The Square Aesthetic

an homage of Donald Byrd’s “A New Perspective” cover

I love record and album design. Part of what I hope to do as a photographer is make images and help musicians design album covers for their releases.  I love the square format of album covers. And nobody has made better album covers than the jazz music label Blue Note Records.  There was a period in the 1950’s and 1960’s where Blue Note was producing what I consider the greatest album design in history.  I wanted to share a little bit about it and why I love it so much.  More after the cut:


SID MAKES MIXTAPES

When I was still in high school I was always making mix-tapes for myself and friends. But because I loved package design so much, I would always try to take it to the next level. I used to head down to the public library and take over the photocopy machine.  I would make song lists on my typewriter at home and cut and paste them into elaborate multi-fold cassette jackets and then photocopy everything so that it was part of one cohesive unfolding jacket.  I was creating album covers.  I loved the feeling of having a complete mix tape: the jacket and the music and everything would just flow together.  I would imagine my friends sitting on the floor in front of their stereos listening to the music and looking over the album jacket and reading all the silly stuff I would include: “Compiled by Sid Ceaser at his home studio in Merrimack NH • Mix-tape design by SCD (Sid Ceaser Design, Inc) • Part of the ImagicImages and Dysfunctional Records Compilation Series”, etc.  It was probably overkill, but damn if I didn’t enjoy making them.

Working at record stores throughout my 20’s kept me surrounded by CDs and albums and I would constantly take in all the design. When the song format switched from vinyl to CDs, the designs shrunk down and became less impressive.  But there were still good designs coming out, but nothing like when you looked at a fantastic record album cover.  Covers like:

 

I can’t remember the day when I first saw a Blue Note record cover, but once I did, I wanted to see more and more.  Eventually I started researching and discovered all about Blue Note Records.

“Established in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis, it derives its name from the blue notes of jazz and the blues. Originally dedicated to recording traditional jazz and small group swing, from 1947 the label began to switch its attention to modern jazz. Although the original company did not record many of the pioneers of bebop, significant exceptions are Thelonious MonkFats Navarro and Bud Powell.” – Wikipedia

Digging deeper I finally found two names responsible for the artwork of Blue Note covers: Francis Wolff and Reid Miles. These guys were the face of Blue Note for at least a decade and these two guys were responsible for some of the best album design of all time.

More wikipedia:

“In 1956, Blue Note employed Reid Miles, an artist who worked for Esquire magazine. The cover art produced by Miles, often featuring Francis Wolff’s photographs of musicians in the studio, was as influential in the world of graphic design as the music within would be in the world of jazz.[6] Under Miles, Blue Note was known for their striking and unusual album cover designs. Miles’ graphical design was distinguished by its tinted black and white photographs, creative use of sans-serif typefaces, and restricted color palette (often black and white with a single color), and frequent use of solid rectangular bands of color or white, influenced by the Bauhaus school of design.[7]

Though Miles’ work is closely associated with Blue Note and has earned iconic status and frequent homage, Miles was only a casual jazz fan, according to Richard Cook;[8] Blue Note gave him several copies of each of the many dozens of albums he designed, but Miles gave most to friends or sold them to second-hand record shops. A few mid-fifties album covers featured drawings by a then-unknown Andy Warhol.[9]

Some of his most celebrated designs adorned the sleeves of albums such as Midnight BlueOut to Lunch!UnitySomethin’ ElseLet Freedom RingHub-TonesNo Room for SquaresCool Struttin’, and The Sidewinder.”

 

I can’t even imagine what it was like back then to be churning out these album covers.  One after the other; making these gorgeously designed covers with excellent font choice and design layout.  Much in the same way my jaw dropped the first time I discovered the work of Saul Bass, I was picking my jaw off the floor when I started to discover the breadth and quantity of quality album designs coming from Blue Note at that time.

Examples of Blue Note Records releases

For me, it’s this perfect mix of photography and design and fonts and text layout.  It’s color and shapes and arranging words to make shapes and all these off-kilter looks and feelings.

Herbie Hancock’s “Inventions & Dimensions” is such a fantastic cover. The photography with it’s leading lines and the solid bar at the top with the text and the color yellow washed all over the cover – it’s a beautiful example of what I love so much about the Blue Note design era

This album drives me crazy with how awesome the design is. This gorgeous, blurry black & white shot of Moncur and how the text stumbles down the back of his head and his shoulders. It’s beautiful!

