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One of my classes this quarter is Research and Technical Writing. I will by no means bore you by posting every assignment, but this one includes visuals and may even be useful!

Music Album Design: A Conceptual Guide

In the desert of corporate design, there is an oasis called the music industry. Graphic designers who enter there no longer languish for want of a creative outlet as they bridge the intriguing gap between audio and visual. Album design offers an especially unique and rewarding conceptual challenge to any graphic designer.

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Even in this age of digital downloads, the visual interpretation of an album can be a strong selling point. Album design can catch the eye, and therefore the ear of new listeners. Your goal as the designer is to create a visual program that parallels the feel of the music and appeals to the intended audience. How you physically design the album is up to you, but before reaching for a mouse or paintbrush, I recommend going through a process of concept development.

The first step sounds obvious: listen to the music of the album you are designing. This means more than absorbing background music, however. You want the album art to suggest the ultimate experience a listener can have, so eliminate distractions. The more attentive you are, the more you will appreciate the complexity of musical layers, repetitions, variations, build-ups, and break-downs. Allow yourself to visualize freely; then jot down notes or very simple sketches of what comes to your mind. As you take in the intricacy and meaning of the music like this, you represent the ideal listener.

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My first experience with album design was with the band Nautilus and their debut, Nominally, Audibly or Anything. As a member of the band myself, I had the advantage of already intimately knowing the music. My difficulty was in approaching the music as an objective listener, unfamiliar with our work. In the end, I chose to gear the entire design toward our established fan base.

The next step is to draw up a list of descriptive words for the album. Is the music energetic, rebellious, nostalgic, ethereal? Is the overall impression light or heavy? Clean-cut or rough around the edges? Choose a few of the most applicable words, and begin to think of corresponding visual elements for them. Sketch if you can. Defining a few unique characteristics like this will keep you motivated and guide your design choices later.

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I found Nautilus’ sound to be experimental, recycled, random, and earthy. Their content is primarily about community, faith, and identity. Based on this, I opted to use hand-drawn elements from members of the band, found imagery from past decades, and a color scheme inspired from aged paper.

Nautilus had no previous discography, but if your artist has produced albums in the past, those may help define the feel you want. Examine them. You must, of course, determine which is more important: continuing in a recognizable vein, or surprising fans with something fresh. Consider also the wider world of music and music history to determine if your artist takes stylistic cues from a genre or period. If so, stylistic visual cues may also apply. Musical groupings tend to have looks as well as sounds. You can design within those categories to inform the consumer and eliminate confusion about the music they are about to hear. Research and sketch variations on these pre-defined themes.

I purposefully confused elements from various eras into Nautilus’ album design, because their creativity draws hungrily from several centuries of musical exploration. For example, clippings from a 19th century music encyclopedia serve as tongue-in-cheek musician bios. The type treatment for the album cover smacks of a western ethnic techno fusion, and across each page, I sprinkled found imagery with an early 90s flavor. All this contributed to a sense of historical idiosyncrasy that is greatly valued by each band member.

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Finally, do not hesitate to let the album’s title and lyrics inspire you. What kind of story is the artist trying to tell? Take note of overarching themes that may appear from track to track. If the title is lifted from a particular song, that content should be regarded as the anchor for the whole narrative.

Naturally, I kept all of the Nautilus members involved in the design process from start to finish. This insured the authenticity of the design, but also slowed down the process considerably. A typical client-designer relationship involves less interaction, so you need to make that interaction all the more meaningful.

Before putting too much work into one graphic solution, summarize your findings and present them to the artist. Have mock-ups, not just sketches, from which the artist can infer a final design. Provide a few options. You want mock-ups that approach the same concept from different angles in different ways; options that vary too widely or too little indicate that you have not done your work thoroughly enough. The artist will choose the one that best captures his message.

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Once you have approved a strong concept, begin applying that idea to the each part of the design. Typography, colors, imagery, and layouts should all support, rather than distract from your concept. Pursue unity in your design by repeating elements where possible. In the end product, the many surfaces of the album should look like they belong together.

Give careful thought to the front cover, the point of first impression. Which has more marketable pull, the artist or his creation? If the artist is well established, his name or image should be prominent on the cover. A lesser-known artist cannot rely on reputation to promote sales, so the concept and design of the album cover become even more important.

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Nautilus was well known to our audience, but we opted not to use our picture on the cover. Even the band name is barely there. This reserve is due to our somewhat unique situation; the band’s existence culminated with this album, then disbanded shortly afterwards. With no further need to promote ourselves, we recorded purely for our fans. Nominally, Audibly, or Nominally preserves the memories of the community culture that had grown up around our music-making. Band identity took a backseat to content.

Creativity is not difficult when one art form is interpreting another, but creativity needs concept in order to maintain direction. I have completed few projects as satisfying as music album design in general, and the Nautilus album in particular. With a good conceptual process, you can do the same.


One Response to “Music Album Design: A Conceptual Guide”

  1.  Mom Says:

    Thank you. I am enlightened.