Last year New York-based studio DIA was approached to produce an identity for A-Trak and create a special box set, In the Loop, that contained remixes from the last 10 years. The project saw the studio create 12 new record sleeves for remixes of bands such as Architecture in Helsinki, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Phoenix, as well as a 32 page booklet that offered further insight into the label. It’s Nice That caught up with creative director Mitch Paone to find out more.
How did you come to be involved in the project?
Alain “A-Trak” and his brother Dave (one half of the group Chromeo) approached us early in 2016 looking to overhaul the A-Trak visual identity, expressing specific interest in our experimental typographic work that we showcase on our Instagram feed. To kick things off met at our studio and had a great conversation about bringing a new design point of view, specifically to the EDM audience that has traditionally been saturated with cheesy 3D effects and lens flares.
Both Alain and Dave were drawn to our conceptual approach to design and our typographic explorations, so we combined those elements creating “Conceptual Typography” as the brief for all the work. This included tour and show flyers, live visuals, a website and most importantly album and single cover artwork. Much of this work is still an on going work in progress and has yet to be released on our site.
The In The Loop box set was a special project that is part of the identity. We had 12 sleeves that followed the “Conceptual Typography” brief. In addition to the sleeves we had to design the packaging and 32 page booklet, and make it feel related but different than his visual identity.
What was your starting point and how did you develop the concept for the artwork?
We jumped on the 12 covers knowing it would be the most creatively exhausting and labour intensive part of the project. We approached each cover with the “Conceptual Typography” brief forcing the title content to drive the concept for each cover design.
In tandem, we began exploring editorial typographic systems to work into the packaging and booklet. This alone was a challenge because it had to be neutral enough support the typographic sleeves, but needed to relate to the In the Loop title. For this component we created a looping typographic motif which is especially present on the back cover of the box. This is repeated in a minimal way throughout all the packaging from the box, editorial spreads and vinyl stickers.
How did you produce each design and what was the creative process?
What was particularly interesting about this project was how unorthodox we could be with the image making process. With no rules regarding visual style or legibility we could create the album art however we wanted. Given the variety of great experimental type that already exists so that was added pressure on creating something unique.
Some of the covers are more traditional vector illustrations or type sets, but a lot of the work was done by experimenting with generative software within programs like After Effects or Cinema 4D. This array of techniques was very useful in creating an unexpected and diverse selection of cover art.
Additionally, we were working under a tight timeline so we generate a lot of ideas very quickly forcing us to be more instinctual and less cerebral with our creative decisions. Once we exhausted ourselves and had enough executions we reviewed all the work and selected one’s that have the best combination of impact and concept.
The designs for each sleeve disrupt typography in different ways, how did you ensure coherence across all the covers?
The most difficult thing about the ‘Conceptual Typography’ approach to not only this project but all the A-Trak cover art is that we absolutely cannot rely on a specific style. So we really have to experiment with new image making techniques with every cover to ensure it feels different from the last. However, since the approach to each cover is the same there is a shared point of view that comes across in all the work. Conceptual consistency if you will.
On a granular level, we limited the covers to be in black and white to force the concept to translate through form and type rather than color. Also, there is certainly a taste with our design team that informed our selection of typefaces and bluntly crafted layouts that help guide a coherent theme.
What was the most difficult part of the project?
The typographic system we developed for the packaging and booklet was the most difficult and tedious. There was a lot of iteration of layout systems and typeface selection to find the right attitude while be supporting the sleeve artwork. We were fine tuning and testing the type right up until print day to make sure it worked visually and technically throughout the piece.
Why did you decide to animate some of the covers?
We knew of the bat these covers were going to live in a digital format. Where that be an instagram post, youtube video, or a thumbnail image. If it made sense conceptually it was important that these covers worked in motion as well as they did in print. In some cases these covers were motion pieces first and we exported the strongest still to be the printed version. That was the case for “Cry” and “Magnet’s. Whereas “Idealistic” and “Trying to be Cool” were blunt typographic statements where motion would have been gratuitous.
With the well documented vinyl revival happening – what do you think the future holds for cover design?
Cover design definitely has had a tumultuous evolution with all the constant changes in the music industry. From a historical point of view it’s one area where critical and experimental graphic design has the largest cultural impact. You can run down the list of famous graphic designers in last 40 years and almost all of them have either cut their teeth or made their footprint in the the music industry at some capacity. Peter Saville, Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Scher, The Designers Republic… The list goes on. It’s a designer’s chance to bring their full creative vision to a mass audience. I’d argue that no other sector in graphic design has this potential.
Thanks to the internet music has become more accessible than ever but the artwork format has been decentralized. It’s not just a sleeve design anymore. However, the importance of artwork hasn’t dissipated. Recording artists need their artwork to portray their music and identity to own to have a stake in a vast and saturated industry. Now the main issue is the output of the work. It’s much more complicated since it has to function in a variety of formats. Size, scale and shape, in both printed and digital formats need be taken into consideration to have the best impact.
While the future is unknown, I do see short format motion, film and interaction playing an interesting role on sleeve artwork moving forward which is an area we are constantly exploring in our studio. However, at the end of the day beautiful thought provoking covers, regardless of technique are here to stay, but they just might not all get printed.
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