IN CONVERSATION WITH PAUL NICHOLSON




1. The logo, from the point of view of language / representation, belongs

to the world of typography, without any doubt experimental. Generally,

in type design, the designer usually starts with a cue, or a reference, that

comes from a context or a language, from architecture to calligraphy.

What were the references from which the logo was born and where did

those shapes come from?


To understand how the logo was created, like any piece of artwork, it

must be put it into context. It was 1991 and the rave scene was in its

infancy and with it techno music. The imagery of the time was heavily

influenced by sci-fi, UFOs, alien conspiracies, chaos theory and psyche-

delics. With this in mind, I wanted to create something alien and not of

this world. At the time Richard’s music stood out as being something

you couldn’t label, it was so totally unique and that was the feeling I was

aiming for with the logo. It should look like nothing you had seen before

and yet feel like you have known it all your life. I was already aware of

Richard’s music having heard Analogue Bubblebath on Kiss Fm. At that

time a pirate station, Kiss FM was the only radio station that played

dance music and in particular the late night ‘Outer Limits’ was a feast of

the finest electronic hardcore, noise and experimentation. Around that

time, I started dating a Cornish girl who upon hearing the music I was

into told me that she knew a guy that did that ‘kind of stuff’. She knew

Richard, who is also from Cornwall, and once she mentioned the name

Aphex Twin, I knew exactly what he did and wanted to hook-up.

We immediately got on, and at some point I showed Richard my design

work and he asked that I create a logo for him. As we spoke more about

what he was after, I knew it had to be something that was amorphic and

soft form - not angular or with sharp edges and corners. Bear in mind,

this was in the before times, pre-computers, so the logo was hand-drawn

using circle templates, French curves and rulers. Even now, the old tools

still play an important role in the way I design. A lot of the time the

forms I was trying to create were not necessarily geometric or perfect-

ly balanced. So by sketching, I’m getting more of the feeling I’m after

because the hand moves a lot more intuitively with a pencil than when

you are moving nodes around a screen with a mouse. I think that there

is a different process at play as opposed to when you go straight to a

computer. The very nature of working on a computer is it is a vectoring

device; everything is on an X and Y axes, you’re aware of the verticals,

horizontals and diagonals. It limits you. You become more clinical when

you design. Whereas with a pencil it can be a lot more organic and thin-

gs happen. It could just be an accidental sweep of the hand or as you

are raising back you suddenly see something that you didn’t see before.

So there’s that chance element. It’s that more flowing freedom that you

get with a pencil. Unfortunately, I no longer have the first drawing of

the logo. I am pretty sure that went to R&S and used for the Selected

Ambient Works cover. Maybe Renaart still has my original drawing.




2. In retrospect, we can certainly say the logo has become an icon. Was

the awareness of this potential already present in the design phase, or

is it something that cannot be predicted, that unexpectedly happens for

some circumstance and can only be defined after the event?


Over the years, I’ve come across some bizarre stories and recollections.

Online speculation about the logo’s origins and its semiotic ‘true’ mea-

ning is still rife: “If you measure the angles of it and divide it by the cir-

cumference of a 12”, you get the secret formula of unlocking the powers

of... “, wrote one forum user. More noble efforts extend to it being an

image of a SAW, in line with the ‘S’elected ‘A’mbient ‘W’orks LP titles,

or that it’s related to λ (lambda), the symbol for wavelength. Others say

“it’s a dick with balls and a boomerang”. Blah, blah, blah! Unfortuna-

tely, the truth is somewhat more prosaic and its origins more humble.


Firstly, it was and is just a letter ‘A’. What I have always found amusing

is that the Aphex Twin logotype appears on a very early release - the

Xylem Tube EP - and clearly shows the Aphex ‘A’ being the first letter

of the word ‘Aphex’. It was hardly a mystery or well-concealed truth

and should have been obvious to anyone who had seen the logotype.

