The Iconic Album Covers of Hipgnosis: Meet “The Beatles of Album Cover Art” Who Created Unforgettable Designs for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel & Many More

Try call­ing to mind Nirvana’s Nev­er­mind with­out its naked, swim­ming baby; or Lon­don Call­ing with­out Paul Simenon smash­ing his bass. Think of Sgt. Pepper’s or Abbey Road with­out think­ing about their sleeves. Clas­sic rock albums and clas­sic, unfor­get­table album cov­ers are insep­a­ra­bly inter­twined.

Imag­ine Dark Side of the Moon with­out its prism….

Hipg­no­sis, the design team behind the near­ly 50-year-old album cover/t‑shirt/poster/bumper sticker/coffee mug/etc. com­plete­ly nailed it, as they say, with this design. They did so after sev­er­al less-than-icon­ic but still mem­o­rable attempts to rep­re­sent the band’s sound with a sin­gle image.

Made up of design­ers Storm Thorg­er­son, Aubrey Pow­ell, and, lat­er, Peter “Sleazy” Christo­pher­son, Hipg­no­sis first got its start when the for­mer art school friends of Pink Floyd asked to design the sleeve for the band’s 1968 A Saucer­ful of Secrets, their sec­ond stu­dio album and first with­out found­ing singer/songwriter Syd Bar­rett. There­after fol­lowed designs for More, Ummagum­ma, Atom Heart Moth­er, Med­dle, and Obscured by Clouds.

In-between Pink Floyd albums, Hipg­no­sis picked up com­mis­sions from dozens of oth­er musi­cians, includ­ing well-known names like T. Rex, Wish­bone Ash, The Hol­lies, The Pret­ty Things, Elec­tric Light Orches­tra, Rory Gal­lagher, and many oth­ers.

Once the Dark Side prism appeared in 1973, “all the top high-pro­file bands who could afford the Lon­don design­ers’ art­work showed up at their door,” as one account puts it.

Led Zep­pelin knocked, as did Peter Framp­ton, Nazareth, Bad Com­pa­ny, Gen­e­sis, Peter Gabriel… Hipg­no­sis’ recog­ni­tion as pre­mier graph­ic inter­preters of rock, most notably of albums that emerged in the post-PF pro­gres­sive boom of the 70s, was ful­ly secured by a string of unfor­get­table cov­ers. Many oth­er album designs from their 190-cov­er career you may have nev­er seen, and may not find near­ly as com­pelling as, say, Wish You Were Here, whose man-on-fire hand­shake burns into the reti­nas.

The team had an unusu­al approach with many of their post-Dark Side cov­ers, recall­ing the 60s with psy­che­del­ic and satir­i­cal imagery, espe­cial­ly on album art for bands who got their start the pre­vi­ous decade. But they updat­ed the aes­thet­ic, invent­ing the “tech­no-psy­che­del­ic visu­al iden­ti­ty” of the 70s, as The Guardian writes, and turn­ing flower pow­er into machine pow­er, post-indus­tri­al land­scapes, apoc­a­lyp­tic fan­tasies, and pop art col­lages. The influ­ence of Christo­pher­son, who became a full part­ner in 1978, helped pull the design­ers into the sleek­er 1980s with cov­ers for Peter Gabriel, The Police, and Scor­pi­ons.

Many clas­sic album artists find a visu­al brand and stick with it. Some, like H.R. Giger, are already extreme­ly niche. Oth­ers, like the leg­endary design team at Blue Note records, have the man­date of defin­ing not only an indi­vid­ual album’s look, but also that of an entire record label. One of the remark­able things about Hipg­no­sis is their range—a char­ac­ter­is­tic that fur­ther fits with their rep­u­ta­tion as “The Bea­t­les of album cov­er art,” writes Why It Mat­ters. “Nobody has ever done it bet­ter than the British design firm.”

As free agents, they could approach each record as a sin­gu­lar work. They were as com­fort­able work­ing with pho­tog­ra­phy as they were cre­at­ing orig­i­nal art­work. They could rep­re­sent brood­ing Eng­lish folk and neon New Wave. Album cov­ers have sold pop­u­lar music for about as long as it has exist­ed as a com­mod­i­ty, but Hipg­no­sis sig­nif­i­cant­ly raised the bar, espe­cial­ly in their con­tin­ued work with Pink Floyd and their Led Zep­pelin cov­ers.

Some Hipg­no­sis cov­ers are time­less, some dat­ed, some baf­fling con­cep­tu­al exper­i­ments that sure­ly made more sense in the plan­ning stages. A NSFW theme of female tor­sos pre­dom­i­nates. It’s hard to say to what degree each band had a hand in choos­ing and direct­ing each image. The design­ers’ last cov­er was for Led Zeppelin’s Coda, released in 1982. “There’s quite a bit of poet­ry in that. In their fif­teen years togeth­er the firm pro­duced many of the most icon­ic cov­ers in music his­to­ry.” As for cor­re­la­tions between the qual­i­ty of the music and the qual­i­ty of the cov­er art—that’s an inves­ti­ga­tion we leave to you. See many more Hipg­no­sis cov­ers at Why It Mat­ters and The Guardian. And if you can swing it, see Thorg­er­son and Pow­ell’s book, For the Love of Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipg­no­sis. Or Pow­ell’s Vinyl, Album, Cov­er Art: The Com­plete Hipg­no­sis.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Impos­si­bly Cool Album Cov­ers of Blue Note Records: Meet the Cre­ative Team Behind These Icon­ic Designs

Art Record Cov­ers: A Book of Over 500 Album Cov­ers Cre­at­ed by Famous Visu­al Artists

7 Rock Album Cov­ers Designed by Icon­ic Artists: Warhol, Rauschen­berg, Dalí, Richter, Map­plethor­pe & More

H.R. Giger’s Dark, Sur­re­al­ist Album Cov­ers: Deb­bie Har­ry, Emer­son, Lake & Palmer, Celtic Frost, Danzig & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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