On June 14th, a small group of U2 fans will be sitting in on a special Q&A session with Steve Averill and his associates at Four5One, the graphic design powerhouse behind much of U2's album covers and iconography. Averill and company will be present to mark the opening of their portion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's "In The Name of Love - Two Decades of U2" exhibit.
U2 provides the music; Four5One provides the art by which the music is visually identified. Would we all know what a Joshua Tree is, let alone where it can be found, had we not seen it on the album cover of a band we know and love? The album cover serves as a small 12x12 canvas for the artist/designers to convey the emotion and feelings of the music held inside. Some of these pieces of art will be unveiled, along with other supporting pieces of print materials, such as posters, tour program books, interactive items, sketches, concepts on June 14th at the Rock Hall's Fan Celebration.
Four5One is not only noted for their highest profile client U2, but cover a wide scope of work ranging from identity, branding, packaging, entertainment, motion, interactive and publishing.
Steve Averill, (formerly known as Steve Rapid), burst onto the Dublin scene as the flamboyant lead singer of 70's punk band The Radiators from Space. Feeling limited by his singing abilities, Steve left that persona behind and pursued his day job as an advertising associate at Arrow Publishing. According to U2 lore, Steve was introduced to U2 when [U2 were] still known as The Hype. Adam Clayton, bassist for the young Irish group, approached Averill about a new name for the fledgling band. Averill suggested the multi-meaning moniker "U2," and the rest is music industry history!
Averill went on to become creative director and owner of Four5One Creative, a firm responsible for some of U2's best-loved graphic design campaigns and iconography, and designers of U2's now-defunct World Service Magazine, Propaganda. Additionally the company is responsible for the album covers for Boy, October, War, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, Zooropa, Pop and the recent All That You Can't Leave Behind, including its ubiquitous icons: heart-in-a-suitcase, and various "Elevation" and travel-related logos.
Recently, Four5One created a limited edition book showcasing their work with the band, entitled Stealing Hearts At A Travelling Show. The book features new interview with Averill, Bono, Adam, and frequent design collaborator Shaughn McGrath (also with Four5One), as well as graphic design out-takes, album covers, tour programs and t-shirts. Four5One took extra-special care to reproduce the graphic imagery as best they could by, as Averill says, "recreating the original artwork rather than just scanning the old covers." Only 6000 copies of Stealing Hearts At A Traveling Show have been printed, 2000 of which are in hardback form. The book will be able to purchase the at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the next six months, and also from the Four5One's website: http://www.four5one.ie/. For information on the upcoming Four5One book, visit: http://www.four5one.ie/U2/details.htm
The U2 exhibit at the Rock Hall is due to close in September 2003.
Below is an e-mail interview Interference's Producer Liza Guerra conducted recently with Averill discussing Four5One's work, design philosophy and the current exhibit at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.
Four5One's graphic style and work is very modern, where do you find your inspiration?
The inspiration for our work comes from the interaction between the designers in the studio and their collective interests, which are wide ranging. Itıs not that easy to define or pinpoint but when your working on a sleeve design for instance you tend to get a gut instinct as to what feels right for a cover and for the overall feel for the music. We also keep ourselves aware of what is happening in the world of design, the trends movements etc, so that we can either keep pace with them... or ignore them. If youıre working designing album sleeves you need to be aware of whatıs out there so you donıt come up with something that is close to something else that is out there.
What place do you see the visual imagery and iconography Four5One creates for U2 playing in the overall presentation of the band?
A good cover can never sell bad music in the long run. And if a major band released an album with no cover, or a minimal one, it would probably still sell. However think of the difference between the Beatles White Album and Sergeant Peppers for instance to see what a memorable cover can add to the overall appreciation of the music and the band. Good covers can become icons and tend to conjure up images of a particular time and place when you see them. So in U2ıs case the way the symbol of, say, the Joshua Tree silhouette was used as part of the stage backdrop and as a t-shirt motif to create an icon plays a role in presentation and overall conception of the album and tour.
U2 is probably still your most high-profile client, but since Four5One's relationship with the band began you've also worked with other notable clients. How much has the relationship with U2 helped in getting work in Ireland and beyond?
In a funny way we found in the Irish context it was almost detrimental. As a design company we have always designed a wide range of material, from packaging to brochures to company logos - all the things that a design company usually does, the music side of things was only one aspect of what we did but because of the profile of U2 it became a focus with the result that the perception arose that all we did was that end of things and another we discovered was that many people though then, without any reference to us, that if we worked for U2 then we would be too expensive. So that was something we had to get over which is why just over two years ago we rebranded as Four 5 One to try and get over that perception. We love working on music projects and have recently worked on Depeche Mode related projects such as their recent DVD and two solo albums. Shaughn (McGrath) worked on them with Anton Corbijn. We would like to do a lot more international work but sometimes clients see the fact that we are based here in Ireland as a problem but when we have worked with clients outside of the country it has actually worked very well.
What can you tell us about the actual Four5One display at the Rock Hall? How much input did Four5One have in this installation?
For the exhibition, we have chosen as many images as we can that will fit the limited space available that also complement the visual material that is part of the yearlong U2 exhibition that is currently running there. So we have had a big input into that aspect of it.
How did the idea of having Four5One featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum come about? Did they approach you?
We had been approached a while back about doing an exhibition of our U2 related work a while back and when we finally got round to catalogue it there was a lot more that would fit in a small gallery so we were looking for a bigger space when we were approached by the Hall of Fame to contribute to their exhibition. We took that offer to show some of the work and then we were kindly invited to come over to give a talk.
