Record sleeve design interview for MacUser… unedited

11th June, 2009


MacUser magazine coverA year ago Shark Attack had the honour of being the subject of a 4-page feature in MacUser magazine here in the UK. The final article was an edited down version of a Q&A interview conducted by email with journalist Rich Gooding. Since the subject was record sleeve design, and since I get a lot of emails from people asking how they can get started in that field, I decided to put my original, unedited answers to Rich’s questions online as a blog post. Opinions expressed in my answers are, of course, my own, and nothing to do with MacUser or anyone else.

It’s a longer post than normal, but I hope that you find it interesting, even useful.

MacUser: Tell me about your background.
Rick Lecoat: At school I had the idea that I would like to study architecture, but realised in time that I was more interested in the ‘making buildings look really cool’ part and not so excited by the structural engineering part, so everybody who lives or works in a building probably had a lucky escape.
Instead I did my Art Foundation course at Saint Martins School of Art (I think that mine was the last foundation year before the St. Martins merged with Central College), followed by a four-year degree in Media and Production Design at what was then the London College of Printing (now I think it’s the London College of Communication). Despite sounding like a training ground for TV and movie designers, the degree course had evolved from a diploma course in typography, with a strong accent on the Swiss style and its less-is-more ethos. That sounds restrictive, but that core typographic sensibility continues to provide a backbone to my work to this day.
Toward the end of my course I did a placement working in New York at the late, great Tibor Kalman’s renowned design studio M&Co, which was an extraordinary experience, if only for giving me the chance to work alongside someone regarded as a design icon. (M&Co designed many of the early Talking Heads sleeves, of course, but more importantly the studio influenced the whole of the New York design scene for well over a decade).
After graduating I did a couple of years in publishing design before taking up the post of in-house designer at Mercury Records. That was my last clock-punching job before I set up Shark Attack nearly a decade ago.
How and when did you start designing record covers?
Incognito sleeve, 100 and risingWhen I joined Mercury Records in 1995 I was the only hands-on designer working under the head of the art department, Mike Storey, and I was quickly thrown in at the deep end. (Up until then the label’s sleeve designs had been created by outside agencies with Mike acting as Art Director). The first album I ever designed was 100 And Rising by Incognito, which was well received. That was, however, predated by the first single I ever designed. Remember when Walkers Crisps used the Peters & Lee song Welcome Home in an advert with Gary Lineker? Mercury was going to re-release the song on the back of the ad, and I designed a sleeve for it. It never saw the light of day, thankfully, on account of a truly stupendous lack of demand on the part of the buying public.
Have you always been interested in music?
I’m definitely not one of those guys who’s always out at spit and sawdust gigs in little underground bars watching the latest up-and-coming supercool band 5 weeks before they become megastars. But I love music. On the one hand I enjoy it for what it is, and that’s no more complicated than me liking what I like. But when I’m designing a record sleeve the music becomes something else; it becomes something to find the core of and interpret visually. That’s an interesting challenge and one that I never get bored of.
You’ve attracted many high-profile artists (Marc Almond, Chris de Burgh, Dina Carroll, Dire Straits/Mark Knopfler, Elton John, theaudience) – what attracted them to Shark Attack?
Marc Almond record sleeve, Fantastic StarInevitably, I suppose that it mostly comes down to my previous work, or some other evidence that I can deliver. That’s not always the case, because you have to start somewhere; the Marc Almond album was done early on in my time at Mercury Records, and was only the second album I’d ever designed, but my boss took a leap of faith and gave the project to me. Everyone liked the result so I guess his faith in me paid off. And good work hopefully breeds good work, with one project leading on to the next.
Dire Straits album sleeveIt’s not always that simple, of course. Take the Dire Straits Best of… album for example. Before committing to letting me loose on what was inevitably going to be a massive international album release, Mark Knopfler and his manager Ed Bicknell asked me to do a sort of audition; Knopfler had a couple of soundtrack albums due out in rapid succession (Metroland and Wag The Dog) and I was requested to design those two albums to let them gauge my mettle. They were pleased enough with the dual results that they happily let me tackle the Sultans Of Swing best of album. That was big step forward for me, kudos-wise, and it’s still the most widely recognised piece I’ve work I’ve ever done.
