Album Cover Design – Rebranding A Persona

An album cover often influences the way that the listener will hear the music inside. If the cover is designed effectively, it may even enhance the experience of the music inside. Most importantly, the covers on the outside and the music on the inside should do one another justice. Here are some album covers that I find particularly effective at rebranding their artists’ personas.

“Voodoo” – D’Angelo (2000)


D’Angelo is known to many as the man who helped to save R&B from itself during the mid-to-late 90s. While many other artists repackaged R&B & Hip-Hop, he redefined Soul music for the Hip-Hop era. “Voodoo” is seen by many as his crowning achievement.

The stylings of “Voodoo” are modern, but deeply respectful of artists of the past. The album’s warm, slightly dusty production complements it well. This cover is similarly dusty, just like the old soul records D’Angelo once spent his days pulling off the shelves in his parents’ house.

The album was born out of marijuana-smoked jam sessions, and studio chatter litters the album. The miscellaneous writing on the cover and the deliberately unpolished look reflect this deeply human set of songs.

“Voodoo” made D’Angelo a star. Although he is an immensely talented artist, the rebranding of his image played an enormous part in that stardom. When D’Angelo’s first album, “Brown Sugar” released in 1995, he was a fresh-faced, pudgy 21-year-old. D’Angelo’s team masterminded a different persona for “Voodoo” using selective imagery and personal and a personal trainer for D’Angelo. The typography, combined with the photo of a shirtless, muscular, and stone-faced D’angelo, suggests the slightly-edgy-yet-vulnerable sound of his Hip-Hop-era soul. This D’Angelo made the “loverman” side of D’Angelo even more explicit than the man behind the music wanted. This worked very well with the album’s smash hit single “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” which ended up being one of the most impactful loverman songs of the year, and ultimately, the new millennium.

While “Voodoo” is currently settling into “modern classic” status in 2015, the cover feels classic already.

“Devotion” – Jessie Ware (2012)


“Devotion” applied disarming, impactful branding to a formerly ordinary woman for a lush, confident, and comforting album. That’s a lot of adjectives, but this minimalist cover says so much. Jessie Ware was formerly a backup singer. In personal interviews, Jessie Ware seemed like a mannered friend. She got slightly nervous and spoke with endearing honesty. And she never failed to evoke class.

The Jessie Ware of “Devotion” has many of those same lovable attributes, minus the nervousness. On her cover, Ware looks like a queen without need for a crown. The album persona is bold, but never aggressive; she retains Ware’s endearing quality. The typeface reflects this attribute well. Ware sings about love with a powerful and delicate voice, surrounded by bright and airy soundscapes. The cover reflects the sound production; every element in the composition is given plenty of whitespace. This carries over to the stylish type and its generous kerning. The black and white aesthetic takes the classiness to impressive levels. “Devotion” is a great makeover if I ever saw one.


Album Cover Design – Enhancing a Persona

An album cover often influences the way that the listener will hear the music inside. If the cover is designed effectively, it may even enhance the experience of the music inside. Most importantly, the covers on the outside and the music on the inside should do one another justice. Here are some album covers that I find particularly effective at enhancing the character of the artists.

“Electric Ladyland” – Jimi Hendrix (1968)

Electric Ladyland

“Electric Ladyland” features one of, if not the most, iconic images of Jimi Hendrix. Jimi was known for his incredible, powerful showmanship and his dizzying auditory manipulation both onstage and in-studio.

Somehow, this cover not only complements, but enhances to the legend of Jimi. It personifies his music and persona without any type whatsoever. The photo has a thoroughly mystic and otherworldly haze to it. The yellow and orange are saturated beyond reality, suggesting something surreal. The facial expression is bold, energetic, and possibly sexual, and passionate.

Hats off to whoever was responsible to this mythic cover.

“Acid Rap” – Chance the Rapper (2013)

Acid Rap

Chicago rapper Chance the Rapper (yes, “the Rapper” is part of the name) is one of Hip Hop’s most impactful and enigmatic new voices. Now he is a star, this cover design, paired with his persona, helped to make that possible. The savvy of Chance’s branding is rather impressive considering that he was a 20-year-old releasing a free mixtape.

Although the real man, Chancelor Bennett, seems to be a fairly cool and collected guy in interviews, his “Chance” persona is another matter entirely. Chance is reminiscent of the trickster characters that appear in any number of mythologies. He is unpredictable and endearingly odd. Throughout the album and his adventures in Chicago, Chance goes through elation, mischievous glee, shame, paralyzing fear, and heartfelt joy in family. I didn’t know all that when I first saw the album cover online in 2013, but when I saw it, I knew I had to figure out who this weird guy was.

It is said that we gravitate towards warm colors, and the cover plays into this well. The gorgeous combination of colors  popped on the music site I had been browsing. It was also interesting to see purple and pink tones featured so prominently and unusually on a male artist’s album cover.

The dripping type looks like it was hand-drawn by a druggy, goofball but it also recalls old horror movies. The choice of type is paired with Chance’s surprised or possibly fearful expression, right in the middle of the cover. He is the star of the show, standing there looking just as confused as we are. What are those vibrant paint-like colors all over him? Once I recall the horror movie style of the type and I look at his expression, I wonder if that suggests violence or a drug trip. What is the lighting coming from? Why did this “Chance the Rapper” guy make these design choices?

This guy is good.

Although I’ve seen this cover numerous times in the past two years, this psychedelic album cover still peaks my curiosity.

Am I An “Aspiring” Designer?

Up until a few years ago, I had a certain affinity for the word “aspiring”. This issue first arose when I wondered how to refer to myself as a photographer. I often felt that it would be inappropriate for me to claim that I was a Photographer. I used “aspiring” out of humility, but I also used it out of timidity. I had been doing photography for several years, and I was proud of my work, but I was nervous about claiming it.

