Computer Arts

Design for music

Remember the first book you bought? Or the first movie you saw? Thought not. Bet you can recall your first album though...

Can you remember how excitedly you rushed home from your local record shop to play that first piece of vinyl, or the first CD if you're part of the generation that missed out on black plastic? Can you recall just how vital it felt to both aurally and visually devour the entire album - the music, the design, the sleeve notes, the band's visual identity/logo, the photography, the typography? It was a defining moment - you grew up that day.

The fact that you're holding this magazine in your hands demonstrates that you are a creative person - you may be an art director, a graphic designer, a photographer, an illustrator, an animator... the list goes on. Whatever your discipline, music is an important factor in your creativity. However, ask most designers about the relationship between design and music and you'll often get a confused response - to some, the link is so intrinsic and consuming that it's almost invisible. Quite simply, it is design that brings music to life visually.

Peepshow's Miles Donovan works regularly for The Observer Music Monthly magazine, creating illustrations of current stars. "I've created hundreds of images of artists," he admits, "and I listen to music constantly - it has always been such a huge inspiration for the illustration work I've created over the years, both in terms of subject matter and the style or way in which I work," he stresses.

Ed Templeton is also closer than most to both music and design disciplines. As Creative Director at Red he has worked with the likes of Fatboy Slim for Skint Records and Quantic for Tru Thoughts. Templeton recalls his own beginnings: "Record covers were my very first insight into this thing called graphic design," he explains, "and from a pretty early age I knew I wanted to design them. At 14 I was promoting clubs and DJing in the early acid house/rave scene while designing flyers and T-shirts I always saw music and design as intertwined."

This fundamental link between design and music in the record industry was not always so visible. The first vinyl to hit the shops in the late 1800s (yes, it would take 100 years for the 12-inch single to gain popularity) came in simple packaging, often a plain brown sleeve with little or no visual information. As record companies slowly began to recognise that they had so much more to market, and create revenue from, than just the music, quite literally a star was born. Colonel Tom Parker understood this with his marketing concepts for the young Elvis, as did Brian Epstein with those lovable Scouse mop-tops, The Beatles. The links between design and music could and never would be reversed.

Classic combinations
Flick through your own record collection - be it vinyl or CD - and you're bound to be the proud owner of some truly excellent music and some top-notch sleeve designs. Every so often the two - ace music and great design - will collide to create a classic album. Iconic albums aren't exactly two-a-penny and everyone's tastes differ, but consider Peter Blake's legendary Sgt Pepper's sleeve for The Beatles, Pink Floyd's surreal and dream-like images created by Hypgnosis, Jamie Reid's raw cut-'n'-paste graphic mayhem for the Sex Pistols, Peter Saville's timeless work for Joy Division or Vaughan Oliver and V23's dark creations for the Pixies. These are album designs that define crucial moments in pop culture and have become an essential aspect of people's lives. And, of course, everyone has their very own favourite album sleeve - a hot topic of debate when designers get together for a pint or three.

Rob O'Conner is a man who knows what he likes. As Creative Director of Stylorouge and with a cool 25 years at the helm of the company, he has an unbeatable track record too. Stylorouge has worked with an impressive client list that includes Blur, George Michael, The Pretenders, Rolling Stones, Catatonia and, er... Geri Halliwell.

"My favourite designers and sleeves are just too many to mention," admits O'Conner. "I love loads of Barney Bubbles stuff, I'm a fan of Mark Farrow's work and Vaughan Oliver/V23, of course," he states. Paul Farrington, of Studio Tonne, agrees: "My all-time heroes were V23 - nothing will ever touch me as much as their work did when I was a student." Studio Tonne has not exactly been a slouch in the music-related work department itself, working with Moby and Depeche Mode among others.

However, when it comes to V23, Martin Andersen of Andersen M Studio went one better when he was a student: "One of my tutors at the Royal College of Art in 1998 - Russell Mills - recommended me to Vaughan Oliver," explains Andersen, "and he offered me a job as designer. Vaughan gave me immense freedom to experiment with my own image-making and allowed me time to develop unique concepts, packaging and type designs. I art-directed my own projects, and that gave me huge confidence quite early on in my career."

There is recognition, vocalised by most designers, that a sense of creative freedom can produce the very best results when it comes to working in this field - designers check each others' work, but the best strive to find their own direction, their own visual language.

