The Poster Children have taken creative control very seriously since they emerged from the local university scene in 1987. With the reins tightly clenched at every turn, however, precious few other bands can boast the know-how and design talent of Rick Valentin and Rose Marshack.
The couple, now married, started the band as computer science undergraduates in 1987 long before “internet browser” had become a household name and affordable professional quality image editing software was more than a joke. The band, now comprised of Valentin, Marshack, Valentin’s brother James and their most recent addition Matt Friscia on drums, has continued for almost two decades to collaborate internally on all of their album and Web site design, while Valentin and Marshack have branched into freelance design work on the side.
“We’ve always been rooted in the do-it-yourself movement, which affected not just our music,” Valetin comments. Their dedication to self-representation carried over to their album artwork and eventually manifested itself in one of the first band Web sites to claim space on the World Wide Web.
“What happened was this guy in Chicago offered to put out our first record, and then he said, ‘I need some artwork.’ This was in the time before affordable design software,” Valentin explains. In fact, the means at their disposal speak volumes for the time they were creating in. “We went to Kinko’s and used a Xerox machine and Zipatone,” he says.
Though Rick and Rose were well-versed in code and computer software, neither of them had a practical background in design. Thus, their early years were spent cutting their teeth on album cover design while they unknowingly waited for the crossover of traditional and digital design tools to begin.
“The second record, we actually had a whole idea of what we wanted the record to look like. The label of the time, Twin/Tone, said, ‘Okay, why don’t you tell this artist what your ideas are, and he’ll do all the work.’ We did that and wound up with a record cover we really hated,” says Valentin. The result was more colorful than their white-on-black rub-on letters from Flower Plower but lacked the personalized touch that the Poster Children covet. That album Daisy Chain Reaction was the last and only time they let someone out-of-house design one of their album covers.
“So by the time third record came about, Photoshop and Illustrator 1.0 or 2.0 were coming around. And we had Macs at our house. We said, ‘Well we’re not going to let other people reinterpret our ideas for us.’ I think that’s what continually happens with our band,” he states. “Even with recording or making videos, we always start out with someone professional that helps us, but we always wind up unhappy with the results, and we learned that if we’re learning how to design while we’re working, there’s a personal aspect to it that really connects with people.”
The emergence of better software and faster hardware presented them with the perfect opportunity to continue their tradition of home design and do so with a wider range of possibilities.
“At the time, it was a real jump for people to go from doing photo-ready artwork to doing stuff on a computer,” Valentin recalls, describing the mid-90’s explosion of digital art software. “Whereas, we were really open to using computers for that kind of stuff. So for us, we could really pick up the software quickly and then it was a matter of learning design.”
The looks they have developed for their albums since have been exemplary of their overarching artistic direction. “My inspiration for record design is the guy who did all the work for Factory Records in the early ’80s-Joy Division and The New Order. And those are very clean pristine designs,” Valentin explains. “But I feel like applying that to our band is kind of silly. That design doesn’t invoke our band.” Though their records always have a polished feel, the underlying concepts are most often simple and inspired, such as 2000’s DDD. “The DDD record is really, really sparse,” he describes, “but the whole concept behind that was the elimination of the product. It was the idea that now you have digital downloads. If you want information about the songs or the band, you just go to the Web site.”
So even though initial reaction to their design-three token capital Ds on a white background-drew comments that the record looked more like a demo, the concept stuck, and in the end, it fell into place with the Poster Children’s signature minimalism. Their consistent in-house design began to synthesize a mirrored honesty between their music its visual packaging, cementing their practice as more and more routine while they became more and more experienced.
“And that grew into Web work,”Valentin continues. “Because we were familiar with computer environments, Web design was not as intimidating.”Putting together their Web site long before most businesses had caught on to the potential of the Web, the couple’s computer science background once again proved invaluable for their band promotionally.
“There weren’t that many band sites. We were lucky that we were living here in Champaign when one of the earliest Web browsers, Mosaic, was developed,”he asserts. “What happened was Rose learned how to do a Web site, and we didn’t have Web access-I mean visual image access. We just had a dial-up, so it was all text-based. So she would go to campus to a computer lab to check out the Web site.”
Early augmentations to the site included an online journal of tour updates done in with a format resembling the still internationally infant-staged blog. The logbook carried on through 2002 and is still archived on the band’s site www.posterchildren.com along with bulletin boards and streamed audio from Valentin and Marshack’s radio program Radio Zero.
The portfolio of work Valentin and Marshack built for themselves eventually flourished to the point where they had an adept enough grasp to open up their our commercial firm, Xco Design, which they still operate today, doing multimedia projects varying from Web sites to enhanced CDs. Their clients have ranged from university departments and local restaurants to big name customers such as The Library of Congress and Warner Brothers Records.
To this day Valentin’s description of the Web site’s general artistic direction can be applied most of his band’s creative endeavors. “We have the ability of making a spectacular flash site,”he asserts, “but I am more of a content-based person. You’ve got to dump a huge amount of content there. You can do a little bit of crazy Flash, and that’s neat. You’ll win an award, and people will look at it initially, but it doesn’t necessarily bring people back to the site.”And the Poster Children’s longevity can probably be attribute to this creed of simple effective design to jacket ample content-in whichever medium they happen to be tackling.