Designers to Know: Stanley Donwood

post written by Sean Downey
in ArtInfluential Designers

The principles of good branding can be applied to just about everything - your business, the clothes you wear, the consistent tastes across the food you make and, to no surprise, the music you make too. Art-Rock masters Radiohead utilize the principles of branding in their music extremely well. Although each album they've made is an almost complete diversion from the former, you can always pick up the core Radiohead sounds and textures they've always used. A snizzling snare with a high frequency will always find its way into the mix even when a world of strings replaces their guitars, and a couple subtle bloops and bleeps will always return you to the unknown even when Thom Yorke is singing the saddest of ballads. These kinds of branding moves are also used by their sixth member, Stanley Donwood, who is their cover artist.

Donwood has always been described as equally important to all the other members of Radiohead because of how well he contributed to their vision. Pick up a Radiohead album, and without even seeing their name you can most likely tell its one of theirs. Donwood's works range from manipulated collages, digital- landscapes, endless painted-patterns and experimental photography. Although certain details in each work remain consistent, Donwood worked on each cover with a huge focus on the band's state of mind and their vision rather than only his own. This worked wonders.

Donwood was born in 1968 in Essex, UK, and attended University of Exeter, where he met Thom and the other members of Radiohead initially. He first worked on Radiohead's sophomore release, The Bends, and then worked with them from then on. With Radiohead's music sounding so left field with each release, Donwood's work I like to characterize as helped define each era's zeitgeist. With OK Computer, ambiguous images and symbols are overlayed into a structured collage. This is reminiscent of David Carson's typographic-mashes, where words are fuzed to the point that the overall message gets skewed. On Hail to the Thief, Donwood was inspired by Paula Scher's maps, except this time it was displaying a load of weighted-jabs at society. With In Rainbows, Donwood utilized typographic repetition to mimic the repetitive nature of electronic music, overlayed on a colorful explosion.

The influences Donwood uses for his work has helped me to try and take more risks with my work. Always referencing other design work can lead you into a box. Even worse, you can turn into a designer that's only contributing to a momentary trend rather than making lasting solutions. It is equally important to look at studio art, cultural tendencies, and even music when you're designing for bands or other artists. An artistic statement can only be met with an equally strong artistic statement. Many times I've heard a great album, but the cover art is absolutely horrendous and actually often weakens the music. But, for Stanley Donwood, that will never be the case.