Book Review

Designing for Music

By Spencer Drate

Library of Applied Design, PBC International, Inc., 235 pp., $60

Review by Allen Howie

Let's say you're a talented musician, or part of a talented band. You've written some strong material, booked your studio time and are all set to release your first recording, at least locally. The logical question is: what are you going to do about packaging your music? - I know, I know ... the music should speak for itself. And in an ideal world, it would. But in the nineties, marketing is the thing and part of marketing is presenting a package that makes people want to check out the music inside.

If you want a crash course on the subject, a lot can be learned about design from Spencer Drate's new book, Designing for Music. Drate, who has produced packaging for albums by Lou Reed, Bon Jovi and the Talking Heads, has assembled a wealth of examples representing every style of both music and design.

Creating the packaging for a new record involves several challenges. First and foremost, the design has to communicate to potential buyers the identity of the artist and the album, while competing for attention in stores with literally hundreds of other titles in a variety of formats.

Second, the design has to correspond somehow to the music contained in the package, giving the prospective buyer some idea of what to expect when he or she plays the record. Albums by heavy metal or rap artists differ radically in appearance from those by jazz or country artists. Similarly, a stark black-and-white photo may be perfect for an alternative group, but totally inappropriate for a bouncy pop album.

Third, the design may have to be adaptable to a variety of formats (cassette, compact disc, LP, even the new digital compact cassette) and possibly collateral materials (flats, posters, T-shirts and so on). All this, while satisfying the designer's own creative needs.

Designing for Music is not a how-to book, but instructs by example, with full-color reproductions of a variety of album packaging. A brief professional biography is included for each designer, then the work is allowed to speak for itself. Included are total packages, from CD long boxes to jewel-box booklets and even the discs themselves. The selections span more than twenty years of music, from early releases by Traffic, Rod Stewart and Yes to the present day. Each of the well-chosen examples has something to offer.

Smart use of type as an element of the total design is showcased, for example, in packaging for Tone Loc, the Go-Go's, Heart, Boy George and Duran Duran.

Special limited edition packaging, which the average music buyer seldom sees, is also included for artists like Bonnie Raitt and Tina Turner, the King Crimson Frame by Frame box and material promoting Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton-John. Other highlights (and there are many) include limited edition packaging for albums by Squeeze and the Bullet Boys, as well as boxed sets for James Brown and Ray Charles.

In fact, the only fly in the ointment is an oddly disjointed introduction by noted Yes designer Roger Dean, some of it copped from an earlier piece he wrote about the late Rick Griffin, who was responsible for a number of Grateful Dead album covers. And while the book offers little or no insight into the "business" of designing for music (for that, track down a copy of The Work of Hipgnosis: Walk Away, Renee, with text by designer Storm Thorgerson), it is overflowing with examples of. just how well music packaging can be designed.

In addition to writing record and performance reviews for Louisville Music News and The Courier-Journal, Allen Howie is Vice President and Creative Director for The Marketing Company / MC Graphics in New Albany, Indiana.