Cover designer: Jessica Brennan interview


Responsible for this issue’s cover print, Brennan recently completed a thesis paper for the University of Newcastle called “The Effects of the Transforming Album Cover on Music Listeners”. We speak to Brennan about what a “transforming album cover” actually is, and whether album art is a dying art form in the digital age.

What draws you to album sleeve design?

I think like most things I’m initially drawn by colour and composition. An artwork that can manage to grab your attention from the shelf as you walk into a store will be something I would take notice of. I actually also like the cardboard wallets as well when flicking through CDs, just because they have a tactile quality that differentiates them from the crappy plastic jewel cases, and I think that the ink on the cover also appears warmer and deeper on the better quality stock. It’s these qualities that add up to make you feel like your purchasing something more personal and alive from the artist.

What are some of your favourites, and why do they work well?

A current album cover I really like is MGMT’s Congratulations created by artist Anthony Ausgang. The image is so vivid and amazing! It complements the music perfectly. There was also a limited edition scratch version of the cover, which when rubbed with a coin revealed a collage of photographs of the band. Everything about the cover is a magnet for your attention.

I have to mention The Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The artwork managed to encapsulate all that was the music on this album; it brought forth an entirely new concept in the capabilities of the album cover, and was totally representational of the experimental sound and song writing. This album cover was well and truly beyond functioning as simply just a protective casing for the record inside.

I also like a lot of Alex Steinweiss’s work. It must have been insane to be the first artist to create an album cover, and I think that he naturally set principles that are going to be forever relevant to this particular art form. Combining original typography with bright, graphic, original illustrations Steinweiss was influenced by poster design and the music of his era. An example of this would be Contrasts in Hi-Fi by Bob Sharples.

What is a “transforming album cover”? Any examples?

The “transforming album cover” refers to the changing state of album cover artwork, from a tangible object, to a virtual experience. For example, in an attempt recreate the experience of staring at a tangible album sleeve, iTunes has introduced the ‘iTunes LP’. It is essentially an interactive form of album artwork, which is there to give the listener some kind of multimedia visual element to experience as they are listening to the album. This can be viewed in action with transformation of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited cover artwork from record sleeve, to CD, to iTunes LP format.

Another side effect of online artwork, as noted by designers, are the challenges presented in designing for the new formats. The accompanying thumbnail on most new music players now is restricted to a 240 pixel artwork. The tiny JPGs displayed on computers and iPod screens now demand simplicity, bold colour, and plain type. An example of this would be Datarock’s self titled album: its simply crafted, bright illustration with large plain type is suitably minimalist for viewing at a small scale.

In your mind, what are the rules, or the essential considerations, for an effective album cover?

More importantly than jumping out from the shelf to the consumer, to me, effective cover art should extend the listeners experience of the music beyond aural interpretation. It should heighten the bond between musician and audience, taking the music listeners experience to a higher level of understanding. It should essentially, function in the way of an artwork.

Given the rise of digital music formats, do you think there’s a risk that album cover art may become irrelevant? Are there ways to combat this?

I strongly believe that in regards to recorded music, the accompanying artwork – whatever form that may take, will always be important and relevant. The first album cover artwork was created in 1939 by art director Alex Steinweiss, who suggested that the use of original artwork on the previously plain record packages might entice more customers to stop and explore the albums. One of Steinweiss’s first experiments was designing the package for Beethoven’s Hits; following this sales rose by a dramatic 800%. The results speak for themselves.

It wasn’t until the introduction of the digital music format that we were faced with, for the first time in almost seventy years, a practically non-existent artwork, its maximum size reaching only 5x5cm. With consumers now carrying new iPods and MP3 players the industry had decided for us that there was no need for substantial artwork any longer. In return we would receive bargain prices on all of our music file selections….and then the sales results came in. It had become apparent that tangible album sales were still outselling their digital counterparts. They had not reached the album purchasing audience.

It seemed that even though tangible artwork had not been pushed as heavily in the marketing campaigns, the consumer still had an underlying want for the visual communication, not just the aural sensation. The following year then saw the beginnings of larger scale digital artworks, with the introduction of new digital album booklets that were to accompany album files. Thus acknowledging the power of the visual imagery to connect an audience more fully with an album and increase its inherent value.

I think it will be exciting to see how this idea continues to evolve as designers explore the infinite possibilities presented to them as technology continues to develop, and also how far groups who are determined to keep a tactile experience in place for their consumers will push their artwork in order to compete and maintain value with the listener.


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