The Incredible Shrinking Album Art

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Practically speaking, the size of something is one of the most critical concerns for a designer beginning a new project. What one designs for a postage stamp is far different than what one might design for, say, the side of a building.

There’s considerations for what looks good at what distances, how long the viewer will be able to or is willing to ponder it, and a plethora of other minute concerns that are woven into the fabric at the outset of the impetus “Here I shall communicate an idea.”

Technology is usually a driving factor in the consideration of a medium for a message, since the 21st century began, we’ve seen the continued metamorphosis of one of the most heralded and ubiquitous in graphic design—album covers.

Once upon a time, LPs ruled. Landing the cover of an album for a band was a cause for joy amongst designers. Here on this massive one-square-foot piece of stiff, thin cardboard, a designer could express some of the purest designs imaginable. Allegorical visuals that evoked the mood of the music and daring experiments in the limits of design were mass produced and sent to the masses to become iconic images of a generation, inseparable in the listener’s mind from the music. Some of the greats broke away to become iconic of the era itself.

But for a relatively quick blip that was the eight-track, the CD took over, and technology changed the size by a factor of more than a half less than what designers had previously enjoyed. Little changed, however, and designers still treated the square canvas as more-or-less akin to its larger progenitors.

Ever since the advent of iTunes, people have been steadily buying only pieces of an album (once considered necessary to be viewed whole as part of an entire, multi-track conversation with the listener). Despite the inclusion of Apple’s “Cover Flow,” few people could today match their favorite single to its corresponding album cover. And even if they do, it may not make sense out of the context of an entire album, or it may be viewed at a size so small that key details are missed.

This is especially true on smart phones. Just the other day I was staring at the 1″ square image of an album on my own Android and was surprised to find that there had been an entire person in the photograph that had gone unnoticed.

The challenge for designers, then, is this: do we continue to make album covers miniature works of art? Or do we go the other way, and simplify the concept to the point where we take more lessons from logo design (meant for small viewing)? After all, what’s the point in spending hours setting up a photo shoot or creating an illustration if it doesn’t make sense or isn’t even seen at all on today’s near-pill sized music players?

The popularity of Apple’s Cover Flow does point to an audience that wants and enjoys beautiful covers, but also enjoys the convenience and cost effectiveness of portable music sampled singularly from larger bodies of work. We must grapple with this if we want to preserve the art form. Since all good designers are also problem solvers, I am hopeful it is not beyond our reach. As technology continues to advance (the retina screen of the iPad would be one example) I see a day where album covers will be rich worlds again—where the technology is exploited to create ambiance rather than relegating design to a small fraction of the experience. Bjork’s Biophillia app that corresponds to the album of the same name is a prime (and gorgeous) example of what the future of art and albums might become.

I would humbly suggest the creation of a new kind of file type for this kind of art. Just as we now must create responsive websites for various screens, so too would we create adaptive iterations of album art for various players. The new file type would be able to store each iteration and call it up for each size. From an icon-sized 30px square up to the full iPad cover flow artwork. At its smallest it may be a logo to the largest which may be as complex as Michael Jackson’s Dangerous.

 

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