Design for Music

By Oli Bentley, Creative Director of Split


An interview with Oli Bentley, Creative Director of Split.

As a designer, what do you do in the music industry?

We work a lot with identity design and cover artwork for alternative musicians and labels, with musicians who – whilst they are crafting sustainable careers – make their principal focus the artistic, rather than the commercial, success of their work. Having studied jazz at Leeds College of Music a number of years ago, I’m passionate about using design to help those artists get their music to the pairs of ears that are listening for it.


When considering design for their music, what’s the first thing a musician should consider?

Start by being absolutely clear that you need to put as much integrity and authenticity into your visual presentation as you do into your work as a musician. People won’t separate the two.

It’s all too easy to see design as ‘marketing’ but they’re very different things. Your visual presentation is a direct extension of your work. We do all judge records by their covers, and they – and the rest of the visuals created around them – work as the vehicle to transport the music to its audience.


How does a musician get the most out of a designer?

Work with a designer whose work you like, and whose work you think will suit your music, not just the nearest one to hand. Start by exciting them with your vision. Not by telling them what font to use or where to put your title. If you don’t excite them, their work won’t be exciting.

Don’t be afraid of having  expectations at the outset. Designers often hear clients say things like, “Yeah, you just do your thing. I’m sure I’ll be happy with whatever you come up with.” If you’re not – and sometimes people are not – you can end up wasting a lot of time, money and goodwill. So if you have specific needs, or preferences, don’t feel bad about being honest about this from the start. Think about what you’re going to need. Is it a physical 12” record, or digital-only thumbnail, or both? Are you going for a social media focus, bespoke limited-edition print, or something else? Give your designer the full details so they can make sure the work can be applied well to everything.

If you have things you like visually and which feel inspirational, share them with your designer. But don’t be too prescriptive.

Try to be clear about who your audience is or might be. This might be very vague or broad, but it’s still important.

Set expectations  about  deadlines,  creative  freedom, and any other specific requirements, honestly and as realistically as you can.

Involve your designer from the start for a more integrated outcome and please don’t just spring extra things on them at the last minute. This isn’t about making their life easier, but ensuring that your end result is properly integrated.

 Always, the more warning you can give a designer – about anything – the better...

… but tell them what you want to achieve and what your aims are – not necessarily how to get there. You wouldn’t get the best results if a designer told you how to write or produce a track. The same applies the other way around.



Beyond the practical advice for working with design and designers, what do you think are the key things design can bring to a music project?

I would break it down as follows:

1. Communicating the vibe, personality, identity, story, or concept:

Is it grimy and gritty, and a bit messed up, with wonky beats and warped detuned guitars and a real sense of foreboding, over which flow dystopian, melancholic lyrics that tell of lost innocence and a creeping sense of anger and distrust in the world?

Or is the record a nuanced and delicate instrumental  work with acres of space; an intelligent record that plays with subtle shifts in mood and yet, despite its sparse instrumentation, has a real warmth and optimism to it?

Or is it an esoteric yet organic, earthy record, with a folky feel but touched by slight digital interventions that lift it out of any particular genre space?

All this stuff sounds utterly ridiculous when you write it in a press release (please, don’t write like that in your press releases!) but if your designer can capture the music in your visuals you can communicate a sense of all of this  in a split second, with an immediacy that only visuals can give. A good cover should distill the essence of the record or parts of it – into an image that looks and feels like the record sounds.

In a world where genre-boundaries are blurred (and, for some, almost non-existent) your visuals are your principal tool with which to communicate the personality of the record in a very immediate and sophisticated way. If you do it right.

The key is to be appropriate – design should reflect your personality, so there’s sometimes a strong argument for a DIY aesthetic, and to do it yourself can add to the story, integrity and vibe of the release. This might depend on the stage of your career, the aesthetic of your music and so on; you just need to be clear that you know when a DIY approach might complement your vibe, and when you need to get the professionals in…

2. Consistency of identity

You and your designer should be thinking about visual consistency, and about how to achieve it without straying into a world of corporate branding and logos. It’s perfectly possible to establish a really strong and consistent visual identity without ever having a logo. Typography, pattern, a photographic style and graphic elements, handled well, can all contribute to your visual language. You’ll only get so much of your audience’s time and energy to engage with you. So if all the elements of your campaign are working together and feel consistent they’re all going to be helping build up a picture of you as an artist/group and each reinforcing the other, and building up a sense of trust and familiarity with you.

3. Thinking campaign not just cover

Think more holistically than just “I need a logo or record cover”. Think campaign. Your visual identity should be unmistakable in – yes – your record sleeve, but also your website, your Instagram feed, your Spotify page, your live shows, your merchandise. Once you’ve got a concept for your record sleeve, it may only require an extra 10% more work for your designer to nail a concept for everything else too – the hard bit is coming up with the original visuals – it’s easy (if we know from the start this is needed) to then apply this across a range of assets. So make the most of the work done.

4. Value perception

How do you want to make your work feel special or stand out? OK – so this applies more for physical than digital releases – but it’s still an important consideration. A while back, a survey determined that the majority of people would pay less for a song than they would for a packet of crisps. Design can help communicate meaning and value to people – whether through a high-end, die-cut sleeve made of beautiful stock for a heavy-weight vinyl release or through a well-crafted cover designed to have a powerful impact at 400x400 pixels on Spotify.

5. Considering the context – in your career, culture, and the market place

It’s also important to consider every record in a variety of contexts – its cultural context, its place in your career or body of work, its position in the market place.

A designer should be thinking not only of your stand-alone cover, but about how the look and feel of your music exists more widely, from how your Spotify looks as your work accumulates to your live presence onstage. And that’s an artistic position rather than a sales one. If you get that right, though, you create something that really connects with people, that they’re excited by, and once you’ve done that then the sales should start to follow.


What else should we be thinking about when it comes to design?

Deciding on your concept or story is key. Every artist or record should have a story to tell and design can be a powerful tool to help tell that story. It might illuminate the artist’s musical approach, or politics, or the emotive content and themes of the songs.

As music writer Craig Havighurst lamented, an iTunes-led world presents a challenge to creative musicians looking to write more than a good hook: “When we don’t feed the mind as well as the ears, we make temporarily engaged consumers of a lifestyle product, not music lovers.”

Then there’s the aesthetic, personality and  vibe  you want to communicate. Whether you like it or not, the medium by which a piece of music is delivered to you directly affects not only how you feel about it, before you even hear it, but also how it actually sounds. That’s why Starbucks invest so many millions in packaging, because  it doesn’t just change how we think about the coffee – it changes how the coffee actually tastes.

Now, that’s not to say you should set out to manipulate your listeners, but you should be conscious that whatever you do will affect how the music is received – so you might as well make sure it’s a considered statement. The medium is the message. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan: the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. Or put another way – the way in which you present a message becomes part of the message itself... whether you like it or not.

There’s also the thorny issue of taste here. The sociologist Pierre Bordieu proved in the 60s and 70s that our taste   in music will translate directly into our taste in food and our propensity to engage with the arts more widely, for example. Our taste in all things is intimately related. (If you really want to head into this particular rabbit hole, this is all tied up with our class and our need for social distinction. But that’s maybe another matter…)


Any final words of advice?

Good. Fast. Cheap.

– Pick two.

Oli Bentley

Creative Director of Split

By Oli Bentley, Creative Director of Split

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