John L. Walters on music design

Author: Colin | Published: 18/11/10

Thought provoking piece on the Eye Magazine blog by John L. Walters:

Think about design for music, and record covers spring to mind (…) That’s understandable: graphic design has borne witness to an extraordinary canon of independent work over the past 70 years. But there has always been a multitude of ways to combine sound and music: in an age of digital dissemination and extravagant audiovisual performances, album covers are just one part of a music design story that goes back more than a century, and will continue to be relevant long after records have died.


The lesson for designers was that design for music was shifting away from products towards … everything else: identity, branding, ‘creative management’, social media, live promotion, video, animation, Web design.

There are certainly more opportunities than ever for music-related design. There doesn’t seem to have been as much digital innovation as might have been expected at this point, though perhaps I haven’t been looking in the right places. In addition to the solitary extant virtual design on Hard Format (Snow Patrol’s A Million Suns app) I plan to cover Ghostly’s brilliant Discovery app in the not too distant future and Eno’s three iPhone apps are characteristically impressive. I’m not sure to what extent the examples that Walters cites are anything new, more a gradual shift in emphasis as music’s availability becomes more pervasive. Posters, videos, costumes, stage shows, t-shirts and programmes are all familiar items to any music fan. The web as a popular medium is more than 15 years old and there’s been little innovation relating to music and design that’s become widespread except for distribution technologies.

It might seem inevitable that I’d disagree with Walters’ observation :-), but I’m blessed to see so much imaginative new work being produced and much of the quality of that work, I believe, is prompted by the changing environment. The persistence, or lack of it, of the ephemeral as signifier for music – an art-form that is by its very nature already transient – would make for an interesting discussion. If the medium is transitory and atomised, shouldn’t its visual associations reflect that – to be true to the medium? For the time being at least, I remain a firm fan of the music object as a primary focus for design.

I also wonder, does the popularity of a medium or even a cultural object necessarily determine its importance or value? Convenience is king and ‘free’ rules.  Even when physical music media become a niche, will it also become culturally insignificant? It may do as creativity reroutes to a wider audience. I think digital and physical media will co-exist together for a long time to come, though the balance will shift increasingly towards the virtual. Hard Format will be happy to promote quality in whatever medium best shows it!

Well worth a read: Time to find some new, meaningful associations between music + design, Eye blog.


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