Design: Case history

The CD changed sleeve art for ever - the box is too tiny to warrant the same effort - but inventive design does still exist, as a new book testifies. By Nicholas Barber

ACD is neither an artefact nor a work of art. When people listen to a CD, they don't drink in the artwork as they used to when they listened to vinyl. To use the example that became a cliche almost immediately after CDs were first mooted, no band would toil over an image as complex or labour-intensive as the cover of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band just to see it reproduced on the packaging of a compact disc.

The cover of a CD - to be more accurate, the front page of the booklet that is lodged inside what is known as the jewel case - affords the designer a canvas of five inches square, and a quarter of that space will probably be obscured by a sticker that repeats the name of the artist and lists the "hits", in other words the tracks that are scheduled to be released as singles. These singles, by the way, are often sold in several different editions. The same song will be available on two or three separate CDs, each with different back- up tracks and a different sleeve.

Adrian Shaughnessy of design company Intro discusses all this in the introduction to Sampler, a new book of contemporary record art: "Previously regarded as an essential part of a successful record, there is now a tendency to treat sleeves as merely another marketing surface to be covered with price stickers and the buy-me-now graphics of modern consumerism."

In other words, when you get home you might as well throw the packaging in the bin along with the record shop's plastic bag.

In the olden days, the album sleeve was a poster, something to be Blutacked to the wall or mounted in a record shop's window display. It was a badge and a calling card. If you gazed at your new purchase on the ride home from the store, everyone on the bus could tell what your tastes were. Not any more. Today, some albums come with free posters, but they have to be folded to the size of the CD box, and no poster looks very stylish when it's creased into ninths.

From a record company's standpoint, if you want to establish your band's visual emblems, the MTV-friendly video will be worth a much higher investment. Take a look at the cover of two highly acclaimed recent albums - not something you may have done very often before. For OK Computer, Radiohead seem to have photocopied a picture of a motorway, scribbled over it and then glued it to a white sheet of paper. Urban Hymns by The Verve boasts a not very urban photo of the band sitting in a park, four of them looking to the left, one facing right. Nothing could be less eye-catching or evocative of the music on the CD. The video for The Verve's single "Bittersweet Symphony", on the other hand, was an instant classic.

And these examples are not the exceptions. The cover of Beck's latest album is forgettable, as are all of Oasis's. In this last case, Britpop's cult of ordinary bloke-ism is partly responsible. Ocean Colour Scene and Cast both have top-10 hits, but both favour sleeves that look like they have been snapped by a wedding photographer in his lunch hour.

If this is getting too gloomy and nostalgic, then glance over at the accompanying pictures from Sampler. A reminder that inventive cover art still exists, these images attest, to quote Shaughnessy again, that "sleeve- design remains the only place in mainstream commercial life where visual innovation has a permanent foothold".

None the less, they do tend to rely on post-modernism, and pretension. They don't try to be bright, bold or inviting. Indeed, they suggest that to be any of these things is either uncool or just beside the point. In short, they're not much fun. Except where a Michael Ball or a Daniel O'Donnell is involved, the naivety and unselfconscious amateurism have gone from CD packaging, just as they have from the music on the CD. Sleeve design is flourishing, you might say, but sleeve art is a thing of the past.

Well, almost. Great covers do still appear, although for my money the most memorable, clever and enjoyable ones of recent years have been those which Sampler can't reproduce properly: three-dimensional ones. Obvious examples are Pulp's Different Class, Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space, and the records released on the MoWax label.

MoWax's design department heroically avoid the jewel case in favour of die-cut folded card: the CD sleeve as origami. Pulp's 1995 album had, in place of a conventional CD booklet, an embossed envelope with a window cut in the front and six double-sided picture cards which you could rearrange to choose your own front cover. Even more ingeniously, Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen ... came in a perfectly authentic prescription medicine packet. The disc itself was lodged in the dimple of a plastic tray sealed in foil, as if it were a giant aspirin.

This packaging had a big effect on Spiritualized's standing. It marked them out as an important band, and the record was one that people wanted to own, to study, to pass reverently around their friends.

So there is life in the record cover yet. Creativity adapts to test the parameters set around it. The question is, what sort of visual accompaniment will there be when music becomes something you download via the Internet? Will animated web pages be a vital sales tool, or will we care even less about having something to look at while we listen?

It's an unnerving notion for those of us who can remember album covers. But people of younger generations, who have been using computers from their first day at primary school, will have no problem getting their music from this cool medium, without the security blanket of a tangible lyric sheet. And maybe all of these developments are healthy. Maybe they're a move away from immature, fetishistic materialism. Maybe sleeve art as a whole will die out, only to be preserved in design museums as a form that existed between the years 1950 and 2000

`Sampler: Contemporary Music Graphics', by Intro, will be published on 24 May by Laurence King, price pounds 19.95

This page, clockwise from above: the stripped-down artwork of APC Tracks Vol ll; Bruce Gilbert's `Ab Ovo'; Ned Sublette, Lawrence Weiner & The Persuasions' Ships at Sea, Sailors & Shoes; Pro- Pain's `The Truth Hurts' CD which featured news-style photographs which extended to a gruesome shot on the disc itself - with strategically placed hole in the middle

Clockwise from above: minimal artwork for `Ceefax' by Fridge; St Etienne's `Sylvie'; `Saturday Night' by Suede; Square Pusher's `Music is Rotted One Note'; Hip Hop Don't Stop by various artists; `Angel' by Massive Attack; the shrink-wrapped `TruPak: 12' from Orbital

Clockwise from top left: Tortoise's TNT; Bring it On by Gomez; Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space; The Complete Bill Evans

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    The Green Recruitment Company: Operations Manager - Anaerobic Digestion / Biogas

    £40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Operation...

    SThree: Experienced Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £40000 per annum + OTE + Incentives + Benefits: SThree: Established f...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Maintenance Person

    £7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care organisation take pride in del...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker

    £7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care organisation take pride in del...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent