HUP’s Artist Emeritus Adam Dorhauer discusses the process of developing ideas for the artwork found in Emergency Postcards.
Note: the full album artwork can be seen at the following link, and may be consulted as reference for this article: http://www.discmakers.com/AVLFlashViewer/?p=eVlOSdZzZrYI1T34k9d4tQ%3D%3D#.UWfXwIKDqHl
First of all, I’d like to encourage you to buy HUP’s new album, Emergency Postcards. Times are hard for musicians everywhere, and it’s no different for Heisenberg Uncertainty Players. The very fact that I am writing this post as the album’s visual designer is proof of that.
The last time I designed an album cover for John (2002’s self-titled Festus), I drew it in MS Paint at what I’m going to generously estimate was something like 72 DPI resolution. Hey, what can I say. Times are hard for artists too, and Photoshop is expensive.
So when John again approached me to design the album artwork for HUP’s debut release, I knew he had to be on a really tight budget. I accepted and began work determined to let him down less than last time.
The first step in the process was deciding on a name for the album. This is an interesting topic in itself, and an important one (I think you could make a case that Dark Side of the Moon would still be a better album than Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King even if you switched all the tracks between the two albums, based on the names alone). It’s a topic I had nothing to do with, however, so I won’t be writing about it other than how it pertains to the art design of the album.
In terms of design, the name is important because it gives you a starting point and an idea of what the client might expect. It’s not always essential to model the design explicitly on the album name, but the last thing you want as a graphic artist is to put a lot of work into designing something really cool, only to find that it completely clashes with whatever branding the client has chosen. So the first step is really to sit and wait to find out what the album is going to be called, and then see what inspiration comes from that. And, in the meantime, make sure not to come up with anything really cool that you might have to abandon.
John informed me last October that the album would be called Emergency Postcards. In a way, it was the ultimate “screw you” to computers and cell phones and technology. It was bitter nostalgia cranked up to eleven. It’s one thing to set up a lawn chair on your front stoop and yell at all the kids walking by that they are ruining society with their walkmans and their colour televisions and their designated hitters. It’s wholly another to, with your life in genuine peril, eschew all potentially useful forms of communications wrought by technology and stake yourself firmly to your convictions, opting to instead scribble your emergency message on a white 4×6 cardstock, hand it to a 15 year old on a horse, and wait for him to return with help.
It was that kind of misguided conviction I set out to capture in the album design. My first pass was a straightforward design, which, on the surface, tied directly into the Emergency Postcards name. On a deeper level, though, the design tapped into the essence of the jazz genre itself:
The design was rejected.
Not to be discouraged, I returned to the brainstorming process. John and I discussed a few possibilities centered more directly on the postcard theme. We quickly settled on the concept of turning the album itself into a postcard, with the back carrying the standard postcard message/address/stamp layout and the front being, well, the front of a postcard.
We ended up going with an emergency theme that specifically tied into the Heisenberg Uncertainty name. I imagine most people reading a jazz band blog are probably well versed in 20th Century theoretical physics, but for those who are not, Schrödinger’s Cat was a famous thought experiment meant to highlight the absurdity of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. It involved putting a cat in a possible fatal (but possibly not fatal) situation for a period of time, and the cat spending that duration simultaneously dead and alive. Basic stuff, really.
Schrödinger’s Cat was, of course, directly related to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, a famous scientific breakthrough named after the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players, of whom Werner Heisenberg (no relation to the band) was a reportedly a big fan.
While the Schrödinger’s Cat theme was suggested early in the design process, it was not the only option considered–just the only really nerdy one. We also discussed more generic emergencies, more like what you would typically expect to see on a postcard. Shipwrecks, medical emergencies, stuff like that.
The main problem was the front of the postcard. Possibilities included some Chicago-based photography, tropical scenery, etc. Getting something that looked genuinely postcard-like presented an issue, though, because we were limited in a) equipment; b) photography skill and training; and c) location. I don’t live near Chicago, nor near any tropical locations, and pretty much anything I could have photographed would have been too anachronistic to actually use (plus I’m a terrible photographer). John texting me something from Chicago that he took on his camera phone was not an ideal solution either.
I don’t want to say we abandoned the postcard cover entirely, because really, a postcard can have pretty much anything on the front. The image doesn’t immediately register as “hey, that’s a postcard,” though. I see it as a departure from the postcard concept as originally conceived, which is fine. Part of the design process is figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and not being too rigid in anchoring yourself to conceptual details from the early process.
The final cover started to really take shape in January of this year (that’s 2013 C.E. for any future historians reading this). That is also when the Schrödinger’s Cat theme began to pull ahead as the favoured design. In exploring alternatives to photography-based postcard covers, I found that a cat sketch I had done some months prior was actually a good fit for the type of album iconography I was looking for. I drew a second sketch to accompany the first, and we had the dual-state alive-dead cat imagery that the album needed.
John green-lighted the sketches, so I went to work on combining them into an album cover.