Dire Straits led to the Chris de Burgh album (Chris and his manager had seen the Sultans… cover and really liked it, along with a bunch of other sleeves that I’d done by that stage). Dina Carroll, Incognito, Elton John, theaudience, Alisha’s Attic… my track record as a sleeve designer gave me the opportunity to work on these projects. Which then, in turn, become part of my portfolio, helping secure more work. That’s the same in any field of design, any job at all really. Do good work: move forward and (hopefully) up.
And everybody wants a really great design for their record cover; that’s true whether you are a stadium-filling act like Dire Straits or a club DJ just starting out. Artists want creative flair, they want innovative ideas, they want a cool and stylish solution to the perennial problem of “what should the sleeve look like?”. I think that I offer them all those things. And the other thing that Shark Attack brings to the table is attention to detail. You might have a great idea but if you cut corners on the execution then it shows. Attention to detail can be the difference between a pretty good design and an iconic design; for me it’s about taking a professional pride in the work that I do.
Do you have the ideas, or does the record company steer the way the artist looks, or does the artist have much creative input, and how do you strike a balance between pleasing the client and producing a great piece of design?
It varies hugely and there isn’t any real pattern to it. On a lot of the sleeves I’ve designed there has been a pre-existing photo shoot and the expectation that the designer will use it. It’s sometimes possible to ignore the photos and do something completely different, but since the record company (or artist’s management) has already paid for the shoot, that’s generally a hard sell. So in that situation you’re generally committed to adapting the imagery provided, but within that framework there’s normally a fair bit of flexibility.
How much creative input the artists gets depends largely on how much input the artist wants. It’s their record after all, and if they want to be involved it’s pretty hard to justify telling them no. Right up to the point, that is, where they start asking (or telling) you to make changes that you know will put the design in the toilet — at that point it’s time to diplomatically pull design rank and explain why yours is the opinion that maybe should be listened to right now. That can be a difficult tightrope to walk if there are egos involved.
Elton John album sleeve, The Big PictureSometimes, of course, you just can’t. When I designed the cover for The Big Picture by Elton John, the artist already had a very precise idea of what he wanted. Elton’s portrait had recently been painted by his friend, the neo-expressionist painter Julian Schnabel, and Elton wanted to make it the front cover. Schnabel also wanted the type on the front of the sleeve to be styled in a very specific way. This wasn’t terribly satisfying for me as a designer, of course, as my role with regard to the album cover essentially became that of an artworker. But Elton John is a legendary music icon and if he wants something specific for his album cover then why shouldn’t he get it? He’s earned it, after all. And I was still given a fairly free hand with the inside of the sleeve.
Perhaps surprisingly, smaller acts often want the most input of all; I think that by the time artists become superstars they generally don’t feel that they have a lot to prove, and they’re also happy delegating areas outside of their expertise to other people. New acts, by contrast, are often young, hungry to make their mark, anxious to put their stamp on the sleeve, and convinced that all their ideas are brilliant — and often they’re right. God knows enough bands come out of art schools, and many times the band members will make suggestions that really are right on the money. As the designer it’s important to be open to that and not to be precious. (Of course, it’s equally important to be able to tactfully weed out the ideas that are just plain awful).
At the end of the day, however, I’m not there to service my own ego, but to create a sleeve that the artist, the record label and, ideally, myself are all happy with. Of those three opinions, the designer’s is, of course, the most expendable, and the logic of that is simple to understand: the artist and the record company are in the business of creating and selling music; they are not in the business of running an art gallery for me. That’s not as harsh as it sounds, however. If I have been commissioned on the strength of my previous work then there is no reason why the final solution should not please everybody involved. True, the record sleeve’s priority purpose is to help promote sales of the record but, happily, good design and increased sales often go hand in hand. Thus a good designer can often find a lot of scope to create something a little unusual whilst still ticking the ‘business’ boxes; something that gets away from the basic band-photo-and-logo formula, something that respects the consumer’s intelligence. Those are nice projects to get. Furthermore, as long as the artist and the label are happy with the design then every record shop becomes a potential exhibition space for me.
