Art of the Record Sleeve: Part 1 with Philip Marshall

Getting a record released can be a long, drawn out process. First the musician needs to actually write it then record and master. There’s the question of how to release it, which then leads into online promotion and all of this requires press-photos, portraits and finally –artwork.

Album artwork has been an integral part of the visual element of the musician for decades. Every generation has a record sleeve that has formed the basis of many school projects and depending on your age it could be Pink Floyd’s Darkside of the Moon, Nirvana’s Nevermind or FKA Twigs’ LP1. But – as streaming subscriptions increase how does this affect the way we see music? How does a musician come up with a cover to represent their work? What is the process that goes behind the modern sleeve and who is actually designing them? DJBroadcast takes a closer look by speaking to leading figures in the scene, with the first part focussing on Philip Marshall.

Philip Marshall is freelance graphic designer and has been designing sleeves for the last 20 years. Having worked on records by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 808 State and countless more, he is the go-to man for multiple labels. A designer with a passion for typography he pulls concepts, music and information together to create some of the most recognisable sleeves of the present age.

A question I’ve always wanted to ask – how do you make a decision about where the artist name goes?
As recent as the early 2000s, a commercial record label would want to have the name very clearly on the front and positioned in such a way as to leave enough room for the price sticker. In a record shop as you go through a rack of records, typically the sticker would be on the top right corner and stacks of records would be in front of your record so the top left large would be where the label would ask for the artist name to be placed. Obviously this isn’t a hard or fast rule, but that was recognised as how people looked for music.

Do you think this has changed now?
This has changed 100% now. Last year I worked for Holly Johnson [Frankie Goes to Hollywood - ed] on Europa. In this instance we had a beautiful image of a dripping Union Jack and I asked the project manager if we needed to have type on that, as it looked so strong as it was. He said of course not. 10 years ago I wouldn’t have had that response, but nowadays the packshot is what gets uploaded on to iTunes. It needs to look good first and this is the primary consideration for a lot of labels. The ironic thing is that the ‘arty’ alternative bands of the 80s like New Order and Joy Division rarely used type over their imagery, and Peter Saville (graphic designer and art director of Factory Records) had always sold that as a way to create a global secret. A secret that would only be known by 500,000 fans, but anyone else going into the record shop wouldn’t have a clue who the group were. There were many record covers that came out looking obscure but that certain indie aesthetic wasn’t seen as commercial back then. But now there has been a 180-degree turn as the way that people browse and consume music has changed and is entirely online.

Do you feel you can now experiment more?
To a degree yes. My design work falls into a few camps. The first camp, would be working for major labels that are very time-line budgeted and a bit old school in the way that they are managed. Second camp is working with artists who are friends, and that could either be a low-run specialist project or someone who is self publishing. Third way is working with indie labels. When I work with an indie label I generally have a bit more of a free rein, as they are buying my services and style as a graphic designer. The big difference is that when you are working with an artist that isn’t self publishing, but someone who is actually a record label looking to try and make money, the first question is how does this look on iTunes, what does it look like when it’s playing on your iPhone? Typography becomes of less interest. We go from designing for a 12” square down to a postage stamp.

How do you now approach a project when you are given carte blanch from an indie label to do exactly what you want?
Every project is different – in the last few months I have done three projects for a label called Ash International whom I’ve worked with for the last ten years. It’s a label run by Mike Harding who is the co-founder of Touch. The first record was a vinyl only soundtrack, by Jóhann Jóhannsson & BJNilsen called I Am Here. My brief from the label was, ‘you have free rein but check with the artists’. I wanted it to be photographic and I approached some people for images and when I spoke with both artists they said they didn’t want photos – they wanted it to be about nothing and wanted the sleeve to be absolutely blank. So in this case I had a strong brief from the musicians as well.

"I decided years ago to not think about what others think"

Is this common?
Quite common. I am in service to the label and the artists, but I have a house style. I have a way of doing things and principles I like designing too. I never view myself as an artist. I view myself as a commercial artist. I am a huge fan of Joseph Müller-Brockmann and the very Swiss railway timetable school of thought – elegant, modernist way of presenting information and where design can be playful and beautiful but somewhat subservient to the information. I like considering the maths and the weight and how elements relate to each other on a page.

