‘Autobiography is perhaps the biggest fiction of all’. An interview with artist, writer and designer Stanley Donwood

• Apr 25, 2014 •

Artist and writer Stanley Donwood is known for his close associations with Radiohead, having created the album and poster art for their albums, EPs and singles since 1994. His work is startlingly recognisable, and this unique and unsettling aesthetic made him the perfect candidate to design twenty one covers for our J.G. Ballard reissue editions. When approached by editor Clare Reihill, he responded that the request was ‘better than an OBE’. Donwood’s creativity, vision and unique execution have resulted in covers that are as mesmeric as the words within them.

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all coversAre you a Ballard fan? If so, what’s your favourite book? Yes, I am a Ballard fan.  To write this feels as if I’m in some sort of support group that meets weekly in a community hall; ‘my name is Stanley Donwood and I am a fan of JG Ballard.’ And then, in a dreary monotone, I explain the plot – as I interpret it – of The Crystal World, perhaps my favourite of his earlier books, and then, hardly pausing for breath, analyse in considerable detail the premise of Super-Cannes.

Have you ever judged a book by its cover? Well of course, and all the time.  Who doesn’t? I judge books by their covers so intensely that there are still several books I haven’t ever read (though I’d really like to) because I find their covers so atrocious that I can’t bring myself to buy them.  Perhaps some people will hate the covers that I’ve done. In fact, I’m sure that will be the case.

Do you have any favourite book covers? Two recent favourites were David Pearson’s censored Nineteen Eighty-Four for Penguin and gray318’s Tampa for Faber & Faber.


Do you have any literary influences that formed the Ballard designs? I’m not sure, other than the strange and considerable effect of reading his entire works back to back.

Do you have a favourite of the Ballard covers? If so, why? At the time of writing I’ve not finished them; I think I have eight still to do from a total of twenty-one.  My favourite might turn out to be Empire of the Sun, if I can get the fucker to go right.  I’ve spent ages on it so far, to no avail, but I have high hopes for it.  Other than that, I’m quite pleased with Cocaine Nights. It’s very difficult.  Sometimes I wish Ballard was still alive so that I could ask him what he thought.

How much does the book cover design process differ from album artwork? It’s entirely different.

One challenge seems to be designing distinctive looks but maintaining a coherent and shared identity. How did you master this? I’m by no means sure that I did…The spines and backs match. There’s a white border around the artwork. Other than that, and the fact that I put them together, I couldn’t say.

Can you describe the process, from start to finish, of designing one of the covers? I have done many strange things in order to design these covers; I’ve visited underground laboratories, watched the huge sky under the Fens, ignited flammable liquids, fired guns, melted quantities of wax, poured liquid nitrogen across a table and taken deliveries of hypodermic needles.

Did the colouring used reflect the particular story you were designing the cover for? Particularly the use of traditionally psychedelic colouring for both High-Rise and Millennium People. The figurative elements for those covers are taken from a series of etchings I made whilst in a particularly nihilist frame of mind, whilst the colours largely come from chemical experiments.  I imagine Ballard would have been very comfortable in laboratories, so I did a lot of work in them.

The Atrocity Exhibition cover is reminiscent of the Amnesiac artwork. Are there themes in your work that you feel should recur? They do recur, unfortunately. I wish they didn’t.

The darker side of the human mind is one of Ballard’s driving themes, as well as the themes of a dystopian modernity, social unsettlement and a biting fear of the incomprehensible. How influential was this to you when curating and designing the cover art? Did you feel it important to capture and project this? I don’t see his writing in that way. It seems very realistic, and extremely reasonable. His view is resolutely sane, particularly compared to the infantile mendacity of most public figures, both today and historically. His understanding of the modern human is extremely accurate; modernity is dystopian, unsettling and full of fear. Not to mention almost wholly incomprehensible.

Now I’d like to ask a question drawing on a theme from four of the six books: The Atrocity Exhibition: How much does current mass media affect our state of mind in the modern day, given that we rarely switch off from our technological and social ‘lives’? I don’t know about anyone else, but I use technology all the time and I’ve not noticed any difference at all from the time when I didn’t. I embraced computers, the internet and mobile telephones much as I welcomed pagers, electric typewriters and letraset transfer lettering. I don’t think the current mass media, by which I presume you mean twitter et al, has made any difference to us at all. It’s just tools and gossip; humans love both.

The Crystal World: In this novel, the protagonist is making his way through the jungle to a leprosy treatment facility, coming to terms with an apocalyptic phenomenon in the jungle that crystallises everything it touches. If you knew that you would be crystallised, where would you want to be stuck in stasis? I’d like to be in bed. I would hate to be entombed in a crystalline stasis. I would not want to know about it. I’d like to be dead.

Millennium People: In which the protagonist, burrowing deep into a world of terrorism to discover why his wife was killed in an explosion, finds himself immersed in the middle class revolution. Which public figure do you think would lead a middle class revolution in the present day? I have been reading a great deal of recent European history recently, notably Anne Applebaum’s  Iron Curtain and Tony Judt’s Post War. From the available evidence I would imagine it would be a right-wing nationalistic wanker with an authoritarian personality. The Daily Mail personified.

Miracles of Life: Ballard’s autobiography. If you were asked to design a cover for an autobiography, how would it differ from the design for a work of fiction? How would the design process change, if at all? Not at all. Autobiography is perhaps the biggest fiction of all.

Did you design the cover of your upcoming book, Humour? It hasn’t been decided yet, not entirely, but it’ll probably feature a recent painting of mine called Poor End. As for the actual design, Faber&Faber will do that. I have utmost faith in them.


Stanley Donwood’s debut novel Humour will be published by Faber & Faber in the autumn

J.G. Ballard reissues of Concrete Island, Crash, Empire of the Sun, Running Wild, Rushing to Paradise and Super-Cannes will be published 7th of August. The Atrocity Exhibition, The Crystal World, High-Rise, The Drowned World, Millennium People and Miracles of Life are all available to buy now. Click the name to buy.


Interview by Candice Carty-Williams

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