Callum Abbott on designing for Pitchfork and doing justice to the vast diversity of music
The designer explains how his first year at the publication has been “like a Harvard crash course in music”.
- Olivia Hingley
- 30 August 2022
When designing for one of the world’s most respected online music platforms, Callum Abbott tells us there is one central thing he has to do: visually represent the sheer diversity of the music. “I think more than anything, there is a real sense of doing justice to the particular scene or genre that we’re covering, both editorially and visually,” says the designer, who works in-house at Pitchfork. “We want to make sure that the visuals are going to resonate with the specific community of people who love the thing we’re reporting on.”
When we last spoke to Callum, he was living in London and working for the media platform Dazed. Since then, in Callum’s words, life has changed “pretty radically”. After the relentlessness of lockdown and feeling “really stuck and a bit hopeless”, the designer realised that his life was in need of a big shake-up. So, he decided to quit his job and move to New York.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment for Callum was becoming so immersed in the world of music. Whilst at Dazed, he explains that his colleagues had had a broad knowledge of culture, fashion, politics and music, but at Pitchfork everyone has one speciality. “I can’t overemphasise how encyclopaedic these people are: every record, every decade, every obscure micro-genre,” he says. “It’s been an amazing learning opportunity in that sense, like a Harvard crash course in music.”
Callum tells us that Pitchfork’s designers tend to keep a fairly open methodology, breaking projects down into two possible broad approaches. The first, perhaps more simple one, is using objects and iconography associated with the act of listening to music, like microphones, CDs, DJ decks and headphones. The second, more complex way is trying to “visually convey” the feeling that music evokes within people. For this approach, Callum cites Pitchfork’s ambient end-of-year essay as a good example, in which repetitive motion design was used to “convey the feeling of music washing over you”.
As so much new content is posted daily on the Pitchfork site, it’s also Callum’s job to keep it looking as varied as possible, and he’s always trying new styles – “sometimes hyper-digital and sometimes it’s really crafty and DIY”. This DIY aesthetic emerged in Pitchfork’s End of Year 2021 campaign, the brief being a “hyper-nostalgic scrapbook”. Using the organisation’s collection of hundreds of photographs, Callum found himself printing and scanning pictures of Tyler, the Creator and Megan Thee Stallion whilst ripping and hand-cutting letters for each design. “It was like being back in school, which was really fun,” he says.
But because music has such close links to society and politics, Callum also sometimes has to lend his designs a more serious tone, with current affairs at the forefront of his mind. When the war in Ukraine broke out, for instance, Philip Sherborne wrote an article championing Ukrainian electronic artists. For the design, “we wanted to find a visual balance between seriousness and also impact”, Callum explains. Using a synthesiser circuit whose buttons slowly change from multicoloured to the colours of the Ukrainian flag, the animation is simple, effective and impactful. While proving the time and keen effort that goes into creating the visuals for a large publication, Callum’s past year is also a lesson in following your convictions and taking the plunge.
Callum Abbott: IG Grid – Rap (Copyright © Pitchfork, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.