How Many Voltas Does It Take? Album Art and You

November 24, 2008

Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of The Moon cover design by Hipgnosis

No matter what it is I’m doing, I almost always have music playing. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Mars Volta. I’m not sure I’m even a fan of this band, but I can definitely appreciate their music. I have no idea what the guy is singing about but the intensity of his voice and the music surrounding it have me convinced that whatever it is, it’s really important and deserves my attention. Plus, it’s great music to do anything to. Try crocheting to the song Vermicide and you’ll see what I mean.

Alas, this is a design blog, so I mustn’t stray too far from the topic at hand. Came across this review of For The Love Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis on Speak Up this morning. As the title suggests, it’s a monograph featuring the work of Hipgnosis, a now defunct design firm that created HUNDREDS of album art from the sixties through the eighties. Don’t know who they were? It’s okay, neither did I, but you definitely know their work. They were responsible for Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon cover, which was rated the fourth best album cover of all time by VH1, the venerable pop culture museum and the de-facto authority on all things countdown-able. While Hipgnosis is no longer in existence, one of its founding members, Storm Thorgerson is still working today. In fact, he designed the cover for Mars Volta’s 2004 release, De-Loused in the Comatorium, one of the albums in heavy rotation in my workspace right now.

Originally, this post was going to be a compilation of my favorite album covers growing up. I was specifically going to find covers from the late eighties into the nineties, and only ones that I found striking, not because of the lore surrounding it, but simply because I dug them. I sat to brainstorm but after coming up with four albums, I couldn’t think of anything else. What happened? Were there no iconic album covers done in my lifetime? I seriously doubt this is the case, however, what is true is that album covers no longer have the same power as in the past. There are obvious reasons for this: the ‘death’ of vinyl, the rise of the mp3, and the enormous amount of music being released today. While many album covers are well designed, and thoughtfully considered, they no longer serve as the Point-of-Sale advertising they used to. Instead, they are more a supplement to the music. This means less is riding on the album artwork, and thus it often goes unnoticed. There are definitely exceptions to this. The cover for Bjork’s Volta comes to mind. Tons of great new album covers have also been produced by folks like Non-Format, Hort, Karlssonwilker, and many others, but outside of the design community, much of it isn’t even given a second thought.

I’m wondering if there’s a way to elevate the album cover back to where it once was, not just something a handful of designers care about, rather something that captures the imaginations of everyday people. Maybe it’s through large-scale exhibitions, monographis, and yes, even VH1 countdowns. I suppose the key is to get people talking about NEW album covers, and not just the classics. If album art is no longer helping to sell the music, maybe it could help sell itself.

Why Helvetica and not, well, anything else.

November 20, 2008

Having seen this on several blogs, I almost didn’t post it. After reading it, however, I managed to relate it to my own experiences in graphic design, which is what this blog is all about.

In 2001, when I moved to New York to attend Pratt, I had only a minimal interest in graphic design. I was a computer graphics major, though my passions were somewhere between computer animation and fine art. My roommate was a graphic design major, however, and it was conversations with him that first brought the New York City Subway signage system to my attention.

Like most college freshmen, we had the perfect blend of bravado and naiveté to believe we could do a better job of designing the signage system, a task so complex that it took the MTA, with the help of several notable designers, several decades to complete. I remember sitting on the G Train, looking at the signs and saying, “Man, these things are so ugly.” We assumed the signage was of little thought to the MTA, and was probably done in-house by a lone accountant who had a bit of extra time on his hands. We even proposed writing the MTA and offering them our services, because “something had to be done.” I was particularly troubled by the usage of the typeface Helvetica (what I then called Arial because I didn’t know the difference between the two and a font because, at that point, I had never even heard the word typeface). What would we have done? Replace Helvetica with Times New Roman? Or better yet, Impact? (Actually, that might be an interesting experiment. Let me write that on a post-it.)

Seven years down the line, and after a woefully necessary education in typography and the history of graphic design, it’s safe to say I no longer have such misguided (pun intended) ambitions. I am now able to appreciate the perceived candor of Helvetica, as well as the design climate and technological advances (or limitations depending on how you view it) that led to its usage as the MTA’s standard typeface. Conversely, I can truly appreciate the beauty of the mosaic tile and hand-drawn signage of the subway’s darker, seedier past. While my wilder side may gravitate towards the hand-drawn signage, I have a secret love affair with Helvetica. In fact, I used to carry Lars Muller’s Helvetica: Homage To A Typeface with me at all times, akin to the way young English majors carry Catcher In The Rye around in their back pockets.

