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Imaginary Flaming Lips Album Cover by Chris Adams

Pushing the Needle

September 21, 2016

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by Steve Wilkison
Associate Professor, Graphic Design

I still have the first album I ever bought. Snoopy vs The Red Baron by The Royal Guardsmen. (Hey, I was only 10 years old!) Shortly after that I joined the infamous Columbia Record Club (11 albums for $1.00!) and soon albums by Bob Dylan, The Doors, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and more were being delivered to my turntable. I was never the same.

Over the years my collection has grown to the point where I now have more than 4,000 vinyl albums, 2,000 vinyl 45 rpm singles, and around 13,000 CDs. While the music has certainly been my main interest, I’ve also always been fascinated with the artwork on album covers. In fact, I’ve bought more than a few albums that I never had any intention of listening to, I just wanted the cover art.

When I began teaching full-time at Watkins in 2011, I had an idea. Most of the students who pass through our program today listen to music online where “cover artwork” is practically non-existent. Why not offer a class on the history of album cover design, something most students are unfamiliar with?

I proposed my idea to Dan Brawner, the chair of the graphic design department. My basic premise was that every single one of the “principles of graphic design” could be taught via the rich and vibrant history of album covers. Photography, illustration, typography, color, texture, layout, and composition are all things that can be explored via album covers. Concepts like points, lines, shapes, unity, emphasis, pattern, perspective, light, shadow, and so much more are all represented in thousands of different 12″ by 12″ canvases. You can literally study the history of graphic design in the later part of the 20th century by examining album covers.

Dan approved and we’ve now offered “History of Record Album Cover Art” four times. Over the course of 15 weeks during a semester we explore various genres and time periods. For instance, one week we might study “psychedelic rock covers from the late 1960s.” Another week we explore “jazz covers from the 1950s and 1960s.” Or “punk covers from the late 1970s.” Or “heavy metal covers from the 1980s.” We work our way through the various decades from the 1940s up until the 1980s, the end of what we generally think of as the “golden age” of album covers.

Each week the students are given an assignment to design an album cover with the look and feel of the particular genre and/or period we are studying. I give them three artists related to the era and then they design an album cover for one of those artists. For example, when we studied “singer-songwriters from the 1970s” they could choose between Carole King, Carly Simon, or Cat Stevens. They are responsible for the title of the album, which gives them some creative leeway in each project. The goal is that I should be able to place their cover design in with a mix of other actual covers from the period and most people should not be able to pick out the “counterfeit.”

The course has been one of the most popular at Watkins. Take a look through our gallery where we share some of the highlights of the students’ work.