Cover stories

CD and DVD covers provide some of the most innovative examples of packaging design around today. Charlotte Rivers is on the case.

From the Spiritualized CD pill pack and the Pet Shop Boys' Very and Very Relentless covers to the One Dot Zero DVDs, Beck's Guero CD/DVD pack and the Sex in the City shoebox box-set, we've seen some truly innovative sleeve and box designs over the years. It's one area of packaging design where designers really push the boundaries, often making the packaging as much of a must-have as the product inside.

So why is this? What sets CD and DVD packaging apart from, say, food or cosmetics packaging? As creative director at Big Active, Gerard Saint points out, "Most other packaging is disposable and acts as housing for something more essential or interesting that is contained inside. CD and DVD packaging is pretty unique in the sense that it is essentially part of the product and as such enjoys a healthy afterlife."

In addition, the fact that one creative industry - music or film - is working together with another creative industry - graphic design - means that the opportunity for great design can be realised. Chris Bilheimer, designer, illustrator and "ideas man" for R.E.M, says the two industries complement one another. "If you have an interesting, creative band, then you're going to want to create something that will appeal to people with creative, interesting taste. In addition, musicians who have been given creative freedom understand that creative freedom produces better work."

To this end, the design of music, film or moving image packaging has traditionally provided designers with a vehicle to experiment, to try out new things, to take risks, and it's this freedom and opportunity that sees designers creating work that they want to, rather than following a tight brief. Of course this isn't true in all cases and there are a large number of CD and DVD packages that follow similar design concepts therefore leading to the growing homogenisation of packaging design in this area. But some designers are still given creative freedom, with the results proving to be unusual, visually interesting and memorable.

Designers at Big Active have been responsible for some of the best examples of CD packaging created in recent years. Their latest offering is Beck's do-it-yourself cover for his album The Information, which was designed by Saint, together with Mat Maitland and Beck. It was an ambitious project, not least because it involved commissioning 20 artists to design imagery that was used to create sheets of stickers, but the result is inspired. "We attempted to create a highly ambitious work reflective of Beck's idiosyncratic and creative approach to his art," explains Saint. "It invites the listener to get involved and participate visually in the album experience. In my opinion, that's good design that delivers."

Experimental ideas
The idea is that Beck's fans buy the album, which comes with a booklet of blank graph paper and a sheet of stickers, and create their own cover artwork. Once they've created the cover, there is a website where they can upload their designs, and there are plans to choose one of these designs to be featured on the second pressing of the album. "The plan is to choose a design for the 'for life of' version of the album," explains Saint. "When that happens, I believe it will be a first, in both automatic and democratic design."

Another interesting recent release, which this time makes use of lenticular imagery, is the Basement Jaxx Crazy Itch Radio package designed by No Days Off. The lenticular image of a dog scratching a radio is actually in the form of a slipcase that covers a standard jewel case packaging beneath, which, like the Beck album, is a great example of how the constraints of the inherent shape and size of the CD format can be creatively overcome with the clever use of alternative materials, packaging options, printing techniques and design concepts.

Indie labels
Budget isn't such an issue for big bands signed to major labels, but there's often a very low budget for indie bands on smaller labels. The lack of finances forces graphic designers to engage in some creative enterprise in order to make a memorable package. A great example of this is a cover by David Lane created for the release of a promo single by the band Gossip. Faced with a minimal budget, Lane has used simple card sleeves and tape to create some pretty innovative and great lo-fi packaging.

"I wanted to make the promos stand out as objects and give them something that made them different from the crowd but, in short, there wasn't much money for the project," explains Lane. "Instead I used tape and simple card sleeves to create the covers. It's rare to have a mass product in design that allows some creative freedom, but at least the music industry is vaguely creative and understands art."

Of course, not all CD or DVD packages are designed within the standard shape and size, and if brief and budgets permit, designers have the opportunity to create almost anything. For the release of Rinrse’s Music Kills Me album, David Calderley at Graphic Therapy created a package that sees the CD placed in a circular gloss black plastic inner case and then into a black rubber pouch with sticker. The latest Badly Drawn Boy CD and DVD album, Born in the UK, has been packaged in a British passport-style cover with two discs sitting on the inside front and back covers, track listings and lyrics on the inside pages and even a photo and personal details page of the Badly Drawn Boy himself, Damon Gough. For the recent release of Self Defence, an album by Unkle, 2manydesigners created a large, fold-up pink box package that features artwork by Futura, and similarly for the re-release of Unkle's second album, Never Never Land, the designers created a miniature pizza box with foam studs in which to hold the CDs.

