Vaughan Oliver, 1957-2019

The influential designer’s artwork graced albums by Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Pixies, and This Mortal Coil.
Vaughan Oliver
Vaughan Oliver (Kickstarter)

Vaughan Oliver, one of the most distinctive and influential graphic designers of his era, has died at the age of 62.

As a founder of the 23 Envelope and v23 design studios, Oliver’s work became inextricably linked to the 4AD record label in the ’80s and ’90s. He created artwork for numerous 4AD artists including Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Lush, Pale Saints, The Pixies, and This Mortal Coil (to name a few). It’s safe to say that his eerie, surreal, atmospheric, and elegant visuals were as fundamental to the 4AD aesthetic as the actual music.

Oliver described his design aesthetic thusly: “I like to elevate the banal through surrealism. Mystery and ambiguity are important weapons in a designer’s arsenal. I try to make images where you don’t always get the message’ straight away — but these things leave a hook in you. Leaving some space for interpretation is important.”

4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell took to Facebook to post a remembrance of his working relationship with Oliver. Here’s an excerpt:

I have no idea how to define in a few words the enormous impact he had on my life. Two Virgos with a tendency toward being controlling we somehow managed to compliment and bolster each other in our mission to transcend mediocrity. The breadth and scale of work is incomparable, continuously fanned by the inspiration a new collaboration would bring. I’m aware that we each considered the other a bit of an enigma, a contradiction to our own personalities, and I also know that our mutual respect for each other remained intact.


It is rare to think of someone in one’s life and know that with absolute certainty that the course of both our lives were irrevocably changed for the better as a result. The results, the fruit, is available for all to see.. in pictures at least.

Slicing Up Eyeballs has put together a nice overview of Oliver’s career, along with responses from some of the musicians that he worked with, including The Pixies, Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde, and Lush’s Emma Anderson.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it was Vaughan Oliver who truly ignited my interest in graphic design. I’d pore over his artwork for, say, This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End in Tears, trying to figure out what made his imagery and typography so alluring and entrancing. To this day, when I’m designing a website, there’s a part of me that wonders how I can make it a little more Vaughan Oliver-esque, how I can achieve that same elegance and sense of atmosphere.

To paraphrase Watts-Russell, Oliver’s legacy will certainly live on in his images, so I’ve collected some of my favorite examples of his design work.

Head Over Heels - Cocteau Twins (1983)
Treasure - Cocteau Twins (1984)
It’ll End In Tears - This Mortal Coil (1984)
Victorialand - Cocteau Twins (1986)
Filigree & Shadow - This Mortal Coil (1986)
Sleeps With the Fishes - Pieter Nooten & Michael Brook (1987)
Secrets of the Beehive - David Sylvian (1987)
Livonia - His Name Is Alive (1990)
Home Is In Your Head - His Name Is Alive (1991)
Spooky - Lush (1992)
Mouth By Mouth - His Name Is Alive (1993)
Approaching Silence - David Sylvian (1999)

Read more about 4AD, Rest in Peace, and Vaughan Oliver.
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