Design experiment

Album covers re-designed and re-implemented


I started using an application called Elisa to organise my music collection, and thanks to it I discovered that my music collection wasn't exactly organised. It was meticulously organised in the sense that I knew exactly where to find an album when I wanted it, but objectively my method wasn't consistent, Worse still, most of my music collection wasn't tagged with metadata, because normally I just played each album in something like VLC or Audacious straight from my filesystem. Elisa, like most "modern players", uses metadata so about half of my collection didn't even show up.

Elisa is a really beautiful application, and for an audio player it's also a very visual application. Its default view is a thumbnail array of album covers. You can scroll through your collection, marveling at those unique works of modern art, the album cover. Unfortunately, most of my music collection didn't have cover art because I never had a great way to view the album art once I'd ripped my CD and vinyl collections.

Album art

As with books and book covers, I'm a big fan of the album as an art form, and as an adjunct to that I'm a big fan of the album cover. In fact, I'm such a fan of the album that when I rip a CD, I rip it to a single track. I don't want to skip over tracks, or just hear one track alone. I only listen to music in the context in which it was released. I realise that albums are just as often marketing necessities as they are intentional artistic constructs, and I do have moments when I deviate from an album, but generally I look at albums and the album cover as a complete and immutable package.

I'd sort of lost access to album covers, though, because none of the digital players prominently featured anything more than a thumbnail (or, at least, I wasn't using them that way). But with Elisa, when an album starts to play, you can switch to a view that desplays just a high resolution view of the album art. It's like putting a record on, and propping the sleeve up against the cabinet. It reconnected the music to the album cover, and all I needed to do was provide album art for the 2,000 albums missing a cover.

Solving the art

Most of the missing art could be found online. But there were problems.

  • Resolution: Not all album art is online, and not all has been preserved online in high res.
  • Homebrew albums: Sometimes I want to treat a collection of tracks as a separate listening experience. For all intents and purposes, I create a new "album" for them. This is common for bonus tracks that get appended to re-released albums, or for "bootleg" recordings of concerts, and so on.
  • Bad covers: I'm aware that sometimes an "album" is released purely so a label can cash in on a recording it owns. In those cases, it seems silly to search the Internet for a high resolution scan of arbitrary clip art that the record label decided to use as an album cover.

Given these issues, I decided that when I couldn't find an acceptable album cover for an album I owned, I would just make my own cover.

100 hours of design

Somebody said that to get good at a thing, you have to do it for 10,000 hours (or something like that). I'm not a paid designer, although I have had a lot of design work published in print, as well as onlyne for whomever or whatever is responsible for as many as 2,000,000 unique page views, and thousands of willful downloads (those are not page view numbers for this particular website, I assure you.) I do enjoy design work, and for that reason the thought of having to design a bunch of album covers could be pleasant.

Turns out, it was. It was a fascinating exercise on many levels. I found myself in turns frantically inspired and profoundly uninspired, I discovered new tricks, ways of mimicking styles, and started to recognise my own style. My designs ranged from silly to indulgent, meticulous and professional to careless and rushed. Some days I resolved to churn out covers as if I were working in a label clearing house, and other times I created covers I wanted badly to print, and even preferred to the covers I was replacing.

I rarely attempted to recreate an existing album cover. When an album cover existed but I couldn't find a suitable resolution, I usually strove to capture the same spirit as the original using assets I could find quickly online.

Other times, I took even more of an impressionistic approach, trying to just capture either an appropriate feel for the original cover, or for the album itself.

Sometimes, I decided to just design something entirely new. Total artistic freedom, throwing the original art out entirely.

I did about 100 designs in a week. I learned a lot. It's a great design exercise. Maybe it's not the most diverse exercise, and I imagine that an art school teacher would probably have quite a lot to say about the similar structure of most of the results. But for me, the limited scope of the task, the size of the canvas, and my connection to much of the material, helped me find a variety of new approaches for a simple artistic task.

I'm going to post the results to this blog over the course of the year, with notes on each cover. I'm not going to post all 100 covers, but I'll post the ones for which I have notes, just for the sake of discussing design.

Vinyl record header photo by Andrea Cipriani, Unsplash License.

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