The CD was launched in the UK on 1 March, 1983 by co-developers Sony and PolyGram. At the time I was in love with 12-inch disco mixes and couldn’t imagine ever forsaking the visual luxury of the album cover. Plus the choice of music available was of the “easy” and “best of” variety, and that would never be cool, would it?
In common with the much-maligned cassette box, CDs had another aesthetic hurdle to overcome – plastic. The omnipresent “dual box” – a misnomer if ever there was one – squarely positioned the CD as equipment rather than a tactile object worthy of contemplation. For graphic designers the situation was worse. What a brief: reflect the particularity of a certain type of music and/or artist, make it jump off the shelf, and encase the lot in a 5-inch square of plastic.
Record sleeve designers have long been regarded as the maverick fanatics of the design world. Impose a restrictive format on them and what happens? They break all the rules, of course. This current wave of innovative “sleeve” designers, weaned on vinyl, are to an extent nostalgic for the freedom of that format. It is this wishful thinking that leads them to question the orthodoxy of the dual box.
But what of the band’s mug shot? Band, what band? The explosion and fragmentation of musical genres, fed by dance music, has also prompted innovation. Dance music is made by individuals, usually under a number of pseudonyms. It involves sampling, remixing and compiling, rather than writing a song and getting on stage. Remove the band as a focus and the designer is free to invent an identity for each release, whether it be a logo or a graphic treatment. Or the consistent element could be the label, which acts as a stable for a bunch of creative satellites. Whichever way, designers have used this situation to play with abstraction, and as a result have developed rich graphic languages.
The rise of the compilation CD, promoted by the super-clubs, adds another twist to the brief. Combining a club’s identity with the personality of a DJ and the atmosphere of a big night out, while lifting the end-product above the massed volumes on the racks; it’s little wonder designers often feel the need to throw in extra trickery. The best solutions are fetishistic, combining secret codes, luxury imagery and tactile materials.
But just when the hapless music designer thought, great, there are no restrictions, let invention run wild, the powers that be stepped in. Early this year, the Chart Information Network, which sets the rules for chart eligibility, imposed a set of rules restricting the “CD carrier” to certain formats and “extras”.
In effect, what the CIN has done is widen the gulf between the mainstream, the chart toppers and the various niche markets. The big sellers can release a limited-edition special pack, which represents a tiny percentage of sales and will hardly affect their chart position. While, if your release has no hope of charting, do your own thing. It’s the middle of the road which will just become more mediocre.
Below are my current top five music designers. Here’s what they’ve got to say, and some of their show stoppers…
Ian Anderson, The Designers Republic
“There’s a lot of us in the design of whatever we do, but depending on the brief there’s either more or less of us. There’s a certain look that’s associated with The Designers Republic, by design journalists rather than record companies. Because we design for different companies and people, some indie types are totally unaware of our involvement in dance music. But there is a DR thread, it’s what lies under the surface. We have an overall look based on the personalities of the people here. Our style is our attitude.” Ian Anderson, godfather of The Designers Republic, Sheffield’s most prolific music-image-makers, is both outspoken and obsessive. He loves football, music and sci-fi, debunks corporate culture and amuses himself by writing subversive sleeve-notes that hover between bare-faced self-promotion and surreal sloganeering.
Via music industry connections which go back to the days when electronic music from Sheffield was the coolest noise on this planet, Anderson has built close working relationships with labels like React and Warp and with bands such as Pop Will Eat Itself and Moloko, all of which have been treated to the DR anti-establishment identity programme. From the purest silver and white wrappers for Manna to the hottest pink, cartoon capers for Ninja Tune’s remixes on Blech, to super-sophistication for avant-gardists Sun Electric, the DR language is stretched to the limits encompassing such difference, but it never snaps. OK, it uses dual boxes, but look closely and you’ll find some gorgeous hidden extras.
Mark Tappin, Blue Source
Mark Tappin’s first job since graduating from Middlesex University is a dream one. Working at Blue Source is a coup for any music-loving designer because over the past few years it’s been designing right across the pop genres. “Understanding and gaining an affinity with the artists you’re designing for means your musical appreciation grows. A lot can be done with CDs and the debate around the constraints is interesting,” remarks Tappin.
