Dark Side: the story of Hipgnosis, the kings of album cover design

From Pink Floyd to AC/DC, this duo did them all






It’s March 1, 1973.
You’re walking from back from the record shop with a copy of Pink Floyd’s new album Dark Side Of The Moon in a plastic bag. After a little too long waiting at the bus stop – this is the ’70s after all – your double-decker arrives, and you get on, jogging up the stairs to your favoured spot near the back. 
You sit down, rub the condensation from the window so you can see out, then pull the record from the bag. It boasts a cover that’s both unique and mysterious. 
Instead of the band’s name or album title, all that greets you is an image of a prism, dispersing a ray of light into all the colours of the spectrum. You run a fingernail down the cellophane wrapping and open up the gatefold sleeve where the lyrics are printed inside: if the packaging is this good, imagine what the music’s going to sound like…
Today, 44 years on from the release of Dark Side Of The Moon, the image of that prism is as potent as ever, a symbol of music’s cultural dominance of the age. And the design agency behind it, London’s Hipgnosis, was as integral to pop’s ascendancy as any of the bands themselves. 
Hipgnosis was made up of Cambridge designers Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell and Storm Thorgerson. In 1967 they were approached by their hometown friends Pink Floyd to design the group’s A Saucerful Of Secrets album. This led to them being offered more work by EMI, and the pair set up a studio – with loans from their mums – in London’s Denmark Street. 
The name came from a piece of graffiti written on the door next to their studio, rumoured to have been the work of Floyd frontman Syd Barrett. From the beginning, Powell and Thorgerson realised that fans pored over albums in search of insights into the music, which is why they added lyrics, posters and postcards to their packages. 
Sean Bidder, creative director of The Vinyl Factory, which reissues records with limited edition artwork, expands on this. 
“Album cover artwork was the crucial artistic statement and marketing ploy in the pre-video age,” he says. “And in the best cases it became the ultimate branding exercise. Moreover, this was a time when modern art wasn’t accessible for most people so the LP cover became a way of presenting big ideas through a populist prism.”
With regular commissions coming in, Hipgnosis were able to flex their creative muscles, using innovative techniques like airbrushing, cut-and-paste and multiple exposures in their work. And, in keeping with the spirit of experimentation, images of the groups they worked with were a rarity: instead abstract art, high-concept photography (see their work for prog rockers, Yes) and visual puns on lyrics were the order of the day. 
They weren’t picky about the type of musicians they worked with either. While they’re best known for their early 1970s prog-rock images, they also made covers for heavy metal acts like Black Sabbath, Rainbow and AC/DC. 
Justin Quirk, music writer and editor of art/design magazine Supplement has studied Hipgnosis in detail. He believes that a feeling of unease permeates their work, mirroring the ‘post-60s hangover’ of the era. 
“It’s unusual that a design studio could work across that breadth of styles and still keep such a strong visual identity,” he says. “The thing that does run through their work is a kind of bleakness – it feels like a very distinctly ’70s mindset. There’s quite an unsettling quality to a lot of the imagery – photos are manipulated in an odd way. There’s sleeves like AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap where the eyes are obscured, or ones like Black Sabbath’s Never Say Die where people wear masks.”
Thorgerson and Powell always worked on projects in the same way: an initial listen of the album, before studying the lyrics then talking to the musicians themselves. From there they’d begin the design process, which, in the words of Thorgerson, meant “transforming the audio into the visual”.
Speaking in 2010, Aubrey Powell described one of their creative get-togethers.
“We used to have late-night meetings twice a week till about four in the morning,” he said. “We worked very hard. They were very intense creative meetings and often the room would be full of other people; hangers-on, the local tramp, the drug dealer would come round, Japanese groupies, a couple of other designers.”
This process led to a string of brilliant work, featuring artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel and Electric Light Orchestra. Yet it’s still Dark Side Of The Moon – and that prism –  that defines them. 
According to Thorgerson, the idea was inspired by Pink Floyd’s legendary light shows and singer Roger Waters’ fascination with the triangle, seen as a symbol of thought and ambition. A monochrome photo of a prism disseminating colours from light was found by Powell in a physics textbook and given to artist George Hardie, who produced the actual artwork. The band liked it immediately, and asked Hipgnosis to expand the theme over the gatefold sleeve, resulting in perhaps the most iconic album sleeve ever.
The popularity of DSOTM gave Hipgnosis – now with third partner Peter Christopherson – enough projects to work on until 1983, when the company was dissolved. Powell went to work in video and film, while Thorgerson continued designing albums covers alone until his death in 2013. 
Today, their output is still admired, especially with the resurgence in vinyl of the last few years. For Sean Bidder of the Vinyl Factory, Hipgnosis’ work symbolises the synthesis of two of the 20th century’s most powerful cultural forces: music and graphic art. 
“I think the best album sleeve designers consider themselves artists who are using the format as a canvas for conveying big ideas to a broad audience. And when they find the right platform – be it a band or label – the result is powerful and inspirational work, whether that’s Peter Saville and Joy Division/New Order or Hipgnosis/Pink Floyd.”
And that’s as true now as it was in March 1973. 
Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue is published by Thames & Hudson, out now

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