How many graphic designers owe their introduction to typography to a teenage encounter with the typefaces and lettering found on album covers?
For many of today’s designers, a life in typography and graphic design began with copying band names onto the jackets of school exercise books – in Biro, of course. My own graphic design career began with an obsession with music. Like most of my generation I wanted to be in a band. But a lack of musical talent put a hard stop to that ambition (although it doesn’t appear to have deterred others). So if a career as a rock star was off limits, perhaps, I reckoned, I could do the next best thing – design album covers?
The first 12” square envelopes of cardboard housing vinyl 33⅓ rpm long playing records appeared after the Second World War. The designer Alex Steinweiss is widely credited with inventing the album cover. He tried to patent the concept, but was blocked by his client, Columbia Records, who rightly wanted it to be available to others.
David Lynch, Good Day Today, Sunday Best Recordings
Art direction and design by Vaughan Oliver
Photography by Marc Atkins
Desi Arnaz, Dance La Conga,
Columbia Design by Alex Steinweiss
Frankie Carle, Encores, Columbia
Design by Alex Steinweiss
The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Parlophone,
Design by Sir Peter Blake & Jann Haworth
Photography by Michael Cooper
David Bowie, The Man Who Sold The World, Mercury Records
Back when Steinweiss was designing his vivid and flamboyant covers, the LP was a rarefied thing: the early adopters were the first generation of hi-fi buffs, and middle-aged, pipe-smoking, Playboy-reading urban sophisticates. Teenagers and pop fans made do with 7” singles, which came in paper bags with holes in them. Everything changed in the mid-60s. The golden age of cover art began around 1965, and lasted until the arrival of the Compact Disc in the early 1980s (the first commercially available CD appeared in 1982, a recording of Chopin waltzes on the Philips label). During that period, album covers became the repositories of some of the most expressive and transgressive imagery of the 20th century.
We can take our pick from many hundreds of examples, but a few covers can claim to have had a seismic impact on both the world of design and the wider culture. These include The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band cover, (designed by Peter Blake and Jann Howarth, 1967), which introduced a generation of pop fans to Pop Art; David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World cover (UK version, 1972), featured the great man in a dress, and offered an alternative to conventional views on gender and identity; punk sleeves from the mid- to late-70s gave licence to a generation to create graphic art using the essential tools of DIY design – sheets of Letraset, a spray can and the photocopier; and in the 1980s, British designers such as Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett and Vaughan Oliver created a body of album cover work that inspired a generation to follow careers in graphic design.
Ten years later, a similar upheaval took place with the arrival of the punk movement. Punk typography with its bruised and battered letterforms is unlikely to be confused with the typography found on covers of classical music. Death metal, rap, grime and cosmic jazz all have typographic styles that signal them as genres with distinct identities.
New Order, Substance, Qwest Records
Design by Peter Saville
Joy Division, Substance, Factory Records,
Design by Peter Saville
If the primary roles of album covers are to identify the names of musicians and album titles, and establish subcultural identity, there is a third role that is perhaps its most attractive aspect. The best type and letterforms found on album covers are those that objectify the abstract qualities of music. Peter Saville’s austere postmodern typography for bands such as Joy Division and New Order, and Vaughan Oliver’s dream-like letterforms for a variety of groups on the 4AD label, embody the spirit of the music as effectively as any imagery. And it is this, more than anything else, which has attracted designers to music design. The challenge of using type to convey the spirit of music and the ethos of musicians, gives designers a freedom they rarely enjoy in the pragmatic world of business communications.
But if the album cover did much to democratise visual and typographic innovation, its influence was short lived. It was to be eclipsed in the 1980s by the music video, by music on television, and latterly by the musical cosmos of the internet where everything from Napster to MySpace, from Spotify to iTunes, offered instant music as an invisible download of compressed data. Its main destroyer, however, was the CD – the miracle format that forced us all to buy our record collections a second time. And many of us used this as an opportunity to take our vinyl record collections to the local charity shop.
Pet Shop Boys, Format, Parlophone
Design by Mark Farrow
It was designers – and perhaps a few audiophiles wedded to analogue sound – that felt the loss of vinyl most keenly. Suddenly, the canvas was reduced, and designers were slow to make the adjustment. Record labels were happy to shrink the covers of classic albums with no regard for the attendant loss of detail. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band looked sad and unloved in its first appearance as a CD. Some labels, and some designers, adapted more quickly than others. Mark Farrow with his work for the Pet Shop Boys used a reduced modernistic typographic palette to create the first cover art that specifically tailored for the new format, and in doing so, he helped kickstart the 90s vogue for Helvetica and other modernist typefaces.
And now we live in the age of the download when album covers have shrunk still further – they are now postage stamps on a screen. But simultaneously a counter movement is taking place. Vinyl is making a comeback. Even Tesco is stocking LPs again. It may not be enough to allow the record industry to live in the style it has enjoyed in previous decades. But at least designers can raise a cheer and once more contemplate the opening up of a typographic realm of freedom and inventiveness.