Monday, August 18, 2008

Designing a Cover for an Intangible Album

A good-looking book has always appealed to me, as has good cover art on a CD or LP - though the font often appears to be an afterthought on many album covers. I really got the bug working at Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M. You don't understand how amazing solid typography can be until you've been able to flip through the Kelmscott Chaucer. I'm also fond of more creative typography, from calligraphic (there's some amazing work in Arabic and Chinese, whose alphabets lend themselves more readily to organic visuals) to graffiti.

For Arts & Crafts, I've been mulling over the cover concept about as long as I've had the album concept. I originally wanted some kind of art that would reflect the dual nature of the album. As a combination of poetry and essays, the visuals should combine two seemingly-opposed elements. This could be elemental, like fire and water, or conceptual, like old and new.

My first choice was to adapt a wallpaper created by rOmy over at I wanted to crop the wallpaper to the correct size, orient the butterfly on the right half, and fill in the title in the upper left, just off the wing:

Conceptually, I was thinking something like art/nature as the binary. It was also just a striking image, and one that would show up well on an iPod (more on this later). Unfortunately (or fortunately), I haven't been able to get hold of the artist to get permission.

I realized that for this project, unlike the jacket I did for my chapbook Riff Raff, I should rely on my own work. The next attempt was to split the cover into halves:

My wife quickly pointed out that the blurry photo on the right looked bad, and she was right. Back to the drawing board... Which of course was part of the problem. I'm not a great drawer. I can't paint or even sketch very well. Photography, sometimes. But I'd been swimming upstream in my attempt to emphasize a picture as the visual. Why not place the emphasis on the words?

I tried out a free layout program called Scribus, which allowed me to get a good look at the text (it is superior, in this aspect, to the GIMP, a free image-editing program). Taking some inspiration from excellent books by presses like Kelmscott and Unicorn and from broadsides and posters at deviantart, I came up with a simple block, 2cm smaller on each side than a CD case. By using the track listing as a visual element, I could fill the space with words in a pleasing manner.

This last bit, the track listing, led me to a realization. I'd been working on a back cover and an insert so that readers/listeners could "roll their own" CD, as it were, a DIY cover set. However, this isn't a CD. It's an album, a discrete set of tracks to be listened to in a particular order (at least in certain cases). It's going to be distributed for free over the internet. I'm including in the mp3 tags certain information, such as which track is which, lyrics (for the poems), and so forth. If you load up the tracks in Amarok, iTunes, Winamp, Windows Media Player, or whatever, they'll automatically show up in the right order. No need for a track listing or table of contents. No need for an insert, at least with Amarok or iTunes, as the lyrics are contained within the file itself.

The dualism I was going for, then, is partly present in the contrast between a traditional concept (the track listing/table of contents) and the fact that such a thing is not necessary for the medium in which I'm distributing. The cover of the album looks good, and I think it will remain good-looking (meaning both that it will be aesthetically pleasing and that it will stand out from other album covers) in a very small format, such as on an iPod or Zune. If it's close to anything out there as far as album art, I'd compare it to something like Paul Simon's Graceland. But, like the capital Fs in my name, it's very much a surface game. There's a little depth, otherwise I couldn't have written this entry. I suppose I could go on in more detail, developing the theoretical basis behind the cover. But for most people looking at it, it will simply be a little paradoxical.

Of course, I may, now that I have a template developed, write up a PDF "booklet" to accompany the album. I'm also halfway tempted to blow the image up to around 20" by 20". I think it would make a nice broadside/poster. Thoughts?

No comments: