Have you ever purchased a CD solely based on the cover design, or been attracted to an artist, band, producer or record label based on their logo, poster or web site? I know I have many times
While it’s true that browsing for CDs from major distributor store outlets like Towers Records has ended because people are using online music services for CD orders and individual song downloads, cover images are still being used to identify music on web sites, and some store outlets like FYE, Walmart, and others still have music sections where people browse CDs and DVDs.
Print and web design in the music industry is really about identity. What our audience, potential customer or client can expect to hear, feel, experience, or identify with is communicated visually. Although I will primarily be using CD design examples here, what I’m sharing can also apply to DVD and web design for music projects (especially with writers and performing artists making songs available for downloading on our own web sites).
I’m wearing two hats while writing this article: a songwriter and visual communications professional, so I’m writing with my feet planted in both worlds.
A talented designer understands the power of text (typography) and images, and knows how to use them creatively. The best creative professional for your project is well-trained, familiar with the industry, your audience, and makes design decisions based on accomplishing specific objectives. A primary CD design objective is selling your music to customers or music industry professionals (e.g., securing a producer, crew, record label or other distributor through a demo).
Design plays a part in purchase decisions. When browsing for CDs, we usually pick up what visually attracts us and then look at the listed songs, unless we are looking for a specific artist or title. This process is the way a person gets a feel for the CD artist, mood, and vibe; and ultimately, hopes to be satisfied that the CD delivers what the design and titles suggest.
The first time I purchased music based on the design was an album called "Sky Islands" by a group called Caldera. The album cover has a colorful picture of a volcano (caldera) erupting and I got the feeling the music by this group would erupt as powerfully as that volcano. As it turned out, the Latin-Jazz fusion album did. The cover design got me to buy it.
After that, I bought two CDs: Count Basic, "Trust Your Instincts" (see CD cover image provided), and Marilyn Scott, "Avenues of Love". What grabbed me on the Count Basic cover was the woman’s face bolstered by the low cut dress she wore showcasing her significant cleavage, and a man behind her giving two major thumbs up! I wanted to be that woman.
As for Marilyn Scott, she is standing alone on a rocky shore, looking pensively at the ground, barefooted, wearing what looks like a full-length camel hair coat. The image paired with the title created an appealing pensive and serene mood, and I was stirred to buy it.
I was totally pleased with both purchases though they’re quite different. Chalk up two more sales due to an energy, style, essence or visual message captured in an image that attracted me to the artist and the music.
Let the Music Take Your Mind
Music isn’t defined as visual art, but sound does create mental imagery. Music videos wouldn’t exist if this weren’t true. One of the reasons I’m not glued to MTV or other music video networks, is that I prefer to give my mind complete freedom to conjure its own images in response to music. Music package design (CD and DVD) is a hors d’oeuvre, an invitation, and a precursor to a total sound experience-perhaps even a story or journey. When you work with a designer (or do it yourself), it’s important to record the imagery in your mind to help the creative direction along. It’s also good for the designer to listen to the music, so there’s a healthy amount of imagery to feed the creative process. Between the two, a wealth of visual ideas will emerge.
Count the Ways
Music professionals use graphic design in specific ways and have definite ideas about what they want the designs to accomplish. Take Neil Alexander (leader for his band, Nail, and former keyboardist for The Machine, America’s premier Pink Floyd tribute band).
Neil is primarily a performer/composer, but is also active in engineering, production and programming, and has P-Dog Records, an independent record label he uses to release his own discs.
He has a logo, stationery, CD packaging for his releases, packaging for a CD business card, posters to launch new releases, press releases, and a web site from which people can purchase directly. "I have always found that how CD packaging looks is a big part of its impact, its connection with the listener. Logos and other symbols can become part of the performer’s identity. It is in my case. As with any business, consistent graphics help define the company’s image and products for the consumer," Neil stated.
As for a strong web site, Neil had this to say: "A solid web presence is very important these days. Information (text, audio and visual) must be well organized and clearly presented. I found it desirable to hire a professional designer to put together a simple and easily navigated Web site."