One of Tappin’s first projects was Pulp’s Different Class. “Of all the Brit pop bands, Pulp are real innovators. Although presented in a dual box, the front image is interchangeable, slotting into a black and silver template. The limited-edition CD, which uses black and white cut-outs shot by Rankin, set in views shot by Donald Milne, breaks CIN rules as it includes a veritable gallery of portrait cards of the band.”
Tappin describes another project from Concrete Records as a “very open brief”. This resulted in the ground-breaking compilation, Brit Hop and Amyl House. At the time dance music genres were being mixed and mashed up by certain DJs, so the packaging reflected the gritty lo-fi quality of a night out in one of London’s sweatiest clubs. “It’s tacky and tactile, but engaging, because of the way it unfolds. The text emphasises the schizophrenic feeling of clubbing, so it’s badly printed. Working for underground labels reinforces my faith in the music industry. You can create your own identity as well as taking on board their attitude.”
Scott Parker, Ministry of Sound
Scott Parker is art director for the London super-club Ministry of Sound, which has its fingers in pies as diverse as fashion, broadcasting and the Internet. And it’s Parker’s job to draw together an identity. His work is split between designing print ads for dance music publications, creating consistent identities across the flyers, and packaging a constant flow of 12-inch releases and CD compilations.
Definitely the best CD design to come out of MoS is One Half of a Whole Decade. “We wanted to link the CD to a clothing idea and decided to pastiche the silver foil packaging for computer parts, complete with the yellow and red warning sticker and bar code. The aim is to look non-designed, that’s why I mixed up the fonts and played with the branding, adding a number of different, futuristic logos.
“I didn’t want to vacuum pack it, arch rivals Cream had done that, and it needed to be a sturdier, self-contained package, so the London Fancy Box Company made up the box, and each of the three CDs has its own sleeve. Then I used Tony Stone photographs of a pressing plant and snapshots of the Ministry building, to make it feel like a piece of technical equipment.”
The result exudes both glamour and a sort of nerdy techno-aesthetic, and is lovely to look at, lovely to hold… on a par with a very expensive box of chocolates. Mmmmm.
Mark Farrow, Mark Farrow Design
From designing for a friend’s band on Manchester label Factory Records to shifting millions of units for the Pet Shop Boys and colourful rubber for Cream Live, Mark Farrow has never rested on his laurels, instead creating an entire identity for dance label Deconstruction.
“I’m quite instinctive, there’s no great intellectual thought process… but it just so happened that my designs for Deconstruction, with everything laid out and systematised, have become the general look for dance music. I realised that you could take a dance label, which releases loads of remixes, and make it quite distinctive.”
Farrow has re-applied the discipline of that dance language to the mainstream, principally for the Manic Street Preachers. And so successfully that at this year’s Music Week Creative and Design Awards he swept the board, winning the poster design and press and TV advertising categories, and joint firsts for PSB and MSP singles. And he was named “best designer”.
The current state of Farrow’s art is exemplified by his work on DJ Dave Clarke’s mix compilation, Archive One. It’s both simple and daring. It mimics the bland rigour of stationery, but the glossy red package is really attention-grabbing, and the act of ripping open the perforated flap destroys that perfect order, in an instant. Just like the music really – from consistent beats come anarchy. m
Ben Drury and Will Bankhead
Over the past two and a half years Ben Drury, initially in partnership with Will Bankhead, has established a totally untouchable standard of design at Mo Wax Records. What is so good about Mo Wax is that it is so difficult to pin down. It issues a varied range of sounds from hip hop and breakbeat to funky-techno and dubby/indie/soul. The graphics result from collaboration – between James Lavelle, the label’s boss, and his favoured painters, with Bankhead acting as photographer and Drury as designer.
Drury underlines the approach: “Because Mo Wax is a vinyl-led label we always thought it was a compromise to put out CDs, so we strive to make the packaging different. Every release comes in so many formats that we can play with scale. On a record sleeve the surface space is enough, but with a 5-inch square there isn’t space to carry the visual. So we offer something more. James will have a particular painting in mind, either by Futura (New York graffiti artist) or 3-D (from Massive Attack), or if I want a photograph I’ll ask Will.”
Incorporating various folds and die-cuts, surprising inner sleeves, stickers, metallic inks, subtle and saturated colours, quirky logos and hand-written text, printed on a range of stock from high gloss to smooth matt, the resultant CD packs are highly desirable, and avidly collected.