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How to design an album cover – a guide for bands and DJs

“Never judge a book an album by its cover,” they say, regurgitating an age-old cliche that’s as stale as your drummer’s socks at the end of a 30-date nationwide tour. But it’s true – if your album’s great, but its cover is terrible, you’ll be frightening off all but the most committed fans, and won’t be attracting many new ones. Your album therefore won’t reach the audience it deserves.

In this post you’ll learn what you need so that you can design an album cover yourself. (And of course, this includes covers for singles or DJ mixes for SoundCloud and similar.)

How to design an album cover – before you start

On the face of it, designing an album cover is easy. You just need to have an idea, implement it and then create computer files. But in practice, there are a few more things you need to consider.

You’ll need to decide whether to design your cover yourself, or hire a graphic designer to do so. This will depend on your abilities and your budget. For all but the global megastars, artwork budgets in the music industry are as limited as the current UK prime minister’s suitability to be UK prime minister. Spending loads of money is often not an option for new artists, or artists in certain small scenes.

While a homemade aesthetic is a desired component in some scenes, if your music has been professionally recorded, mixed and mastered, a homemade cover may not do it justice. In such cases, you may be better seeking outside help.

But in this article, I’m going to assume you‘ll be designing your own album cover.

Know your audience

First of all, ask yourself who this album/single/DJ mix is for. Who is the audience?

“Everybody!” you cry. “All human beings with ears!”

Except it isn’t really, is it?

Be clear who your album is for, as its cover and packaging design need to fit the music.

If you’re a manufactured boyband marketed at preteen girls, a pitch-black album cover festooned with skulls and decapitated zombies is unlikely to fly off the (virtual) shelves.

If you play live, you’ll already know who your audience is. If they look as if they’re into metal, the chances are that you’re playing some kind of metal, so you can orientate yourself towards that genre, and seek inspiration from it.

If you haven’t (yet) played live much, or are a studio-based project, social media should give you some clues, especially if your music doesn’t easily slot into a certain style or genre. What else do your fans and followers like?

Once you’re clear who your (potential) fans are, you can be thinking in more concrete terms about how to design your album cover.

Your album cover design

Some album cover designs are instantly recognisable classics, regarded as ‘works of art’ in themselves.

With album cover design, you arguably have more freedom to do whatever you like than is the case with book covers, where people more rigidly expect a cover to fit its genre. (Although that’s also true with music, as mentioned above, you’ve got more scope to ‘break the rules’.)

By now you should know who your audience is, and what kind of album cover designs they appreciate and expect.

Now it’s time to decide what should be used on the front cover. Depending on your genre, your artistic abilities and the resources you have available, this could be:

  • A photo of you or your band
  • An abstract photo, painting or drawing created by you or someone you know
  • Some computer-generated art (3D, fantasy etc)
  • A minimal plain background. (If going for a minimalist look, it’s important it should look as if you’ve deliberately chosen to do so, rather than you’ve run out of ideas, money, or both.)

Mood

When designing your album cover, think of the artwork as being a visual representation of your music. Free-flowing, undulating music cries out for free-flowing, undulating artwork. Sombre, funereal music is best accompanied by sombre, funereal artwork. And artwork for more ‘in your face’ music needs to be, well, more ‘in your face’.

By way of an example: you wouldn’t use a gentle pastel watercolour painting of a babbling brook for pounding underground techno, or intense UV green, orange and pink for an album of traditional English folk music.

How to design an album cover – choose the right mood!
No good for banging underground techno!

Colour

This is closely related to mood, above, as different colours affect us in different ways. (Advertisers and marketers are aware of this, and use this knowledge to their advantage!)

If your music is mellow and laid back, you probably won’t want the cover artwork to be an intense, fiery red. Similarly, if your music is urgent and driving, you can forget about subtle pastel tones.

And in some scenes, notably goth and certain metal genres, black is pretty much de rigueur. Problem solved!

You can stick with a main dominant colour throughout, so if the front cover is blue, you could use the same blue for the back cover, booklet and labels/disc face too. Or you could harness colour theory and use related or contrasting colours for the secondary or tertiary colours.

Explaining colour theory goes beyond the scope of this article, but there are plenty of informative guides out there. Look out for explanations of the colour wheel. This is a system which shows you, at a glance, which colours complement, harmonise with or contrast with a given colour. The online ‘graphic design for non-designers’ platform Canva has a good interactive one.

A unified whole

If you only want to know how to design an album cover for your download/stream, once you’ve created your cover, you’re done.

But if you’re creating artwork for vinyl or CD, the entire package needs to represent a unified whole. Colours, imagery and typography need to be in harmony, and the front cover needs to be in harmony with the other elements – the back cover, booklet/lyric insert, labels/disc face and any other inserts.

