Saturday, September 06, 2008

What happened to sleeve design?

In years to come, when travelers from Mars pick through the debris of our shattered society, one of the questions somebody is bound to ask is, why did rock bands allow the covers of their CDs to be designed by people who didn't seem to understand the first thing about the principles of the packaged goods business? I noticed these four pre-releases on my desk just now and they set me thinking.
  • Let's start with the top left. If a CD becomes separated from its case, how the bloody hell do you identify it? Would a company selling DVDs allow you to do that? No. And why not? Because it would be profoundly irritating for their customers. Which it is.
  • Top right. One of the jobs of design is to maximise the chances of a little casual purchase by providing people with an element that they can get some kind of purchase on. Here you've got a band name that provides no clue and an album title that tries your patience. In this context if you then expect people to be intrigued by your conceptual gag as well then, well, you have a lot to learn.
  • Bottom right. Go and look at the books in Borders. What's the first principle of book jacket design? That you be able to make out the name of the book and its author. Now, can you read this? It was eventually identified by somebody holding it in front of me and telling me its name. Call me old fashioned. This shouldn't be necessary.
  • Bottom left. If you're a former member of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band then you should know that the marketplace is infinitely more crowded than it used to be and it's no longer tolerant of the occasional injection of the grotesque. Somebody has to reach for this in the rack and take it to the till. They are more likely to do that if they don't find the image on the cover repellent.


  1. Anonymous12:13 pm

    Anrew, isn't this likely to be down to the fact that many of these CD's now are self-published, so they're relying on friends to design the sleeves etc?

    If you're seeing yourself as part of some friendly collective all involved in different elements of the process, you'll inevitably end up with a 'Janine' who does the design. If she's shite, no-one has the balls to say anything because she's the singer's girlfriend.

    One of the few advantages of being involved with a record company behemoth, is that they would veto the idea for you and you wouldn't have to take the blame.

  2. One of the great things about the long defunct Rock Yearbook was that it picked out the very best record sleeves of the year and explained why they were good, as well as the very worst (any of Sammy Hagar's would invariably get a kicking)and why they were bad. Such a service upped the ante no end.
    One thing that puzzles me is why book publishers frequently update their iconic covers, yet record companies don't. Can you imagine an early 90s update of, say, Veedon Fleece, with Van in a turquoise Shell Suit with a couplathree pit bulls in lieu of a Tommy Nutter two-piece and a brace of wolfhounds?

  3. That's really interesting. I'd never considered that record companies don't literally re-package in the way that everybody else does. Maybe they worry that the people they would be aiming such things at - the hard core fans - wouldn't accept anything that didn't look like "the original".

  4. With you on the no info on the physical CD. I recently bought July Skies' latest album after a favourable Word review and a track on the cover mount CD. The JS CD is just plain white with no info whatsoever. I left it in my CD player while on holiday, came back and couldn't remember what it was. That is until I pressed 'play', of course.

  5. one thing that annoys me is booklets that that are 10 -15 longs but have no information track listing lyrics just rubbish pictures a complete waste of paper. You do get redesigned slip cases occassionally usually what happens is the cardboard case has large picture of the attractive female singer songwriter on it covering up the tasteful but obscure weird folk art pencil drawing of a crow on the orginal sleeve!
    lastly how come singles look great but aren't much bigger than cd's ?

  6. May I steer those in London with an interest in this matter to a discussion I'm chairing on Sep 24 at the University of the Arts, with Peter Saville on the panel. There's an exhibition running too. And it's free.

  7. Well observed - and thanks Andrew, I had missed that Spin exhibition!

  8. Some valid points, but I quite like the fact that not every band feels the need to consult a top design agency or marketing firm to maximise the impact of their cover art in the marketplace.

    I like the fact that sometinmes sleeves are just knocked together by the band themselves or a mate of the band or whatever.

    The fact is that sleeve artwork is almost totally uneccessary these days when it comes to actually trying to sell an album. Most people first encounter an album these days by hearing the songs from it, not by looking at the cover. That comes later, if at all. So increasingly, the artwork just becomes an extension of what the band is trying to convey with the music - it has no need to convey information, or 'sell' the product.

    But yeah, not writing the name of the album on the CD is REALLY annoying.