running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

The Enduring Impact of Two Tone

Friday, 26 June 2009

After an 18-year hiatus, The Specials reformed earlier this year. I saw them perform 'Gangsters' on the Jools Holland show about a fortnight ago, and have to say I thought they looked a bit tired and somewhat irrelevant. Tough to take considering that a sizeable part of my adolescence was spent collecting and playing their wonderful 7" records.

But the band played Glastonbury tonight, and I happened to catch some of the performance on TV (in between the non-stop news coverage of the death of Michael Jackson). This time they really captured the energy from their heyday.

In front of them were thousands of fans, some old some new, all blown away by a seminal band playing a set of songs that defined a generation. And behind them, in 10ft high letters, was the Specials logotype, white on black in condensed Helvetica, and I suddenly remembered the unforgettable visual identity of Two Tone - a design that set the benchmark for independent music label artwork.

David Storey and John Sims were the guys who gave us the visual branding for the Two Tone records. Sims was the typographer, whilst Storey was the pictorial/collage specialist.

As well as a host of memorable record sleeves and iconic typography for the likes of the Specials, the Beat, Madness and the Bodysnatchers, these two designers produced some amazing merchandise - posters, adverts, T-shirts, badges, ties, and tickets. The Two Tone branding influenced a generation of advertisers and designers, and was recently voted 15th in Q Magazine’s ‘100 greatest sleeve designs of all time’.

The record label's founder Jerry Dammers, with the assistance of bassist Horace Panter, came up with the Walt Jabsco logo to represent the Two Tone movement. It was based on an early album cover photo of Peter Tosh, and included an added black-and-white check pattern. This provided the basis for the visuals that Storey and Sims then produced.

Madness - 'The Prince' record sleeve, 1979.

According to Storey, the whole approach was what he called 'none design', meaning that everything complex or overtly embellished was stripped away from the products.

This resulted in bold, simple, direct monochrome graphics - including the typeface, the checkered pattern for the label, the 'Walt Jabsco' monochrome ska man who flanked the inlays, and the stark black and white photography. It was this combination which ensured that the Two Tone style had such an enduring impact.

The Specials 1979 - Back Cover

The Specials.
Two Tone Records.
David Storey.