by Rob O'Connor
Designers and teachers of design talk a lot about problem solving. I have no axe to grind over their use of the word solving, I do however have a small, er, problem with the word problem.
Design is clearly a process that creates solutions, but to think of a problem as its source is an entirely negative concept to me. The biggest and most consistent cause of problems in my experience as a designer is humankind people people with opinions, with bosses, personal agendas, low aesthetic values, unsophisticated or just downright bad taste, obsessions with lowest-common-denominator marketing, lack of imagination, lack of self-confidence, little respect for the design profession, a low propensity for telling the truth, a lack of communication skills, no practical experience, no sense of bravery (or, god forbid, no sense of humour).
Don't get me wrong here, my soapbox is tucked well under the desk this is not a tirade against the world at large. What breeds successful design is respect and patronage. Fortunately, we have had the opportunity to work for a handful of people who have shown us both. The best designer in the world will struggle working for an uncreative and uncooperative client. (Strangely enough, they do exist). What fires creative output is a stimulating relationship with the commissioner based on trust and a mutual respect. Much of our own work has come from one of the biggest risk businesses around the music industry. It offers no guarantees of success, so risks have to be taken to convince an increasingly fickle market (and the rest of the industry) that any one particular musical artist has a truly unique talent, style, sound, attitude, whatever. The overriding tendency, though, is to play safe with the marketing approach to make sure the artist or project is pigeonholed enough to not be misunderstood by the market and, as a consequence, passed over.
At the time of writing, the retail sector of the music industry is in a state of flux. For so many recent years major retail chains have held a whip hand high over the music business, forcing out the artists with something original to say; sending them underground, into the specialist shops, on to the Internet, on to the dole. There is just not enough room or profitability in stocking more than the most popular music available, so the shops opt for selling more copies of less titles the obvious chart big-hitters. As a consequence, the major record companies mould their roster of artists to suit this genre-based, copycat system. If they can't get their music played on mainstream radio (think of radio here as the other whip hand) then exposure in the shops is paramount, thereby convincing the record buying browser that if they like Sheryl Crow, Oasis or TLC then they'd like this, this or this ("go on, pick it up it looks familiar to you, surely").
Marketing drives the visual media within the industry, with obvious reason, but when every so often a truly independent spirit enters the arena a 4AD, a Stiff, a Mute, a Factor the industry and the music-loving world at large applauds as well they might. The struggle to be truly creative even in the area of design, is helped by the team ethic. The shared vision permeates these companies and reflects their less-compromised stand. All designers covet this shared-vision approach to creating an image. They don't really want to spend valuable time and effort cajoling and coercing a stubborn mainstream marketeer into adopting a more original and adventurous design route when that time could be spent exploring those very same creative possibilities.
Designing 'record' sleeves is punctuated by little victories smaller, more interesting type, pictures of the artist relegated to the inside of the package, a modicum of imagination behind the main image... is it so much to ask? After all, this is the career that used be known as 'commercial art', is it not?
The temptation is often for the designer to be bloody-minded, but common sense normally prevails. After all, if we are to do our job properly, we must accept that the careers of the music makers themselves rely on turning a profit from the sales of their music (and ours in turn from those very same sales).
The playing field has changed dramatically in music design). If anything, the goal posts have been pulled closer the record companies' determination not to fail have given everyone less room to be creative the future appears to be the wide open spaces of the Internet multiple audio and video opportunities to cater for all tastes. From the designer's point of view, the record sleeve's evolution from a playground of visual fantasy to mini poster continues as the internet turns us all into film makers, publishers, multimedia artists. Our beloved record cover will fulfil its course and become merely the central brand image at the core of a multimedia marketing campaign. Real high street visibility for the pop music protagonists may soon rely solely on the PR machinery that puts pop star with film star in romantic tabloid front-page photo opportunities, and a handful of self-publicists may eclipse the multitude of other musical creatives even further into obscurity, but perhaps the Internet is the natural home for less fame-hungry music makers. There they can build their profile more on their own terms, however esoteric this may appear to be they'll still be able to play their music live (won't they?).
Perhaps the industry has tried to make celebrities of ordinary Joes for too long after all, musical genius shouldn't have to be accompanied by an overgrown ego, a beautiful face and a curvaceous body (was Mozart cute?). Imagery will always go hand in hand with sound the pop video continues to thrive, the movie soundtrack is as potent a force as ever. The record sleeve as visual interpreter has passed its prime but it will continue to protect its increasingly less fragile contents all the while the market so dictates.
The visual potential for music continues to grow in much more liberating media more movement, more interactivity, more stimulation.
The 1970s, Eighties and Nineties exposed the talents of Roger Dean, John Kosh, Hipgnosis, V23, M&Co, Assorted Images and others during music packaging's purple patch. None of them will be looking back at it through a rosy mist of nostalgia the future is far too exciting.