After some experimentation, I settled on the layout that appears on the album. The rectangular lines around the cats in the final design are artifacts of where I cropped the scans of the two separate drawings. I initially intended to edit these out. The first mock-up of the cover that I submitted for John’s approval had these removed (excuse the lack of polish on the cleanup work; this was a rough draft only intended to get the layout and scheme approved):
After studying the image, however, I felt that the rectangular lines actually added some structure to the design, and that the subtle variation from the flat-colour background was unobtrusive. They also helped resolve one of the compositional challenges of the drawings—they are left-heavy. The heads both being on the left, and the general direction of the action in the image being toward the left, the composition needed some form of counter-balance on the right. This was originally addressed by offsetting the image toward the right. Keeping the rectangular imprints, which were heavier on the right than the left, helped balance the image in a slightly more interesting way.
As a result, I submitted a non-cleaned up version along with the original draft shown above. John preferred the design with the rectangular imprints preserved, so I moved forward with that.
Side note: the following variation was also submitted at the same time, for no reason at all:
Trebuchet MS was chosen as the font for the cover because of its simplicity. The font is built on clean lines, curves, and angles, and it matched the minimalist iconography I was aiming for. The goal was to have the band and album name emerge out of the background rather than simply being thrown on top of it. The font and font colour were both chosen with this in mind. (Contrast to the liner notes inside the album, which are in Sans and Rockwell, and the back cover, which has Perptua Italic and handwriting—these carry the more standard typed-on-top-of-background look and function.)
The back cover was a much simpler design process. Once we decided early on to explore back-of-the-postcard theme, well…there’s not really a whole lot of ways you can go with that. The concept kind of comes with a fairly rigid structure built in. For the most part, we had the layout worked out from the start.
The track listing fit well into the address fields, which was one thing that could have potentially complicated the design (thank you, John, for not doing a 15-track album or something like that). An emergency message was chosen that tied into the Schrödinger’s Cat theme, which, along with the track listing, was handwritten and laid over a basic postcard template (which was really just some straight lines placed on a scanned paper background). Some printed text structure was added to complete the layout—a simple “From:” and “To:” in the address fields, and some fine print at the bottom. (By the way, there was initially some random placeholder text in the fine print section before John decided he just wanted the band website there, but I won’t disclose it since it would probably put off a good portion of HUP’s audience base in Chicago.)
With the postcard laid out, the only thing remaining was the stamp, which was really the one thing in the back cover concept that required any significant visual decision. John had mentioned when he first contacted me about doing the album artwork that his one restriction was to include the band logo somewhere, which I had not done yet. So it went on the postage stamp. The logo is, if you could not tell, an inverted treble clef styled in the form of a question mark (and if you couldn’t tell, well, it’s a logo designed to represent uncertainty, so that is in a sense the ideal reaction). The card is postmarked with the year 1935, which is the year Schrödinger formulated his famous thought experiment.
The spine design was made to mimic the front cover design. Not much to say about that.
The inside cover was about packing in all the necessary information to one page. It was not an issue getting the information in, but it did leave very little room to work with. Much like the back cover was largely constrained by the thematic choice, the inside cover was largely constrained by practical considerations. It basically came down to how to arrange three large blocks of text in the most sensible way. I think the final arrangement of track listing, personnel, and acknowledgments followed a pretty standard formula, so again, not much to say.
The primary concern was in font choices. Most of the text on the inside cover is in Sans, which scales down to small sizes nicely and minimizes clutter in a pretty dense page of text. I varied the font attributes to create visual distinctions in order to convey the information more clearly. This is most noticeable with the track titles, which are printed in a heavier Rockwell font. The tracks themselves are the prime feature of any album, so it made sense to make the track listing the one thing that immediately jumps out of the page on first glance.
Additionally, the personnel listing is delimited into musician and instrument not just by standard punctuation, but also by switching to italic font for the instrument. The attributions are grouped into major contributors, whose commissions funded a huge chunk of the project, and other contributors—this distinction is made clear by changing font size in conjunction with a paragraph break. The entire attribution list is kept distinct from the other various information by shifting the text alignment to center.
There were three visual requests for the inside cover. Two were to include the logos for the production company and, once again, for the band. These fit fine in the bottom corner. The third was, if possible, to incorporate the two cat sketches from the front cover individually.
There was not much space to work with for that. The reclined cat fit decently into an open space beneath the track listing, but the only workable option for getting both in was putting the upright cat in the background behind text.
There was plenty of space under the CD tray, however. My only plan there was to use the album name in a variation of the style for the front cover and spine, which was flexible enough to make room for the other cat. Setting the two cats on opposite ends of the opened CD case properly showcased both drawings separately while providing visual bookends for the opened case. (This was also one of the contributing factors for right-aligning the lower text on the inside cover rather than left-aligning it.)
This solution led directly to the disc design. Since the disc covers the image beneath the disc tray, putting the same cat drawing on the disc itself, in roughly the size and position of the image underneath, ensured that the visual effect was maintained with or without the disc in the case. It also served to punctuate the main design elements for the album on the disc itself, which is of course the feature of the product.
In the end, the overarching design theme was taking a simple iconography for the cover, and echoing those simple elements throughout the album design. Design-wise, the back cover was really its own thing, which is where we cemented the postcard album concept. The cover, spine, and entire design inside the case were built around variations of the simple cover scheme, though. The colour choices, the use of the cats, and the Trebuchet MS variations for the band/album name tied the various elements of the overall design together to produce a cohesive look for the album.
In any case, I managed to save everything at 300 DPI this time, so it was at least a step up from last time.