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The Art of Album Design

As a both a music lover and a design nerd, I’ve been obsessed with album art for years. There’s something about the way the artwork becomes intrinsically tied to my experience with an album that is so magical and unlike anything else in the world. I have a difficult time selecting my favorite album covers from a design standpoint because I’m so biased toward the albums with which I’ve spent so many memories.

I love the Instagram feed of famed designer Stefan Sagmeister. Every other post is a collection of four LP covers from his record collection that go together visually. Sometimes the combinations he selects are unexpected given the genres of the works, but they totally make sense. I love it. (I actually got to meet Stefan this past summer, but I was so starstruck and embarrassed in that brief moment I completely forgot to ask about his interest in music. That man is intimidatingly tall.)

This is probably the only time Sufjan, Beyoncé, and Nothing But Thieves will be in the same collection. Ever.
This is probably the only time Sufjan, Beyoncé, and Nothing But Thieves will be in the same collection. Ever.

Something that stands out in Stefan’s post is his caption: he takes the time to credit the artist/studio behind each album cover. I personally love to research the designs of new album covers by my favorite bands. (The best is when the conceptual meaning of the music and the design lines up but is not immediately apparent. See Death Cab’s Kintsugi, artwork by Joe Rudko.) I think it’s important to recognize the creative minds behind the art that acts as an icon for an album; the visual representation is nearly as significant as the music itself. It is a dream of mine to create the artwork for an album, but the responsibility of accurately and attractively depicting the music on one canvas is a weighty one. Cover art can entice new listeners to fall in love with an album, whether they are familiar with the band or not. It is so disappointing when a great song has a terrible cover, or vice versa; the aesthetic has to be united visually and aurally in order for it to be successful as a design piece.

I’ve tried my hand at selecting a collection of albums like Stefan does, in order to appreciate their art outside of the album’s internal context:

San Cisco, San Cisco: Artist unknown The Love Language, Libraries: Artist unknown TV Girl, Who Really Cares: George M. Hester Surfer Blood, Astro Coast: Brent Couchman
San Cisco, San Cisco: Artist unknown
The Love Language, Libraries: Artist unknown
TV Girl, Who Really Cares: George M. Hester
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast: Brent Couchman
The Kooks, Junk of the Heart: Joel Levack, Luke Pritchard, Richard Welland King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine: Artist unknown Hello Shark, Delicate: Artist unknown Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean: Sam Bean
The Kooks, Junk of the Heart: Joel Levack, Luke Pritchard, Richard Welland
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine: Artist unknown
Hello Shark, Delicate: Artist unknown
Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean: Sam Beam
The Airborne Toxic Event, The Airborne Toxic Event: Artist unknown Ben Folds, Stems and Seeds: Artist unknown The Antlers, Hospice: Zan Goodman & Darby Cicci Brandston, Hello Control: Randall Jankins
The Airborne Toxic Event, The Airborne Toxic Event: Artist unknown
Ben Folds, Stems and Seeds: Artist unknown
The Antlers, Hospice: Zan Goodman & Darby Cicci
Brandston, Hello Control: Randall Jankins

Evaluating albums solely on their front cover really brings to light the influence that artwork has on our perception of the music it stands for. One square image is responsible for first drawing in the listener’s attention, then accurately representing the musical experience, and ultimately standing as an icon for the album as it lives in the listener’s memory. This gives me even more of a reason to turn to album art for inspiration in my design work; whether I’m designing a brand or working within one, I need to consider how well my design can communicate whether it’s standing alone or in a variety of contexts. If you ever need a burst of design inspiration, be it aesthetically or conceptually, I highly recommend browsing through your iTunes library or Spotify to see what album sparks excitement and new ideas.

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