This doesn’t mean to say that all these elements need to use exactly the same colours, as elements can make use of contrast and still work well as a unified whole. The main thing is that the various pages and parts look as if they’ve been deliberately created to contrast with one another, rather than having just being thrown together. (Although rules are made to be broken, and depending on your genre and the message you want to convey, this ‘thrown together’ look may be precisely what you’re after!)

For this reason, I suggest:

  • Start with the front cover
  • Then do the back cover
  • Then create the inner pages/booklet/inserts
  • Then the record labels or CD face
  • If there will be an the artist/title sticker on the front, do this right at the end

Not too busy!

Your design shouldn’t be too busy. While it doesn’t have to be completely minimal, try to avoid too much detail in graphical elements, especially if you’re only releasing a download/stream or CD. Text should be clear and easy to read. This is especially important for digital releases, which need to be striking and clear at thumbnail size, which is how potential listeners, buyers and fans will experience them.

Although it may be tempting to create a meticulously detailed, crosshatched ink drawing for your 12″ vinyl release, remember that this too will almost certainly also be available digitally, so the design also needs to work at thumbnail size.

Ensure that the text for tracklistings, lyrics and credits remains legible over the background. If the background is especially ‘busy’, or comprises a photo featuring lots of small areas of different colours, no amount of drop shadows, outlines or glows can effectively mask this. Even if such text is readable on vinyl, bear in mind that it probably won’t be on CD or digital covers.

Images – copyright

If you will be using photos, paintings or drawings on your cover or packaging, make sure that you have the express permission of the copyright holder to do so. Don’t just download something from the internet! (Apart from the copyright aspects, the quality is also unlikely to be good enough, especially for use on physical releases.)

With that important note out of the way, if you’ve decided to use photos or paintings that you’ve created yourself, all you need to do is scan them and carry out any editing they may require. Or if you will be using computer-generated artwork, generate it!

Photos

If you paint with all the enthusiasm – and talent – of a hyperactive chimpanzee, or can never manage to take a photo without cropping people’s heads off, do not despair.

There may be no need to hire a professional photographer, as musicians often hang around with other creative people. So if the sentence above applies to you, perhaps there’s someone in your circle of friends who could step in to help? A semi-professional or talented amateur may well be enough. And if you do decide to hire a professional, find someone who specialises in musicians/performers and whose previous work you like.

Failing that, if you’re after photos of landscapes, surfaces or particular objects, it may be worth looking into stock photography. As well as paid-for stock photo agencies, there are also sites such as Unsplash and Pixabay, among others, where photographers make their work available free of charge.

Sounds too good to be true? Possibly. Exercise caution if you use these type of sites. Who’s to say that the person uploading a photo for others to download and use free of charge is the person who took it, ie the copyright holder?

Whether using stock photos from a traditional agency, or one of the free alternatives, pay attention to the respective provider’s terms and conditions, including the specific ones for the images you buy or download. Sometimes, you’re only allowed to use them on websites, and not for products you intend to sell/monetise (such as downloads or streams) or for any kind of physical product (records/CDs, T-shirts, mugs or bags etc).

Bear in mind too that other people will be using the same photos in their projects. Although the chances of your record sitting in the racks next to one by somebody else, using the same photo, are tiny, it is at least theoretically possible.

Typography and font types

Some examples of different typeface types
Examples of different types of typefaces

The typefaces (‘fonts’) you use for your album design project also play a vital role in conveying the essence of you (or your band) and your music.

The main different types of font are as follows:

Serif

The ones with finishing strokes (‘little feet’) at the end of letters.

Some popular examples:

  • Times New Roman
  • Garamond
  • Bembo
  • Baskerville

These typefaces are more traditional, convey seriousness, and are therefore well suited to more ‘serious’ music, such as classical, folk and other types of acoustic music.

Tip

Times New Roman is widely used as a standard serif font, and is therefore massively overused. By not using it, you’d be showing that you’ve thought about things a bit!

Sans-serif

The ones without finishing strokes (‘little feet’) at the end of letters.

Some popular examples:

  • Helvetica
  • Arial
  • Univers
  • Gill Sans

These are more informal and modern than serif fonts, and are therefore ideally suited to a wide range of modern music, including pop, indie, dance and electronic music.

Tip

Arial is widely used as a standard sans-serif font, and is massively, massively, massively overused. Want to avoid being thought of as an amateur? Don’t use Arial!

Script

Script fonts are typefaces that represent handwriting, and they come in a wide variety of types, all of which invoke different feelings. There are script typefaces based on traditional copperplate calligraphy, informal modern adults’ handwriting, as well as children’s handwriting. There are also many ‘distressed’ styles available, of the type commonly seen on packaging for darker music, such as goth and related genres. You will also find many, many, many ‘novelty’ styles, a lot of which are limited in their practical applications and/or which should only be used sparingly (if ever!).

