I was lucky enough to know, from a pretty early age, exactly what I wanted to do for a career. For me, this was as a result of being told I was the worst student of music in my teacher’s entire 30 year professional life, and then, days later, picking up the Mark Farrow designed Pet Shop Boys album ‘Introspective’ (above). With traditional art skills only marginally superior to my musical ones, evidenced by a never-ending output of disturbingly incompetent portraits and sculptures that looked like the work of a broken sausage machine, I had long since given up on doing anything with my life that involved either of my two academic interests.
But once I got my hands on that 12″ slab of geometric technicolour beauty, something clicked. Here was an object that looked incredible put out by my favourite band; music and art combining into something greater than the sum of its parts. I still remember the pop of clarity in my befuddled 13 year old brain as I realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
Detail from 1992 T-shirt for The Orb by TDR
Suddenly my schoolbooks became littered with hand-drawn band logos, and then, via similar synaesthetic crushes on Peter Saville/ New Order, The Designers Republic / The Orb and Tomato /Underworld, I ended up, like an incurable geek, in the Liverpool Street branch of Our Price in 1999, taking endless photos of the very first CD I’d designed sitting proudly, but with negligible aesthetic appeal, in the rack reserved for number ones.
In the intervening years, the music industry has provided me with the backbone of my clients. But in that time the impact of a new digital landscape has radically reshaped not just the music industry itself, but its relationship to design. The perceived wisdom seems to be that falling revenues from sales have necessitated brutal cuts to creative budgets, resulting in lower quality work. And the obsolescence of physical product, replaced by miniscule pixelbased packshots, negates the need for subtlety or imagination in their design.
In fact, to talk to many people today you’d think that design for music has become a creative void, populated by disinterested, dead-eyed clients paying peanuts to disinterested, dead-eyed designers, churning out soulless, functional rubbish to customers who don’t give a shit. It’s an opinion that rankles as I believe it’s incorrect and unfair. There is in fact some excellent, progressive and genuinely creative work being produced for music clients as a direct result of the requirements of this digital age, not in spite of it.
Personally, I think this general negativity is because people’s attention is still very much fixed on CDs and vinyl: the physical products traditionally the centrepiece of a creative campaign which are being produced in increasingly fewer numbers. In fact, whenever design for music is mentioned these days it still tends to be centred around some lavish, short-run packaging for an unknown band or barrel-scraping rock dinosaur. And while these can be undeniably beautiful objects, they also seem a little pointless: vanity projects or anachronistic trinkets. Sort of like a Tom Dixon designed fax machine.
As my introductory ramble hopefully illustrates, the affection I hold for those decorated squares of paper and card is a strong as anyone’s, but the world, and especially the music industry has moved on – whether we like it or not. Wistful pining for a defunct era is at best a waste of time and at worst counter-productive, like yearning for that ex-girlfriend who will never take you back. In short, all that’s happened is the parameters have changed, and design, as a commercial enterprise, is surely all about understanding and working within parameters.
Whereas previously you could win a pitch with some nice logo designs and shoot references, the scope for a designer in this area is now broader and less formulaic. The album or single cover is no longer the sun around which everything else orbits. I now often work with labels on a central construct for their artists, something that goes beyond just some nice imagery, but runs deeper and more fundamentally. Identifying what makes each artist or campaign different, and communicating that message across a range of channels, of more equalised importance, imbuing everything with different elements from within the same visual language, not just an endless re-purposing of the same cover design.
The first time I saw this in full effect was the Mylo Xyloto campaign by Tappin Gofton for Coldplay, wherein the album design was part of a wider creative strategy that had all kinds of executions, physical, digital and experiential that held together consistently throughout. It felt modern and relevant in a way the traditional “3 singles and an album” approach no longer did. Increasingly, labels and their artists are seeing themselves as brands, which is a horribly overused word, but there’s a logic to it here. In our visually-saturated world, the need for an artist’s live shows, public appearances, fan-engagement, products, styling, digital presence and graphics to integrate coherently is more important than ever.
Atoms for Peace Drawing Room pop-up gallery featuring Stanley Donwood’s artwork for the album. The campaign also included bespoke social media artwork by Glitchr, and graffiti by INSA (see top, below and our story here). Image: The Quietus.
Shifting the sights to think of music more as an all-encompassing experience as opposed to simply a product therefore provides more
opportunity than ever for the willing creative mind. The number of different creatives now working within music is wider than I can ever remember, with younger, fresher talent now given more of a chance to produce exciting work for passionate and open-minded clients, at the expense of more costly, established studios. There’s also been a pleasing focus on clarity within design, and the need to communicate across small and large sizes has seen the use of typography, especially, come to the fore, whether that be the bespoke experimentalism of Kate Moross (Wild Beasts video below) or brutal elegance of Trevor Jackson.
On 25 February 2015, Trevor Jackson will release F O R M A T as, initially, a limited edition consisting of 12 different musical formats each containing a separate track. A collected vinyl edition and digital versions will follow shortly after, all on The Vinyl Factory. More here
From time-to-time I wonder whether a new generation of designers will be inspired by music to divert their life’s path as I once was, but one look at the extremely vocal responses to new artwork on social media, the number of teenagers producing versions of their favourite singers’ latest design, or the high take-up of fan engagement in projects like this suggests that music and creative work are as compelling a partnership as ever for this demographic, despite most of them probably never having owned a CD, let alone a piece of vinyl, in their entire lives.
Creative Review’s January 2015 issue is a Music special, featuring FKA twigs, Bestival creative director Josie da Bank, film composer Jim Williams and more