Pop In The Age Of Experience
The U2 album Pop 21 years on, and why good design is important.
The U2 conference is an event that takes place every 5 years paying tribute to U2; bringing
together students, scholars, fans, critics, authors and historians to appreciate the work of the
band. This year, the conference took place in Queen’s University, Belfast between June
13th and 15th 2018, focusing on the album “Pop”. Shaughn McGrath and Steve Averill were
asked to give an hour long talk on the album’s artwork and the campaign and tour graphics
that accompanied the album.
2018 marked the 21st anniversary of Pop, the 1997 album which was the 9th LP released by
U2. Pop jolted many fans with its outlandish sound borrowed from techno and pop music of the
time. It was the furthest the band has ever diverged from the “U2 style”. 21 years since its release,
I sit with a crowd who appreciate the experimental endeavour, who seem excited to learn more
about Pop and how it came to be. What I find most interesting, however, is that an album
campaign designed over two decades ago doesn’t seem to have dated, it’s still just as vibrant
and interesting as it was then. I decided to take a look into the lasting design of the album.
Just like the music on Pop was a mix of techno, rock and pop music, the Pop album cover was a
visual hybrid; borrowing from past sleeves such as The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and adding a new take
on ‘pop-art’, pulling influence from artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. (The Roy
Lichtenstein Foundation faxed Shaughn & Steve after the release of the album to say that they
thought ‘the master would have been proud’!) It combined photographs of the band with 90s
street graphics, 90s magazine graphics, contemporary packaging, Japanese confectionary
packaging and club fashion styling and colours.
Pop was the third in a trilogy of hyper colour sleeves; Achtung Baby, Zooropa and then Pop.
Metallic special inks and CMYK colours gave the album cover the visual punch that it needed.
The halftone effect was achieved through Photoshop filters that looked like ‘Benday Dots’, as seen
in Lichtensten’s iconic prints. These dots are used to make up silhouettes of each band member’s
face on the front cover. It’s worth mentioning that the shape of the dots in Larry’s eye were
mistaken for the Playboy logo; following the release of Pop, with the studio reaching a letter from
Playboy wondering why they had used their logo on the cover!
The PopMart Tour Programme graphics were informed by a fusion of art and music from quite
different genres that seemed acceptable for the first time by the mid 90s. The emergence of the
internet as a powerful cultural force also played a part. The programme has a hyper shine to it.
Its lenticular shiny foil cover, fluorescent orange and metallic silver inks throughout the book and
dynamic graphic patterns and layouts captured the tours mood perfectly. It was all a big visual
punch. A celebration of the vibrant, the brash and the kitsch.
An analysis of the Pop album campaign leads me to think about why good design is so important.
It is impressive that a project made over 20 years ago still stands as a beautiful, relevant piece of
design. The vibrant colours, fusion of styles and the order in disorder provide the viewer with a
noisy feast for the eyes, just as the album itself is a noisy feast for the ears. Furthermore, the
clever and funny concepts add yet another layer of shrewd complexity; for example, the ironic
pop-art style figures as seen on the cover for the single ‘Please’ (Gerry Adams, John Hume, David
Trimble & Ian Paisley). For me, the Pop campaign stands out as an outstanding piece of design,
and will maintain this presence within the visual world for many decades to come.
Emma Kate Butler