Paul Shaw’s, The (Mostly) True Story of Helvetica and the New York City Subway, is an in-depth look at the history of subway signage from the very beginning up until now. It answers some of the questions you’ve always wanted to know about why the MTA looks the way it does. It even points out things you wouldn’t have thought to ask. Did you know the stripe at the top of subway signs were originally the result of a sign maker’s mistake, rather than a design element?

Don’t take it from me though. Read the article here on

What do Tom Hanks and Graphic Designers have in common? Nothing, but. . .

November 18, 2008


Remember the film Cast Away, that charming turn of the century picture starring the indelible Tom Hanks as a corporate executive, left stranded on a desert island after a plane crash? Remember Wilson — Wilson, the volley ball, Tom Hanks only friend and the one thing he had for company on that lonely desert isle?

Well, Imagine if you replaced Tom Hanks with a graphic designer(yourself), and Wilson the volley ball with a modest collection of design books and resources. I’d say you’d be left with something like this:

Make Five’s Desert Island Reading for Graphic Designers, a top five, and runner-ups of graphic design reference books.

Some of my favorites: Megg’s History of Graphic Design, Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style, A Smile In The Mind, How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul(Though I feel this should be a runner-up)

*thanks Kristy for the link

The people wanna know!

November 17, 2008

Graphic Designer, Mike Essl, has created, a site that aims to answer the question via the time-honored tradition of internet polling. As of right now (the time I’m writing this), graphic design does appear to be an art, since 57% of voters have voted yes.

I’d like to take a moment to reflect on this topic. Below are two definitions of graphic design (both can be found by typing ‘graphic design’ into the search on

graphic design ( Unabridged)
noun. the art or profession of visual communication that combines images, words, and ideas to convey information to an audience, esp. to produce a specific effect.

graphic design (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)
noun. The practice or profession of designing print or electronic forms of visual information, as for an advertisement, publication, or website.

Both do an adequate job of defining what graphic design is, but I found one thing particularly striking about the American Heritage version – it’s omission of the word art. Perhaps this is why this debate is still even relevant. Obviously, there are two opposing camps, the folks who say ‘No,’ and I’d venture to say they’d agree with the American Heritage definition, and the folks who say ‘Yes, graphic design is a profession but it is also an art.’ Well, just what exactly is art? A search resulted in way too many definitions to post so I’ll cite the one I found most relevant for our purpose here.

Art ( Unabridged)
noun. 5. any field using the skills or techniques of art: advertising art; industrial art.

Graphic design certainly employs the techniques of art, that being it adheres to certain aesthetic criteria. So, I’d say that pretty much makes it art. But that’s too simple a way to look at it. Those who don’t feel graphic design is an art are essentially comparing it to what is considered fine art. Fine art is defined as art produced or intended primarily for aesthetic purposes. However, the definition found on includes graphics, among its list of examples. Prudently, it also offers a link to the definition of commercial art for comparison. Commercial art is defined as graphic art created specifically for commercial uses. This is where things get tricky. One’s view on this topic is determined by their definition of what art is, and whether or not the intended use of a work determines its classification. Those in the No Design Is Not Art camp argue that graphic design is not fine art, therefore it is shouldn’t be classified as art at all.

I believe there is no separation between art intended for commercial use and fine art. Although, their purposes may differ, both require a mastery of skill and technique. Also, the processes of creating fine art and commercial art, while different in some ways, are inherently the same. Whether an artist is commissioned to do a piece, or is stricken by some divine insight or inspiration, he ultimately has to sit down and express his idea using a chosen medium. The same can be said of design. The difference is that this commission or outpouring of divine inspiration is a direct result of consideration on an intended purpose, i.e. a clients needs. In both cases, the end result is art. Whether or not it is intended to sell dog food, or depict The Virgin Mary, doesn’t change the fact that it is still art. It is art because it can be judged based on established criteria of what is considered pleasing to the eye. While design also takes into account other standards, such as ease of communication and effectiveness (does it sell lots of dog food?), the most basic standard is whether or not a design is interesting to look at. That alone makes graphic design art.

That’s my two pence. Check out and lock in your vote. You may just determine the fate of all designers, past, present, and future.

