Are digital albums divorcing design?

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Digital divorce
Okay, I get it: we live in a digital world. I have a digital clock. I have a phone that is so smart it talks to me. I have endless box sets of American TV shows at the push of a button. I have glasses that take pictures when I wink (this is a lie, I can’t afford them).

And then I have albums. A big wall of albums. In jewel cases. Racked alphabetically by artist in chronological order (it’s less OCD and more OC-DC). Cloud music has not reached the world of yours truly. I’m not sure it ever will, as album cover artwork is one of the things that got me interested in graphic design in the first place. It got me hooked, and I don’t think I’m the only one. The imagery, the typefaces, the colours: covers defined the music within and were more like art than packaging.

From being a spotty 14-year-old spending hours in Our Price flicking through Britpop’s finest one-album wonders to being a 30-odd-year-old who only last month got blank looks from HMV staff when asking for some Thin Lizzy reissues, the physical CD has held my attention in a way at times nothing else could.

The excitement, the anticipation, the care you took to avoid scratches — spending hours reading through the booklet that, if you were lucky, was so thick you struggled to fit back in without damaging the edges. Blur’s Parklife album even had the guitar chords printed inside of its inlay booklet — perfect for the pre-internet teenager locked away in his bedroom, struggling his way through a variety of Britpop anthems on a Spanish flamenco guitar.

Blur Parklife album artwork

Much to my wife’s annoyance and the bemusement of potential house-buying viewers, I own a lot of CDs. Some of them are seminal classics, some are emotionally priceless, some are recklessly loud, some are great for a few tracks, and some are utter waffle that I bought purely for the way they looked, and to a certain extent felt.

The album cover artwork for me plays a high part in the emotional attachment and buying power of a CD. I bought Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space because of the packaging, because you had to pop out the CD like you pop out a large paracetamol from its foil. But that album represents 69:41 of my life I’ll never get back. Their other three albums I bought I’ve listened too once, but I wanted them because, to me, they’re solid pieces of excellent design work.

Spiritualized Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space album artwork

I once went through a long, infuriating and at times epically brilliant stage of buying CDs based purely on their designs — the likes of Benoît Pioulard, The Hold Steady and The Joy Formidable all quality groups I found from having an initial three-second connection when roaming around the aisles of the rock and indie sections in HMV.

The Hold Steady Boys And Girls In America album artwork

But for every Hot Chip there’s a Damien Rice. It was at times a lottery, but bands and artists should in general have a correlation between their album’s look and feel, and the music that sits in it. Black Sabbath’s albums usually follow a checklist of design requirements: Lots of black? Tick. Scary imagery? Tick. Big type? Tick. Slightly satanic feel? Tick. Smiley Babies and fluffy kittens? Errr… not exactly.

Black Sabbath 13 album artwork

And then there’s country music, with record covers that feature cowboy boots, Stetson hats, stonewashed double denim, low-MPG pickup trucks and overly ornate acoustic guitars. Pop artists too have their own set of rules for album cover artwork: self-indulgent photography sitting underneath garish colour choices and out-of-date typography along with a ‘quirky’ twist. The twist is that your mam could probably knock it up in under ten minutes using Microsoft Paint. But it does appeal to the demographic, which is kind of the point.

Since the evolution of the iTunes Store, the digital album has become king. And now with the rise of Spotify, you don’t even have to download anything. The CD as we know it is dying a slow death, and with it the adventurous album artwork and luxurious special-edition packaging that comes with it for the ubergeek obsessives. Right now it’s a thumbnail. A thumbnail you click you past or barely notice.

So is this the end of the album cover artwork? In the beginning bands such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd had design legends like Storm Thorgerson spend weeks creating lavish pieces of artwork for large vinyls to sit in. Peter Blake spent untold man hours creating the scene for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s set.

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album artwork

Over time these 12” x 12” covers were replaced by the 12cm x 12cm jewel cases (let’s forget about the cassette tapes — that’s for another day) with marginal loss in quality and style. Now the album cover designer has to think about how that lavish piece will look at 30 pixels x 30 pixels when on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon, and shared around the world by the magic of the internet.

Bands like the Arctic Monkeys, who as we all know were one of the first to shoot to fame via the internet (Myspace? Remember that? Nah, me neither), have taken this on extremely well. Their latest album, AM, has artwork that is simple and easily recognisable: just two colours, an identifiable shape and no typography whatsoever. It has a dark feel which is reflected in the music within.

Arctic Monkeys AM album artwork

The Arctic Monkeys aren’t the only ones looking at simplified artwork more suited to our digital lives. Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, David Bowie’s The Next Day, both of The xx’s albums, and Kasabian’s 48:13 have simplistic designs, utilising minimalistic colour palettes, strong shapes and clean, solid type.


Kasabian 48:13 album artwork


In a weird twist, some of them mirror the early work Peter Saville created for bands on the Factory label in the 1980s, like Joy Division and New Order — simple yet elegant designs that define an era.

So maybe the album cover isn’t divorcing us after all; it’s just reinventing itself like it did when LPs stepped aside for compact discs. It’s just shedding a few pounds, getting a fancy new place to live and hanging around with cool new friends in the ever-changing digital world.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back at my place alphabetising my collection, reading their inlay cards, rubbing out the scratches on the discs, holding them in my hands and struggling to make the shift from E to Esus4 on Parklife. Until I put them back in order on the shelves to gather dust until the next time I get them out…


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