Sweet Sight of Success
Use design factors to assess quality. There are well-established industry criteria for every product: logos, posters, CDs, business cards and stationery, advertising, and Web sites. To cover each one specifically in this article would take too long, so here are some main criteria to help judge a design success:
- Is it unified with the content or message you are trying to get across? This creates an immediate connection and sense of belonging.
- Is there an information and visual hierarchy? This means there’s a focal point or image that grabs your attention first, and then your eye is led around the design in the order of what’s important after seeing the main image or reading the main text.
- Does the design have graphic impact? Is it distinctive or memorable? There are many CDs competing with yours for attention (lots of demos are sent out to producers, potential crew, record labels and distributors), so yours must be a major contender.
- Is it appropriate for whom you want to attract and the environment in which it will be presented? A poster or CD for a country audience will not have the same look and feel presentation as for a heavy metal one.
Who can forget the strong identity between the Stones and that bright, red tongue sticking out logo? It’s a very powerful example of a highly successful design. The Stones logo has graphic impact, is distinctive and memorable, and is appropriate for its rock audience.
For a web site, design and image success is measured by whether your goals for establishing the site are being met. Does it reflect your identity? Are you making sales? Is your visibility increasing? Is it easy for people to navigate and locate what they want? Are there lively and beneficial discussions or information being shared? Are people returning multiple times to your site?
Once the success criteria get established for your project, the real fun begins: designing it.
The Design Process: What To Expect
Professionals have processes to assist them creatively. There will be an initial consultation during which lots of questions are asked. Most designers use a design brief form. The questions on the form are designed to crystallize and solidify your identity and vision, so you and the designer are clear about it. Both get a copy, and sometimes you’ll be asked to sign it to approve the accuracy before concept development production begins. You’ll be asked to sign a contract and to return it with a retainer (a retainer is a portion of the total cost for the project that must be paid up front before any work begins).
The first thing you’ll see is thumbnails (tiny sketched images) or roughs (larger hand-created or computer-generated) ideas. Thumbnails and roughs are concept development techniques. There will be anywhere from three-six (3-6) of them provided. You’ll review them and choose one or two on which the designer will focus and make revisions. Once you approve a final design, it is ready to be printed. If it’s a web design, it will be coded, programmed, and uploaded to the computer at the service hosting your site. You pay the balance due, and the process is complete.
Budget, Low Budget, No Budget
Pricing for different types of projects can range vastly depending upon the business structure and the length of time the business has been operating. The business can be a design studio, freelance or consultant, or a print shop franchise like Kinko’s and have years of experience or be newly established in the industry. Two great resources for getting low cost bids on creating print or web graphics for you are Elance.com andiFreelance.com
I’m talking about pricing as low as $250-$500 for logos, CDs, DVDs, and web sites depending on your requirements. Most of the lowest cost design studios are located outside the U.S.
If you’re interested in reviewing industry standard fees for graphic design, web design, or illustration, take a hike to Barnes and Noble bookstore and glance through the "Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines" published by The Graphic Artist’s Guild of America. It’s the creative professional’s bible, and includes everything you always wanted to know about fees, contracts, copyright, and other professional issues.
The fees quoted are based on nationwide surveys distributed to creative professionals. Standard fees are not cheap. The visual communications creative field is a highly valued, for-profit industry, so fees reflect our need to make a living at what we do. When someone gives you an estimate, make sure it details every service being provided to justify the cost.
There are other options to consider that keeps costs low. A few include:
- Supply your own quality photos and/or illustrations. Photography and illustration are specialties requiring additional compensation.
- Personally coordinate printing and CD or other types of duplication. Our time is money so coordinating printing for your project and getting your CD duplicated will cost you more.
- Barter for service. We may reduce the fee or work for exchange if something you do is of value to us.
- Contact your local college or university and request a referral to a recent graduate or current senior student. There are some extremely talented young people who are eager to get client experience and build their portfolio.
Where there is a will, there is a way. Carefully consider what you want the design to convey, who you want to attract, and what you want to accomplish. A marriage between sight and sound can only have a positive impact on your career. Just one look can be the start of a relationship.