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?


Freelancer’s Life

Freelancing is truly a self-exploratory venture. It forces the freelancer to evaluate the their principles, self-worth, and confidence. The freelancer must know their craft and their market on a deeper level than they might otherwise. A freelancer cannot do their skills justice without effective communication, but their words mean very little without their skills. Freelancers must speak for themselves through work and word.

In addition, freelancing is an exercise in both vulnerability and responsibility. Although everyone has brushes with those, freelancers often have their feet a bit closer to the fire to the truths of the professional world. The stakes are higher for an independent.

They must have the courage to ask for opportunities that may not even be readily offered. Freelancing rewards initiative, but not without persistence. They must use their both of those principles to expand their network. Only their network will be willing to reach out to them in earnest.

A freelancer ought to plan out their process and protect that process legally. They must examine the terms of their work. They can benefit from being able to boil down the creative process to cold terms of agreement for their documentation, such as invoices or contracts. For many creatives, seeing the creative process objectively is difficult. However, they must ultimately see theirself as others see them. They are not special; but their work and the insurability of their reputation is.

Vignelli’s Vision from Above

Massimo Vignelli was one of the most beloved, respected figures in 20th century design. He brought his design ethos to any field he pleased, including interior design, houseware, and corporate logos. No matter the subject, he prized clarity and elegance above all.

In 1972, Vignelli attempted to bring his design priniciples to the New York Subway map. His design solution was controversial in 1972, but it is still unquestionably forward-thinking design in 2015.

Designing the New York Subway map is a formidable task. For many New Yorkers, the Subway is an integral part of city life. And in such a complex city, it is imperative to simplify the journey from point A to B.

Vignelli’s Subway map was preceded and followed by consistently literalist interpretations.

The 1958 Map


The 1979 Map


The 2008 Map


Vignelli criticized each of these maps for their lack of simplicity and straightforwardness. He took issue with fragmentation of lines in the 1958 map, the arguably superfluous realism of the 1979 map, and the use of information balloons in the 2008 map. His critique raises the enduring question of communicative design: when is it “enough”?

Vignelli transformed the Subway map, providing an unorthodox and innovative design solution. His map truly exemplified one of his own quotes: “The correct shape is the shape of the object’s meaning.”

Vignelli’s 1972 Map


Vignelli’s striking map employs an eye-catching aesthetic, but it is most notable for defying conventional paradigms about space and functionality.

In repsonse to the 1979 map, Vignelli said, “And look at here [pointing to curved path of train line at lower Manhattan]. Who cares if the subway has to make a [turn] like that? I’m going, we’re all going, from Point A to Point B. How we get there is the conductor’s problem, not mine.” Vignelli found it unnecessary and ultimately distracting to focus so much on the environment around the Subway. He took the liberty of distilled his map’s information to the destination.

Vignelli’s philosophy was fairly polarizing. On one hand, his map received derision from much of the general public; on the other hand, it has been praised ever since by designers. His map design was even exhibited by Museum of Modern Art in 2004.

Studying Vignelli’s map is a valuable exercise for any student of communication design. Vignelli’s insight and indirectly challenged thousands of designers to reconsider what is necessary. His communication was simultaneously direct, minimalist, and a striking, beautiful piece of art. Not bad for a Subway map.

By the way, in 2012, by request of the MTA, Vignelli’s design resumed directing the public in the form of the Weekender, a digital application.




Fast Company Design

4 Examples of Effective Graphic Design Blogging

Are you a Graphic Designer with an interest in blogging? Do you wonder where you ought to start? If so, you may find some valuable inspiration in the articles listed below.

If you have tried Graphic Design even once, it is likely that your decisions were informed by a number of influences. There is no shame in acknowledging that we are inspired by others. In fact, one should focus on gathering the best influences. Here are some interesting posts that exemplify a range of Graphic Design blogging styles:

1) First Round – “Spotify’s Design Lead on Why Side Projects Should Be Stupid” (Inspiration + Profile + Interview)

This inspiring post, which doubles as a profile and an interview, draws from the insight of Spotify design lead Tobias Van Schneider. Van Schneider reached his respectable position by daring to have confidence in his efforts. Even after being rejected by design schools, he continued to give his seemingly insignificant side projects the attention that he knew they deserved. Van Schneider emphasizes that the value of a good side project lies in the trust of its owner and hard work, rather than its size. This post offers valuable insight for any creative dealing with self-doubt.

2) Just Creative – “The 2014 Logo of The Year + Runner Ups” (Memes and Projects)

The “Just Creative” blog is the work of Jacob Cass. This particular post featured his 2014 Logo of the Year poll among the blog’s readership. Out of all the interesting designs, American Table Cafe and Bar‘s minimalist logo garnered the highest number of votes. It is worth noting that the poll has 690 votes and 16 comments. At the bottom of the post, Cass offers readers a chance to nominate designs for upcoming Logo polls and offers a free eBook on Logo design. It seems that Cass has done a great job of engaging his audience and fostering community.

3) Creative Bloq – “3 Reasons to Get Excited about Design Indaba” (Informational + List + Profile)

This informational post discusses Design Indaba, a prominent, annual South African design conference that will be underway this week. For those who are interested, the post profiles three design experts who will appear at the event: Dan Weidan, a prominent designer in the world of advertising; Emily Oberman, a “proudly multi-disciplinary designer with a penchant for adding a twist of humour to her work”; and Stanley Hainsworth, a former creative head and branding expert for Lego, Nike and Starbucks. Design Indaba will be an exciting event indeed.

4) David Airey – “Outgoings in Design Self-Employment” (Informational)

In this informational post, Irish designer David Airey addresses one of the most underappreciated concerns for self-employed designers. Ironically, these concerns are often underappreciated by self-employed designers themselves. He encourages his fellow independent designers to treat their work like a business and consider their cost of operations/living. He includes various expenses such as designer tools, housing, and transportation. His tone is professional, yet it evokes the tone of a conversation that one might have with an experienced colleague over a drink.