January 16, 2013 - No Comments!

Long live the art of album covers

Last year, IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) released their Digital Music Report. It shows that in the first 11 months of 2011, music service subscriptions in Sweden accounted for 84% of digital revenues, boosted mainly by Spotify. Digital sales contribute significantly to the industry's revenue, accounting for 52% of the industry’s revenue in 2011 in the US and 55.5% in the UK in May 2012, according to the British Phonographic Industry.

I’m not going any deeper into the subject of sales, I just want to highlight (what we already know) that the digital world is naturally taking over the industry. Bit by bit.

So what does that have to do with album covers?

A lot. Years ago bands were fighting to be seen and stand out on the shelves in record stores. Today they are fighting as thumbnails on the “shelves” in iTunes, Spotify and other digital services and devices. The problem today is to fit the same amount of information on a couple of pixels and still have a unique memorable design that stands out against the competitors.

Iconic album design by Sanna Annukka.

Iconic album design by Sanna Annukka.

That’s why I get so surprised that even new albums still have covers made only to work in it’s “old” natural size. Every morning when I put on my earphones and start up Spotify, I get hammered by covers that communicate nothing at all. It’s just a bunch of blurry images and unreadable text. And I rarely see a cover that gets my attention or my curiosity.

Therefore it’s even more important today to have a good concept and a great execution for the design. I can almost compare it to designing websites where you have to take into account all the different variables that comes with the web, such as browsers, sizes, OS and resolutions. Album art is no longer purely designed for print, but they must work in multiple formats and sizes.

One design to rule them all

Since the design has to work both in small thumbnail sizes to big high-res images, there is more to the cover than just “cool art”. It’s a “problem” that needs to be solved. The way I see it, the focus needs to be more clear than it is today. You either go for a very strong iconic image that can stand alone and be remembered, or turn the focus on to a great typography. Less is simply more. When everything in an image has the same amount of priority, you won’t be able to see a thing - except the blur. And most importantly, you won’t remember it.

I’m not by any means suggesting less details in the design. To the contrary, there should be a lot of details, maybe even more now than ever with the new retina display (for both smart phones and the latest laptops). But there has to be a hierarchy in the image. Think big, try small. It’s not easy but it makes a huge difference.

Album art is Dead

Back in 2008, famous designer Peter Saville declared that the album artwork is dead. I'll say that album artwork is very much alive. We just have to think a bit differently than we used to.

Maybe apply some of the thoughts from the concept of “Mobile first”. Maybe rethink if the cover needs all the information such as photo, title and artist name. Perhaps bands and artists need to focus more on developing their own visual brand and simplifying things with simple symbols such as Nike, Apple and Starbucks.

Who knows, maybe future albums will be responsive to resolutions and formats. They might even be motion graphics and animated. Only time will tell. But one things is certain, album art won’t die - but they will change and adapt.

Published by: Daniel Eek in Thoughts on Design

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