Things We Like: Peter Saville, Joy Division, Substance

We are quite fond of the work of British graphic designer Peter Saville. If we were forced to admit it, we might actually say that it’s easily some of the best graphic design work ever produced. At its best, his work is conceptually driven, visually restrained, often dry and mostly deadpan.

Saville gained notoriety within the niche of music graphics, designing iconic cover art for Tony Wilson’s legendary Factory label like Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and New Order’s Blue Monday. For us, though, it’s his promotional artwork for Joy Division’s Substance collection and Atmosphere single of 1988 that rise to the top of the list.

The posters are so simple, so restrained, yet so full of contrasts. Saville pits the humanist qualities of Garamond against Wim Crouwel’s mechanical, retro-futurist New Alphabet font of 1967. He adds to them some abstract, macro-lensed photography, a judicious hit of color, sets it all within a vast field of white, aligns on a central axis, and presumably packs it in for the day. They’re so simple, so straight forward that one could easily just shrug their shoulders and sigh, “so what?”.

But it’s precisely that lack of “stuff” that makes these works so perfect. The massive white space heightens the tension between parts by creating a quiet, vacuum-sealed environment where one has no choice but to study the few elements that do inhabit the space and investigate their nuances. Everything placed there has a purpose and the composition is devoid of all extraneous parts and gestures.

In any creative endeavor there is that impulse to jump in and start making; a subconscious urge and assumption that says in order to make an impression, you must make a mark. Any mark. Yet with Saville’s work, the reverse is true. His work dictates that objects loaded with meaning, carefully selected, thoughtfully edited and composed with clear intent will leave a greater impression than any overwrought, self-indulgent gesture ever could.