Mark Donington, Senior Designer at FRUKT London, looks at how certain music genres conform to specific design styles.
Most musical genres have carved out their own niche when it comes to design. Singles and album covers, more often than not, conform to the visual stereotype associated with their musical genre. As consumers, we like to know what we’re buying; if the cover of the album we’re eyeing up is cloaked in black and depicts a crazed zombie horde careering across it, we’ll be in a good place to say it’s a metal album and it’s probably pretty dark. Despite the way we buy music changing considerably over the past 10 years, these stereotypes still persist, it’s just the package our music is delivered in that’s changed.
I’d like to take a look at how three completely different musical genres compare from a design perspective. The colours, imagery, typography and iconography used, all help to differentiate each genre from the other. By breaking album artwork apart I’m hoping to give you a good insight to the history and meaning of certain design elements that often reoccur in specific genres.
Above all other genres, there is a definitive stereotype associated with metal. It’s safe to say this view is perpetuated by those within the genre itself. The “we don’t give a……” attitude is welcomed by its fans and as such, the design ethos within metal encourages designers to stick to the visual language that has been set before. I’m going to have a look at Machine Head’s album ‘The Blackening’ to point out the design cues that permeate most metal album covers.
Firstly, the style of the album gives it away…. But black is a recurring theme in metal. The colour naturally represents the dark themes which the music deals with. If you’re talking about dark magic or death or disease, you probably won’t be reaching for the pink in your colour selection. Typographically the album is stripped back, using a serif font with the aim of replicating an old printing press, often associated with historical documents. Often type in metal design harks back to old times. There is a link between the music itself and an old or ancient themes – think Iron Maiden and Powerslave or Black Sabbath (self-titled). The main motif for The Blackening is the apocalyptic engraving. Metal deals with death and destruction on a regular basis and I think it’s fair to say that Machine Head’s offering is no different. The overall feeling of the design both compliments the actual musical content of the album and various visual stereotypes associated with metal.
As music listeners we often want an album artwork to closely represent the music itself. It’s another way for us to identify with the music without actually listening to it. This track from the album
shows how the themes represented on the cover infiltrate the music itself.
DESIGN FEATURES: Black, Historical typography, Occult iconography
Techno has moved through many phases but one thing has remained the same, it is built on stark minimal beats. The themes that permeate through the genre often deal with brutalism, loneliness and the future. As such techno albums often look to reflect this directly. Minimalism is an overall theme that encompasses most if not all of techno.
This classic by Sandwell District "Feed Forward" is a collection of rare A and B sides. The group only released a handful of tracks with most of their work only existing as live performances. Their minimal approach to music is clearly reflected in their label artwork. A monochrome aesthetic for techno is a must. Often sparse industrial scenes are favoured. Sandwell District simply use a black and white photo of an individual against a grey ink splash. You don’t know who the person is, or what their intentions are. In fact the artwork is designed to leave you with more questions than answers. In terms of the aesthetic itself, techno definitely shares similarities with metal. Its industrial foundations can even be drawn from metal to some degree. This Sandwell District cover strongly represents a number of design features closely associated with techno music.
In this track
you can hear the bleak minimal themes which the cover hints at.
STEREOTYPES: Monochrome, Minimal design, Industrial themes
Folk music has a wealth of tradition and history to fall back on. As such, the design trends that are now associated with it have developed over a long time but have been ever consistent since its inception. The themes associated with Folk music are wide reaching but overall artists utilise emotion to communicate their messages. This has directly impacted on the style of design the genre has adapted.
This cover by Karen Dalton "In My Own Time" is a classic slice of Folk and exhibits a number of stylistic stereotypes. Firstly, the brown tones combined with sepia photography. This type of music as a whole exhibits a natural, almost earthy feel (something its artists are keen to align with). Folk is viewed as an organic form of music and therefore it makes sense to base the colour palette within earthy tones. The curved nature of the typeface harks back to the 60’s hippy movement but also looks to a more conservative future, reflected in the clothes of Karen herself featured in the central photo. The artist is pictured walking along a road which reflects a strong theme found in Folk – life on the open road. This can be seen directly as a metaphor for people’s journey through life or even journey through the making of an album. American folk culture has long been inspired by life on the ‘open road’ with themes that appear regularly from the music’s start in the 60’s through to the modern day.
DESIGN FEATURES: Earthy tones, Sepia imagery, People on the road
As you can see, there’s a lot behind your favourite genre’s design trends. These messages have been crafted over time and honed to speak directly to each genre’s most dedicated fans. They allow us to know (to an extent) what we’re getting before we even hear it. Just imagine you bought, what you thought was a thrash metal album and it turned out to be spoken word poetry! There’s a reason these genre design trends continue within music.