The Demise (and Reinvention) of Design in Audio Packaging

By Andrew Davidson
on January 4, 2010

I was scanning a record label off a 12" vinyl record, when I stumbled across this odd design paradigm; We've been loosing precious space to 'sell' consumers on purchasing an album (via eye-catching artwork or themed according to content) in recent ages. Now, artwork associated with an album has shrunk in importance, and most importantly, shrunk in size.

Let's take a quick step through recent history, and music sales. Now while I'm not discounting old media, or substrates, I'm sticking to strictly our lifetimes, and consumer popular, with a commercial release from at least 2 different labels.

A couple notes on the illustrations used in this story: the red parts is the live art area, the white is (usually) unprintable area. All the media is scaled to proportional sizes. If there's a back-side to anything, it's not included. For example, the Vinyl record illustration directly below only represents one side of the package. Not all media can be printed on both sides (like CD's or MiniDiscs). Also, the top-most art is most likely to be seen first, then less as you go down. I also oriented each art so that they face up, as they would normally be seen and read.

12 inch Vinyl Record 1920-1991

As an art director, you're looking at 2 magnificent, large squares, 12.5 inches as side. Double it if it's a folded jacket, or double album. Plus, you get 2 perfectly round 4" circles on each side of the record, with only a small blemish of a .5" hole in the middle of your circle. Add to that the slipcover as well, and you've got enough space to publish the lyrics, music, biographies, and even slip in some ads for other music releases on your label.

Eight Track Cartridge 1972-1990

At 4" x 5.25" x 1", these were pretty small and convenient, especially in cars, where 8-track players flourished. They were limited in music length, and could only hold 8 tracks a piece. A small price to pay for all that convenience. Of course, less than 20 inches of space on the top, and only 4 inches on the outer label to identify the contents. 8-Tracks were never terribly art-themed. usually they had track listings on the top, and the artist/title on the spline, printed in block type. You might get a thumbnail of the album cover on the top, but only as reference.

The Eight Track tape recording system was first developed by the Learjet Corporation, and was popular from 1965 to the late 1970s. The major record labels announced their decision to stop supporting the 8-track format between 1981 and 1983. However, some continued to issue top-10 pop albums into the 1980s via the mail order record clubs.

Compact Cassette Tape 1962-1996

Cassette is a French word meaning “little box.” The Philips Company of the Netherlands invented and released the first compact audio-cassette in 1962. Between the early 1970s and late 1990s, the cassette was one of the two most common formats for prerecorded music. Recording and playback was at a speed of 1.7/8 inches per second. The jacket was usually 2.5" x 4" on the front, with a half-inch wide 'binding' and another 1" of back space. The tape could also hold some artwork, but was usually only 1 color, and screen printed, so details and artistic flourishes were rarely used.

Compact Disc 1980-Today

A Compact Disc (also known as a CD) is an optical disc used to store digital data. Audio CDs have been commercially available since October 1982. In 2009, they remain the standard physical storage medium for audio. In 2007, 200 billion CDs had been sold worldwide. In a traditional 'jewel-case' you have 4.75" x 4.75" insert for album cover, plus a slightly larger piece for the back, and a generous space for printing on the top side of the CD.

MiniDisc 1992-Today

The last best attempt at near-digital field recording was great, but destroyed by the MP3 players of the world. These tiny discs came in a tiny 2.75" x 2 21/32" x 3/16" package with a 64mm diameter re-writeable disc inside. There were a few commercial releases, but Sony stopped many attempts to allow perfect digital copies by encoding optical outputs with their own DRM. I still have my old recorder, and still use it to do field recording, as it's small, lightweight, sounds good, and is easy to use!

iPod 2001 - Today

Admittedly, the iPod when it was first introduced didn't even offer very good art support. It wasn't until generation 2 that art was implemented, and that was in 2002! Now album cover artwork is crunched to 160 pixels square. Good luck reading the any of the type!

iPhone 2006 - Today

Better screens, better resolution. Still a dismal 3.6 inches of visible space! Designers have smartened up now, and try and create iconic album art that will withstand being shrunk to iPod size, and use larger type, simpler motifs, and bolder colors.

Let Me See Them All Again...

The truly blind can also click the illustration above to zoom-in, or simply download the above illustration as a PDF file for further scrutiny.

You Mentioned Reinvention of Design????

I did indeed. iTunes LP is a new format introduced by Apple in version 9.0 of their popular iTunes software. The idea is to recreate the old LP experience by providing additional content such a lyrics, liner notes, photographs and other content.

iTunes LP utilize a proprietary file format with the extension .itlp, which is essentially a WebArchive adhering to special conventions using HTML, CSS, & JavaScript all enclosed in a single file. While initially thought to be yet another Apple-locked proprietary format, it turns out it's not that hard and you can find instructions online to make your own.

How About in Layman's Terms?

You can include this entire article, with pictures, and even some javascript animations inside an iTunes LP formatted file. Finally, lyrics for every song, in a copy-and-pastable format for the sing-along fans. A years worth of tour photos in your next tour release - and links to your own web site for even more! Finally bridging the gap between artists and their fans directly!

Are you a small label or band looking to get into digital downloads? Contact us at Under Design today and we can discuss improving your online presence, and assist in packaging and delivering your audio products and selling through your own online store!