How long does a typical cover take, and if projects have overseas elements to them, how do you coordinate resources?
Uh… depends. You saw that coming, didn’t you? Right. But let’s talk averages. I guess an album gets done in anything from 10 days to a month. Sometimes it’s longer. There are a lot of factors that can prolong a sleeve design: if it takes several rounds of ideas before you find one that the artist or label like; if the CD booklet has a lot of pages, or if it needs special treatment (a slipcase or something); or if the sleeve concept needs a lot of complicated work to execute — an extra photoshoot, for example, or extensive digital manipulation.
Singles are quicker of course, because there’s less acreage to cover; with an album sleeve design people only really remember the front cover but of course there’s plenty more to it; the back of the booklet, the inside pages (sometimes a lot of inside pages), the card that goes under the tray, which may be 2-sided, and an on-body print for the disc itself. This isn’t something that started with CDs of course; LPs always had inner bags and labels, even for regular releases without gatefolds and what have you.
Re. the overseas issue, it’s rarely come up for me. If it has, then it’s usually just a question of an overseas territory requesting files once the design is finished — say, if they need the sleeve for a TV ad in the US and want to pick it apart to do some whizzy animation thing on it. In which case I would send them whatever files were appropriate. These days I try and send files over the internet if possible; even if I have to leave the mac on all night to FTP a huge bundle, it’s still quicker and cheaper than sending discs by Fed Ex or whatever. I love the internet, I really do.
I don’t think I can recall having to co-ordinate with an overseas office during the design process… oh, except with the Elton John album The Big Picture where I had to get preliminary proofs of the sleeve made and sent down to Nice by courier so that Elton could approve them. This was pre-broadband, of course; I think the studio had an ISDN line back then, which was okay, sort of, but unless the other person had ISDN as well, you were kind of stuffed. Now its so much simpler.
What is the favourite cover that you have worked on? And why?
I think that’s Sultans of Swing: The Best of Dire Straits. I like it because it was built from scratch, without resorting to band shots (they were used inside) and I was involved with every part of it. As mentioned above, I’d even done a couple of Mark Knopfler soundtrack albums sort of as auditions so that Knopfler and his management could decide whether I was good enough to do a Dire Straits ‘Best of…’. The composite image idea was worked out in agreement with the band (sparked by bassist John Illsley’s suggestion of a cubist painting); the famous guitar needed to be specially photographed, and that was done in the photographer’s flat in East London. The guitar travels with its own minder, who never lets it out of his sight, and is insured for some insane amount of money. The yellow behind the guitar images is the inside of a yellow pepper that I bought from the corner shop and the blue background is a particularly leery jacket that I used to own, both of which I photographed myself with a pocket camera. Also, of all the sleeves that I’ve designed, that is the one that people regularly recognise and, if they’re over a certain age, say “Oh, I’ve got that album”. It’s also the design that other designers most commonly tell me that they’ve been asked to adapt or repurpose for one reason or another.
I also really liked the Incognito sleeves that I did; they were almost always a chance to produce something stripped back, clean and a little bit minimalist, which is always nice in a world where marketing are generally insisting on having the artist’s name in big red letters at the top of the sleeve.
Finally, there was a band that I did several singles and an album for called The Mystics. The first single, See You, had on its cover one of those hideous deep sea fish, all fangs and vast gaping mouth. A true monster. And right in front of the mouth is this little teeny fish with this dopey expression, just floating there in the darkness with absolutely no idea of the truly bad day that he’s about to have. I put the image together solely on the strength that it made me (and the band) laugh, and it still makes me laugh to this day, so I’d have to list it as another favourite on that basis alone.
Record covers always used to be very much a part of the package – do you think that the artwork is as important for CD releases?
