Judging by the Covers

Practically speaking, the size of something is one of the most critical and foremost concerns for a designer beginning a new project. What one designs for a postage stamp is far different than what one might design for, say, the side of a building. There’s considerations for what looks good at what distances, how long the viewer will be able to look at it or is willing to look at it, and a plethora of other minute concerns that are woven into the fabric at the very outset of the impetus “Here I shall communicate an idea.”

Technology is usually a driving factor in the consideration of medium for a message, and over the last several years we’ve seen the continued metamorphosis of one of the most heralded and ubiquitous in graphic design—album covers.

Once upon a time, LPs ruled. Landing the cover of an album for a band was a cause for joy amongst designers. Here on this massive one-square-foot piece of stiff, thin cardboard, a designer could express some of the purest designs imaginable. Allegorical visuals that evoked the mood of the music and daring experiments in the limits of design were mass produced and sent to the masses to become iconic images of a generation, inseparable in the listener’s mind from the music.

But for a relatively quick blip that was the eight-track, the CD took over, and technology changed the size by a factor of more than a half less than what designers had previously enjoyed. Little changed, however, and designers still treated the square canvas as more-or-less akin to its larger progenitors.

Now we see what I believe is a real change on the horizon. Ever since the advent of iTunes, people have been steadily buying only pieces of an album (once considered necessary to be viewed whole as part of an entire, multi-track conversation with the listener). Despite the inclusion of Apple’s “Cover Flow,” few people could today match their favorite single to its corresponding album cover. And even if they do, it may not make sense out of the context of an entire album, or it may be viewed at a size so small that key details are missed.

This is especially true on smart phones. Just the other day I was staring at the 1″ square image of an album on my own Android and was surprised to find that there had been an entire person in the photograph that had gone unnoticed.

The challenge for designers, then, is this: do we continue to make album covers miniature works of art? Or do we go the other way, and simplify the concept to the point where we take more lessons from logo design (meant for small viewing)? After all, what’s the point in spending hours setting up a photo shoot or creating an illustration if it doesn’t make sense or isn’t even seen at all on today’s near-pill sized music players?

The popularity of Apple’s Cover Flow does point to an audience that wants and enjoys beautiful covers, but also enjoys the convenience and cost effectiveness of portable music sampled singularly from larger bodies of work. We must grapple with this if we want to preserve the art form. Since all good designers are also problem solvers, I am hopeful it is not beyond our reach. As technology continues to advance (the gorgeous screen of the iPad would be one example) I see a day where album covers will be rich worlds again, where the technology is exploited to create ambiance rather than relegating design to a small fraction of the experience. Perhaps they will be animated, or customizable from a library of album-specific visuals to encourage the users to design something that reflects what they feel the music is.

The world may be getting smaller, but the sky’s still the limit.