Stephen Averill and Shaughn McGrath of AMP Visual, are Ireland’s most garlanded pop-culture designers, and have overseen every U2 album cover. We caught up with Stephen to discuss everything from the early days of photocopied gig posters to working with photographer Anton Corbijn.
With an interest in graphic design beginning in his teenage years Stephen soon found that the only course focusing on what was then called “commercial art” was a yearlong program on “basic design” in Dun Laoghaire. Following this he worked in a photo type setting print firm and moved from here to Arks Advertising and eventually worked up to the role of Creative Director at the Helme Partnership where he met Shaughn.
Straight away he was working on a range of advertising and design related projects, which included U2. So Shaughn was thrown in at the deep end when I got him involved with what became the Achtung Baby campaign. From then on he was involved with the band’s design, as were other members of the team, to this day and through various changes in the company’s name and structure.
Stephen worked on U2’s first ever poster and 7” single cover as well as advising on their name. He has worked on almost all of their album artwork since but has the working relationship with “The Lads” changed over time.
In the early days it was very one to one with, usually the band and Paul McGuinness, being involved. The budget and timescales were also a lot tighter. As the band become more successful that obviously changes although we still enjoyed a good face to face relationship as the band were often recording in Dublin or London and setting up listening sessions and artwork meetings was a relatively easy process. We had over time developed a close working relationship and began to have a good sense of what the band might like in terms of direction.
With the music industry changing dramatically in the last ten years from moving from physical albums to mp3s and now onto streaming with Spotify and Tidal, how has this impacted on album artwork?
The need for the music industry to include graphic identities for an artist for merchandising, online usage etc has never really diminished. When the switch to digital occurred there seemed that there would be new areas for digital special packaging projects as PDF booklet formats but that option never seemed to catch on with public. The work might be viewed online but that was about it. The success of physical “deluxe and reissue” packaging shows that, in the main, the tactile nature of print still wins out.
Stephen has recently retired from AMP Visual but definitely isn’t resting on his laurels.
It’s something of a reinvention time for me. I am going to carry on working as a freelance art director and have a number of projects in hand. Recently I’ve been working with an upcoming band. Giving them some suggestions for a name change was an early part of the process. I don’t think you ever stop being a designer (or at least thinking like one). I also intend to keep working on music with my band Trouble Pilgrims.
Join us at OFFSET this April to welcome Stephen and Shaughn on to the main stage and to catch a glimpse into the makings of some of the most iconic album covers.