Album art and gig posters have evolved beyond simple pieces of graphic design into an integral part of popular culture and design consciousness. Today, when you think of your favorite album, you’re just as likely to think of its cover or the Instagram post announcing it or the t-shirt you picked up on tour. But what does it take to give visual form to a totally non-visual medium? And what does the designer’s role look like when working for a client who is also a creator?
To find out, I sat down with Bráulio Amado, Isha Dipika Walia and Timothy Luke, all designers who have worked deeply with various musicians. During our conversation we explore the tensions that can arise between personal expression and label demands, the practical matters of designing for musicians, and why a musician client still remains such a “dream project” for so many designers.
How did you start working with musicians?
Timothy Luke: About six years ago A.G. Cook emailed me after seeing my work on Tumblr. Almost all of my work at that time was for magazines. He saw something in what I was doing that seemed relevant to work he was doing with Charli XCX. Working with him was a real revelatory moment for me, where I understood that there was a terrain of work in which I could explore my interests and motivations more directly. Since then, I’ve worked closely with PC music, and a small group of related artists.
The notion that we as designers often really love, really care about music really seems to speak to the fact that we experience a lot of belief around it. And the opportunity for us as designers is to participate in that belief, to shape, engender and leverage it. Artists with a lot of cultural capital are particularly motivating to work for because there’s so much of that belief to take advantage of; it’s an incredible affordance to work with. On the flip side, new artists present a different kind of opportunity to work with potential belief, and that brings its own energy.
Bráulio Amado: When I was 13, I started doing crazy fan sites for bands that I liked. It was in the nu-metal music scene. I learned Photoshop and basic web-design. I had some friends who used to play in bands in Portugal, and I just started designing their record covers. I started getting more involved with the punk DIY scene. I started making more posters for shows my friends or I were playing in or organizing. When I was in Portugal, I’d just email bands and say, “I love your music. I’d love to design something for you.” A lot of times no one would reply, but sometimes they would get back to me and we would end up working together.
“The opportunity for us as designers is to participate in that belief, to shape, engender and leverage it.”
Once I moved to New York City, I started designing for clients who weren’t just my friends. I was working at Businessweek. The magazine happens almost in three days, and then there’d be two days where I had nothing to do. My friend was working at Good Room, and she was like, “I need these posters. I’ll let you do whatever you want. Just have fun with it.” So I was doing all these posters on those days when there was not much work to do at Bloomberg.
Isha Dipika Walia: I was online from a pretty young age being a music nerd. The first time I worked with a musician was through my first “internship” for a new streetwear brand that I got connected with because I recognized a music photographer I had been following on Tumblr at a concert when I was 18. The photographer didn’t have work for me but connected me with her friend who was starting the streetwear brand. So I was helping design T-shirts and making videos for this brand that was frequently working with other rappers in the NYC scene at the time.
Later I really got into the music design world when I met Bryan Rivera, in college. Bryan introduced me to his frequent collaborator, Travis Brothers. They were both working with other musicians at the time, as well. Bryan was working for Donda (Kanye West’s design studio) and later put me up for a very brief internship there. We were all just getting started in our professional practices when we first met and meeting them early on was definitely a turning point for me in what I understood of the relationship between music and design at the time. When you meet like-minded people, it shows you there are so many other ways for you to do the things you love. Working in music has shaped the value I have for collaboration and word of mouth so much — it’s how you build creative communities.
What is the process of translating sound into something visual?
Amado: It’s unlike visualizing an article into an illustration; it’s way more abstract. There are some musicians, who have a very clear idea of what they want. They know all the references and you just have to take all of that and piece it together to make sense. Contrary to that, if it’s a group of people trying to decide on stuff, they rely more on you to come up with ideas. Often when the brief is more open, the feedback can also be vague. I like both ways of working. It’s pretty rare when you send something and you nail it first try. It ends up being a fun process because you feel like you’re figuring everything out together with the artist. In some other instances, you’re just helping translate what they have in their head into something real.
Luke: Like Bráulio said, some people come with a lot of material that they want expressed or referenced. Others can be much more open or abstract. In my work, the relationship with the formal sonic qualities of the music is often really important. I’m interested in the connection between visuality and musicality, their related phenomenologies, and the shared motivations we as designers can share with musicians beyond cultural practice—by communicating spatially, gesturally, physically, etcetera.
“Working in music has shaped the value I have for collaboration and word of mouth so much — it’s how you build creative communities.”
Dipika Walia: The process is definitely relative to the project and collaborators. In my experience, oftentimes it isn’t so linear. In many instances, I have had to begin working on visuals before the music has been completed. The sound can help guide and refine the sketches or loose ideas that may have already been brewing by way of the musician and designer’s intentions or personal interest or taste. For example, certain qualities of sound may evoke particular textures or palettes and so much symbolic imagery or graphics may be imagined from just one or two words in a single lyric.
How have you seen your relationship with musicians evolve over time as the music industry changes? figuring out how graphic designers’ jobs have changed as they navigate this industry is really interesting…
Luke: Music projects are increasingly visually ambitious, and, of course, more iterated assets are required now to flesh out a campaign across the obvious social arenas. In the relationships that I have, there’s certainly a motivation to achieve more ambitious or compelling experiences. There’s also a weariness around the formats and products we receive these experiences through, and I think it’s important to imagine more compelling platforms and vehicles for our relationship to music.
