Musicians! Making an album? Here are a few tips for the best possible design experience.

I’ve had the genuine delight of being involved with quite a few gorgeous albums now. I’ve loved the challenge of coming up with lots of new concepts and stretching my creativity, experimenting with new techniques and working with a range of clientsHowever, there are a few things which regularly crop up which can a) turn the simplest job into an entirely different beast and b) be so easily avoided with the right prior knowledge. With that in mind, with the aid of my lovely design compadres KT CoopeLouise Bichan and Simply Marvellous, I thought it might be an idea to make a check list of a few things to consider when collaborating with a designer for your album / EP / single / general promotional artwork. Hopefully we’ll clarify a few of the terms that get thrown around and provide you with a kit for the best design experience possible. Beauteous design times, here we come! 

(…before we start, this blog is not written with the intention of being at all patronising, neither is it taking a prod at any previous clients. It’s just a few things we’ve picked up along the way that your designer will most likely thank you for, and that will hopefully result in your end product being the absolute best version it can be.) 

Ready? Here we go!

  • Have you supplied us with the correct templates from your printer of choice? It may seem obvious, but think about what kind of packaging you want in advance: Do you have lots of text you’d like including? If so, should you go for a booklet? Do you want a four panel, six panel or eight panel digipak or digifile? It’s worth doing a bit of research and looking at a few different albums to decide what kind of physical packaging you’d like. If you’re not sure what the specific package type is, take a photo of it and ask your printer or designer. (Alternatively, ask your designer to deal with the printers directly once you’ve been in touch about a quote and packaging type.) It’s also worth considering what type of finish you want on your packaging: gloss (shiny) / satin (mostly matte with a slight shine) / reverse board (super matte and lightly textured)? All of these will, to some extent, affect the design and overall mood of the album art.

  • Have you sent us the hi-res versions of your photos / artwork? Ensuring that your designer has the high resolution versions of the images will give them much more freedom to be creative with your design, allowing them to crop into images without pixelating problems. For a quick explanation of hi-res vs low-res, keep scrolling!

  • If you want a piece of original artwork incorporated into your design, make sure you acquire either a hi-res scan of the piece, or a hi-res photo taken on a decent quality camera (preferably a digital SLR set to a high f/ number, low ISO and positioned on a tripod somewhere with even lighting). I’d recommend you ask a professional to take the photo if you’re unsure.

  • The sooner the designer has your audio, the better they can use it to drive the feel of the design and make sure it really fits. We don’t need the super final master versions, just something to make sure we’re going to get the right vibe. (Plus, y’know, it’s pretty exciting getting sneaky previews. But mostly the first thing.)

  • If you have a particular theme to the album, tell your designer all about it! We’re far more likely to hit the proverbial nail on the head if you give us some kind of headstart with your concept ideals. If you’ve not got anything recorded yet, send us a few choice lyrics and a few descriptive words, so we can at least get the cogs whirring while you’re in the studio. If you’re not a fan of the ideas your designer is suggesting, try and articulate why and what sort of thing you might prefer; if you can’t quite explain but have some kind of visual reference, send that over! Pinterest is a great place to create a collaborative mood-board (i.e. a collection of images / colours etc which you feel fit to your album theme) and can be endlessly helpful to help us get an idea of what sort of thing you might be after.

  • Proof read your sleeve notes! And then get someone else to proof read them. And then get someone else to proof read them again before you send them over. Every time sleeve notes are changed, the chances are your designer is going to have to re-typeset them, so please be as sure of them as is possible before sending anything over.

  • CD covers have less space than you think. While it’s lovely to want to thank lots of people, if you’re not concise about it the chances are it’s going to need to be cut down if you don’t want tiny illegible text. If you do want to write lots of content, whether it’s thanks or anecdotes or additional background to the songs, make sure you choose an appropriate booklet length to compliment it. If we have to make the text tiny to fit it all in, it can get hard for people to read and will also need a very simple background, which unfortunately also cuts down what we can do with the artwork. If you want to give people access to the lyrics but would rather have more images than text in your artwork, perhaps consider adding a lyrics page to your website and directing fans there?

  • Remember, your album is likely not the only project that your designer is working on. So if you send a change that you think will only take an hour or two, that hour or two might need to be later in the week because of other work. Please also bear in mind that if your project runs over deadline through no fault of your designer, any changes will need to be done around their new projects / eating and sleeping. If you want a rush order, the pricing will almost definitely need to reflect that accordingly.

  • If there are multiple people in your group who would like to give feedback on an artwork draft, the most efficient way of ensuring all your voices are heard is to discuss it amongst yourselves and then send over a list of your collected thoughts. There’s little more confusing than being in the middle of an email exchange between multiple parties with differing opinions.

  • To ensure the prompt delivery of beautiful, cohesive artwork, the most helpful thing you can do is to send your designer everything they need, proofed and ready to go, at the same time. Try to think of the design as one entity. If you send the elements through in dribs and drabs, the process can become frustratingly patchwork and it’s almost impossible to lay out ahead of knowing, for example, exactly how much text we have to fit in around what images. If we can see, straight off the bat, what we need to fit into the template, the design experience at this end is more like this:

IRON MAN STYLE. (Slight exaggeration, but you get the picture. Ohhh how I’d love a computer like that.)

  • Finally: Set yourself a realistic deadline for the project, and make sure you get everything over to your designer in plenty of time. Albums take time to do properly! I say this as someone who has been involved with a number of them musically, photographically and in a design capacity. If it’s possible for you to do so, I’d suggest that your best option scheduling-wise would be to set a recording deadline and then set an additional two to three weeks for the artwork after your recording deadline. This gives you a bit of flexibility for the almost inevitable extra tweaks to the tracks, and your designer a decent amount of time to put things together for you without having a sleep-deprived meltdown. This length of time also allows the luxury of discussing the artwork at various stages if needed, so you can feedback on the design as it progresses and get the best possible end product. Your design can actually help sell your albums, particularly to aesthetic magpies like myself, so try not to leave it to the last minute.

And absolutely finally, just in case it’s of some use, here’s that quick explanation of hi-res vs low-res without all the tech speak:

Check out the two versions of the tree root photo below. The one on the left has been cropped from a hi-res photograph (5760 x 3840 pixels, 240dpi). Notice the sharp details and crisp lines?

Conversely, the one on the right is from a low-res version of the same photograph (1400 x 933 pixels, 72dpi) stretched to fit approximately the same dimensions as the above image. See how the details have become much more fuzzy?

Hi-res photos will usually have pixel dimensions in the several-thousands and a dpi of 240+ (ideally 300+for print). These high quality images give us the chance to crop into them to re-compose or pull details for elsewhere in the artwork, without running the risk of the image pixelating and consequently cheapening the design. If you have beautiful photos or artwork and want it to print in a way that does proper justice, always go hi-res!

Whew. I think we all deserve this photo of Islay the wonder pup at this point:

And that’s it! Hopefully these points are of some use to someone. As I said, these are just a few bits and bobs that we’ve particularly picked up on whilst working on albums and obviously we know and understand that sometimes things happen that are out of your hands, but if there’s anything you’d like to add / would like more clarification on, hit the comment button. Thanks for reading!

Until next time,

E x

P.S. The “behind the scenes” studio photos slotted into this post were taken during the documentation of the incredible Lost Words - Spell Songs project, run by the excellent folk over at Folk By The Oak in collaboration with the Lost Words authors, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. If you fancy seeing more photos from the project, it has its own blog right here.

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