Use one that conveys the same kind of feeling as your music, so perhaps a child’s handwriting typeface for an album of young children’s party songs, or a more formal calligraphic font for some kind of ‘serious’ neoclassical/darkwave project.

Display

Display fonts are the typefaces designed to be used at larger sizes, such as on book (or album!) covers and signs. There is a wide variety available, so if your music is an homage to the 1970s, you are sure to find a suitable 1970s display font.

Various metal genres use bold and spiky or squiggly and barely intelligible display fonts, and in the worlds of goth and metal you will often see Old English or Fraktur (traditional German) lettering.

Dance music often uses bold, modern, futuristic display fonts.

Harmonious typefaces

When it comes to designing your album cover, a well-chosen script or display font can work wonders!

But less is more. Although these can look great when used to represent your band name and album title on the front cover, and maybe also the tracklisting on the back and in the booklet, they’re generally not sufficiently readable for other text, such as general sleevenotes or credits and legal info.

I recommend using either the display or script font for the artist and title, and something more conventional/readable for all other text.

Or at the most, use three different typefaces:

  • The most expressive one for the artist/title
  • An interesting, related, but less expressive one for the tracklisting
  • And finally, something more conventional for lyrics, notes, credits and legal info.

In other words, the typography on all the rest of the packaging and inserts should complement the front cover, without you having to use exactly the same typeface.

Whichever approach you take, and whichever typefaces you use, the result should represent a coherent whole. The typefaces used should look as if they have been deliberately chosen for their purpose.

Use the most expressive typeface(s) for the artist or title.

Size matters

Most people’s first contact with your release will be when they see the thumbnail image of the artwork online somewhere. Your album cover design therefore needs to work at this small size.

It’s easy to get carried away with the design process, creating complex graphics and ornate lettering set against detailed backgrounds, and this may look great at the size of a record sleeve.

But it will look a jumbled mess on streaming services and download stores. That’s not what you want!

At the risk of trying to teach my grandmother how to suck eggs:

There’s an easy way to test how your artwork will look at different sizes, and that’s to use the zoom function in the software or tool you’re using to create it. Zoom in and out as you work, to ensure that your striking, powerful record sleeve design really does scale down to thumbnail size. Zoom out, and squint if necessary. Is it still really clear what your artwork is? Are the artist and title (if included) properly legible? If so: great! But if not: it’s time to think again.

Scalability

Something else you’ll need to bear in mind: designs for 12″ vinyl generally don’t scale 1:1 to CD/digital size, or vice versa.

Front covers may scale better than back covers, as they tend not to include as many elements. You may find that the front cover’s background image scales OK, but that the artist/title text doesn’t look right at its new size, so these will need adjusting.

Back covers and inserts/booklets often need more work after resizing, especially if their layout is more complex. Text and layout elements scaled from vinyl to CD will likely be too small, and those scaled from CD to vinyl will likely be too big. You’ll need to resize and reposition these, to recreate the spirit of your original layout as closely as possible.

I quite often see records in gatefold sleeves getting released on CD, in those types of packaging that are like ‘gatefold sleeves for CDs’. Somebody just reduces the artwork to fit, and voilà, the tracklisting is in 3pt text and the credits can only be read by an eagle who’s just come out of the opticians with a new pair of ‘jam jar-bottom’ glasses.

Image resolution

Before you fire up the scanner, note the following:

  • ‘Continuous tone’ images (photos, paintings or similar), whether colour or greyscale, should have a resolution of 300 dpi (dots per inch) at actual size
  • Line art (drawings in pen, pencil or ink etc) should have a resolution of 800 dpi (dots per inch) at actual size

What do I mean by actual size? The resolution applies to the image at the size it will be used at.

For a CD, images should be at the stated resolution at CD size, but for 12″ vinyl releases, the images should be at the stated resolution at vinyl size. It’s not enough to scan or create artwork at CD size, then scale it up for use on vinyl. The results will be blurred, and may show artefacts (visible deterioration in quality, such as blobs and unwanted patterns).

The components – what goes where?

If your release is purely digital, you can ignore this section, as it only applies to records and CDs.

Must the artist and title appear on the cover?

Although the artist name and album title usually appear on the cover, they don’t have to. The purpose of them being there was to make it easier for people to find what they’re looking for. If you’re thumbing through a rack or crate of records, it saves time if you don’t have to lift every single one out to look on the back or label to see what it is.

These days, most people discover new music on the basis of a thumbnail image in a streaming service, download store or website. The artist and title appear right next to the artwork, meaning it’s no longer strictly necessary for them to BE on the artwork.

