For almost a year now, I've owned a sealed copy of David Bowie’s final album, ★. And I haven't listened to it, not once. Somewhere between ordering it and receiving it, the unthinkable happened and the context of David Bowie's final album changed in an instant. Bowie clearly knew what was coming – he has always known what is coming – and apparently it's right there in the lyrics, the videos, the design of the album. This isn't merely a collection of new songs, it was an end, a farewell, a sealed envelope on the pillow of a hospital bed. 

And so when it finally arrived I left it alone – surely all that could be found in there was sadness, fear, mortality. I filed it away and took solace in denial. The record has spent the entirety of this ridiculous year hibernating amongst the rest of my LPs, untouched and unheard. Today I'm ripping it open. 

Why now? Because enough time has passed. Because I've been desensitised by months of obituarising and mourning and tributing and covering and reassessing. Mostly, because I'm fascinated by the secrets that people keep finding, hidden within the design of the thing. In a recent interview with BBC 6 Music's Mary Anne Hobbs, designer Jonathan Barnbrook acknowledged that there is more to the design of the album than is immediately apparent: 

“There are a number of black stars in the album … it’s not just the five-pointed star on the front. And they do symbolise different things in life. For instance, there’s the rosette which looks a little bit like a price ticket. That’s to say, well, this is still a commercial product; you still buy it. There’s the guiding star, the idea of a person who you follow in your life or the idea of something spiritual which music gives you. So there are a lot of other things going on which aren’t absolutely at the surface, but I do hope people see them. And not necessarily straight away, as well.

Well that sounds like a challenge to me. So I've got my copy out of the plastic, I've very carefully removed the actual record (mmm, feels weighty) and now I'm going to see what I can see. 

A few months after ★* was released, somebody noticed something peculiar. This is the only album that doesn't actually have Bowie on the cover – his absence occupied by a die-cut star (although you can reverse the inner booklet and a photograph of Bowie fits nicely in that space). When the sleeve is exposed to sunlight, stars appear in the blackness. I hold it up to the light … a bit more … angled this way … and that … and sure enough, when pushed up against a sunny window, it's full of stars.

It looks like they're projected through the sleeve from a star-field image on the inside of the gatefold, although quite what that is depicting is unclear. Staring at the stars, there does appear to be some kind of pattern … a figure seems to emerge from the dots. A star … man? Is Mars on there somewhere perhaps? Or is it a specific cluster of stars, a particular constellation? Others have pointed out that "black star" may refer to a particular kind of cancer lesion, and that one of the typefaces used in the design is called Terminal – so could this perhaps be an image of the Cancer constellation? It certainly wouldn't be the first time that Bowie has incorporated visual puns into his record sleeves (his Low profile springs to mind). In a certain light, you can see a reflection of the opposite page in this glossy image, so it kind of looks like Bowie is amongst the stars. Maybe this is intentional, maybe not. 

What other little wonders are there? Parts of the booklet glow under ultraviolet light (surely typical of all UV coating?); if you add up all of the points of all the stars that appear throughout the booklet, they add up to 69 – which kind of looks like the astrological symbol for Cancer; and theories relating to the occult symbology of Aleister Crowley persist. 

And what of the secrets in the vinyl itself? There is some talk on Reddit about whether or not there's a track hidden under the label – a discussion that soon descends into people egging each other one to destroy their copy in the name of discovery. Others report that light reflects off the record in interesting ways, projecting stars or spacecraft or even morse code. Try as I might, I struggle to replicate this. 

Pretty soon, I'm knee-deep in spurious fan-theories, nice little coincidences that might mean something/nothing/anything. I'm fairly sure most of this is hogwash, but the more you look, the more this game drags you in. I feel like the hero in a particularly glam Dan Brown novel – soon I'm grasping at straws/stars to find my own theories. Hang on, that black star is actually unicode symbol 2605 … the 26th of May … google google google … Mick Ronson's birthday … and that must be … off course!  … that's when Paul McCartney died, right? Right?

All of this easter egg hunting is exhausting and it's knackering my very-recently-pristine copy of the album (for a moment I think I've found some interesting symbols, but upon closer inspection, it turns out they're my fingerprints and a bit of eyelash). Worst of all, it's detracting from the beautiful design of the album. It's sombre and playful, continuing the imagery found in previous Barnbrook/Bowie collaborations, particularly the distorted obscured type and portraiture of Heathen and The Next Day. The print echoes the darkness and gloss of the vinyl - the music and art are inseparable. This design works despite the secrets, not because of them.

The final track of this final album is called I Can't Give Everything Away. Only Barnbrook knows what's hidden amongst the stars of this square monolith, and he's keeping schtum. Well, kind of – “There’s one big thing which people haven’t discovered yet on the album. Let’s just say if people find it, they find it, and if they don’t, they don’t.” 

Intriguing. But that's enough for now. Time to put the sleeve down, put the record on and listen.


* Yes,
. Not Black Star. Or Blackstar. It's called . And yes, it does look peculiar with an asterisk next to it.

Designing for architects

One of the great things about being a designer – particularly a book designer – is that you’re constantly exposed to a diverse array of industries and subjects. Every job opens up windows to peculiar corners of the universe and little educations in big subjects. For example, on my desktop syllabus right now I have titles on history, film, economics, psychology, art and architecture.

