Orbell Communications

Communicating Your Message

Interview with ZTT Records designer, David Smart

Posted by jorbell on March 26, 2011

As a child of the 80s I was very much fan of the bands Frankie goes to Hollywood, Art of Noise and Propaganda. Coincidentally there were all on the same record label, Zang Tuum Tumb, or to give it its more familiar name, ZTT.

Welcome to the Pleasuredome - Frankie goes to Hollywood

Welcome to the Pleasuredome - Frankie goes to Hollywood

Art and design has always been an interest of mine too so the sleeve art always fascinated me. Former music journalist Paul Morley was catalyst for many of the ideas for the ‘look’ of the label and the brainchild of its groundbreaking marketing. Paul worked with David Smart to create some iconic designs which still look great to this day.

Who's Afraid (of The Art of Noise) 

Who's Afraid (of The Art of Noise)

Dr Mabuse - Propaganda

Dr Mabuse - Propaganda

I got in contact with David to ask him about those early days and how the whole design process worked, the agency XL and what set his own creative juices flowing.

Who were your own design influences and inspirations?

At the time I started working for ZTT I think my influences were:
1. Blue note
2. The Bauhaus
3. Paul Rand
4. El Lissitzky
5. Paul Massin’s book ‘La letter et l’image

How did you and XL come to work so closely with ZTT?

XL Design was started by two designers, Tom Watkins and Royston Edwards. Tom worked largely in the field of interiors and Royston had a background in illustration and designing for magazines. Tom designed much of the interior of Sarm Studios in Notting Hill – where ZTT was born – commissioned by Jill Sinclair and Trevor Horn. I joined XL after about a year and met Paul Morley soon after, who was visiting our design studios in Poland Street in London’s West End. He asked us to design the cover for ‘Into Battle’ Art of Noise. I’d never designed a record sleeve, having worked largely in publishing as a book designer. Same gravy different meat. They seemed to like it and ‘Relax’ followed shortly after. It just happened.

What was the general process of creating something for artists on the ZTT label?

Paul Morley always arrived with a doodle and with words. I always loved the doodles which were sometimes made on scraps of paper, restaurant paper napkins, backs of envelopes – never on anything too precious. (I wish I had kept some of those doodles). I guess my job was to try and interpret the doodle and bring it to life graphically. To see envisage Paul’s imagining was. The process was quite fluid, a bit like a copywriter and designer working together, or two dance partners. Sometimes I would play with his words and sometimes he would play with my designs. It was always his vision. I was interpreter. I would handle most of Sarm’s advertising and graphic design, and designed almost everything for Frankie Goes to Hollywood up until the ‘Liverpool’ album. Also Anne Pigalle and Andrew Poppy bits. My co-director Royston worked with Art of Noise. Paul was also a brilliant commissioner of artwork and would often arrive with photographs, illustrations or paintings as ingredients for designs. Sometimes we would need to hunt out or create imagery. We always decided on typeface, logos, textures and colours and the layout and balance of things. But I should emphasize that this was a collaboration where thoughts were shared and laughs were many. There was always a sense of mischief in the air.

How were the ZTT logo and spattered custom sleeve and record label designs developed?

I cannot remember how the logo came about. Paul might? I suspect it came from Dada somewhere. The spattering came from the sprayed wall covering at Sarm studios. Tom Watkins used a spattered paint finish in many of his interior designs at that time. I think we mimicked this on paper.

Who were your favourite ZTT artists to design for?

Frankie and Art of Noise. I loved the bonkersness of it all (if that’s a word) and I loved that anything seemed possible. I have always held on to that notion when designing. Frankie represented for me a subversive way of being and designing. Art of Noise had a mysterious madness and a charming playfulness. But actually I loved all of ZTT’s acts as they all had a character and spirit that seems missing in much of contemporary music. A unique voice.

Who were the most difficult to work for on personal or creative level?

I could not say – even if I knew.

Was there ever a design that you personally hated but had to do because others demanded it?


Were there ever any major disagreements over sleeves and advertising style between XL, ZTT and the bands?

Not really. I think that when we became known for our part in the work then other record companies wanted us to design for them. Which we did. This did create some tension between XL and ZTT, but we were an independent company so felt that we had no particular loyalty to any label.

What was it like working with Paul Morley? How easy was it to interpret his ideas?

Always a pleasure and he was always very clear.

The similarity between the sleeves of ‘Into Battle’ and the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s ‘Time Further Out’ is striking – what is story behind the look for this sleeve?

I don’t have a story – Paul might?

Why did ‘Who’s afraid of the Art of Noise’ have three different sleeves? How did you approach the re-design process?

Just a game I think.

What did you think of Morley’s writing? Was it genius or pretentious twaddle? Did it act as a catalyst or was the copy added later?

It depends which writing you are talking about. Some of it was factual and some of it like poetry. It was often fun to try and express words typographically. Words were always part of the picture.

What happened to XL and was there a connection with Accident Design?

XL broke up due to differences between the directors and because of financial difficulties. After it ended, Royston Edwards and myself formed Accident and continued work for ZTT as well as other labels and clients.

Which other label and agency’s work did you rate highly in the early days?

I have always loved the work of Verve, Blue Note and ECM. Mark Farrow worked for us for a while at XL and has went on to design wonderful things including the Pet Shop Boys. Assorted Images and Stylo Rouge were both successful agencies which I admired.

Which of your sleeves do you think have best stood the test of time?

Art of Noise seem to have a timeless quality. The Power of Love contained a painting by Titian from the Frari in Venice. I got this when on holiday there. I guess that is as timeless as it gets.

Was any artwork produced for Instinct’s unreleased single ‘Sleepwalking’ or any other of their aborted releases?

Sorry – I don’t remember

Do you still have original artwork – released or unreleased concepts – from the 80s?

We sold all our original artwork to Jill Sinclair at ZTT/Sarm. As far as I know they still hold all the rights to it. I have dusty boxes full of all my ZTT work in my loft at home. But no original artwork.


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