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The album covers that made it hip to be square

Richard Evans has designed albums for a huge range of musicians, from Abba's Agnetha to The Who. Here, he celebrates great sleeve art through the ages

If you're going to tailor-make yourself a job, you could do far worse than ask yourself, what are the two things you really like and how can you make a living out of it? In my case it was a love of rock'n'roll and a passion for art. Doing my sums, I figured that pop plus art equals Pop artist; but rock'n'roll plus art? Ah, yes, album cover designer. I'd previously been a shoe designer, producing stack-heeled platform boots in the early Seventies, selling my wares to Elton John, Roxy Music, and er, the Osmonds. When that all folded, my friends Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson asked me to come and work for them at Hipgnosis, the seminal design studio famed for its work with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

In a tatty first-floor studio in Denmark Street on the edge of Soho, I had the best of all groundings in album cover design. I already had the basics of graphic design and paste-up, but here I was designing logos and lettering, teaching myself how to airbrush and retouch photographs, and helping to produce artworks for what were later to become classic album covers.

By 1976 I decided to go it alone and open my own studio. I got my very first job – to design a tour programme for The Who. Now, I'd always loved The Who. I'd even blagged my way on to the social committee at art school in 1965 in order to book them for a college dance. My design would be a spoof of Playboy called "Bellboy", after the Quadrophenia song. If you're going to work with The Who, I thought, throw yourself in at the deep end, and so for the centrefold I took a photograph of a naked Keith Moon, resplendent in all his glory lying on a hotel-room sofa. Talk about a baptism by fire!

In the years since then, I've designed most of the material for the band: countless album covers, solo album covers, singles, T-shirts, badges, videos and DVDs, film posters, stage projections, sheet music and music books, and, of course, more tour programmes.

But I just love album covers. I love designing them and I love looking at other people's work. Over the years I've designed covers not just for The Who but for an extraordinary cross-section of artistes and music genres, from Bach sonatas to cool jazz, from Public Image Ltd to Van Morrison via King Sunny Adé, The Kinks, The Doors, Robert Plant, and Agnetha (that's the blonde one from Abba) – oh, and the Boo Yaa Tribe, a six-piece American-Samoan rap/hip-hop band of brothers from South Central LA. Now that was another baptism. I was terrified of them, until the A&R girl from Island Records said, don't worry; they really like you because you're helping them.

I often think how odd it is to be a designer constantly confined to working within a square format, but in the 70 years that album covers have been around, it's quite extraordinary to see what the designers of yesterday and today have made of it.

In writing and compiling The Art of the Album Cover, I was struck by how much there is to celebrate in album cover design, how much passion there was in the work of all the designers, photographers and illustrators over the years – a passion that is still very much in evidence today.

But are there still album covers today? For a start, they're not 12-inches square and they're not made of cardboard. Nowadays, they're little booklets about 4.75 by 4.719 inches. They're not even an exact square, for heavens sake. Nevertheless they are the covers of albums, regardless of their shape or size. So perhaps these little rectangles, viewed through the clear plastic of a CD case or scrolled through on the tiny screens of our iPods, are the grandchildren of the LP cover.

We often talk about the "golden age" of this and that and, yes, perhaps the golden age of album covers was the Sixties and Seventies. There certainly was a feeling of "anything goes" in those two decades. And yet every decade had its high points. Just marvel at the wonderful work of Alex Steinweiss, the father of album cover design, and his contemporary Jim Flora in the Forties. Then look at the highly original designs that Reid Miles created for Blue Note in the Fifties. During the cultural revolution of the swinging Sixties, covers such as Cream's Disraeli Gears, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators and Peter Blake's groundbreaking design for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band were truly outstanding.

By the Seventies, realising that a good album cover could significantly increase record sales, record companies were only too happy to invest large sums of money in the grandest and wildest cover concepts. Some of the most elaborate and innovative designs came out of this period, not just in terms of the front-cover visual but also the construction of the record sleeve, with covers that were shaped, hinged, die-cut, embossed, flocked, circular, and even albums that came in tins. Musically, the Seventies – more than any other decade – encompassed a whole range of genres, starting with the post-Woodstock of Crosby, Stills & Nash, through the prog rock of Yes and Pink Floyd, the glitter world of funk and disco, of The Bee Gees and Donna Summer, followed by the raw, guitar-driven punk of The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and The Damned; cover-wise from Hipgnosis to Barney Bubbles via Rick Griffin and Jamie Reid. What a decade of contrast.

The Eighties brought with it a slew of brilliant new designers, particularly in Britain, where the rave culture made such an impact. Designers such as Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett and Vaughan Oliver created some truly evocative work. The Eighties was also the decade that witnessed the introduction of the compact disc and (thankfully) the demise of the cassette. Overnight, the album cover shrank to 38 per cent of its original size. How odd, when you consider how vulnerable vinyl is, that it should be housed in a paper bag within a cardboard sleeve, whereas the CD, marketed as virtually indestructible, is protected in a hinged plastic box.

The beginning of the Nineties marked a major turning point in graphic design. Almost overnight, artboard, pencils and ink were rendered obsolete. Airbrushes were packed away in their cases; drawing boards and tee-squares became things of the past. And who was this gorgeous beauty that turned our heads? It was a drab, mushroom-coloured box called an Apple Mac. How tantalising it was, and how we longed to get our hands on one. And, rather like buying the new Stones album in the Sixties, how cool it was to actually own one, and to impress your friends with it.

Record covers are perhaps the timelines of our lives. They remind us of where we were, what we were doing, who we were with; they mark our student days, our holidays, our growing up, and our coming of age.

The golden age of the album cover may well be long gone, and perhaps the record sleeve is deservedly putting its feet up somewhere, but great art for music packaging will continue to be created by designers today and far into the future, whatever shape or format the delivery of music may take.

And as for that classic 12-by-12 album cover, I've often wondered, how can something so square be so hip?

Richard Evans has been art director for The Who for 35 years and designed album covers for a diverse range of artistes. 'The Art of the Album Cover' is published by Compendium (£19.95)