I think that the landscape is changing, just like every other aspect of the recording industry is changing. And the importance of artwork is, I think, very different depending on whether you are talking about major labels or indie labels (more on that later). But your question asks about the shift from vinyl to CDs, and that’s ancient history now. The real challenge today is the shift from physical products (CDs) to intangible digital products (MP3 downloads). Let’s deal with the history stuff first.
The sea change from vinyl to CD back in the 80s was bemoaned by designers as the death knell of album sleeve design; of course that was nonsense. The artwork simply adapted to fit the new canvas. Certainly the writing was on the wall for those epic prog rock gatefold sleeves like Roger Dean’s legendary Yes album covers; those types of images need the sense of scale that a vinyl sleeve affords. And I think that it perhaps affected the way the record companies viewed cover artwork, which I’ll return to later. But designers began to happily explore the potential of the new format, and before long there was a new generation of sleeve designers for whom the CD was the standard and a 12” was just an archaic ’extra’ format to be accommodated. The CD might be a smaller canvas than the LP but it’s got a lot of hidden scope — multiple page booklets, rollout booklets that let you create horizontal designs that gatefold could only dream of, and so forth. The truth of design is that a change is simply a new challenge, and I’ve never known one door to close in that regard without another one opening. Designers have to be adaptable, that’s our job.
The same is happening now with the advent of the MP3 as a workable business model. Suddenly there is an entire distribution channel that was unimagined by the record labels only a few years ago and that seems to turn every convention of ’how these things are done’ on its head. So far there is little in the way of established ground rules regarding how to design for the digital format; individual bands and labels constantly try new ideas — sleeve art in PDF format, lyrics as text files, interactive files that accompany the music track —  but there is not yet, to my knowledge, anything approaching a ’standard’ download package.
Interestingly, the big labels seem unable to blaze a trail this time; maybe due to the fundamental nature of the change in the market place. Big labels tend to be rather monolithic entities; the people in a position to make the decisions necessary to properly embrace this seismic shift in the landscape tend to be executives firmly wedded to a long-established business model that is beginning to look paralysingly inflexible and dangerously out of date —  not the young, internet-addicted consumers who power the download-driven market sector. Consequently, the people forging a path in the brave new world of digital download distribution tend to be the indie labels (who are in a position to adapt quicker), and individual bands who have the clout (and finances) to do their own thing irrespective of their label’s policies. (Case in point: Radiohead’s In Rainbows album).
On the flip side of the coin we have the fact that plenty of people still like to buy a physical item; there is definitely something pleasing about opening and exploring a new album for the first time, seeing what is in the booklet, being able to hold the thing in your hands. That’s a tactile pleasure that downloads can’t replicate, and at the moment there is still a big market for that. It will be interesting to see if that remains the case as time moves on; there is already a generation who have never known a world without the internet and for whom going into a library would seem a weird, archaic way of finding information. Soon we will have a generation of consumers who have never known a time when music could not be downloaded straight to your computer or phone. Will they value physical music packaging in the same way as those of up who grew up with vinyl, CDs and cassettes? I have no idea.
One final point that needs to be addressed (blimey, I’ve really banged on about this for way too long, sorry) is whether the record labels consider artwork important.
Anybody who has been designing record sleeves for a reasonable length of time will agree that the budgets allocated to sleeve design by the big labels have not kept pace with time. Mostly they have remained static for 10 years or more, in some cases they have actually shrunk. If you go back 20 years or so the album cover was often considered an arena where labels would vie to outdo each other with bigger, more fantastical designs; that seems to be less often the case these days, and I think this is an area where the shift to the CD format did play a part. Whatever the reason, sleeve design these days is, I think, seen by the big labels less as a way to ostentatiously trump the competition and more as simply another link the manufacturing and marketing chain. (The indies, by contrast, tend to embrace cool, quirky design as a tool to help differentiate themselves from, and compete with, the big corporations. However, whilst they might be more inclined to commission exciting, cutting edge design, their budgets are, of course, even smaller). With the trends in all industries being toward more conservative, streamlined business models, this was perhaps inevitable. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic that the shift toward digital downloads will encourage a re-examination of the record sleeve’s strengths and potential, and hopeful that this will cause it to be seen again for what it is: an opportunity to deliver real added value, and worthy of proper investment.
