When I was a teenager, my buddy Rich Feldman and I would spend hours sifting through the album bins at our favorite record store. A quick walk from our high school on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, Licorice Pizza embodied the grit and soul of 1970s music. Growing up in a family entrenched in the LA art scene, Licorice Pizza was my go-to space, my creative enclave.
My older sister, Betsy, introduced me to much of my favorite music; I can vividly remember the day she gave me my first Stones album. But there was something about being there, poring through records, that really formed my relationship with music. And it was there that I fell in love with album design and—unwittingly—typography.
Without question, my favorite album covers are those from my youth. But it’s more than adolescent nostalgia that makes them so special. This was a period of time when the mediums of music and art really found each other, and their chemistry was magical. Did the music make me notice the art, or was it the art that opened my eyes to the music? I imagine it was both.
It sucked me in. I would spend hours listening to albums and studying their covers, falling in love with the art. But I never bought an album based solely on its cover design. No, it was a marriage—music and design were a team. Over the years I’ve had many favorites, and I’m still deeply connected with some, an emotional attachment that I suspect will last a lifetime. I offer them here in no particular order.
Everything about this album and its design is amazing. It’s screaming Gothic Condensed headline and six-column grid actually made me want to know more about newspaper design. In fact, the original LP cover folded out to a 12-page parody newspaper—it was insanely groundbreaking at the time. As for the music, Jethro Tull featured Ian Anderson, arguably the most well-known flutist in rock. It doesn’t get much better.
Featuring four paintings by Roger Dean, one of the world’s preeminent fantasy illustrators, Yessongs struck me like lightening. This album is what truly made me appreciate the marriage of music and its artwork; in fact, its illustrations and typography were the first that I tried to copy. (It’s also when I discovered that illustration is for a unique breed of talent to which I don’t belong.) Dean also designed the iconic Yes logo which debuted in 1972, and his artwork has appeared on 35 Yes releases spanning 50 years. His artistry has influenced countless illustrators and typographers, myself included.
My sister bought me this album, and I don’t know if she realizes how big of an impact it had on me and my career. Conceptualized by Andy Warhol, the art world’s first true superstar (sorry Picasso), Sticky Fingers featured the design of Craig Brown and the photography of Billy Name. Simple and bold, the cover featured a Warholian high-contrast image with a working zipper — an idea he supposedly shared with Mick Jagger at a party. When unzipped, the model’s (supposedly not Jagger) cotton briefs were revealed. This album also debuted the Stones’ iconic tongue and lips logo, designed by John Pasche; it is arguably one of the most recognizable and memorable logos of all time.
For me, the Rolling Stones created a sense of anticipation—I loved wondering what their next album cover would be. Like their music, the Stones were both eclectic and smart; they were artists who sought other artists to visually express their work. Exile on Main Street was designed by the talented John Van Hamersveld who worked with other legendary bands like The Beatles, Grateful Dead, and Kiss. The cover prominently features the photography of Robert Frank, one the best photographers of his time (in my humble opinion). The front image is from Frank’s 1959 photo documentary book “The Americans,” and the back and gatefold feature images from his photo sessions with the Stones. It was so different from Sticky Fingers, but equally memorable.
Bollocks. It’s hard to imagine now, but that word caused quite the stir back in the 70’s. In fact, one London record store manager was arrested on obscenity charges for displaying the album in his store. Eventually the charges were dropped, but the publicity was enormous. Designed by Jamie Reid, the album’s “cut it up, find some type on the floor and make it work” style ended up being a go-to for punk music of the 80’s. Bloody brilliant.
Blue Note Records, particularly in the 1960’s, developed a visual style that relied on strong typography and two or three spot colors. Many of the album covers are anchored by large type that accentuates the title and frames the image. From 1955-1967, Reid Miles was responsible for the majority of Blue Note’s design. Personally, I’ve always been attracted to the emotional impact of the typography, and their signature style will always be one of my favorites.
The Black Keys - Brothers, 2010
David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, 1972
The Doors - L.A. Woman, 1971
The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds, 1966
All amazing cover designs, all designed with Cooper Black. Created in 1922 by Oswald Bruce Cooper, Cooper Black is the ultimate font that never goes out of style. It has a certain casualness that makes it inviting; simultaneously, its “fat face” demands your attention. Cooper Black is one of my first font loves, as well as the most enduring.
As I look back at these covers, as well as other favorites, I can’t help but think of the adage “what is old is new again.” Like most things, contemporary design can benefit from looking back at past successes and seeing how an approach or style can be used today. As a designer, I know I have found influence in these works. I believe I have an esthetic, but not a singular style. Rather, I design for the audience; because I want to draw them in, I think about what might surprise them. Sound familiar?
And if you’re wondering, yes, I would love to design an album cover. Unfortunately, no one has ever asked. Maybe this will change that.