Tom Hingston's career in music design has taken in everything from creating flyers for club nights to putting together some of the most memorable cover images of the last few years...
"The 'Ballistic Rose'?" laughs Tom Hingston, head of the London studio that bears his name. He's referring to the bruised, metallic sculpture on the cover of Massive Attack's greatest hits collection. The simultaneously dark and appealing image - one of the most recognisable covers of the last six months - was developed by Tom Hingston alongside photographer Nick Knight. It was a concept Hingston describes as "difficult for the band to get their heads around," but it was a completely new approach and a break from their trademark flame.
"We thought a nice way to approach the cover was to adopt a technique that we'd used before on Mezzanine - a collage or composite of different elements, but applied to a new set of images," says Hingston. "So that was our train of thought. Working with Nick Knight, we took a still life of roses as the core element and added other layers over the top. When you first look at the rose you see this very beautiful flower, or group of flowers, and then when you look into it further you see all these other hidden layers."
It's a technique that has helped Hingston rise to the forefront of UK music design, and has seen his studio expand into fashion, working with such distinguished names as Dior and Mandarina Duck, as well as film titles for Anthony Minghella. But he's still driven by the excitement that hit as a teenager in London.
Hingston explains that a trip to a Neville Brody exhibition pushed him into abandoning plans to take A Levels and instead embark on a BTECH course, which eventually led him to a place at Central St Martins. "I remember going up to see Neville's exhibition at the V&A, and I must have been 15. It was incredibly inspiring and it really pushed me on," he says.
Then came the chance to work with his hero. "My personal tutor in my final year was a guy called Jon Wozencroft, who wrote both of the Neville Brody books. Not only was he a great tutor, but Jon was still working at Neville's studio," says Hingston. "There was a vacancy for a junior designer, and he recommended me. So I went and met Neville, who'd been a hero of mine for years and had this nerve-wracking interview, and that was it - I got the job, which was so exciting."
By that time Brody's studio had broadened out from the editorial with which he'd made his name, and Hingston soon found himself working on everything from corporate identities to the original Sony PlayStation to film titles. And, encouraged by his boss's philosophy of experimentation even if it resulted in mistakes, Hingston was soon progressing up a steep learning curve.
After a couple of years, Hingston was being approached more and more by friends needing work for projects they were setting up. Surfing the curve of a new wave of London nightlife and music culture, he was soon designing for one of the legendary clubs of the capital in the mid-90s. The Blue Note was home to, among others, Talvin Singh and James Lavelle's events.
"Sav Remzi had taken over running the club. We did the logo, and started doing all their artwork and flyers," says Hingston. "As the club blossomed, the more the workload increased, and what started off as two, maybe three, flyers a week became ten, fifteen different bits of artwork the club needed, and it was slowly becoming a full-time job."
Taking the plunge and heading out on his own was a wise decision, but one - as anyone who has headed down the freelance path will testify - that wasn't without its teething problems. "Initially I thought that I'd probably work from home and see how that went. I lasted about a week and a half with couriers coming to the door, all that kind of thing. It's really good to have that separation between your home life and work," he says.
But despite initial difficulties Hingston soon found his feet, and it helped that one of his first high-profile clients was the ridiculously influential dance outfit Massive Attack - a group which has always placed a high premium on great design.
Hingston's relationship with Massive Attack goes back to Mezzanine, the band's third album. "A friend of mine is pals with their manager. And he basically said 'Well, the band are down in Bristol, and they're finishing off their album, and starting to think about artwork.' Prior to that they'd always worked with much bigger design studios, and I think that what 3D from the band wanted was to have a bit more of a one-to-one relationship with an art director or a designer," he says.
Hingston explains that Massive Attack's 'collective' philosophy, born out of hip-hop and club culture, means that the band's 3D - himself a former graffiti artist - was looking for a different way of working from the start.
"I hate to use this word, but it is an organic process," Hingston says. "D will come up with themes and words that are applicable to that project or piece of music. When it comes to album projects we've always collaborated with photographer Nick Knight. The three of us push and pull each other in different directions until we're in a place where we're all happy."
But Hingston says working with some of his other clients - such as cutting-edge hip-hop outfit Gnarls Barkley, whose St Elsewhere album was recently given the Hingston Studio treatment - can be a very different process.
"That record, Crazy, was kicking around last year, and because of Dangermouse's commitments with Gorillaz, there was a gap between them delivering that single and then the album coming out. Which was good, because it gave everyone time to go away and think about it as a campaign," begins Hingston.
"They approached us in November, but the whole time they were saying 'At any time the album's going to be delivered, and then it's all hands on deck.' But that didn't happen until the early part of the year.
"They were adamant they didn't want to be on the front cover, which is great because it opens you up to endless possibilities. Their references to us were early psychedelia, a lot of that West Coast imagery from the late-60s/ early-70s. Those early stages of a project can be tricky because you're basically attempting to articulate something that doesn't actually exist, so it requires a lot of trust from the artist. They allowed us to go ahead and get on with it."
Hingston's studio uses the standard designers' tools. "We work on Macs, and use Photoshop for all our image manipulation. We use FreeHand for drawing up type and the vector-based stuff. We also use QuarkXpress, which everyone loathes, so we've just started to use InDesign. On the moving-image side, we've been doing more stuff in After Effects. And then for the film titles, we'll go out of house to a facilities house, and we'll use Flame, or more high-end software."
Whatever program he's using, Hingston's still driven by the same love of the possibilities that drew him to the V&A to see the Neville Brody exhibition many years ago. "What's always at the forefront of my mind is that you are creating a sleeve that you want to be as iconic as possible, regardless of where it's going to be sold. It's got to work when it's a thumbnail on Amazon, it's got to work on the shelves at Tesco, and on the racks at HMV."
It's a conundrum Hingston loves solving, because at heart he's still a music fan. "The reason we realise the ideas that we've been able to, is because of our relationships with the artists," he says. "And for as long as there are artists out there that I want to work with, I'll keep on working in music."