Amado: I never really worked on a big major label artwork until I worked for Rex Orange County. I had been working on that release for almost a year and there were five (or more?) different versions of the cover. We had to send the record to the vinyl factories really early to be pressed because it takes forever to press vinyl these days. That meant that there were several months where the label and us had all this time to do cool stuff to promote the record—to develop social media stuff, videos, merchandise, special editions, etc.
Dipika Walia: The music industry is always in flux and there are constantly new outlets to design for. It feels like every time I meet a new musician they are having a newfound “aha moment” for each deliverable beyond the album artwork. There are so many other deliverables with increased visibility, so there’s a lot more demand that requires a range of skills. Art and creative direction have become more valuable in the industry and in my own practice because of the flux of outlets. It’s hard to determine which deliverable may end up sticking out the most from a campaign.
If working in the music industry is a spectrum [as a visual artist], the neutral middle point for me would be a small-to-medium-sized artist where there’s a single release, a package, and then maybe a t-shirt. Generally you have some some assurance over how it will exist in the world, but maybe their label or team will intervene here and there with the visuals. Then you get into the other ends of the spectrum: When you’re working with someone underground or a huge artist you really start to assess your relationship to the work as a creative. I ask myself whether I’m going to put in a huge amount of labor and effort into this because of my personal interest, or if I’m putting in a huge amount of my labor and interest because I will finally have a larger budget to push my own craft like run five Pantones on spread. With small artists the freedom comes in flexibility of constraints and less needs to get “approved,” and with big artists, bigger budgets and outlets to just do more.
“It’s pretty rare when you send something and you nail it first try.”
How do you balance between the label’s commercial interests and the designer’s creative interests?
Dipika Walia: This will sound really corny, but it’s true—it actually is really about the fans; the people who are consuming the music. Sometimes it is an exception where it becomes more of a personal collaboration, when it’s with smaller artists.
Amado: Sometimes the labels are the ones who are in control of everything. Other times the musician has a bigger presence in the process. Sometimes, you want to please the audience more than the musician. Some musicians are in a position where they don’t care about the label at all and they do whatever they want. Sometimes they don’t even release vinyl. When it’s a small independent artist and they’re just doing everything themselves, and you really like the music, you connect with them. It becomes a way for you to do work that you want to do, that you wouldn’t do otherwise. I just say we’ll figure it out in the end.
“Certain qualities of sound may evoke particular textures or palettes…”
Luke: I’ve had a few experiences where a label is intervening in frustrating ways, but for most of the work I do, if there’s a struggle, its in satisfying the expressive interests of the artist themselves.
Dipika Walia: Like Bráulio mentioned, with major label artists, there are all those little releases. I lost count of the amount of different packages we (Studio Pending) had to make for Chromatica. There’s an international version and a US version. There was a box set for the international version, but there wasn’t a box set for the US market. With someone like Lady Gaga, her fan base expects a lot. So sometimes, you’re not sure if it’s really about label commercial interests [or the fan’s expectations]. Basically, for me, the pillar in a lot of these different situations has always been “Okay, who is this going to?” The general public or the hyper-invested fan… From there, I’m able to assess which needs are important. For instance, the label might want the most straightforward version of something with the artist’s face big and clear for marketing purposes and I would probably want the complete opposite of that but the middle ground for me is prioritizing the narrative we create for the audience.
Usually, every genre has a specific aesthetic. How proximate does your work get to that existing visual language?
Amado: Each style has its different history and visuals — a lot of it is me researching what’s been done and how I can twist what’s been done and add some of my own touch. Sometimes pure illustration, sometimes more design-y, or more grungy, punky stuff. This means I have to try to figure out what’s been done and how to change that. I did a cover for a punk band called Amyl and The Sniffers. They really wanted cartoon-like artwork. I was like, “I don’t think this matches the sound at all.” They were like, “That’s why we want it. We don’t want it to feel like a punk record.”
I feel like nowadays with the internet, there are so many different references to so many different things. There are rappers referencing punk stuff from like the ’80s, everything is becoming mashed up into something else. I feel like you can definitely do a punk cover and just make it look like a children’s record.
They really wanted cartoon-like artwork. I was like, “I don’t think this matches the sound at all.” They were like, “That’s why we want it. We don’t want it to feel like a punk record.”
Luke: I try to avoid letting genre limit a given project. Like Bráulio said, we all do our own research and look to understand where a project can operate culturally, but you’re trying to embody the project in a way that brings some kind of new life to its context.
Like Bráulio’s example, I always want to be open to the insane cartoon solution. I don’t want to haphazardly make reference to something that I don’t personally have a strong relationship to or whose history I’m not very familiar with or embedded in, but it’s important to find a relationship to history and context that isn’t crippling. For me, that liberation tends to come from carefully trusting and interrogating my own interests. It’s easy to get tied up in these concerns though, I certainly do, but at the end of the day sometimes our peers are the only ones that can spot the lie.
