Podcasts are everywhere and nowhere. Unlike a book you might pass in a shop window or a song you might hear sitting in a cafe, random exposure—or what marketers refer to as “discovery”—is rare for podcasts. Most of the time, you have to know what you’re looking for. Like so many elements of modern consumer culture encountered on a digital feed, the look of a thing, rather than the content of it, is what stops a finger from scrolling.
As podcasts have gone from a niche medium to a national pastime—nearly a third of Americans over the age of 12 are weekly podcast listeners—the icons our brains associate with shows have gone largely unexamined, both individually and culturally. Even the terminology for the art that accompanies podcasts isn’t clearly defined. Some people call them tiles, others refer to them as logos. Most common, perhaps, is “cover art,” a term that inevitably invites comparison to music and publishing. And yet, unlike book cover or album cover design, up until this point, there hasn’t been much interest in podcast design, despite it being something many people encounter every day.
For Khoi Uong, creative director at Studio Rodrigo, whose clients include Radiotopia and PBS’s Frontline, podcast cover art is gaining prominence slowly but surely, and that’s directly tied to shifts in the technology, or “surfaces,” it appears on. The project that got Uong into podcast branding was designing the first iOS app for This American Life, released in 2010. Back then, he says, “you didn’t really have to stand out, because the ways in which people consumed media wasn’t through large platforms like Spotify or Apple.” Instead, you would go directly to a podcast’s site, subscribe, and “all the artwork had to do was to signify, as an element in the RSS feed, what you were listening to.”
Today, publicity has become more important to both podcast producers and platforms, and with it, visual design. Apple recently announced paid subscription tiers, which offer more exposure, but also require more artwork, for things like banners and landing pages. Spotify is working on something similar. “If you think about in terms of the evolution of how people are accessing podcasts, and the spike that happened after Serial, when it became part of the zeitgeist—people want to invest more on the off-chance that they have a breakout hit,” Uong says.
In 2017, two years after Serial debuted, designer Timothy McAuliffe created the Magritte-inspired cover art for Missing Richard Simmons, another unexpected chart-topper. Like many, McAuliffe says he thought of podcasts as “one of the most DIY mediums out there,” and was surprised to get the call. “[I realized] okay, they have a budget for this, they’re going for it, they’re really considering a concept for this.” That design was McAuliffe’s first foray into podcast cover art, and he says it’s probably what got him into the door at Spotify, where he’s currently an associate creative director.
In publishing and music, covers act as a layer of visual branding for mediums that exist, at least in part, in one’s imagination. They set an expectation for the kind of work one will experience, whether it be a romance novel or a reggaeton album. Podcast cover art functions the same way, but the product it represents is quite different. For one, the circuit from idea to publication is typically faster than that of other industries, which means that visual trends show up more quickly (perhaps you’ve noticed more illustration on your feed?). Podcast cover art is also always digital, there’s never a physical counterpart. And though it could be argued that most creative work is encountered onscreen these days, rather than on shelves, podcast covers still seem to be the most fleeting of these thumbnail forms. They’re the disposable shopping bags of the digital design world.
Despite one-off examples of cover art by notable illustrators and designers (Robert Beatty’s design for Poog comes to mind), “if you look at the top 10 podcasts right now,” McAuliffe says, “you’re going to see covers that were made by someone’s friend who has simple Photoshop skills, and maybe it’s the most listened-to thing on Spotify.“ Still, in the past five years or so, the landscape has become more competitive, and cover art has been getting more attention on the marketing side. “In my experience, recently, the art is being treated more similar to the level of key art for TV and streaming,” says McAuliffe.
“Recently, [podcast] art is being treated more similar to the level of key art for TV and streaming.”
But can good cover art really make a hit show? “It’s inessential, but it can help,” says Nick Quah, who writes the Hot Pod newsletter. Quah says that the kind of consolidation that often leads to homogenous design in books hasn’t quite hit the podcast world yet. Instead, in recent years, it’s the “technical infrastructure” of podcasts (platforms, ad sales) that has started to merge. There’s still room for people to “create shows on their own terms and put them out there,” Quah says, and putting a show out there will always include some kind of cover art.
As brands like Spotify, both a platform and a producer, start to make more acquisitions and develop original content, it’s hard to say whether cover design will become more interesting (because of more money) or more middle-of-the-road (because of more money). “There’s low bets, high reward within the world of podcasts,” says John J. Custer, a designer who up until recently created all the artwork for Pushkin Industries, a podcast company cofounded by Malcolm Gladwell and Slate’s Jacob Weisberg. Once producers start upping the stakes and the budget for artwork, they may be able to attract more talented designers, but designers will also have to convince more people to go with their ideas.
“There’s low bets, high reward within the world of podcasts.”
One of those ideas? More art, less text. “You’ve got to embrace the real estate and the realities of the real estate,” Custer says. Many shows tend to have long titles, which can be hard to fit into a 16 x 16 square. “At the end of the day, the platform shows you what that show is,” he says. No one encounters a podcast in the wild. Covers that emphasize artwork over titles may seem like a hard sell, but in a crowded market, it could offer smaller podcasts a way to stand out.
Today, many of the vestiges of other creative industries have shaped expectations around the elements of podcast cover design. But without a spine or title page, is it really essential to include a publisher’s mark? Some networks, like Radiotopia and iHeartMedia, contain the equivalent of a digital colophon placed discreetly in a corner, while others, like The Wondery and NPR prominently display their titles in text. When it comes to design, podcasts don’t really have any rules of their own to be broken yet. As podcasts become a more consistent part of the cultural conversation, with visibility outside the confines of platforms, it’s safe to assume that covers will become more sophisticated, but hopefully not more similar.