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From country and western to synth-pop, find everything you need to know with these tips for designing the perfect album cover.
When it comes to creating album artwork, there aren’t too many practical elements to consider. Unlike an event poster, a flyer, or a digital ad, all of which contain information about who, what, and where, album covers are much looser. Their purpose is the embody the sound and the soul of the music within — a daunting task for any artist! This article covers a few tips for approaching and finalizing the album artwork you get to work on.
Before we get into the weeds about the artistry of album covers, let’s think about the core purpose of album artwork.
Why Do Album Covers Matter?
Album artwork functions as the main representation of a body of music. Just like a book cover, it’s the at-a-glance view of what’s inside. Whether listeners are flipping through vinyls or, more likely, flipping a Spotify playlist, the album cover might be the make-or-break moment for their deciding to listen or not.
If the artwork looks like an afterthought, it’s easier for people to assume the music has been treated in the same fashion. Understanding the importance of that artwork (especially in the digital age), should allow you to think of that album as a one shot impression of that musical body of work.
1. Actually Listen to the Music!
So first things first. If client doesn’t already have a crystal clear idea of what they want, ask them to let you listen to the album. In my experience most serious artists will allow you to listen to the album with the caveat that you just don’t share it.
Find a theme. Is it dark and moody? Bright and energetic? Or is it gritty and raw? The theme should give you a snapshot into the general direction you should head. It is always better to know the product you’re promoting before you dig in for the pitch.
If for some reason you can’t listen to the music, draw on some of the artist’s past work instead.
2. Use Photography from the Recording Artist
Image via TLP MediaWorks.
Does the artist have any photography that they want use? If so, that’s a great start. From there, you can do a number of things with it. You can cut it out and create a collage. You can make an illustration from it. Or, you can distress it. You’re only limited to your own specific set of tools. Ask yourself what you can do to take that photo and make it match the mood.
As always, look for inspiration in terms of how others have treated photography on album covers. Did they crop it, change the colors, or simply add text? Did they superimpose it onto a billboard to create a new environment? It’s always good to explore different treatments to see what fits the mood of the album.
Remember that having a photo doesn’t mean you have to use it at all. Suggest other options if you feel like you have a more executable idea or an idea that would better represent the album. This is also the time to either mockup, sketch, or show them examples of what you’re thinking. The more the artist can see it, the more likely they are to go for it.
No problem. Take the initial impression you gleaned, and think about how you can convey it. There’s always the option of creating your own photography that represents the vibe. Set up a shoot, either by yourself or get others involved.
3. Stick to Your Own Style
Figure out an interesting image that could represent the work, then decide how best to convey it. It doesn’t have to be wildly elaborate or require expensive equipment. If you can convey it well enough it will work. So, use your tools like custom photography, painting, graphic design, and illustration. That’s most likely the reason the artist trusted you to put a face to the sound. So, trust your judgement. They want you to do you.
Play to your strengths. They’re asking you to treat it like some of your past work since they like what they have already seen. With the right amount of creativity, you can do what you do best, but with the artist’s body of work as inspiration.
Image via TLP MediaWorks.
4. Match the Typography to the Music
As always, a poor choice in typography can make a design look cheap. Ideally, you want to make the would-be listener see an image that looks refined, regardless of how simple or complicated the design is. If the cover is refined, they will assume the music behind it is as well.
Do your research and look into what kinds of fonts other people have used for similar albums. Find fonts that are simple, yet hold a flair for the album’s genre. For example, if it’s a country album, look for Western fonts. Find inspiration by researching how people painted signs in the Old West. If it’s retro wave music, find ephemera from the period so your design will ultimately look authentic and refined, not like an afterthought.
Also, stay away from popular decorative fonts. If it’s popular, it’s been used a lot, and most likely not well. So, dig deeper and find font types that the average designer wouldn’t choose.
5. Make Text Placement Easy to Understand
Image via TLP MediaWorks.
When it comes to placement, I have always adhered to the “less is more” modality. I mean that strictly in the sense of how much real estate the text occupies. If it’s a more complicated type treatment, you may want to make it bigger for readability. If it’s simple, make it small. As always, walk away at some point so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. Ideally, when a potential listener sees the design they should understand it in less than a second. If it doesn’t make sense, make some adjustments.
There are a few simple templates to follow. You can have the artist’s name top center, and the album name centered as well at the bottom. Or, place the artist’s name top left, with the album name in the bottom right. The reason a lot of album covers deploy the latter approach is because most western languages read top to bottom, left to right.
You can also stack the artist’s name on top of the album name. This is really the time to experiment. If you’ve chosen your fonts correctly, you can play around until you have a happy medium between the visual and the typography. Don’t hesitate to make multiple versions to run past the artist.
It’s important for the artists to be part of the process. You want to share solid ideas with them, but on the other hand you don’t want to share anything you’re not 100% about, because they sometimes chose it. Trust your judgement. Then, when you’re done look at the cover and ask yourself if the cover represents the music. If yes, your job is done.
All album artwork created by Todd Little and TLP MediaWorks.
Find more design tips and tricks for your next project here:
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