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The Evolution of Album Design

Daniel Robson, Designer at FRUKT London, takes a look at the flourishing evolution of album artwork and their promotional campaigns.

As the way we listen to music has developed through the years, so too has the way music is released and promoted. The change in format has provided a significant evolution for both album artwork and promotional campaigns for new releases.

There is an argument that due to streaming services becoming the norm of how we consume music, there is more of a shift towards people simply accessing music as opposed to owning it, and so creating a detachment to the music’s artistic presentation. The proportions of the 12” record sleeve used to provide ample space for subtlety and invention, the smaller format could be seen as encouraging little beyond utilitarian design.
However, as new technologies have emerged, designers have embraced these and the scope for creativity within artwork for music is at an all-time high. The increase in formats provides more possibilities for creatives. No longer are designers restricted to a set size, now they have the challenge to produce a design that works over a range of formats. The role of design is suddenly not just about the actual sleeve, instead a designer can be tasked to produce artwork in a range of physical, digital and multi-media formats. 
Take a look at a number of inventive examples from the past decade, of how music has been released and the role of design within these:

Beck – The Information (2006)

Beck’s The Information (2006) was released with a blank sleeve and booklet and one of four different sheets of stickers for fans to make their own album art. The intention was to have no two copies of the CD cover to be the same, making it entirely customizable and interactive for the user. With art direction from music design specialist agency Big Active, an array of high profile illustrators collaborated on the project, including the likes of Michael Gillette, Jasper Goodall and Melanie Pullen amongst others. However, because the album art concept was seen as a gimmick to bolster retail sales, The Information was deemed ineligible to enter the UK Albums Chart. 

Bjork – Biophilia (2011)

Released in 2011, Bjork’s Biophilia was the inaugural album to be released as an app suite. At this time, the iPad had only just been created, so it truly was an inventive way of releasing music. Aside from conventional physical and digital releases, the album was produced as an ambitious cross-platform project including 10 iPad apps (one for each new song), providing an interactive experience for each track.  

David Bowie – The Next Day (2013)

With The Next Day, Bowie enlisted the work of designer Jonathan Barnbrook in creating a cover, which was a pastiche of his album sleeve for his 1977 record Heroes. Though the simple white box of the design itself is minimal, the appropriation of how it was used was very effective. The white square turned into a viral internet meme, with users posing with white squares obscuring their faces. This interaction on social media was far more powerful than the traditional method of the record company promoting the album.  

The campaign was also a success as guerilla advertising, fly posters covered in white squares were put up throughout London in the run-up, full-page newspaper adverts of continuous white text on black print as well as white squares being sprayed on pavements throughout the city. 

David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)

Bowie, an artist who spent his career reinventing his image, continued to push the boundaries of how music was released with his final releases The Next Day (2013) and Blackstar (2016), reinventing our expectations of what album covers could be in a digital era in the meantime.   
Bowie’s surprise release of Blackstar also brought an inventive way of releasing music. The cover, again designed by Barnbrook, was the first time Bowie released an album without including an image of himself on the cover. 
Most interestingly with Blackstar was the packaging of the vinyl version. Under sunlight, the design beneath the LP cover’s cut-out star alters to reveal a smattering of stars, as if from an actual NASA photograph. Different pressings of the album contain slightly different packaging, so the effect has several variations. 

The Stone Roses - All For One (2016)

More recently, the way The Stone Roses released their latest single All For One was an unconventional method. In the 20 years since their last release, the music industry has undoubtedly transformed drastically in the digital era. Yet their campaign for All For One was more in keeping with how music was released in a pre-digital era. Their guerilla campaign began with a series of lemon posters put up across select venues and record stores in the band’s hometown of Manchester. The lemon logo has become a synonymous symbol for the Roses, having previously been used for their debut album artwork in 1989. This campaign was then spread across elsewhere in the UK, the cryptic poster campaign did not include any release date information, or indeed any other reference to the band. The campaign was reported and built momentum across social networks, with rumours abound as to what the posters meant, the band themselves eventually confirmed that they were releasing a new single. Much like the teaser campaign, the single was released in a more traditional manner, with fans having to tune into national radio for their first listen of the track. Only once it was aired on radio, was the track available for streaming on the likes of Spotify etc.