The Designer Of The Most Iconic Indie Albums Of The ’90s Gets A Book

Vaughan Oliver designed album art for the bands that defined a decade, from the Pixies and the Breeders to the Cocteau Twins.

The Breeders’ song “Cannonball,” the lead single from the band’s 1993 album Last Splash, starts off with screeching guitar that sounds like ear-busting audio feedback. A rolling bass line and beating drum enter a few seconds in. The album’s cover–a shiny plastic heart splashed with dark brown liquid and set against a swirling acid-green and neon-red background, is almost like a visual analogue for the track’s rhythmic abrasiveness.


It’s the work of Vaughan Oliver, a British graphic designer responsible for the surreal look of 4AD, the indie rock label of the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, and, of course, the Breeders. Oliver’s work is the subject of a new book, just launched on Kickstarter, from the independent publisher Unit Editions.

[Image: courtesy Unit Editions]
Over the decades, Oliver has developed a distinct style in which he “elevate[s] the banal through surrealism,” he once said. His work is layered and dark and intense, and he often collaborates closely with illustrators, photographers, and other graphic designers to produce his dreamscapes. While the albums and bands he’s designed for have millions of fans, Oliver himself is finally receiving the art book treatment he deserves.

“He doesn’t obey the rules of typography, and often his work is about mystery and weirdness–the opposite of most graphic communication, which is mostly about clarity and unambiguous messages,” Adrian Shaughnessy, cofounder of Unit Editions, tells Co.Design in an email. “He is a true graphic auteur. The David Lynch of graphic design!”

[Image: courtesy Unit Editions]
Oliver, who is now 60 years old, started as an analog designer–cutting, pasting, and collaging his covers–and embraced digital design, too. He held onto all of his proofs, sketches, mock-ups, darkroom tests, childhood drawings, posters, and even the books he read as a teenager, which are now in his archive at the University for the Creative Arts, Epsom, where he is a professor. To produce the book, Unit Editions plans to photograph everything then edit the selection down for the visually driven 432-page book, which is expected to ship in summer 2018. While this isn’t Oliver’s first monograph–design historian Rick Poynor authored one in 2000–it’s the first to take advantage of his personal archive, which he relocated to UCA in 2016. Now more of his work, much of which hasn’t been seen, will be accessible to the public.

“There’s no one in graphic design–then or now–quite like him,” Shaughnessy says. “His work has a poetic and lyrical quality that is closer to art than graphic design. There’s also a cinematic quality to his work that makes him a unique voice in the visual world. . .I hope that people will come to see that he is an extraordinary talent. Original, and a one-off.”

Visit Kickstarter to back Unit Edition’s campaign for the Vaughan Oliver book, which concludes on December 8. Shipping for the monograph (about $100) is expected in May 2018.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.