of a black hole sucking in everything, the Big Bang, the start of the universe, if there is an end of the universe,” Barnbrook said. “These are things that relate to mortality.”
For the vinyl edition, the star is cut out from the black sleeve so the record inside is visible.
“The fact that you can see the record as a physical thing that degrades, it gets scratched as soon as it comes into being, that is a comment on mortality too,” said Barnbrook.
He would look at the stuff, and talk about what he liked and what he didn’t like, not in a rude way, just clear and explaining his reasons why, he was also fulsome in his praise when he liked something. Sometimes he would throw a spanner in the works and ask me suddenly to do something completely different for the project for an hour. That was quite a refreshing way of working and often produced good results as it meant you put aside all of the responsibilities of the project for a moment and could just play.
He was always really respectful about the people who bought his music, so he wanted them to understand the ideas. There was no point in doing something when it was so obscure that people wouldn’t get the reference; it had to relate absolutely to the music.
He understood the value of the image on a record cover, when other people had forgotten about it. We had a renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s of album covers because the format of vinyl, but then it dropped when CDs were introduce. There are still good record/CD covers around, but a lot of time nowadays the cover just had to be “nice”, it wasn’t a thing that provoked discussion, our covers wanted to have that discussion again. Some people hated them, some people really liked them.
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 dont think anybody other than Bowie would have taken that risk. He was really interested to see how people were reacting to it.
I’ve always been influenced by Constructivist art, so there was the influence of Kazimir Malevich and John Baldessari on The Next Day cover – the obliteration but also the spiritual, meaningful context of the abstract shapes. That followed through on ★, definitely.
The main thing of course is put over the emotional feeling of the music, that’s what a good record cover does, it lets you know somehow, somewhere within it, what the music is about, or what you believe the music is about is confirmed in it. And there’s not necessarily any logic to that you just have to get somewhere in that area which you have designed, and hopefully it will work.
He always wanted to do something interesting, often to the annoyance of the record company. Especially with Next Day, they were quite shocked with the cover, and they were pretty sure that it wasn’t going to work. It actually became a very successful viral campaign.
After all it’s an album called ★, with a cover that has a ★ on it, which doesn’t sound like a leap of imagination. But there was so many tangents we followed, until we realised that it has to cut through the noise of what is going on in the world. We see so many images every single second when we search the internet; it’s a directness that is needed. The simplicity of the design also left it more open.
It also has to appear in many different kinds of media: on a website, on iTunes, in reviews, and in newspapers. These are all practical considerations for it, and as a designer you would always work within for the parameters you have. For instance, it’s not actually written “Blackstar”, it uses a symbol ★, and that symbol goes through different technologies, so it can be used wherever.