I love making album covers.  So much that when I work with musicians I’m making little album cover thumbs and sketches that with try to include with the clients proofs.  Just to give them an idea of what could be done with the images in terms of promotional and package design purposes (click on images to embiggen):

Examples of album design mock-ups that I love to do.

Working on album designs is a way for my brain to relax – I love taking an image and finding it’s square crop and then dropping text in the negative space elements and moving things around so that everything feels right and proper.  I don’t mean to demean the images – they are strong without any text elements, but they have a whole second life when used as packaging design.

But Blue Note takes it to a whole other level. Their placement of text and their images, usually taken while the musicians are in the studio recording, but also more staged portraits. The use of color, sometimes to completely wash over the gorgeous black & white images, just matches the feeling perfectly.  And when viewed as a whole; when looking at multiple album covers all at once, there is such a fantastic cohesive style going on – it’s gorgeous.

A great profile portrait of Dexter Gordon. Look how the text mimics the profile of his face. I love that the cig he’s smoking fits in between the text. Simple but so damn effective.

When I look at all the superb work that was being created during that time, I wish I could build a time machine and go back and be part of the strong design that was going on then.  Or at least be able to go into a record shop and buy up all the stuff that was coming out then so I could come back and have a whole wall of albums hanging up.

Instead, I buy books:

All the above books are available on Amazon.  If you are into album design at all, I strongly suggest picking a few of these up and letting your eyes and brain feast on all the gorgeous art and design.  So good!

I also love when current designers pay direct homage to old Blue Note designs:

Miles Davis Volume 1: 1956

 

Funimation’s 2015 homage for their Blu-ray/DVD special edition release in a 12″ square album jacket.

That is some good shit, indeed.

And check out this cover to 2003’s “Shades of Blue” by hip-hop artist Madlib:

Gorgeous, right?  Actually, if you did jazz and have never heard this album, go get it right now – it’s a GORGEOUS album featuring hip-hop remixes of Blue Note jazz tunes.  Seriously.  Go get it right now and I’ll wait for you to come back, because you need to hear it.

Most of the time when I’m diddling around making faux-album covers, I try to keep the spirit of Blue Note design in my brain:

Doing these little mock-ups are a way for me to visually learn and break apart the formula of Blue Note design.  I mean, I am nowhere near the level of Blue Note, but it’s helping me figure out how placement works and design elements and color and composition when it comes to a square album design.  I love it.  It lets my brain play and work out and flex and get stronger.

I wish I could photograph musicians and work with photography and album design all the time.  Creating images and designing things that could eventually be vinyl releases would be so amazing.  I get so jealous when I see other music photographers with images used on albums that it drives me crazy and makes me depressed all at the same time.

Lake Street Dive’s new 2018 album with photography by Shervin Lainez. Simple, beautiful photography and elegant design.

Donald Byrd “A New Perspective” 1964. Look at that gorgeous shot getting in really tight on the car and shooting wide-angled. This shot makes my heart happy.

 

Herbie Hancock “My Point Of View” 1963. Look at this cover. LOOK AT IT. This is so darn beautiful. Utterly fantastic.

I can’t really put into words what it is about album design that I love so much.  All I know is that when I look at something like the covers above, it elicits this weird guttural noise from me.  They are so gorgeous that I can’t even mutter words – I’m reduced to these noises. They are so fantastic.

I love making album covers. I love photography.  I love being able to sometimes combine the two.  I love the square shape.   I love using that as a blank template and mixing images and words and the right types of fonts and I aspire to make something as gorgeous as what Blue Note was churning out at such an incredible rate in the 50’s and 60’s.

Hannah Sander’s “Charms Against Sorrow” 2015. Photography & Design by Sid Ceaser

Here are a few more mock-ups that I love:

A business card design from a few years ago emulating an album cover.

 

A more “still life” shot based around a funk trio group

an alternate version of the above mock-up

I could go on and on about how Blue Note design makes my heart happy, so I’ll wrap it up here. I love this stuff. Thanks for letting me share.

• For more information about the history of Blue Note and it’s creative forces, check out here and here and here and here.

• To read a walk-through post about designing Hannah Sanders’ “Charms Against Sorrow” album head over here.

• My post about how much I love vinyl records is here.

Got a favorite album cover?  Share it in the comments.  Let’s talk about covers we love.  It doesn’t have to be Blue Note. It can be anything!

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