WayV’s Vol 1. Awaken the World, designed by Odd Hyphen. Courtesy Bohuy Kim.

K-pop encompasses a lot more than just the common label of popular music from South Korea. It’s an entire industry, with productions that range from EDM to acoustic ballads, incorporating even the most unusual genres to the mix (see: reggae; drum ‘n bass).  It’s also an industry known for paying as much attention to visuals as it does to the music. Idols (how K-pop performers are commonly named) present impeccable, avant-garde styling; music videos and live performances are cinematic trips that extend the limits of imagination; and an array of merchandise specific to the field—from T-shirts and keyrings to personalized light sticks and photocards—convert intangible charms into collectible possessions.

And then there are the CDs. In a world where digital streaming dominates music markets, K-pop not only thrives in physical sales, it’s also poised to break its own records. According to South Korea’s Gaon Charts, of the country’s top 18.08 million album sales in the first half of 2020, over 16.89 million copies were of K-pop albums. Thanks to K-pop, South Korean album sales jumped 40% compared to last year, and this year’s figures are the highest since the start of Gaon’s tracking, in 2010.

One major reason for those sales figures is packaging. As Hyein Kang, the art director of branding studio Normallogic  who has designed for artists such as TWICE, Day6, IZ*ONE, and Astro, puts it, “K-pop albums boast splendid and unique designs, and fans who purchase them have a discerning eye for [that].” 

Bohuy Kim, the founder of Seoul-based studio Odd Hyphen who has designed albums for WayV and Vanner, puts an even finer point on it: “An album plays a completely different role for those who consume K-Pop idol culture and music. It’s not a mere object that contains songs, but carries within itself a commercial value.” Fans know that their purchase will support the artists they like, both financially and in terms of popularity within an ecosystem of fandom and fame unique to the K-pop industry. Artists, in turn, want to offer products that show appreciation toward their fans, and make a physical album purchase worth their while. 

In the fast-paced K-pop industry, where artists often release new music every trimester and fresh faces debut in heaps (just this year, over 20 groups have debuted), physical albums are an important asset in determining an artist’s popularity and longevity. Sales numbers impact the “scores” that an artist receives on Korean weekly music shows, which reward winners with trophies and public exposure. A “first win” is regarded as a turning point for many artists, especially for those from smaller agencies, who might have the financial resources to release more music otherwise.

Because the success of K-pop groups heavily depends on fandom support, “an album is regarded as a present or a service from an entertainer to their fans,” says Kim. Multiple surprises and lottery-style benefits fill up the packages with everything from assorted photocards (a selfie of the artist printed in a 55 x 85 mm size), to stickers and postcards, to slots in fansigns (or virtual calls), and even some innovative goodies, such as a weaving kit or a mini-easel. It’s not uncommon to find fans who collect albums, or who buy many copies of the same release to financially help their favorite groups, enhance their chances for fansign slots, or both.

Buying a K-pop album is also an experience. “Fans have fun during the unboxing, having an expectation over which member they will get for the random photos. They upload unboxing and reaction videos on YouTube, and I feel proud when I see good reviews for the albums I designed,” says Normallogic’s Kang. To her, K-pop album design is “a playground to show my creativity. I always find new fun while contemplating over the tug-of-war between art and commerce.” 

For graphic designer Jiyoon Lee from Studio XXX, creating K-pop album packaging is a challenge because “they have specific themes and stories, while other pop albums usually focus on the artists or songs.” Many K-pop groups make use of storytelling to craft their identity, and this is reflected in their albums. Take EXO, for example, whose extraterrestrial concept goes as far as assigning a superpower to each member and then featuring those throughout their music videos, merchandise, and CDs; or Dreamcatcher, who uses intricate illustrations of their main symbol (a dreamcatcher) to connect all their eras in a cohesive, creative way.

Lee has designed albums for artists such as BTS, Daniel Kang, LOONA, and Heize, among others. She describes her process this way: “First, I need to understand the concept, then sketch roughly or do some research. Second, I submit an overall design, including an album/artist logo and a package proposal. When the overall design is confirmed by the artist or the artist’s agency, I design photo/lyric books, and then cards, CD, etc. Lastly, I design materials for online promotions until the release date.” 

K-pop albums can be found in the most varied formats, sizes, and styles. Designs like f(x)’s VHS tape mockup for Pink Tape, Big Bang’s Alive metal case (which gets rusty with the passage of time), and EXO’s comic book-inspired The War: The Power of Music have become classics among fans. Surreal approaches like most of Red Velvet’s discography, Lee Hi’s deconstructed art-gallery for Seoulite, and SHINee’s The Misconceptions of Us help to bring forward their sonic iridescence. More minimalistic examples, like BTS’s Love Yourself series (whose Tear album, designed by branding company HuskyFox, was nominated for Best Recording Package at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in 2019), EXID’s Eclipse, and WINNER’s 2014 S/S also showcase the infinite possibilities of this field.

Odd Hyphen’s Kim says that the whole creative process is akin to filling a gift box. “It’s a great opportunity since the industry openly accepts the designer’s ideas, requests for printings, etc. without budget concerns. K-pop fans believe that the quality and ideas of album designs and other artist-related products influence the popularity and success of their idols. This leads fans to passionately give feedback on products, and companies to embrace those opinions for future productions.”

As trends come and go and fans become even more involved in the creative processes behind K-pop, Studio XXX’s Lee believes that the tendency for albums is to become even more exclusive. “They would contain more limited items that fans would love to collect, willingly buying them at whatever price, if it satisfies their fanshim (fans’ enthusiasm).”