Music and art are often one and the same. The expressiveness and importance of getting their point across are just some of the countless similarities they share and designers understand that similarity well. The importance of a good album cover equates to the importance of the music itself because a good cover will stir the interest of the target audience. This is the ever-important ‘hook’ that gets albums off the shelves.
In some ways, album art is a message in itself. Understanding this is a necessity for designers to create a happy medium between music and art, artist and listener. In truth, album covers are counted as graphic design works as much as other mediums are because they follow the same concepts during the design process. This article will revolve around various graphic design concepts and techniques and their use in famous album covers.
When it comes to design, words and text are never just that. How the words look conveys a message just as much as the words themselves. The Wikipedia definition of typography states that it is “the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable and appealing when displayed”.
Further reading into that would take one down into the literal fine-print; into other concepts of how the typography works together, negative space within text, etcetera.
Famous albums that make use of this concept are The Clash’s London Calling, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks.
The Never Mind the Bollocks album’s claim to fame was its infamy in its choice of language. However, what’s interesting about the cover, aside from the slang, is the typography used by the designers for the album name. While the Sex Pistols’ name is printed in the grungy, cut-and-pasted magazine lettering they are known for; the offending phrase is printed in blocky, almost formal letters.
Naturally, album covers rely heavily on images to generate interest. Classic examples of these are the waterborne baby on Nirvana’s Nevermind, The Beatles’ Abbey Road crossing, and the banana on The Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground & Nico.
Designed by Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground cover features a simply printed banana, with the intriguing words ‘Peel back and see’ printed alongside it. Following the instructions and peeling back the thin acetate sticker would reveal the flesh-colored inside of the banana behind it. There isn’t much to explain about that. It is now one of the most famous bananas, with original album covers fetching prices up to $500.
While it is important for elements of design to work harmoniously together, it is just as important for them to stand out, both against each other and among other designs.
Take a look at The Clash’s London Calling album. While the cover is primarily dedicated to preserving the image of bassist Paul Simonon in the act of smashing his bass guitar, the image of the surrounding text is just as crucial to the iconography of the album. The type is bold, punchy and attention-grabbing while, in contrast the image is gritty and in monochrome. It is an odd inversion to the usual ‘image first, text later’ approach most would think to take for albums, but together, they work.
Another good example of contrast in album design would be Queen’s Queen II.
Icons are any graphics or symbols that become representative of a concept. In the case of albums, they can go on to become definitive of an artist. Such is the case with one of the most famous album covers, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
It began with a simple wish to have something different for a cover. The band was bored of photos and wanted something different, and smarter. The result was an almost perfect representation of diversity, cleanliness of sound and ambition. What was based on a textbook illustration has evolved to arguably become the most famous album cover ever.
Other examples of iconography would be Green Day’s American Idiot, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, and David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane.
It is impossible for any of the albums mentioned above to be exclusive to one concept. Graphic design is not about exclusivity. So while these albums are considered the best of the best or the most famous, there will always be room for improvement. Excellent album cover designs have come out during the past decade. As music artists continue to grow in expression, so does design. As is true of everything in this age, possibilities are limitless.