Trevor Jackson may be better known as a DJ, producer and a label head, but he got his start in the music world as a graphic designer. As an art school student besotted by the hip-house being imported into London, Jackson found himself enlisted by Champion Records to bring a visual freshness to tunes that already had it musically. Jackson soon moved on to found his own agency and higher profile clients like The Stereo MCs. Unwilling to take on design projects for artists he didn't fully support, though, he eventually began his own label, Output, to further pursue his own vision of how the world should sound and look. That aesthetic in recent years has grown more minimal, leading to his iconic design for Soulwax's Any Minute Now sleeve, as well as his soon-to-be-iconic limited edition print for our upcoming RA X party in London. (He'll be DJing there too.) RA's Todd L. Burns recently had Jackson walk us through some of his work.
I have nothing but fun memories of that time. I was 18 years old, I had just left college and I was designing record sleeves for people who were my heroes. At the time there had been a big rave called Sunrise, and it was the first proper big rave that ended up in all the newspapers. So all those Todd Terry ones were really like two-panel cartoons about what was going on at the time in acid house culture.
Champion were so closely-aligned with the record importers next door that the minute a record came out—and was good—Champion would sign it up. Most of these records I'd heard anyway on a dance floor or pirate radio, and then literally the next day I would have a phone call from this guy Mel at Champion saying "Trevor, come in, we've licensed this record and we want you to do a sleeve for it."
The Stereo MCs [stuff] was the first thing that I did where I actually got to meet the band properly. I went to see them live all the time and hung out with them. We struck up a real good relationship. Back then I was trying to put every influence in there, whether it be comic books and cartoons, '50s art, design, illustration. After that, I started getting approached by bigger companies, but I made a conscious decision to only do records sleeves for people whose music I liked. I probably could have done a lot more work, but I only wanted to do things I felt inspired by.
At the beginning I made mistakes with Output. It was my label. I started it as much to put out music as to design sleeves. I was my own client, working closely with bands. But then the financial constraints started to kick in and I started losing money and I thought, "Shit, I can't do this." I had to try and find simple but cost-effective ways of doing things differently so people wanted to posses them.
I was always trying to find a way of getting around doing something expensive, but was still visually exciting. [It helped that] as I got older I started to realize that less is more. Now it's more about the idea. I would rather have a really strong concept than have loads of things going on.
Soulwax were good friends of mine. I knew that they were very visually literate and their cultural knowledge was really strong, so there were a lot of different ways I could've gone. I ended up doing eight or ten different ideas and that was just the one they picked. I think it was [my favourite that I made for them] because it was the most avant-garde.
It was the first time I had done that effect. Most of my work has always been black and white with primary colours. I had explored Op Art before in many different ways, just not to that extent. I thought we would have a real problem getting it through the record company. But ultimately I think the effect of the cover was so strong that it actually overrode any doubts that anyone had about being illegible because it actually became an interactive object, something that people wanted to look at.
There was a significant change when I started the Output label. At the beginning it was more playful, but then I realised there's real force and power in colour and balance and composition. And some of those things you shouldn't fuck with. You need to have an amount of respect for those things. That's what I tried to capture with my RA X design. Part of the maturing process as a designer—or visual artist—is understanding the way that colour works. And I think colour and light are some of the most important things in my life. Even on a more spiritual level. They're almost magical. There's a purity to it.
A lot of those things have been lost when you can simply go and buy a typography programme and put a bit of type on screen. That's fair enough, but in that process if you don't have a true understanding of the rules... The rules are there to be broken, but I think the best work is made by people who understand the rules and then break them.