With a clear, emotive and purposeful style and an award-winning portfolio, Trevor Jackson has inspired a generation of designers. Garrick Webster meets the renaissance man of graphic design
Sun streams through the blinds at Trevor Jackson's studio near Old Street in London. He's worked and lived here for the past 12 years, putting together design projects that have won him recognition from all corners of the globe. While he professes to be a little tired of the place, we soon find his passion for design, music, art and film shows no sign of diminishing. Jackson pushes his MacBook to one side, sits down and brings us up to speed on his approach to design...
CA: How do you manage to balance your design, music and moving image work at the moment?
TJ: My business is me - I don't have anyone working for me. I sometimes get people in to help me out, but pretty much I run solo with everything and so my output isn't necessarily huge. I decided a long time ago I would rather do three or four really strong, big projects every year than 20 projects that don't really satisfy me. For the past couple of years the balance has been quite equal between doing lots of music and doing design work.
CA: You work across both music and design simultaneously. How much do the two influence each other?
TJ: My life has always been about music and visuals, so they coexist together. If I'm working on a record sleeve, I have to listen to the music - it's weird; I know some people don't, but I'm always directly inspired by the music to do the visuals. It's tough because I'm a music maker as well. When you make music, the way you listen to music can become quite different because you end up analysing things.
CA: Is it hard to switch off?
TJ: I never switch off. My work is my life; it's 24/7. I'm sure for most passionate designers or creative people it's the same thing. I don't have a separate life - my life is my work.
CA: Do you ever get a creative block, and what do you do to bust through it?
TJ: Yeah, I get creative blocks all the time. To bust through I go on holiday! I've discovered that the best thing is to get away from everything. I've been designing pretty solidly by myself for 23 or 24 years, you know.
I went to Cuba over New Year. It's somewhere I'd always wanted to go. Because I also play music, normally most of my travelling is involved with either some kind of business work or DJing. This is the first time I've been away for a long time where I've had nothing to do. Incredible! It totally cleared my head.
CA: How did going out there inspire you?
TJ: The one thing that I'm frustrated about is that I think that I should be saying more with my work. The Cuban political posters, for instance, are one of the greatest, hugely important, powerful usages of graphic design. For me, with the fucked up shit that's going on, the fact that not enough people are using design to do something is criminal. I'd love to. I think it's what I should be doing.
CA: What do you think of the status quo in design right now?
TJ: I don't give a fuck about what's going on in graphic design. I find it boring. I find it incredibly boring. If you were to ask me what inspires me at the moment, I wouldn't name any graphic designers whatsoever. There has always been very few people who are willing to break the mould and do something that's different - people always want to be sheep, and when there's sudden movement then everyone wants to follow the same movement.
The way it is with software and computers, it's very easy to make something that looks good, but I'm not interested in things that just look good. They've got to have far more depth than that, and they've got to have a purpose, whether that's an intellectual purpose or an emotional purpose.
CA: In your own work, do you aim for an emotional or an intellectual connection with the viewer?
TJ: My approach is far more emotional, without a doubt, although I truthfully don't try to intellectualise about things too much because I love things that have a kind of naivety and a sense of purity to them. If you try to analyse things too much, the magic gets destroyed.
CA: How would you say your approach has changed?
TJ: My earlier work was definitely more fun, and then I made a conscious decision to become more refined. I've tried to have a more minimalist approach. It's almost like a calmer for me. It calms my head. I've got like 20,000 records in [my studio] and thousands of books, and sometimes it's too much. To be able to approach things in a really simple way is quite meditative, you know. It actually calms me and makes me feel better. At the moment there's too much visual noise around - I'm not interested in these people who do work that is a barrage of stuff.
CA: So what is design about for you at the moment?
TJ: The most important things to me are to: a) solve the brief, b) satisfy myself, and c) try and push things as much as I can. I don't have a design ego. For me it's not about imprinting my own visual identity on everything. I've always had a bit of scorn for designers who have an in-house style because I just find that's quite derogatory to your client. It's been to my detriment in many ways because I look at my work, and I approach each client, in a totally different way, and I don't think there's a consistent style to my work.
CA: How do you feel about the industry in light of The Designers Republic closure?
TJ: I started out at the same time as The Designers Republic... I think it's sad. This is not related to Designers Republic at all, but a huge percentage of the doom and gloom is based around people being too greedy and running before they can walk, or whatever. I'm sure there will be loads of doom and gloom but for me, personally, I went through the recession of the '80s, and it was good for me. Normally when there's a recession it creates a movement, and if we can have a new cultural movement or youth movement and it means something can come out of this, it will be amazing.
CA: With the vinyl LP now a rarity and CD sales in decline, what opportunities are there in design for the music industry?
TJ: [Moving] from designing record sleeves to designing CDs, obviously there was a frustration. But then, as a designer, if someone asked me to design an MP3 stick, I'd have fun doing it. I'd find a solution to try and make it as exciting as possible. Bands are still going to need visual elements to promote themselves. I think the live arena is huge. Look at the amount of interactive stuff that's going on for live music; look at that Nine Inch Nails tour - it's some of the most incredible live visuals I've ever seen.
CA: How does it feel to be a design icon?
TJ: I don't deserve the title, to be quite honest with you. I've only achieved two or three pieces of work that I'm really proud of. It's very flattering, incredibly flattering.