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U&lc Online Issue: Other Articles


Aural Fixations

 

 


It sounds like the perfect position for a creative designer. A chance to work with your idols. An endless supply of free music. A constant demand for originality and innovation. The potential for awards, even immortalization with the likes of Peter Blake and Andy Warhol in history books. And yet, the experience of designing CD covers for the music business brings designers to tears. It is fraught with over-management, based on anachronistic marketing models and driven by the seemingly oxymoronic demand for work that surprises, yet reaches a prescribed audience.

The current slump in the music business has made the designer’s life more difficult. “Everything that’s non-standard packaging has to be negotiated,” according to Stefan Sagmeister, whose New York firm is frequently outsourced for unusual package design. Inside the record company art departments, the mood seems more despondent. “There’s a crunch with special packaging,” explains Deborah Norcross, who recently quit Warner Bros. Records, “we can’t afford to do the elaborate things we did on the past.”

And yet, the CD racks are not lacking in inventive and original designs. With a mix of cunning, luck and resourcefulness, designers working both inside and outside record companies are still managing to circumnavigate the perilous straits of industry approval and set fresh designs afloat in the seas of retail. Sagmeister and Norcross recount battles lost and won in four CD packaging case studies.

David Byrne: “Feelings”
Art Direction: Sagmeister Inc.

The concept was pure David Byrne: to call a CD “feelings” and then portray this warm, fuzzy subject with a synthetic representation, a plastic doll of Byrne that evoked the idea of pop star as commodity. For the most part, says Sagmeister, it was an easy project, because as founder of Luaka Bop, a label owned by Warner Brothers, David Byrne was artist and chief decision maker, and, as Sagmeister puts it, “he is smarter than I am, and that makes an ideal client.”

Nevertheless, Byrne’s concept posed a number of technical problems. The original scheme, to create the doll on a computer and position it in various places around New York, proved extremely problematic. “I was adamant that it had to be realistic and not computery,” says Sagmeister, “but the computer guys we used couldn’t get the realism. We stopped all engines and scrapped it.”

Salvation came in the form of Yuji Yoshimoto, a Brooklyn-based modelmaker with a portfolio of work produced for advertising shoots, from giant strawberries to baseball players’ heads. Byrne was photographed by Tom Schierlitz in four emotional states--happy, angry, sad and content--then modeled in plastic in the four versions by Yoshimoto--all within 10 days. The finished CD pack has a distinctive Sagmeister touch: the CD becomes the manually spun drive of a “mood computer“ that determines the user’s current emotional state.

Skeleton Key: “Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon”
Art Direction: Sagmeister Inc.

“I couldn’t believe my luck when they called,” says Stefan Sagmeister of Skeleton Key, a little-known band on Capitol Records. “I’d already seen them four times.” Enthusiasm for a band’s music, unfortunately, can be a two-faced ally. In this case, Sagmeister’s studio leapt into the design process without being assured of the CD title. Working with the provisional name “Scratch,” the design team came up with a classic Sagmeister solution: a CD booklet made of sandpaper that would literally scratch the plastic jewelbox every time it was removed. “They liked it, but they didn’t like the title anymore,” says Sagmeister. “I swore to myself I’d never take on a project without a title again.”

The band’s final choice, “Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon,” however, was fortuitous for Sagmeister. Named after a magic trick in which spikes are pushed through an inflated balloon without popping it, the title suggested a design that the studio had previously prototyped--but never used--of a booklet riddled with holes. Although the solution would cost more money to produce than a standard booklet, Capitol’s vice president of creative services Tommy Steele finagled money from the band’s promotion budget to cover the extra cost.

The result was a booklet that opens, for the first time, with a pleasant popping sensation as the perforations disengage from each page. Balloon-like images, including a German sausage, gas tank, blowfish and whoopee cushion, were photographed (by Tom Schierlitz) for the cover and printed on the pages of the perforated booklet. In a mocking concession to fans of rock music lyrics, the words of the songs--half obliterated by holes--are printed backwards so that they are revealed only in the reflection of the CD (and thus, not when the CD is playing). The finishing touch is the strategic placing of the studio name on the booklet’s back page. This is crucial, says Sagmeister: “Always make sure the design credit doesn’t get stamped out.”

Skeleton Key: “Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon”
Art Direction: Sagmeister Inc.

“I couldn’t believe my luck when they called,” says Stefan Sagmeister of Skeleton Key, a little-known band on Capitol Records. “I’d already seen them four times.” Enthusiasm for a band’s music, unfortunately, can be a two-faced ally. In this case, Sagmeister’s studio leapt into the design process without being assured of the CD title. Working with the provisional name “Scratch,” the design team came up with a classic Sagmeister solution: a CD booklet made of sandpaper that would literally scratch the plastic jewelbox every time it was removed. “They liked it, but they didn’t like the title anymore,” says Sagmeister. “I swore to myself I’d never take on a project without a title again.”

The band’s final choice, “Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon,” however, was fortuitous for Sagmeister. Named after a magic trick in which spikes are pushed through an inflated balloon without popping it, the title suggested a design that the studio had previously prototyped--but never used--of a booklet riddled with holes. Although the solution would cost more money to produce than a standard booklet, Capitol’s vice president of creative services Tommy Steele finagled money from the band’s promotion budget to cover the extra cost.

The result was a booklet that opens, for the first time, with a pleasant popping sensation as the perforations disengage from each page. Balloon-like images, including a German sausage, gas tank, blowfish and whoopee cushion, were photographed (by Tom Schierlitz) for the cover and printed on the pages of the perforated booklet. In a mocking concession to fans of rock music lyrics, the words of the songs--half obliterated by holes--are printed backwards so that they are revealed only in the reflection of the CD (and thus, not when the CD is playing). The finishing touch is the strategic placing of the studio name on the booklet’s back page. This is crucial, says Sagmeister: “Always make sure the design credit doesn’t get stamped out.”

Me’shell Ndegeocello: “Peace Beyond Passion”
Art Direction: Deborah Norcross (before) and Gregory-Trevor Gilmer (after)

Apart from having a name that is difficult for most Americans to pronounce, Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s music is difficult to place in the market. It is smooth, cool, black and soulful, but the lyrics are political and uncompromising and deal with issues of racism, sex, religion and hypocrisy. Her first album, “Plantation Lullabies,” seemed to plant Ndegeocello in the “angry lesbian” camp, so Deborah Norcross felt she could give the artist more space in the marketplace by positioning the second CD toward “alternative” rather than “black” or “commercial.” A painting of Christ was chosen for the cover, from a postcard Norcross had found in Venice: Ndegeocello was intrigued by the theory that contemporary images of Christ are not based on a physical likeness of the first century Jew but on an image of the 16th Century Italian ruler Borgia; straight haired and white. The image, adorned with barcodes, was used on a Digipak that opened with successive images of religious and commercial images and photographs by Norcross of Ndegeocello in a harlequin suit.

“I was trying very much to be enigmatic with the design,” says Norcross. “She had been considered political and angry with her first album, very harsh and aggressive. I was trying to make her personality glow.”

The management, however, had different ideas. The design was rejected outright, and Norcross was asked to do something more “commercial and black,” with a Tupac Shakur CD cover as the model. Incensed, Norcross resigned from the project and her colleague Greg Gilmer took over. The final cover was distinctly more “black” and commercial, with photography by Guzman and a dancing Ndegeocello set against a blue sky. Norcross has since quit for a new post at Virgin Records.



Peter Hall, a former contributing editor of U&lc, is senior writer of I.D. magazine.

  

 


 

Aural Fixations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Byrne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skeleton Key

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Janes Addiction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meshell



 


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