Album covers in the digital world

Author: Colin | Published: 22/10/08


In Adrian Shaughnessy’s latest book, one of the questions asked of each of the designers he interviews is whether they have any examples of interesting digital musical presentation. The responses were generally uninspiringly meagre. Given the migration of music into the digital realm, this lack of creativity is worrying. It’s possible to take the view that services like last.fm, Mog, YouTube, Idiomag, blogs, etc. make for a patchwork quilt far richer than the isolated album cover, but there is something enduringly attractive about the concentrated focus and potential for tactile interaction of the cover. That, after all, is what this website is all about.

A short-lived project I pursued last year was a blog devoted to music in the digital realm: Music Interfaces focused on music applications, recommendation services and so on. The most used digital music programme, I assume, is iTunes. At least I hope it isn’t Windows Media Player which is horrifically unintuitive. Anyway, iTunes received an update (to version 8) recently. I wasn’t particularly enamoured of the incremental improvements until recently, when I realised that the space for the cover had been significantly increased, as illustrated in the above screenshot. On my laptop screen, that cover is larger than a CD. Apple has already delivered Coverflow which mimics the act of flipping through album covers, there’s also a full-screen mode and the latest version also delivered gridview, illustrated below:

grid view in iTunes

These interfaces, combined with touch screens (and in the not too distant future, haptic ones) and all that latent computing power aren’t a substitute for physical media, but nevertheless they do make me hopeful. For example, Coverflow is the iTunes view when the iPhone is turned to landscape, touching a cover flips it to reveal the tracklisting – it’s a small, but pleasing interaction as is the swiping of covers to progress through one’s library. If things have moved this far in the space of a few years, I’m reasonably optimistic about the potential for further developments. I’d love to see Adobe Lightroom-style collapsing menus in the next iteration of iTunes so that covers are foregrounded all the more.

There’s also the not inconsiderable subject of the graphical element of recent developments in interactive music facilitated by the iPhone’s accelerometer and touchscreen. I’ll write more about this in another post, but in the meantime read the relevant posts on Peter Kirn’s excellent Create Digital Music: RJDJ and Bloom. Colour me a fan of both.