Design Artwork for a Shrinking Album Cover


Design Artwork for a Shrinking Album Cover: ”

Music is an aural art form. But the packaging for the recordings—the album cover—has a distinct aesthetic, one that has evolved along with distribution technologies and formats.

In the 1960s, the cardboard record jacket came into its own as a canvas for graphic artists, who used its ample dimensions to spin elaborate visual and conceptual fantasias. Album covers became generational touchstones, with iconic images like the ‘family portrait’ of famous people rendered as cardboard cutouts and waxworks on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Day-Glo colors and trippy starburst ornamentation on Cream’s Disraeli Gears, and the extravagantly Gothic lettering on the Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa.

In the late ’80s and ’90s, when the CD replaced vinyl as the format of choice, the new 5.5- by 5.5-inch Jewel case was a far less luscious canvas. Many images from LP jackets, like the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. and Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love, suffered in translation, their intricate details shrunk into obscurity. Others, like Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, with its simple portrait of the artist, did fine in the smaller size. Eventually psychedelia and its complexity waned and was replaced by cleaner, more forthright designs.

.dp_cont {
width:250px;float:right;margin:0px 0px 12px 12px;
border:3px solid #009dea;
}
.dp_cont div {padding:4px;}
.dp_elem {
background-color:#E3E3E3;
}
.dp_elem2 {
background-color:#A3A3A3;
}

The constraint: Develop memorable images for thumbnail canvases.
The solution: Get simple, graphic… and clever.

Vinyl LP cover: 153.1 square inches
CD case: 22.6 square inches
iPod Nano Cover Flow icon: 0.4 square inch

When the MP3 gained popularity in the late ’90s, it seemed that the album—and its cover—would join the moldering 45s, 78s, and 8-tracks in the format graveyard. The first incarnation of Napster made no accommodation for album art at all, and iTunes shrank covers into dispiriting splotches. ‘If the best a designer can hope for is a 240-pixel square image, it’ll be a depressing time for the music-packaging industry,’ says Stephen Doyle, creator of such venerated covers as Pat Metheny Group’s The Way Up and David Byrne’s Look Into the Eyeball.

Since then, some designers have embraced the thumbnail and crafted logolike images that serve as mnemonics for the band. The tiny JPEGs displayed on iPod screens demand simplicity, bold color, stark imagery, and unadorned type. The sneering smiley face on Bon Jovi’s Have a Nice Day is an aptly minimalist rendering. No Age’s Nouns, on the other hand, is at once simple and complex, readable and abstract; the sculptural letterforms jump off the screen. Happily, technologies like Cover Flow, the visual navigation interface Apple dropped into iTunes in late 2006—not to mention the iPhone and iPod Touch screens—have given album art some renewed prominence. Innovations in packaging digital visuals along with the music are coming, like the special material for the Enemy’s We’ll Live and Die in These Towns proposed by design firm Big Active. Drawing on clackety railway departure boards, the concept was that each time a new track began, the display on the album icon would flip to its title.

The space allotted to album art may be a fraction of what it once was, but that just sets the bar higher. If musicians can continue to innovate in the digital age, then designers must take up the challenge of the minimalist thumbnail.

Steven Heller (sheller@sva.edu) is cochair of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His Web site is at hellerbooks.com.

(Via Clippings.)

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