Before I became a full-time writer I was a graphic designer. I specialized in book design; covers and typography. The main task of any graphic designer is to communicate the product clearly, and the main tool for this is typography. The 12 inch album format for sleeve design gave any designer the most wonderful palette to work on. It was the perfect size for a visual task. Between the heyday of album cover art 1965-1975 there were some iconic covers. The fold out sleeves ultimately gave designers too much space; and when I think of brilliant design for a 12 inch format I think of Disraeli Gears or Sgt Pepper or Forever Changes.
The introduction of CD’s in the 80s posed a big problem for the industry. Typographic designers were going to have to work harder on a much smaller format. New covers would have to try to convey the same message; existing back catalogue albums would have to be squeezed down in size (funnily enough, a few worked).
What we have experienced over the years of the CD is a complete disregard for the purchaser. CD sleeves are either self-indulgent exercises in illegibility, or interesting arty-farty ways of getting combinations of color on a useless square of paper that has to be stuffed in a plastic case.
Typographical rules have been abandoned. The same eyes that viewed a 12inch album now has to attempt to read 4pt, 3pt even 2pt type sizes (type is measured in points). The average book is in 10pt type; that is what our eyes like. Why should we settle for less? I am appalled at the standards of the hundreds of CD’s I have to review every year. One in ten has been done by a thoughtful designer (yes, they do exist). The CD cover is worthless unless designers start to communicate by having legible type.
As for spines . . . How much space do I have? Spines are my biggest gripe. I can dance like Rumplestiltskin for hours. Why can’t numskull designers realize that the CD will spend most of its life on a shelf; spine out. That seemingly insignificant slim strip of 9mm plastic is the most important communication requirement; Q: I want to find the CD because I want to play it. A: By the time you find it you are so angry, the moment has passed.
Many years ago when this really started to irritate me in a big way, I wrote a small graphic formatted template in Quark Express. Based upon the excellent typography of early spines from the likes of CBS and Island Records, I created my little program. I called it ‘Spineless Bastards’. It does mean I have to carefully cut them out after printing; but if I can be bothered (and I am really bothered) it is really worth it. There was a standard type style for the spines of old 12 inch albums after all.
Designers, Record Companies and anybody take note; my program is free; I want no credit. I simply want a spine that can be read, even though I fully expect the CD sleeve design to be unreadable, worthless and almost certainly will not contain any lyrics.
Is this the ranting of a grumpy old man who was spoilt by the perfection of the 12 inch album cover or do I have the support of the rest of the world? If so, let us unite and let the industry know. SHOOT THE DESIGNER. And guess what; it won’t cost them a penny.
Colin Larkin started writing about music in 1967. In the 70s he wrote for the fanzine Dark Star, and in 1990 he formed Square One Books (which he later sold to Muze) to publish music-related books and to create his dream of a multi-volume, Encyclopedia of Popular Music. The 4th edition of this impressive work is now available. Want to read more? Check out what albums Larkin hates, and the pop-music quiz parts one, two and three.