Amado: There’s the fans too, you know. The fans are like,”This doesn’t look like an electronic music T-shirt!”
Dipika Walia: There’s so much genre-bending that’s happening now. Most artists don’t fit into what we know about archived aesthetics in music. We have certain understandings and expectations from some genres, but that’s not really the case anymore. I mean what does a “bedroom pop” record look like?
Our job is to visually communicate at the end of the day and how we push and pull from existing tropes and aesthetics is a very active part of the process. So I don’t know how much I am gauging aesthetic proximity by the genre of the music itself but more so by the genres the artist may be influenced by or is associated with.
When working with musicians how much do you get to stay true to your formal signatures and how do you end up using an aesthetic of a pre-existing musician/label assets and aesthetics?
Dipika Walia: I haven’t had to use pre-existing assets too often. Working on covers that required the Parental Advisory logo was always such a headache. That particular rule made me look at so many different covers that had the Parental Advisory logo and I became interested in how designers had worked with it in the past.
Amado: I did a poster for the Rolling Stones and it’s like, “You have to make the mouth.” I’m like, “Ahhh!” Honestly, it’s so much pressure, especially something that iconic, that I actually hated doing it. I was always doubting myself.
I think aesthetic proximity is really important. Our job is to visually communicate at the end of the day.
Luke: I don’t know that I’ve ever been asked to leverage a certain asset or to continue some kind of clear language, but it seems important to do that if/when that language has a lot of value and meaning for the audience. I aspire in my work to create the sorts of systems in which that kind of meaning could be leveraged in the future, to have lasting anchor points in the memory of the audience. That said, completely reorienting the language around an artist or project is also very exciting.
Dipika Walia: Sometimes an artist may already have photography to be worked with that they might be keen on using, especially when there isn’t much of a budget for an Album shoot. Those sorts of creative constraints have helped me refine my visual problem-solving skills and consider how direction can be built from loose pieces. Sort of like creating a great meal with what you already have in the kitchen, you probably already have techniques down that add a certain flavor.
The formats of albums or promo-campaigns all present different challenges and possibilities. What do you think about the holistic experience of building a graphic universe for an artist or album?
Luke: Depending on who I’m working with, they will have their own understanding of how that stuff should unfold. For me, it’s always about creating language and devices that act as affordances for the project. You create the base, sort of modular set of assets, even if it’s just like a language or sensibility. Then when you have those things in place, it liberates you to expand on that in a way that creates a much richer terrain.
What I’m doing is always building up the most powerful core or assets and logic so that iterating with those tools becomes the lightest version of that, and not this kind of heavy difficult thing down the line. As long as I have the things that I feel really confident about, iterating becomes much easier. But I will say that there’s a lot of iterating to get to those most useful, most powerful pieces. So there’s this strain of building up that initial set of tools, but then, once that set of tools is there, then the world opens up in a useful way.
Amado: There’s sometimes so much pressure around the record cover or the album cover that when you have to design everything else they’re kind of like, “Alright, do whatever you want.” That becomes my favorite part because you figured out the harder part and now there’s so much more freedom and fun to keep pushing it somewhere new and enrich what you did by developing a whole universe around it.
Dipika Walia: I think that world-making is often the most important role we have. Being that glue in all the various mediums that come up in an album campaign. Considering how these pieces interconnect and how that theme unfolds is when the design may become art direction and vice versa.
It’s insightful when you see other people riff off of the work you’ve made in the past, or you see people make fan art, or you see your work on someone’s particular mood board. I actually love seeing those moments, because I can see exactly which arbitrary internal rules we make for a project end up being successfully communicated or broken.
How do you think self-presentation aids designers in getting more work?
Dipika Walia: Generally, I am pretty bad at putting myself out there. I do feel like I’m actively dodging tokenism by choosing to be elusive as a designer. As a minority in this industry, it’s definitely exciting to discover other women designers of color… But it also makes me uncomfortable when people reach out to work with me because of who I am and not what I create so I haven’t quite figured it out. I personally wanted to make work and for my identity to be removed from it.
Amado: I’m really bad (or just really insecure) at talking about design and work. I’d rather draw something than talk about it. I started having a presence online by posting every single work I was doing, which was a lot because I do a lot of posters for a club that has parties every week. Not all was good, but I saw it has a sketchbook and has a way for me to not overthink what I share online. But I have been doing it for way too long and now I’m getting sick of myself for posting so much all the time, so not sure how I feel about it anymore nor do I know what’s the best way to approach self-presentation. But I do get a lot of work through social media from people that find my work through it, so, I guess I’ll keep doing what I have been doing. I’m really bad at talking about design and work. I’d rather draw something than tell someone what my idea is. I definitely have a big presence online by posting work mostly because in the beginning I was making all these posters. It became a sketchbook and it was a way for me to deal with it and not be depressed about it. The more I do it, the more I get sick of myself.
Luke: I feel the same. I’m not comfortable or motivated to operate in that way. There’s certainly ways of participating or presenting one’s self and work that would garner more attention. I’m often excited to document and share work, only to decide eventually I’ve lost interest, or will find a better context to share later.