Record Trust

Kevin Finn, founder of Australian design studio The Sum Of, tells us of his long-term admiration for the unusual logo of record label 4AD – and about how it came to be.

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It was 1987. I was fourteen and lived in the north-west of Ireland. My older brother had bought the Cocteau Twins debut album Garlands (1982), which I confess I struggled with – though I loved their subsequent albums. At the same time, a friend of ours had also bought Lonely Is An Eyesore (1987), 4AD's seminal compilation album, which I was completely entranced with. It looked and sounded like nothing I'd ever seen or heard before. I immediately became a fan of Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil, both of whom featured on the compilation. From that moment, I also became a die-hard 4AD fan. And like many others, 4AD inadvertently marked the beginning of my fascination with (and career in) graphic design.

Of course, the 4AD album covers and the music took centre stage, but for the first time in my life I noticed that a logo could become a shorthand for trust. Usually, I could immediately recognise a 4AD record cover, but gradually many other artists and labels started to mimic 4AD's visual approach (led by Vaughan Oliver, between 1982 and 1998). So when I saw an album, which I thought looked interesting and thought might be from the 4AD stable, I'd always check for the logo. I had never done this for anything else before. For me, the logo indicated: "This is music you will like because we are curating a body of work, a particular sound, and a unique philosophy like no other." I became accustomed to buying any album with the 4AD logo printed on it – without a second thought, and without even listening to the music first.

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Even though I was in my early teens, I recognised the 4AD logo was rather unusual, not least because of the label’s name. For a start, the logo is very detailed – it didn't seem practical as a logo – and it didn’t look like all the other logos that surrounded me, which were usually corporate logos which I payed little attention to. In contrast, the 4AD logo was just so interesting. The name itself was also a mystery and, until recently, I never knew how the name 4AD came about and what it meant. I had simply associated it with mystique and independence, and that was enough for me. However, the genesis for the name is more related to a piece of graphic design than you might think – a promotional flyer. According to Wikipedia:

Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, employees of the Beggars Banquet record store and label, founded Axis Records in late 1979. … After the first four Axis singles in early 1980, the name was changed to 4AD when it became apparent that the name Axis was already being used by another music company. The solution to this problem came from a promotional flyer that they had printed up to call attention to the new releases. The flyer's designer had added some typography that played on both the new year and the idea of progress:

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Quickly scrambling for a new name, Ivo glanced at the flyer and suggested "4AD." Peter Kent agreed, and, with that split-second decision, 4AD was born.

I don't know who designed the 4AD logo, but that unusual little marque remains unchanged and is still being used. Nearly thirty years on it still leaves a strong impression on me. From the outset it made me think differently – about what music could be, about what design could be, about what a logo could look like and what it could represent. And about what a company could be named. Even at the beginning I realised 4AD was totally different: fearless and independent.