We Should Do It All

November 14, 2008

The name alone is brilliant, but this Brooklyn based design firm more than lives up to its moniker. This multidisciplinary studio run by Jared Seaver, Jonathan Jackson, and Sarah Nelson does it all, and then some. More importantly, they’re having a good time doing it. They recently redesigned their portfolio site and, as expected, it’s top-notch.

The Numerati vs Designer Dialectic. Overheard in the blogosphere.

November 13, 2008

The beginnings of what might soon be an ongoing dialogue in design has happened over on Design Observer. It began with a Dmitri Siegel’s article called Design By Numbers, a synopsis of the themes explored in Stephen Baker’s book, The Numerati. According to Siegel, the book discusses the huge amount of data we leave behind everyday — via computers, credit cards, cell phones – and how this data is being stored in databases, and in turn used by mathematicians, engineers, and subsequently marketers to target, and personlize messaging.

Essentially, numbers based advertising relies not on the subjectivity of aesthetics, in determining how effective a design is, but rather on the data collected. For a designer, this means a few things. 1. Defending a design choice becomes extremely difficult when arguing against numbers. 2. With the ability to test solutions dynamically, projects become more of an ongoing process, than a problem/solution equation, resulting in multiple versions of the same design, slightly tweaked to target a specific audience. 3. The best design may not always be the best ‘performing’ design, which more often than not leads to the degradation of aesthetics as a whole.

Siegel’s stance is that it is up to the designer to offer a counter-point to data-driven design solutions. The dialogue begins when Hal Siegel challenges Dmitri’s stance, in the comments section and in his own blog. Check out the thread as well as Hal’s insight into the topic.

My goal here isn’t to rehash what both men have already said, but to speak on the matter from my own perspective. Having worked for more than one social networking site, I am well aware of how data driven solutions affect the aesthetics(I use aesthetics and design interchangeably) of a project. The main issue that arises, and it’s one that both Dmitri and Hal touched upon, is the issue of brand identity. In order for a brand to remain successful, it must uphold its identity with an iron fist. This means ALL, not some, but ALL of its communication should be carried out with the same tone, voice, and appearance. Design plays a great role in making sure this happens. What sometimes happens when data becomes tantamount to design, is that identity is thrown out the window, and the communication gets lost, for the sake of “clicks.” I’ve seen many of my designs get kyboshed for ones that are just plain ugly, simply because data has proven that a big red button, with a huge call-to-action will garner better results.

Too often a marketer, relying on the numbers, assumes the audience is stupid. Granted, it is the designer’s job to clarify, and make things as simple as possible, but that doesn’t always mean designing for the lowest common denominator. Part of our job, as someone with the ability to inform change through communication, is to promote a higher level of understanding. Sure, it’s a lofty ideal. After all, we’re talking banner-ads here, but when you consider how you developed your critical thinking skills over the course of your life, was it not through what you were inundated by from a very young age? Design should not only communicate but also excite, and in some cases challenge its audience. Think about how far cell phones have come along. Would we have an iphone today if developers and industrial designers decided the cell phone was already hard enough to use, so why bother making more innovations?

I find that I agree completely with Dmitri’s stance on the issue of the Numerati.

“There is a great and growing need for designers who can have a critical dialog with the Numerati. These designers will be able to not only digest and learn from the statistical analysis, but will offer a counter-point to the short-term incremental gains that it can offer.”

At any rate, head on over to Design Observer as well as Hal Siegel’s blog to read about this increasingly relevant topic. If you haven’t already, you’ll be hearing about it soon enough.

The Grid

November 13, 2008

The other day, I came across this photo on the flickr page of Alki1, a retired graphic designer. She often posts slides of phenomenal design work, much of which would probably be considered classic. If you’ve ever taken a history of graphic design course, expect to recognize a lot of the work.

This particular photo got me thinking about my early type explorations back at Pratt Institute. I was fortunate enough to have a Type 1 professor, Karen Madsen, who stressed the use of the grid. She was such a stickler for it that she had us hand in a printout of our grid, as well as the final layout of the assignment. Sometimes, during crits, she’d even whip out her red marker and trace your grid right on top of your work, just to make sure you weren’t breaking it. I also suspect she did it to make sure you remembered that no work is sacred(at least not in her type class).

To this day, I still adhere to a grid, though not as strictly as I had back then. These days it’s more of a subconscious thing. I don’t sit down and draw out my grid, the way Madsen had us do. Still, as a designer, having an understanding of the grid and knowing how to use, as well as break it(artfully), is essential.