Furthermore, the Aphex ‘A’ was inspired by rough designs created for a

different project. I had been working on logos for Anarchic Adjustment,

a skatewear label based in San Francisco. As it was the early Nineties

and Anarchic was based in California they were keen that I explore a di-

stinctly ‘alien’ vibe. Before Anarchic had had a chance to view the work,


Richard had seen my initial sketches and liked where I was taking the

letterforms. Being abstract with a ‘not of this earth’ feel, it appealed to

Richard. So, I went away and drew up a logo taking elements from those

Anarchic roughs on to an A4 sheet of paper. Richard instantly liked it.

It didn’t need any revisions or changes, so what you see now was my

first and only design.


To sum up, I like what Phil Graham had to say in his article on Fontsmi-

th.com - As a letterform, the Aphex ‘A’ is the antithesis of everything

a type designer is taught a good letter should be. It’s unbalanced, it

has dark spots, it’s blobby and it’s illegible ... yet there’s something

infectious about it. It reminds me of a time when design could be ‘expe-

rimental’ and push aesthetic boundaries in unconventional ways. It feels

‘new wave’, digital, static, yet moving like a lava lamp. It’s a wonder to

behold! It’s arrival with the sinister and emotive soundscape of ‘Ambient

Sound Works’ conjures up feelings of Nineties nostalgia, yet Richard’s

music remains current and challenging, retaining a strange parallel rele-

vance to the symbol itself. The legendary type designer Adrian Frutiger

once said he had “a fascination about abstract symbols”. The Aphex

Twin ‘A’ is certainly one of the finest abstract letterforms in the music

industry today.




3. What do you think is the reason why this logo has actually become

a social icon? Are these considerations to be attributed to its execution

and precision from a technical/formal point of view, or rather to the

historical-geographical and social context in which it was born?


The Aphex Twin logo was actually my first attempt and he liked it strai-

ght away. No re-workings, tweaks, changes... Bang! Job done! It has now

been used, unchanged it for 29 years. Not bad.

When you create a logo and handed it over, it’s effectively out of your

control. As good as a piece of design is, its legacy does rely upon the

continued success of the individual or product it was designed for. In the

case of Aphex Twin, the fact that he’s remained at the cutting edge has

helped make the logo become iconic. I am not naive enough to believe

that it’s purely down to the quality of the design, but the fact that Ri-

chard is still using the logo is something I am proud of. It worked for him

then, as it does now. If you think about it, there are iconic designs within

every genre of music. If it’s ‘70s rock and roll, it would be The Rolling

Stones with the lips and the tongue. Likewise, with the Joy Division

sound waves - the white lines on black. It could be said that certain logos

have become more recognisable than the music and certainly used to

represent a whole genre beyond the actual music of the band. There are

circumstances where design can transcend music - How many people

wear a Joy Division, Ramones or CBGB shirt and know nothing about

the music? It is rare in music graphics that the designer gets any recogni-

tion. Initially, after Richard’s 2015 Soundcloud file dump and then more

so after the 25th anniversary of Selected Ambient Works in 2017, several

things happened that raised general awareness of the Aphex Twin logo.

Kevin Foakes, (A.K.A. DJ Food) kicked things off when he wrote an

article which was picked up by Resident Advisor and it kind of spun out

from there. Running parallel to the interest in the Aphex Twin logo is a

resurgence of interest in the ‘90s.

I would say that there are many musicians on a similar level to Aphex

Twin and some even more successful that don’t have a logo or recogni-

sable graphic element. What that means is, that if you are an Aphex

Twin fan or into techno and electronic music generally, you have this

logo, a symbol that you can wear or have as a tattoo that you know will

communicate to people that you belong to the same niche, the same

tribe. Put simply, a logo is that thing people use to represent themselves.

You have to create something they are going to live with potentially for

the duration of that project or for that product. If it feels right, it’s going

to become integral with the thing it represents.




4. Consequently, do you think that if this logo had been born today,

would it have had the same history or “fortune”?


The explosion of creativity that surrounded techno, house, rave and as-

sociated art were phenomenal and what was more important was being

part of this revolution. Everything felt iconoclastic, that we were part of

something that had never happened before. It was like the future was

leaking into the present.

