Two years ago, Liam Howlett—co-founder of British electronic group The Prodigy—walked into an art gallery and picked up a book called Spinfluence by New Zealand graphic designer Nick McFarlane. Opening it to a random page, he came across an artwork depicting a hammer. He loved it so much that he immediately emailed the book’s author and asked to use it as cover art for his band’s upcoming album.
Being asked to design a major label album cover is a graphic designer’s dream. Yet when he first received the email, McFarlane could never could have anticipated just how intense his creative relationship with the songwriter was about to become.
After the musician reached out, Howlett and McFarlane began emailing back and forth. Then back and forth, then back and forth. While Howlett loved McFarlane’s work, he quickly became disenchanted with the hammer concept and asked the designer to come up with alternate options. When they finally settled on a design, McFarlane had come up with 165 alternates that had all been rejected by Howlett.
The New Zealander worked on the project for endless, nerve wracking months—at one stage learning that he was competing with another graphic designer who’d been hired by the band.
“I’d do a full day of nine to five work, come home, put the kids to bed and then jump on the computer and knock out four to six designs per night,” he tells The Creators Project. “Some simple and some more designed and detailed. But I was going for a more is more approach.”
It was a much more extreme version of the client-designer relationship than McFarlane was used to, but it still functioned in the same way. The designer says he’s actually extremely grateful that he got to go through such a rigorous trial and error process, and that he never could have come up with the ultimate album cover concept without it.
“Graphic design is like art, if you feel it then it’s right. If he wasn’t feeling something 100 percent, it wasn’t there. And that’s actually a really good enough measure of what’s working,” he says. “You can get rejected 165 times, but you just need to achieve your goal once."
The final design was totally different to the initial Spinfluence image. Rather than a hammer, it depicts a lone fox. It was Howlett who suddenly suggested that McFarlane change tack and draw an animal. He felt the fox evoked The Prodigy’s inherent Britishness, nocturnal nature, and status as social outsiders.
While the process was prolonged and difficult, the designer has no hard feelings. “[Howlett] was a really cool guy to work with—I’d email him with a new design and if he liked it, it didn’t matter what time of day or night, he’d reply minutes later.”
And all the back and forth was worth it—the band liked the final image so much that they didn’t even put their logo or album title on the CD cover, allowing McFarlane’s art to speak for itself.
You can find out more about Nick McFarlane here, and catch him at Auckland’s Semi-Permanent festival from August 12-13. Hunting the Killer Idea, his book about the creative process partly inspired by his experiences designing for The Prodigy, is out on August 15.