That last one I’m particularly excited about. I enjoy dipping into all of these subjects, but it’s always particularly satisfying designing something that you’d want to own. As my creaking bookshelves would attest, architecture lands squarely in the intersection of all of my interests and wishlists and daydreams.

One of my favourite pastimes is fooling myself that, deep down, I am a frustrated architect. All the signs are there. For a start, I design books, which are, when you think about it for not too long, just tiny buildings. And I love reading about architecture, and looking at it, and I have some incredibly passionate views about concrete. Heck, I spend most of my time inside architecture! You simply cannot beat real world experience like that, it’s invaluable.

And yet, my actual attempts at architecturing always seem to fall some way short of my aspirations. Every now and then I’ll watch Grand Designs and start making ambitious loft-conversion plans in my head … but then it occurs to me that I don’t have the constitution for all of that planning permission and refinancing and weatherproofing nonsense, let alone the obligatory random pregnancy. Even at a more manageable scale, my efforts fall flat: my Lego edifices usually end up looking like angry filing cabinets; a herringbone sofa-fortress, held together by the unbreakable bond of love between father and son, was immediately condemned and had to be levelled to make way for teatime; and an attempt to build a replica of the Barbican Estate using nothing but Potato Waffles was abandoned after the versatility of the construction material was found to be seriously overstated.

It turns out that architecture is hard. Maybe I won’t update my business card just yet. I’ll stick to the books for now.

And here I am designing one for an actual not-pretend architect. It’s exceedingly intimidating. They generally make fantastic clients – you could never wish for more meticulous or considered feedback, and they understand the importance of paying contractors promptly – but I keep being struck by this nagging feeling of inferiority. They’re an architect, for crying out loud, surely they understand design on a completely different level? Who am I to offer anything to them? I make paper look agreeable, they build cities. They must think it’s so quaint, me moving these little letters and pictures around on a flimsy little book, like I’m the work experience boy who’s put out of harms way in the corner of the building site while the grown-ups get down to the important job of making the world happen.

Which is absolutely fine by me. All of these authors, all of these experts in their fields, I get to play in their brains for a short while, be a custodian for whatever incredible things are growing there. As long as I keep my cool, resist the urge to yelp “I WANT TO BE YOU WHEN I GROW UP! WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE SORT OF BRICK? CAN I WEAR YOUR HARDHAT?” and maintain this mutual pretence that our professions are in some way comparable, it’s all good. One of the great things about being a designer – particularly a book designer – is that you’re constantly a little bit in awe.

The end matters – thoughts on index design

It’s offensive o’clock in the morning, I’m sweatily clamped into my headphones, my desk a Spirograph of fresh coffee rings. I’ve been here for hours. And right now I’m very aware that I’m not doing two of my favourite things: creating and blinking.

I’ve been designing a big book for the last few weeks; the sort of big book that has lots of big chapters and big pictures and big contributors with big words. After lots of to-ing and fro-ing with editors and proofreaders and publishers, we’re at that very special final stage: the index.

All of the other little details have been shuffled into place and nudged and tweaked. Everything has been checked and double-checked; all of the content has been corralled into pages. It’s all locked down apart from this last section.

Typesetting this soup of text is the antithesis of designing a cover (or postcard or poster or anything that’s basically a single big rectangle). That involves a lot of sitting back, wandering to the other side of the room, narrowing the eyes, staring at compositions of shapes and colours. The cover is an expression of the book’s intent, all on one page.

When it comes to this dense swamp of minuscule text, it’s quite the opposite: the index is about atomising the book, breaking it down to its constituent parts. Whereas the effect of the cover is instant, the end matter (indices, appendices, references) must chug along silently in the background. Any flaws may not present themselves for months, years. But if they’re even a little bit off, they’ll be there, gnawing away at the innards of the book.

So getting these details correct is vital. I lean into the screen, nose pushed up against the design, unblinkingly scrutinising every tiny detail. Checking and checking and checking. Does this entry match up with that page? Is this word correctly italicised? Should those be a subset of those? Does this hierarchy of indents make sense? Have I forgotten how the alphabet works? What are numbers? The eyes and brain tend to dry out a little.

It’s a good working-through-the-night kind of job though, as it involves a lot of stillness and repetitive routine. The jazzier parts of the brain can be switched off for a while. There is very little room for stylistic interpretation or creative expression of the content; it’s simply about finding the exact shape that the words must fit. It’s the difference between making a collage and doing a jigsaw. Which makes it sound boring, but I kind of enjoy it – going through the motions of piecing bits together is oddly satisfying.

And these words are such wonderful pieces to play with: nomenological, architectonic, jurisprudence, baptistry, tabernacle, cosmogenic. Tasty, crunchy words. Countdowny words. I can’t say that I know what half of them mean, but at least I know where they appear.

Although it isn’t expressive in any way, this process feels significant; it gives the book meaning, usefulness, substance. A body of text with a delightful cover is all very nice, but it’s these layers of indexing, cross-referencing, associations – routes in and out and through the text – that make it a functioning object, a machine for thought. A machine that I’ve very almost, almost finished working on. That’s the main reason I enjoy this: it’s the last thing I do before all of this work becomes real. The end matters.

And then tomorrow I’ll be back to flouncing creatively with words and pictures and colours. First though, I need to finish this index and maybe get some sleep, or at least have a really big blink.