This mind-set born of a unique set of circumstances and of people living

through and aware of monumental change, artistically, socially and tech-

nologically. For me, it was the perfect soundtrack for life. Machine-made

music captured the essence of how I felt and was the electricity that

charged through my veins.

I was fully aware this was something special.

Since the early 90s, there have been massive changes, most notably the

emergence of the internet and social media. I know when I was in my

teens and twenties you kind of went out of your way not to be liked. That

was the whole point of being young. It was an attitude very much rooted

in the things I was into; not being a cog in the mainstream machine. I

would gravitate to individuals or groups, activities or bands because I

didn’t want to be part of the greater whole. One of the issues I have with

social media is the very premise to be liked. People go out of their way to

be liked. It turns a lot of the rules that were around when I was young on

its head. There are so many factors at play these days and things come

and go so quickly, that I fear that it is much more difficult now to create

something iconic because things blow up and disappear in the blink of

an eye. The sheer volume and pace at which things are created, loved and

immediately cast aside, are unfortunate aspects of the times we live in.





5. From a design point of view, how do the moods of a specific cultural

context (such as electronic music) move and represent within a typo-

graphic work?


At the moment, I work with a couple of small record labels who give

me a lot of creative control; when there is more experimentation in the

music it’s great because the more progressive or cutting edge a musician

or label, the more scope I have to push the envelope of design. There is

an avenue through music where I can be uncompromised and discover

new ways of working, making flesh ideas I wanted to play around with.

For example, when a label asked me to create artwork, in my mind I’m

thinking, “Oh, I’d like to try photo-bashing, creating spaceships out of

various bits of photography and images that I find.” By having this ap-

proach, I have much more enjoyment and satisfaction.


However, taking this path in many respects can be more difficult; each

step is an internal dialogue trying to make sense of a lifetime’s passion,

inspiration and half-formed concepts. With no client dictating the di-

rection or theme of the work, the numerous directions and multiplicity

of ideas can sometimes grind everything to a halt. Two projects I am

working on now are on a grand scale in so much as the aim is to be the

visualisation of contemporary modes of communication taking on board

aspects of slang, acronym, jargon, code, linguistics and the impact of

social media, interconnectivity and mass consumption of image.

These days, one cannot ignore the impact of social media. In context

with how I fit in, what I like with platforms like Instagram is that I put

stuff out there and people can like it or not. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t

care, because still within me is that attitude from my youth where you

can take it or leave it, but if you don’t get it, fuck you! You are either too

stupid or too boring to give a shit about. It’s not like I’m attitudinal or

giving people a hard time, but this is what I do and I have neither the

time nor inclination to bend to consensus or try and follow this year’s

trend. As much as I’m aware of certain shifts in design, I don’t touch it.

I would even go as far to say that when I see trends I’m more motivated

to go in the opposite direction. I am more motivated to NOT follow and

NOT join the herd.




6. The logo was definitely something new at the time; the beginning of

a visual imaginary with respect to an emerging culture. What is the

new concept for you? And how do you relate it to the world of graphic

design? In other words, what allows you to define something as “new”

compared to something else?


Experimenting and trying out ideas has always been my motivation.

This is also part of the reason that I can’t create a singular style, or

stick to a certain way of working. I soon get bored with it or it’s like as

soon as I’ve created something I want to move on and try something

different. It’s like a process of creating and destroying. As soon as I’ve

got something down, it’s like “Okay, onto the next thing.” So you take

successful things, like the Aphex Twin logo. I couldn’t simply just keep

creating stuff in that style but it wouldn’t be something I would enjoy.

My impetus and motivation are to keep finding new ways of working

and always pushing myself.

Every project starts with a blank page and it is through talking with the

person I am creating artwork for that the basis of an idea begins to form.

So for me, that’s where it gets exciting is that I never know where the

starting point is going to be and what directions and parameters I must

follow. I am not in that comfort zone of “This is what I do. This is my

style. Take it or leave it.” It’s more about trying to find a unique response

to a given set of circumstances.