The change in landscape
Back in the day when most of us made that first record purchase - be it vinyl, 8-track, cassette or CD - life seemed so much simpler. We would stay up until midnight on school-nights listening to John Peel unearth some future classics as well as showcasing many that deserved to remain buried. We'd watch Top of The Pops on a Thursday evening, buy a 7- or 12-inch single on the Saturday, listen to the chart run-down on Radio 1 on the Sunday evening. We'd pore over every inane detail in the NME, Smash Hits and The Face. Consuming music and design at the fag-end of the last century was straightforward.

With the death of John Peel, the demise of The Face and Smash Hits, as well as the recent unplugging of TOTP, the landscape just isn't what it once was. But the future is bright: "The end of TOTP - who really cares?" offers Rob O'Conner at Stylorouge. "The great British public have been force-fed too much consumerist entertainment for far too long. More sensibly curated music TV is well overdue."

Michael Gillette agrees with O'Conner: "I'm completely non-plussed at the death of TOTP," he states from his ex-pat studio in San Francisco. Gillette's passion for music was the very thing that led him to leaving the UK for SF. "The first commission I ever did was for Saint Etienne, the summer I graduated. I found their address on the back of one of their singles so I made up a package of my work and I hand-delivered it," he recalls. "A week later I turned up at their record company and through some fantastical stroke of happenstance they knew about the package and the work started from there," he adds, "but it was my love for psychedelic music that brought me to San Francisco." The move to California has been fruitful for Gillette and work for bands has continued, the biggest project to date being for the Beastie Boys. "It was fun, I have a lot of respect for them and it was a good meaty project," he says. More recently Gillette has started working with Beck: "It's cool to hear feedback from him. Again, I have a lot of respect."

Gillette's stateside move coincided with changes in the music landscape and he views these developments as purely positive: "The possibilities are now unlimited - animations, evolving designs, screensavers..." he offers. Rob O'Conner agrees: "Everything is changing, but the need for visual imagery will prevail. Stylorouge always looks to work across all possible media - it's what excites me most."

The changes in the design and music landscape affect designers and how they respond to industry demands. "Sleeve design changed with the predominance of the CD," explains Ed Templeton at Red. "It was no longer about a single image representing the record and, of course, that coincided with the rise of the music video, which diluted the relationship even more." As the spread of potential applications expanded, so too did the designer's ambition to work with new formats. "With the introduction of the CD, the designer now had the booklet to use as a creative platform," discusses Templeton, "and increasingly as music formats continue to expand, so do the associated graphics. We've just designed an iTunes downloadable booklet for the new Fatboy Slim album and the next step will be an interactive MP3 booklet, animated album graphics for phones, website/video as well as mobile phone cross-over animations..."

However, moving forward isn't seen as progress by all. "As a designer I mourn the death of the 12-inch and the amazing possibilities designers once had," offers Jasper Goodall. "Now everything is miniaturised or downloaded and I'm scared that music doesn't really exist any more - it's just numbers rather than grooves on vinyl. Putting on a record is so real, it's great, it's an event." Goodall has just 'completed' work on the recent single put out by Muse. "They approached me having seen my work in the Big Active book Head, Heart and Hips," explains Goodall. "I presented some ideas they really liked, but then the band started fighting with each other and by the time they came back to me I was just too busy with other projects. I told them that they'd missed the boat and they asked if I had any old images not being used and out of usage rights," he continues. "And so, hey ho, I had an old image I did for The Face years ago and with the mag having been shut down, it was going spare - money for nothing!"

Anthony Burrill, designer for clients that have included Kraftwerk, Air and Indie label13 AMP, is also a little pessimistic about the current state of affairs. "The whole business seems to be going through a strange patch at the moment," he states. "In the era of iPods and downloads, the packaging of music seems less important. It's a shame, but I think the golden era of record sleeve design is over." It isn't all doom and gloom though for Burrill: "I think that MySpace is a big current influence, the DIY aesthetic on band pages, for example," he says. He then snaps back to his original train of thought: "There's a real lack of any design skills, perhaps it is all becoming quite homogenised - a kind of design soup."

Back to Red for the final word on the future and, in his upbeat fashion, Ed Templeton embraces change: "People consume music differently these days," he states, "and as new technology emerges, designers will embrace it. Give an inquisitive designer a new problem and new solutions will be found - you've not seen the back of the symbiotic relation between music and art just yet!"

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