I love album artwork and packaging. I mean, who doesn’t drool over every single Pink Floyd album cover? Well-designed records get me excited. Poorly-designed albums will make me angry … almost Hulk-level angry. As a designer, these are usually the projects I enjoy the most. While I’m not one of the movers-and-shakers in the album artwork industry, I’ve done a lot of album packaging, and feel I can share some insight into the process to ease a curious mind or help another musician or graphic designer avoid some common pitfalls. Let’s start this series of posts answering a question that is being asked more and more these days:
“Is album artwork even necessary/important now-a-days with iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, etc?”
Well, my answer to that should be pretty obvious since I’m writing this post. Objectively though, the answer to this question is another question. How much do you care about it? If you’re Jack White, you care so much that you start Third Man Records, a vinyl-based record label where each release has great design and highly creative packaging. (Side-note: I have a fan-boy devotion to Jack White. I can already tell you it won’t be the last time his name comes up.) But … there are plenty of music fans who could care less about the album artwork and packaging. And there were 40 years ago too, in the heyday of all-out design for albums in their glorious 12″ x 12″ format. It’s not just music moving into the digital domain, although it doesn’t help. Some people just flat out don’t care. And mindbogglingly, some of these people are musicians who release their own records. I could make this post 10 days long, but if you don’t think album artwork is important, then I’m not going to try very hard to change your mind. If you’ve read this far though, you probably do think it’s important, and I’m going to assume that from this point forward.
The main point I want to emphasize here is that, contrary to gloomy-glums and naysayers, album artwork and/or packaging may be more important than ever right now. Yes, vinyl records are not gone for good, but they still haven’t regained their ubiquity. Most artists are continuing to release their records on CD and, of course, in the digital realm. It’s my opinion that just because you don’t have 144 square-inches of album cover to work with that you don’t have to sacrifice saying something meaningful about the music inside. In fact, with the more limited space of a 6″ x 5″ CD cover or even the 1000 pixel x 1000 pixel digital album cover used by iTunes and such, you should be doubly (maybe even triply!) concerned with how you’re using the smaller space.
Alright, so is the design and packaging of a musical release important? We’ve established that yes, yes it is. In Chapter 2 I’ll talk about the preparation you need to do before the design even begins to take shape … stay tuned!
That seems to be the question. I’ve had this discussion many times. If you are a graphic designer, the answer should always be a resounding “No.” If you’re not a graphic designer the answer sometimes isn’t as cut-and-dry, but then again you probably don’t care nearly as much. My answer for non-designers is to try to avoid it. Typography For Lawyers is always a good place to start when looking for font alternatives.
However, no matter how many times the arguments are presented, no matter how many times they are presented with damning evidence from highly credible sources, some graphic designers and artists simply refuse to adopt this as a rule. I don’t want to get into all the mudslinging about why Arial is terribly designed or how it is a lazy, sub-par clone of Helvetica. A simple Google search for “why shouldn’t I use Arial” will give you plenty of that. And don’t even get me started on that capital “R.” What I want to address here is not an argument that I think I came up with, just one that I don’t hear often enough and, as designers, it’s probably the most important reason not to use Arial.
For years and years, Arial was the default sans-serif in programs like Microsoft Word. And it comes installed on every PC loaded with Windows, all the way back to 3.1 in 1992. Literally billions of people see and use this typeface every single day. Now when you’re sitting there with a great concept (or even a not-so-great concept, but that really isn’t the point at the moment) and you execute it using Arial, what are you saying about how much you care about your work and your client? This is what you’re saying, whether you consciously intend to or not: “I’m lazy. I don’t feel like using my brain. I don’t know very much about what I’m doing. Here’s the most overused font in the world for your ‘one-of-a-kind’ design that you’re paying your hard-earned money for.”
Yeah. That’s pretty harsh. But don’t worry … the fix is really, really simple. Just don’t use Arial. If you get a request to use the Arial font specifically from a client, use Helvetica. If they call you on it, show them this post and use the experience to enlighten another human being about good typography. If you have some creative license and you need a sans-serif typeface, don’t just use Helvetica as your new default, either. Do some exploring … There is some really great type out there!
2013 is turning out to be another year of progress and movement in the right direction for me and this whole graphic design thing. After 5 1/2 years in College Station/Bryan, Texas I made the move to Austin in June (at seemingly the same time as every other graphic designer/musician in the world). But even in the midst of record population growth, things have been busier than ever.
A complete re-design of the website and addition of a blog has been pretty high on my to-do list for quite a while, and being able to use it as a tool in a much more competitive market was finally the motivation I needed to take time from other projects and get it done. I can’t make guarantees on the frequency of blog posts … please be patient with a blogging newbie. I am going to try to cover a broad, but specific, range of topics including: graphic design for musicians, typography, and graphic design in Austin.
Websites definitely seemed to be the theme for summer in 2013. In addition to my new website, which I designed and coded from (mostly) scratch (using the all-powerful WordPress and some helpful hints from Southern Works), I was excited to get to collaborate on the front-end of a couple of pretty cool website projects with Southern Works and take on a complete website re-design for Band Aid School of Music. I also finished up album packaging for two new records, Wesley Lunsford’s “So Much More” and Ben Morris‘s “Amen Brother,” and am close to beginning the artwork for the new (as of yet untitled) Claire Domingue record.
I’ll leave off for now with this t-shirt design from KONG Screenprinting. I may not have the Austin street-cred to wear this shirt, but I can definitely appreciate the sentiment. This place is big … and only getting bigger!