Did you ever think your design agency would have an exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum? What does this mean for the arena of graphic design, or what does this say about the place of design in the history of rock music? What does it say about U2, that its exhibit included a photography and design section?
No, we didnt but it is an honour. What it says, I think, to a degree is that design has become, sometimes, a marketing tool rather that a strong visual statement these days. The video is often the main focus now and thatıs where the bulk of the budgets go. With U2 they have always taken a big interest in all aspects of their work and they have always maintained a close working relationship with the designer and photographer directly whereas, sometimes, this is controlled by the record company instead and this means that there are very few band s who maintain a close long-time association with any particular design company which in the long term can only result in a greater continuity for the development of a graphic identity. In U2s case you can see this link at work.
How difficult was it to narrow down which pieces to allow on exhibit? Where have all these items been stored over the years and what does the company do with all of its U2 collection the rest of the time?
It was a difficult choice to decide what to show and what not to show especially when a lot of the artwork and material for the early projects has disappeared over time. There are always several options for any U2 project produced and we have tried to gather together as many of these out-takes as we could. This is why we have produced a very limited edition book to go along with the exhibition entitled Stealing Hearts At A Travelling Show it has new interviews with Adam and Bono as well as myself and Shaughn about the whole design process. We have spent a lot of time and effort to recreate the original artwork rather than just scanning the old cover to get the very best reproduction quality. For any fan of the band that has an interest in their graphic work it will be a must.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is very much an American cultural institution; how does it feel to be an Irish design agency prominently shown in this place that rock built? Has Four5One's work been showcased in any other museums?
We have never consciously gone that direction. In fact in Ireland none of the major museums have any criteria for graphic design, the major focus is and has always been on fine art. That is why venues like the Hall Of Fame and the Country Music Foundation are important.
What has been Four5One's favorite U2 project, and why? Which project do you suspect is the bands favorite?
Thats a difficult one. In many ways the latest one is always the most exciting one. Each person involved will have their own favourite. But Achtung Baby is often mentioned for its diversity of image and for the way it took the band to a new place. The Photographic shoot for Joshua Tree has always been a favourite for me. Traveling around that part of the States was inspirational.
How much does the sound of the album and what's going on in the world (culturally and politically) determine the design of the album artwork? Does Four5One flesh out ideas first and present them to the band, or does the band already have concepts in mind that you then use?
The direction the music has an a major impact on the final outcome of the sleeve as does the title, which in turn can often change as the music develops in the studio. There is a discussion process at the start to see where the feeling of the next album is going but that a more focused happens once they have recorded some tracks and the interchange of ideas takes place and we sift through and develop those strands, some of which come from us and some from the band.
How has the working relationship and creative process with U2 differ from that with other clients, since both organizations have known each other so long?
The creative process differs with each client, as the chemistry for each is unique. For instance working with Elvis Costello is a more direct process as he is also hands on and can make a decision about how he wants the cover to be. You have to realise that you are not designing for yourself but for the particular so you need to be flexible enough to accommodate their ideas into the overall design, even if on occasions what they want may not always be something that you would do yourself but the end result comes from both parties and that what makes a relationship work.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery: when you see that your design elements/artwork from U2s latest release(s) are being used and applied to fansites/fanzines, what is your reaction?
In a digital age the use of imagery is a lot easier to manipulate, so you do tend to see your work turning up all over the place and while it is nice to get the occasional credit it also means that someone thinks that what you have done is worth using, which is not a bad thing.
U2 has been in the studio working on an album that may come out as early as this coming winter. Have you already begun discussions on the design concept for the album? How far in advance do you generally begin creating packaging for an album?
At this stage we are very excited about the project and it is the challenge to match the excitement of the rough tracks we have heard so far with a strong cover, but we have yet to get into to it in depth - that will start very soon.
The design themes of U2 albums and tours generally complement each other. Do Willie Williams and Mark Fisher take cues from your design concept for the tour staging and production, or do all of you work with the band to create a look and feel that has continuity between album, stage and merchandise?
Obviously, there are crossover reference points and similar themes and both Willie Williams and Mike Fisher have a long work relationship with the band too, but usually the sleeve concepts are in place before the design for the show and stage comes into play.
When did Four5One begin working on Propaganda U2s World Service Magazine? How did the relationship with this publication begin? How does the company feel to see the publication of the fanzine come to an end? What would you like to see take Propagandas place?
We were brought in at the latter end of the process and tried to bring something new to it. We felt that the latter issues with a new size etc were taking it to a new place but the advent of u2.com makes it a lot easier to send out current information so it made the reason for doing Propaganda a lot less practical. It fulfilled its purpose well during its time.
Can Four5One offer any advice for anyone who aspires to be a graphic designer?
This is a question that is often asked and the simple answer is to just start doing it for local bands, if thatıs a direction you want to go in. However that sometimes results in a lot of mediocre sleeves. It all depends if the person doing the design has any real talent or not and that is only something time will tell.
OK, to put the entire mystery to rest, what is the REAL story behind U2 getting their name? Are you able to tell us the meaning and/or genesis of the Four5One moniker as well?
Ah, the name story. Ok simply put it came about after Adam asked me for a list of names as they were going to do a talent contest and that was the one that they choose to use for that, they won so they kept it. If they hadnıt they may have used something else later... but weıll never know now. It has become, for better or worse the name that are know by, Some names work better than other but it all depends on their success, Im sure calling your band the Beatles might seem pretty corny these days, so hindsight is always a different matter. Four 5 One was taken from the book and film Fahrenheit 451, which is the point at which paper self ignites. We wanted a name that allowed us to be seen in a lot of different light to reflect the different aspects of what we do and on a superficial level it means hot graphics!