So how did you translate this brief of a ‘blank cover’?
The idea that interested me was based around the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ so I suggested that we should do something that was absolutely totally white, and then emboss it. When you have someone on your side like the label and the artists are enthusiastic I want to have some fun and take people on a bit of a journey. We then looked at doing white on white, however the label priced it up and it would have cost 6 Euros a unit to press. So we couldn’t afford it. We then went through 10 different revisions; colours, mirror finish, photos, gloss, etc. all using the idea I had of a ‘you are here’ Google maps style pin, and in the end we went with a high gloss so when you looked at the cover you looked back at yourself. And then it was about keeping it as minimal and simple as possible and the typographic treatment strong. I then wasted some more money by flooding the inner sleeve with black – so we ended up having a total black outside with a silver identity on the front. It’s so simple and I am very proud of it.

How long did this one take?
The idea took me about 15 minutes and the revisions took about two weeks. Quoting for things, finding out what can and can’t be afforded, approaching the artist, getting approval.

As a freelancer you work with a variety of record labels and their in-house styles. How do you negotiate that with your own style?
When working with Ash International I can be approached in three or four different ways and what I’m trying to do is marry together two points of view – the label and the artists, through my design aesthetic.

I’ve worked with OstGut Ton a few times, on projects for Steffi. Yusuf Etiman has developed a strong art direction over a decade, so you can’t play with that too much. They have their own strong in-house style that one must adhere to, and are quite classical in their approach to a cover – a clear large typeface, the name of the artist on the front, etc. Also, Steffi has a very clear idea of what she wants to see and is quite hands-on. So then the job becomes more about playing with micro-details and positioning, negotiating with artist and label about how imagery is used and placed, within their clearly pre-defined framework.

Do you think people look at what you’re doing and recognise the skills and is it important for you that people recognise the image for what it is?
I decided years ago to not think about what others think. The story is for the client, and if the client believes in the story and can sell it to whomever they need to sell it too then that’s great. I want to create beautiful, arresting covers, and it would be fantastic if people get it, but…

What about with colour design and music association, do you consider this? As some of your work features very bright neon colours, i.e. with Steffi’s recent album and LPs – you paired photography with neon yellow and pink.
Well, yes, its always fun to use fluo Pantones, just because they are very arresting. I’m going through a phase were I am using blocks of 100% cyan, magenta and yellow – I’ve done this with Steffi and an artist called Biosphere, because it looks fucking great when printed up.

"I hate the idea that colour should have associations"

15 years ago (when there was money) you would get wet proofs, and you would see exactly what the product looked like before going to the printers, but that rarely happens now. What typically happens nowadays is, I send over a pdf to a production company and they send something identical back, saying this is the proof. Today’s processes is generally digital and hermetic and there isn’t a lot of fresh air.

But what about colour association. Do you think about it, like black equals heavy metal or techno?
One of the worst meetings I had back in 2002 was in a studio in Chelsea – in fact, any meeting I have west of Notting Hill tends to be bad, but this was with a group of semioticians.

I don’t think I know what a semiotician is.
‘The study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behaviour; the analysis of systems of communication, as language, gestures, or clothing.’

And I hate the idea that colour should have associations, I hate the fact something has to be a certain way.

I also tend to restrict my colour pallet. Black and white, silver and metallic, brutal colours, because I know I have an emotional tool kit that works and fits really well together, partially from my influences. I have maybe 20 typefaces, which I adore and rarely stray from. I’ve just designed seven different covers one after the other using the same typefaces. All three sleeves for Ash International use the same fonts – just with different leadings and weights. I use the same Lego bricks but build a different structure and aim to get something to be 85% perfect.

You run your own label – The Tapeworm. How did you come up with the design aesthetic for that?
The idea behind The Tapeworm was to create an investigation into a dead format – we (myself, Savage Pencil and Mike Harding) commission friends of ours to create music for a format that is obsolete. I wanted the series to be akin to the Penguin paperback series - a clean modernist template.

So, you’ve created a perfect, harmonious design, with a perfect typeface and balance – how do you cope with barcodes and logos?
I love barcodes – and some logos I adore whereas some logos I try to avoid completely, I tend to ignore them as much as possible. But barcodes I love as they can add a structural element. Like the barcode on I am Here – is an integral part of the design.

The second part of this feature will be published next Monday.