Can you be as creative, or does the format stifle creativity?
Hmm, see my answer to the above question. To summarise: a design is, at least partly, a product of its restrictions. Restrictions should never be seen by a designer as problems, simply as a part of the puzzle to be solved. I can be just as creative on a CD sleeve as I can on a 12” sleeve; the solutions will probably be different, but one is not a poor relation of the other. So, no, the format does not stifle creativity. It merely channels it differently.
What software do you use to create the covers?
Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign. Acrobat for final press-ready artwork these days. And the internet, if that counts as software, for communications, research, and a million other things.
What is a typical workflow process?
Assuming that I’ve already got the job the first thing is to meet with the client and, if possible, the artist. Sometimes these are one and the same. They will have ideas that they want to pass on to me, and often materials to hand over (photos, data on discs, etc). What is vital is to get label copy. For those unfamiliar with this term, label copy is the record label’s data pertaining to the recording being packaged; that means, the track listing, the copyright details, the catalogue numbers, the writing/composition/publishing credits, track timings, the barcode number, the various international codes that identify the record label for things like royalty payments… all that sort of thing. What it won’t include are details unrelated to the business side of things, such as lyrics and artist’s ‘thank you’s, so those must also be collated. Label copy is like a ‘required data’ bible for a given sleeve.
At this early stage (especially if I think that I might be able to introduce elements beyond those that have been pre-supplied by the record label) then a bit of visual research will be in order. This is pretty free-form, and is akin to filling up the creative fuel tank.
Then it’s down to getting first draft ideas or the cover. Record executives generally are not very bothered about what comes inside the booklet, they care about the cover — because that’s what’s on display in the shop. So the cover always comes first, although it’s generally a good idea to have an idea about what you want to do inside, because a good design should be visually consistent throughout, and there’s no harm in giving the client a glimpse of that intended consistency up front. They might not care too much but it reassures them that you know what you’re doing.
I tend to get to work creatively in Photoshop pretty early on in the process. I’ll normally start off in a sketchbook, but, if I’m honest, that’s as much about brainstorming ideas as about sketching out anything visual. My drawing skills are reasonable I think, but they can’t compete with Photoshop for trying out a visual idea. I can sketch something in intricate detail and it might look great as a sketch on paper, but the visual nuances available to me via digital image manipulation mean that I will never really know whether it’ll work until I see it on the screen. Conversely, I will often arrive at a solution in Photoshop that I know I could never have sketched in a way that would have made me think that it was a good idea to explore. Consequently, my sketchbook time is as much, if not more, about written notes and organising my thoughts and ideas as it is about drawing, and I move on to the on-screen ‘real deal’ pretty quickly.
Back in the day when men were men and macs were rather slower than they are now I would create my draft ideas at low or medium resolution. To do otherwise would slow the machine to a crawl. These days things are very different and unless I’m working with files that are truly unwieldy (which these days normally means lots of layers) I try and work at final resolution, even at the preliminary stage. If the client likes the result then I don’t have to rebuild it from scratch.
Cover imagery runs side by side with logo typography, normally created in either photoshop or illustrator, depending upon the effect that I’m after. Sometimes the type is an intregral and inextricable part of the cover image; sometimes the image is everything and simply placing the band’s name neatly in a corner is the correct solution. It’s impossible to generalise.
Once the cover design is approved the client generally forgets about all the other bits of the package that need designing and wants final artwork immediately, at which point I remind them that there is still the inside/back/inlay/disc to work on. Client pouts.
Artwork is laid out in Adobe InDesign (I was an early adopter of ID, buying a copy of v.1, although I didn’t really feel able to ditch Quark completely until v3 (the CS1 version). Although Quark Xpress has made a good fist of reinventing itself as a friendly caring company (as opposed to the monopoly-abusing, money-lusting bully that it was in the 90s) I find the ‘just works’ integration of the Adobe apps just too compelling to resist.