It doesn't stop at CDs either - the packaging for the original series of Star Trek on DVD, which was created using moulded plastic covers that resembled the tricorders used by the characters in the show, proved popular with Trekkies, and more recently the limited edition 'Cyberman Head' box set of Doctor Who, which also comes with a lenticular postcard, is a must-have for fans of the show. In addition, A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box is a CD and DVD box-set which, inspired by the title, has been packaged in a gothic style faux leather lace-up corset that surrounds the hard-cover book-sized set of discs inside.

Objects of desire
But with increasing download sales, a decline in CD sales and the imminent prospect of downloadable TV shows and films, can such approaches to the design of the packaging actually encourage people to buy physical rather than digital copies? Calderley believes this will only happen if CD and DVD packages are created as desirable objects. "If it [the CD] is to survive at all, it has to be tactile and in a visually interesting package. The majority come in a plastic jewel case with a paper booklet so it's no wonder people don't want it. I try whenever possible to convince labels to think about making less product, but more limited edition 'special' product that people will want to own and display. People like to own 'stuff' and the fans always want something cool."

Lane agrees with Calderley on this. "The production quality and budget has to change if there is still going to be a life for these formats. They will have to become fantastic collectable objects rather than just collectable music. If you can pay £1 for a download or £20 for a great piece of design then they may survive."

Having often bought CDs based solely on their packaging and design, Melvyn Lim at 2manydesigners believes the amount of effort put into the packaging is a reflection on the music inside. "I always had this notion that if the artist spends the effort to make great packaging then the music has to be good... It has been fun working with GU and James on the Unkle CDs as they both spare no effort in the end product."

It is often said by designers and creatives that CDs and DVDs should be sold in the same way as books and so therefore the design of the packaging should be approached in the same way. As Saint explains, "Music needs to be sold in a similar way to books with appropriate 'soft-back' and 'hard-back' versions available. I believe this is a really good way of looking at the idea of digital downloads and actual physical product - both can deliver different aspects of a release and these can be best suited to the characteristic traits of each medium.

"Design is more than just superficial decoration - it's about ideas and problem solving," Saint continues, "and this is just as relevant with music packaging as it is with designing for any other product. I think our solution for the new Beck album is a good example of the difference design can make. The packaging cannot be divorced from the physical format - it's integral to it, it's about getting people inspired."

In recent weeks we've seen designers and labels experimenting with a number of new ideas in a bid to encourage music lovers to actually purchase music physically rather than digitally. There has been the release of Keane's single, Nothing in My Way, by Big Active, on a memory stick packaged in CD-sized artwork and, as we've already mentioned, Beck's do-it-yourself album cover which also includes a DVDfeaturing music videos for each track (this got it banned from the official UK charts for having an unfair sales advantage over other albums). There has even been the release of The Blank Album by Superthriller, which is exactly that, a blank CD released by the band's label Rough Trade. The idea is to get consumers completely involved in the process and allow them to master their own album. Once purchased, the CD is taken home, inserted into a computer and used together with instructions and tracks on the band's homepage to create a unique, customised album. All three release ideas are certainly different; they are experimental and risky and show that the music industry and the designers working in it are willing to try out the new.

Make it memorable
Ultimately, the challenge for a designer when approaching a CD or DVD packaging design brief is to create a memorable, marketable product that communicates, in whatever way is most appropriate, the content within. Packaging for film, and especially music, is one of the most popular design areas for graphic designers to work in as it often provides them with creative freedom, as well as with a unique design opportunity. As with any packaging project, there's the product design - what casing to use, what materials to use, and so on - but then there is also an editorial design challenge within the inserted booklet or other material included. In other words, there's the opportunity to design in both two and three dimensions.

Whether it be a low-budget or high-budget project, for a mainstream band or blockbuster film, or an unknown group or indie film, what is evident is that designers today are still pushing the boundaries in this area of design, producing fresh, innovative work and maintaining the desirability of the physical product. And thank goodness for that, because, in the case of music, nothing beats the 'experience' you get from buying a new album, taking it home, unwrapping it, playing the music and listening to it while flicking through the song lyrics, band credits, notes and photographs.