In 1938, Alex Steinweiss was hired as the art director for Columbia Records where he pioneered the idea of album artwork. Since then the format has moved from a simple piece of graphic design to an integral part of popular culture. Sadly, as the music industry has evolved, so has the sleeve. What was once a canvas for seminal LP artworks by Peter Saville and Hipgnosis has now been reduced to a small .jpg at the bottom left-hand corner of Spotify. Despite the change, album covers are still a dream project for many designers, and the field is rich with covers that are both beautiful and boundary pushing.
In the first installment of Uncovered, a regular series on The Gradient focused on the process and influences behind recent album artwork, we hear straight from the designers behind new releases from Young Fathers, Against All Logic, and Total Control.
A collaboration between the band, Hingston Studio, and photographer Julia Noni, this is an exploration of male identity through a distorted lens. The image contrasts masculine with feminine and then draws on intangible cues of beauty, disdain, humor and aggression. There is a sense of menace to the image and a touch of provocation. Displacement is key.
We at Hingston Studio were looking at the paintings of artist Richard Lindner, who during the late ’40s and ’50s was working and living in New York, obsessing about its underworld—the hustlers, pimps, prostitutes, and gangsters who socialized with the actors, circus performers, and the like. In Lindner’s version of this world, all of these personalties morph into single characters, defined by their technicolor palette and distorted proportion. His work—and the subjects within it—seemed to resonate with so many of the themes we’d been discussing with the band, and so in a sense we set about creating our own unique version.
AAL’s only requirement was that all titles had to be on the front. The image was also sent as an option to use, and I thought it felt right.
A lot of early sketches were haphazard with more organic layouts, and I made tracks small and secondary as they typically are. But these felt lacking in some sort of identity. The rationale came to be that since titles had to be on the cover, better big and assuming ownership. Treating it as an overall texture, more orderly and soft. Numbering them became too fussy and lacked urgency, so instead I called out the first letter for a more immediate read.
In the end, after going through versions mostly black and white with many dithers applied to the image to make up for quality, the subtle pink and the image left crunchy and honest was really the best feeling for this record.
For the lettering on the Laughing at the System sleeve I wanted to do a contemporary take on blackletter using an idiosyncratic logic not bound by one particular historical model. It follows from earlier work I did for a Total Control flyer which I didn’t end up using since I couldn’t get it to work compositionally with text. Later, I followed the same ideas and developed it further for the sleeve. I think the beauty in certain blackletter is in its sheer uniformity in rhythm and character and the spectacular moments where it breaks out of that. In extreme examples you get a picket-fence effect in the lowercase where strokes hardly ever go backwards, are mostly straight, with some moments of difference contrasted against expressive, round, flowing, and detailed capitals.
I worked within the logic of thick and thin strokes using hard straight lines—restricted to mostly starting, running, and ending the strokes only on 0-degree, 45-degree, or 90-degree angles. Strokes implicitly meet and only suggest at continuation. Throughout the process of working out each line I found serendipitous moments of harmony and tension.
On the cover I wanted to fill out the composition of the title by repeating individual strokes and shapes so as to obfuscate the text within a larger image field—similar to the way a calligrapher fills their pages up with asemic marks to warm up and practice.
Many thanks to James Vinciguerra for giving me the opportunity to design the sleeves.