I also operate as close to a colour-managed workflow as I can, keeping my monitor calibrated and not just relying on Adobe’s default colour settings. It’s great if I can get a correct ICC profile for the press that the sleeve is going to be printed on but that’s not always possible; even so, by using a good, appropriate CMYK profile (which, unless you’re printing on a web offset magazine press in the US, is unlikely to be SWOP) I can hopefully minimise discrepancies between screen and print. Again this is an area where the tight integration between the Adobe design apps wins out.
These days final artwork is generally supplied as a press-ready PDF. (If the printer can supply a Distiller setting that’s great. Most don’t though). I generally upload the artwork file(s) to my own webspace and send the printer an email with a download link.
How does the Mac help you and what part does it play in your day-to-day activities?
I couldn’t do what I do without my Mac. It’s my design work station, my communications hub, my office stereo, my book keeper. Even my teacher, with such a wealth of information online. If I run into a technical problem that I don’t have a solution for I can jump straight to my collection of online forum bookmarks and normally someone will have replied within a few minutes. That’s the sort of useful that I can’t put a price on.
I’ve been doing some intranet design work for a client and the locked-down nature of their network means that I have to go in and put the code in place via one of their Windows machines. From a floppy. It’s incredibly frustrating and makes me bleed from the ears, but it’s also heart breaking. I want to gather all their PC-using staff together and tell them: “It doesn’t have to be this way!”.
How long have been designing with Macs, and what is your set-up?
I first used a Mac during my 2nd year at college, when my friend Eva showed me how to produce some text that I needed for a project using Pagemaker. I think that was the only time I’ve ever used Pagemaker. That was 1990, I guess, and the machine had about the processing power of a wholemeal loaf. The first Mac I bought for myself was a PowerMac 8600 in 1997, which also gave me my first taste of the internet. This was whilst I was working at Mercury Records and, being The Designer, I had the only Mac in the entire company (everybody else using PCs). Sadly this meant that I was not part of the exciting world of the company intranet. The giddy delights of internal email and — wait for it — the world wide web were denied to me on the strength of some IT bloke refusing to even attempt to integrate a Mac into the network. My 8600 at home changed all that. It was a revelation… albeit a slow, dial-up revelation.
Back to the present, and I have just changed up from my 5 -year old Powermac G5 with dual monitors to a brand new MacBook Pro running Leopard and plugged into a single, larger (30”) Apple monitor. Having been using a desktop machine since the very beginning, I decided that it was time to untether myself and go the laptop route — although I treat it like a desktop machine when I’m in the office. A Wacom tablet (Intuos3 A5 wide) lets me work in Photoshop the way I prefer to, applying masks and colours with the delicacy of a paintbrush. (I still prefer a mouse for other types of work though). The other essentials are my digital camera (Sony Cybershot), Huey colour calibrator to keep my monitor in check, backup drive, iPhone, and Airport base station.
The rest is the usual collection of peripherals: card reader, floppy drive (for that one client), low end scanner, blah blah blah.
How much of the business is recording industry related?
Much less so than it used to be, maybe about forty percent these days. Of course, less music sleeve work means more work of other types; I’m currently doing a lot more web and intranet design, creating company identity systems, and consulting on the supportive media campaign (both online and ‘event-based’) for a new TV show. Each of these things brings with it a wealth of diverse challenges and learning opportunities, and of course those things are always welcome.
Why the drop off in record sleeves? Well, it’s an increasingly hard sector to make a good profit in (I frequently find myself pitching against people with far less experience but who are willing to do the job for free), and thus the economics of running a studio mean that I necessarily have to make sleeve design a smaller proportion of my overall workload than I might otherwise like. What draws me to sleeve design like a moth to a candle is the creative opportunity. All designers are suckers for a chance to be really creative, and there are few areas that offer the level of creative freedom afforded by record sleeve design — especially when one is lucky enough to have clients who trust your judgement, as I seem to.
In that respect sleeve design projects are pure gold.


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