"For The Pro": graphic design By Joshua D. Smith — an amateur who learned the hard way

The Great Dilemma

When starting a local band, most people will find themselves in a Catch 22 situation. (1) You can't get any good gigs because you don't have a professional looking product (tape or CD) to present to your venue of choice. (2) You're tired of playing for Junior Proms and birthday parties. (3) The individuals responsible for booking bands in nicer clubs aren't going to think too highly of some cheap tape you send them with your music thrown onto it.

If you're not getting gigs, you're not making any money; therefore, no funds for higher quality packaging. It's a vicious cycle. So, if buying blank tapes at Wal-Mart and handwriting the liner notes isn't your idea of an attractive product with smartly designed inserts, you need to look into some more complicated, and more expensive options.

Most bands don't have a big problem with recording. Heck, you can go down to the Doo-Wop Shop and rent an 8-track recorder really cheap and make a demo that sounds pretty decent. It's just getting that music too look good that causes turmoil. After all, it's better to look good than to actually be good. Take the Spice Girls for instace.

For most independent bands, the bottom line is the almighty dollar. Unless you have a bandmate who has inherited large sums of cash from a long lost uncle, you're probably in a situation something like this: you're broke. Musicians have never been noted for having superior money management skills anyway. We have accountants for that! Besides, the only thing you really care about is art, right? And being that professional graphic designers pull in at least $50 an hour, and even the simplist jobs can easily take 24 working hours from start to finish, you should probably patronize them only as a last resort.

The Master Plan Ok, so pro-designers and pro-prices are out of the question. What's next? Well, as any true musician would know, you need to find yourself a friend to mooch off of. Being in the music business, even as an amateur, surely you have found that networking is the single, most valuable thing you can do. Best of all, networking, in itself, is absolutely free! If you work hard, you can develop many "friend-of-a-friend" relationships that can help you on your way for a low cost. If you are especially thrifty, you could do something like mow their lawn all summer in exchange for their services. The possibilities are limitless. The only downfall about this method is that it takes a lot longer to see your finished product. Your newfound friend may not have everything you need to complete your mission, so you will have to find a whole string of contacts — each fulfilling a particular need.

Here's an example: You know someone who designs web pages. They know a little bit about graphic design and can assist you with putting your ideas on a computer screen in graphic form. The only problem is, their computer is an IBM compatable and the art industry standard is the Macintosh platform (more on that later). Though you may get awesome-looking scanned art or computer generated graphics from your friend, they are virtually useless to you in the IBM format. So now you need to find someone with a Mac who can convert those files into the proper format. This type of thing could go on for months.

Filtering Through the Muck As you can see, this field is ridden with tedious technicalities. You will lose many hours of sleep trying to figure it all out. It's like assembling one of those jigsaw puzzles with 10,000 pieces. There is no way this article could brief you on everything that has to be just so. It would not only consume every page in this issue, it would be painstakingly boring reading. Bookstores carry instruction manuals for that. However, there are a few things you must know.

As mentioned before, the Macintosh is the industry's first and only choice for its computing needs. A printing company will often not accept graphic files or page layouts in the IBM format. This doesn't seem like a big deal, but when you look at the numbers, Macintosh only accounts for something like 2% of all the world's personal computers. Not that they're inferior machines, the rest of the world just runs on IBM. Leave it up to the artists to make things difficult by being different. If it weren't for the artists of the world, Bill Gates and Co. would probably drive Macintosh to bankruptcy. But you are an artist. You have artist friends. You won't have a big problem finding someone with a nice Mac.

So you have access to a Mac, now you're going to need the right software to size, place, and manipulate your graphics to look exactly like they will on your tape or CD. There are many software packages that will do the trick, but two that seem to stand out are "Adobe Photoshop" and "QuarkXpress." Photoshop is where your graphics will be created, take shape, and be "sweetened" to their final form. QuarkXpress is the application that will incorporate your finished graphics and lay them out in exactly the way you want. You can also place type onto your graphics in Quark. For the computer illiterate, using these programs will likely be comparable to shooving bamboo shoots up your toenails. Hopefully, your Mac friend will either own or have access to these programs and show you how to use them. (If you are familiar with computers, but have no personal contacts, Kinko's offers a Mac "design station" to use at the premium price of $20 per hour.)

When you create your graphics, you need to set them at a high resolution to make them turn out nice on your finished product. Most graphics you see on the Internet are low resolution, about 70 ppi (pixels per square inch), so they will load faster. Though they look great on your screen, they will not look that way when they come back from the printer. The standard resolution for a sharp CD insert is about 225 ppi. This poses another problem. When you increase the resolution, the your graphic eats up drive space in megabytes-sized chunks. For a 5"x5" CD cover, you're looking at a minimum 5 or 6 megabyte file.

Moving It Around: Standard removable disks only hold 1.4 megabytes of space, so you need to have a larger, removable disk drive to place your finished graphics on and deliver to the printer. The most common of these drives is Iomega's "Zip" drive. Each "Zip" disk holds 100 megabytes and that should be enough unless you are U2 and have 24 pages of liner notes and photographs in your insert.

You can also send the image over the phone, if you can manage the protocols with the print house. It helps to have a T-2 line, but regular phone lines are okay, just lots slower.

The Outcome When it's all said and done, your many hours of toil, trouble, and lost sleep will be reduced to a little computer disk containing the fruits of your labor. You will find that this 3.75" square piece of plastic will take on the role of your own offspring. You will guard it. You will protect it. You will physically harm the one who tries to steal or mutilate it. For you have worked very hard to make it what it is, and you are glowing with pride of its magnificence. This little piece of plastic contains your key to success in the wiley world of the music business. Its contents will impress those who behold it, and baffle those who try to criticize it. It has the potential to make you into the next U2…or Spice Girls, which ever you prefer.