Most designers have their heroes. Mine is Mark Farrow. For over thirty years now he and his studio have designed identities, packaging, racing yacht liveries and much more for an impressive collection of clients across various industries. Manic Street Preachers, Camper and Harvey Nichols are just a few notable examples. One of the studio’s most long-time clients is pop-duo Pet Shop Boys. Made up of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, Pet Shop Boys have played an enormous part in my life growing up as a child and into my early adult years. Having first heard them at the age of five in 2001, the duo have remained a constant in my life. The visual campaigns that accompany their work, almost all by Farrow, have equally captured my imagination over the years and I cite them as one of the main reasons for me becoming a graphic designer.
In October 2016, I was in my third year at university, preparing to start my dissertation. Having extensive interest and knowledge of both Pet Shop Boys and Farrow, I decided to write about their partnership. One of my tutors encouraged me to contact Farrow and ask him some questions in order to get some original source material for my essay. Farrow kindly agreed and below are the questions I sent him and the answers I got back.
What involvement does the record company have when it comes to the visual side of Pet Shop Boys? Presumably Neil and Chris' opinions carry the most weight but how much time do you spend presenting work to record company representatives, particularly when Pet Shop Boys were signed to Parlophone? Has the record company ever got in the way of an idea, whether that be for a financial or marketing reason?
Record companies have had very little input historically and have tended to be very happy with what we have supplied (or at least that's what they said...). I was lucky in as much as Pet Shop Boys were having a number one hit (West End Girls) just as I started working with them. This obviously put them in a very strong position in terms of getting what they want. The only record company I had worked with until that point was Factory Records, so I was used to doing what I wanted to, and we've continued in the same vein ever since. People do periodically voice an opinion but if we and Pet Shop Boys are happy then they'd have to have an incredibly strong argument in order to win through. I remember the most fractured situation was the sleeve for Actually. The label manager at Parlophone could not for the life of her understand why anyone would want their album cover featuring one artist yawning and the other looking as miserable as fuck. It's a good argument, but she was wrong. That cover expressed Pet Shop Boys at that point, and I like to think it still stands up now.
To what extent do Neil and Chris go into detail about the design aspects of their campaigns? Does it go as far as discussing typefaces for example and other similarly specialised areas of design or do you have more generally conceptual-based conversations with them?
The short answer to that is they get very involved. How their album covers look is just as important to them now as it was on day one. It usually starts with them coming in to the studio, they'll play some music, and give us any thoughts they have on how the album might feel. In the past they have had strong ideas about what they wanted and on other occasions less so. When you have worked together as long as we have there is an enormous amount of trust and faith there. So thoughts and ideas can be kicked around for a while until we get to where we all want to be. And that's the important bit, that we are all happy and the cover is the best it can be. Although it would be a lie to say we didn't all make compromises to each other along the way. Well, to describe the process on Super it went like this. The first time they came in the studio they had a list of around five potential titles and asked us what we thought was the best one. We all went for Super.
Pet Shop Boys are somewhat known for their special editions when it comes to album releases. The Yes limited edition boxset in particular has become a coveted piece of music packaging in both the design and music industries. What leads the duo to have a special, often limited edition of an album, specifically the boxsets like the ones done for Yes and Electric? Do you and the Farrow team see potential in a campaign for further, perhaps more 'elaborate' packaging so to speak given a larger budget per copy and then maybe raise the idea with Neil and Chris, or do they initiate these projects, essentially asking you to go and see what can be done with music packaging?
The first of these, for Yes, came about because management were approached by a company called Vinyl Factory about the idea of creating something special around a vinyl release. From our perspective it's just a fantastic opportunity to expand on the album themes without any budget or creative restrictions. We love doing them, it's just fucking good fun. It's definitely the case now that people either want their music for nothing i.e. streaming etc. or they are willing to pay a premium for something really special and limited. Neil and Chris like them too, though they are equally very aware that they are considered exclusive by many people, especially those who can't afford them, so there is a balance to be found, they are very conscious about alienating fans.
Since Es Devlin has taken on the challenge of designing the Pet Shop Boys stage shows, a lot of the basic concepts for the productions have been derived from the initial album campaigns, particularly the front covers. For example, the cubes used in the Fundamental Tour were lined with Versa®TUBE lights as a nod to the neon on the Fundamental album cover and the Pandemonium Tour heavily featured boxes as a nod to the diamonds that formed the check-mark on the Yes album cover. Do you ever work on a Pet Shop Boys campaign with consideration for how your visuals may be later adapted for the stage shows?
You're correct, Es' productions are often informed by our work. This is a good thing, it completes the story, if you like. Equally we have taken elements from what Es does within her production and used it on merchandise and so on, so it works both ways. I guess this appears like a holistic approach but it isn't really, we don't design an album cover with a view to how it might work as a live show. That said, it's once you start to see the possibilities of how one of your album ideas might be carried through a whole campaign and then a tour that that idea tends to be the one you lean towards, if that makes sense?
Pet Shop Boys are of course, first and foremost, a pop act. Pop music in its very nature is arguably supposed to be transient and contemporary to a large degree and it doesn't have to necessarily be timeless because it's mostly about the period in which it's made. Traditionally, most graphic designers on the other hand aim for timelessness in their work. Do you see timelessness as of equal importance when designing visuals for pop music as you perhaps do in something more 'long-term' like a corporate identity for example?
I'm not sure we think about those things that hard. I guess over the period I have worked with Pet Shop Boys, trends of a given period have crept in, maybe in the use of colour and so on, but we never actively make something feel 'trendy', it's just not what we do.
Perhaps a standard question but do you have a favourite piece of work from all the things you and your studio have done with Pet Shop Boys? My personal favourite would have to be either the Electric or the Fundamental album campaigns.
It is a standard question, but it's very difficult to answer. Like you I very much like Electric, so that's pretty up there. I don't think Fundamental is that special, though I did like the neon photography we did, and the single Minimal was a kinda cool expression of an idea. Albums, I'd be somewhere between Actually and Introspective probably, but in truth it's too difficult to choose. Best single is easier, Miracles. I just think we pushed a single format as far as it could go on that, inner and outer sleeves, printing on every surface, cut outs, and white vinyl. We even managed to make the promo sleeve smell of blossom.