My former photography teacher gave me the valuable advice to drop the “aspiring” tag. I am a Photographer. Once I took that step, I found the result liberating and intimidating. I realized that calling myself a photographer is both an artistic and professional challenge.

Calling myself a photographer makes me responsible for my skills. Training wheels are great for a time. In the beginning, it was beneficial to describe myself as an “aspiring” photographer. However, allowing the label to linger makes it a shield against responsibility. As a “photographer”, it is my duty to improve if I fall short. “Aspiring” is not to blame anymore.

Also, as a “photographer”, I have accepted that I am playing the game. A good Aspiring photographer can take nice photos of trees on the weekend and be satisfied with hoarding them on their hard drive. A good photographer might want to look through those photos and consider what belongs in their portfolio. If they took nice photos of trees, they might consider what other subjects they can master. A good aspiring photographer can be satisfied with the occasional gig. A good photographer would consider who else needs photography in the area, and who their audience is.

L learned that I am not proclaiming myself as the best when I no longer call myself “aspiring”. I am neither average nor the best, but most importantly I have aim to apply and improve my skills. My design skills are not as strong as my photography skills yet, but in my mind.

Recently, a friend and I spoke to a professional designer and asked him for advice on what how to become a Web Designer. His advice was concise: “just do it”. One who designs is some kind of designer. If I call myself a designer, then I must accept the responsibility that comes with it.

Diversity in Design

As a minority student at a predominately white institution, I have come to see diversity as a luxury. I expected that this trend would continue in the professional world. I am somewhat used to it, but I would be happy to be have another face like mine in the room in a professional setting. For that reason, I looked into the state of diversity in technological design fields with a focus on black designers.

My findings were rather illuminating. As I expected, there was a dearth of material for me to find about minority designers, particularly black ones. It is likely that many sources declined to write such material feeling that “highlighting” designers for their race would be more like “patronizing” or “singling out”, this is rather representative of the field. Designer Maurice Cherry of 3eighteenmedia and wrote: “In 1991, Brenda Mitchell-Powell wrote a report called “Why is Graphic Design 93% White? Removing Barriers to Increase Opportunities in Graphic Design”. And now, nearly 25 years later, we’re still trying to come up with the answer.”

Many wonder if the answer lies in inclusion, participation, visibility, or all three.

The trend of low representation carries over for women and Latinos, says web designer Martin Duran. He noticed one day that he was the only Latino in his company of 400+ employees. His perspective is interesting: although it seems that he has had a unique minority experience, saying that he “never felt like a minority anywhere,” he explains that no one has made him feel unwelcome in his industry. He makes the point that there is, officially, equal opportunity for minorities and women, and yet this trend persists.

As with any issue, one must look at the influences at work. In his article “Where Have All the Black Web Designers Gone?” designer and professor Marc Manley notes that socio-economic barriers have created a situation in which blacks are less likely to be steered toward a tech fields. Fortunately, efforts are being made to break this trend, but as Manley states, there are clearly more factors at play.

Although the design field is not known for exclusion, it seems that inclusion and awareness efforts have room for improvement. Manley reflected on a promotion poster for a 2009 web summit called “Pimp’d,” which, disappointingly, used a caricature of a black pimp. Manley wrote: “how many black web designers would be attending this event? My best guess would be not many, and yet they have chosen a sort of “black mascot” to represent the coolness factor of the event.”

Marc Marley’s article on the subject of black designers has several illuminating comments. An African web designer who worked in the UK commented, “The people in the industry think black people are not good programmers or logical people. They think you are just, charity case and they don’t support your skills to [evolve] and they patronize you.”

In my experience, Western society rarely thinks of the technology field as a black domain. This idea carries on across races, mostly because of the lack of representation. Representation ultimately encourages people to take the opportunities as they gradually become available. It can make a world of difference for someone to affirm, and reaffirm, that you that you belong.

Another comment on Manley’s post came from the one black female on an otherwise white and male web design team in the UK. She explains that there weren’t any visible web design opportunities during her working-class upbringing. “I didn’t realise I could make a real career out of being a designer that didn’t involve being self-employed until about 17 because I simply wasn’t exposed to what steps I’d even need to take to become a designer in an agency,” she said.

Once again, the plight of blacks and women (and especially black women) provide insight into one other. After she noticed her “computer geek” daughter feeling demoralized in overwhelmingly male and white classrooms. Former biotech engineer Kimberly Bryant founded “Black Girls CODE,” an organization that teaches technology to girls ages 7 to 14.

She noted that typical ideas about the culture of the computer science and technology industry hold some back from participating. “The stereotypical image is of a white male computer geek or nerd who sits at a computer and does it alone in a lonely space, and that does not look appealing. And that’s not an accurate representation of the industry. A lot of what we do in the class is to bring in female role models that girls can relate to and who can tell them what they do in their careers. So girls can see it’s focused on things that change the world and improve the community and not something you do in isolation.” It means the world to show young people that they have a place in these realms.

The discussion and efforts for greater representation of minorities in the design industry will continue. 24 years after Brenda Mitchell-Powell’s report, many still wonder what the future holds. Maurice Cherry engaged the topic and boiled down the challenges to this set of questions:

  • Why does the issue of diversity keep re-surfacing every year without real, sustainable solutions?
  • How do we diversify the design industry in a way that doesn’t look like “affirmative action” or “tokenism”?
  • What do Black designers (or designers of color, in general) want from the design community?
  • How can I attract design talent from underrepresented groups?
  • Is solving the “pipeline problem” a viable method for ensuring a diverse future design industry?