And if your release will also be appearing on vinyl or CD, you can always apply a sticker to them, featuring the artist and title and any other info that may tempt people to buy it.

Must the tracklisting appear on the back?

Does the tracklisting need to appear on the back cover? There’s no law saying that the tracklisting has to be on the back of records or CDs (not even here in Germany, where there’s a law for everything), as it can appear in the booklet/insert instead.

But from the listener’s point of view, it can be annoying if they have to remove and open the booklet every time, and perhaps search for the right place, just to see which track is playing. More so if it only appears on the labels, as they’d then have to get up and read the text as it’s rotating at 33 or 45 rpm. And as for including it on the CD face only: they can forget it.

Website and social media

Make sure you mention your website URL on your album packaging, but resist the temptation to list your social media channels, even if you only have one. Why’s that? Because the internet landscape is constantly changing. Even though Facebook probably isn’t going anywhere soon, internet platforms come and go, or gain or lose popularity. Adding your social media details dates your release unnecessarily. When I think of the timeless music I own, anchored to a particular point in time by MySpace URLs or those of free internet providers from the 1990s…!

Copyright and legal info

Generally speaking, the more corporate the record label, the more copyright and legal info they want to put on the back. Some indie labels – especially smaller ones – don’t include any at all. But your music and its packaging are subject to copyright in any case, whether this is explicitly stated or not.

Software

You have a choice of online graphics tools or more traditional graphics software installed on your computer.

Online graphics tools

Not so long ago you needed complicated (and mostly expensive) software if you wanted to design an album cover. And you also needed to know how to use it. Now things are a lot easier. There are various online tools, of which Canva is the best known.

This online platform provides templates which allow you to create all manner of graphics, spanning social media posts and stories, business cards, flyers, posters, book covers, brochures, reports and, yes, album covers. In fact, there are templates for just about anything that consumers, small businesses or content creators may require.

It’s easy to use – simply select a template that best meets your needs, edit the text, and maybe replace the images with your own.

Prices range from free to literally small change. For people who will be using it regularly, there are also paid subscriptions offering more features.

Am I recommending Canva and similar services? No, not really, just as turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but I’m mentioning it as it’s extremely popular out there in the ‘real world’.

Tips

If you do decide to use it, use your own images, rather than the ones in the templates. That way, your images will be unique, rather than having being used dozens, hundreds or thousands of times already.

This is a quick and easy way of creating graphics for your DJ mix, stream or download, but if you need to create artwork for vinyl records or CDs, use proper graphics software on your computer. Or even better, get a designer to do this for you. Even if what you’re trying to achieve is possible in an online tool, you need to be able to generate press-ready print files that meet specific industry standards. It’s not like preparing a report to print on your home or office printer.

In short, online design tools don’t make people designers any more than owning an axe makes them a lumberjack!

Graphics software on your computer

If for whatever reason you need to steer clear of online platforms, you’ll need some software for the job.

If you only need to create a cover image for streaming and download platforms, just about any free or cheap graphics software out there would do the job for you. Gimp is a popular open source image editing program which is available for Mac, Windows and Linux. Alternatively, look in your platform’s app store for suitable options.

However, if your release will be appearing on vinyl or CD, there really is no escaping the industry standard: Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite of programs. The problem here is that they’re complex, expensive, and arguably worst of all, are only available on a subscription basis. If you don’t pay the subscription, you can no longer open your files. So unless you make a living from using InDesign®, Illustrator®, Photoshop® and all the rest, the expense and hassle puts them out of reach.

Plus: although it’s certainly possible for non-designers to design an album cover and create an album packaging layout in these programs, non-designers don’t have the background knowledge and expertise to ensure that these will actually print without problems or unexpected surprises.

And on top of this: Although plenty of software allows you to save or export files as PDFs, in professional print, all roads lead to Adobe Acrobat, and it’s therefore worth the effort of supplying proper, Acrobat-compatible press-ready PDFs. Cheap or free PDF-generating software doesn’t provide the same range of options. Many of them also convert text into graphics, meaning potentially lower print quality, and without an easy method of improving it.

Artwork check

You’re creative enough to design your own album artwork, but not totally sure you can create the press-ready files?

Then my artwork check gives you the peace of mind you need.

I inspect the print files for your records and CDs, in order to make you aware of errors, and where applicable, advise you how you could achieve better print results.

And if you’re not able to make the resulting changes, I can take care of this too (at extra charge – precise pricing information upon request.

from €97

* All prices are net prices, and are therefore subject to the statutory VAT.

Artwork check for your vinyl records and CDs

Specifications

Whichever formats your release will appear in, and no matter how you create your artwork, it’s important that your artwork meets the specifications for the service(s) or manufacturers you will be using.

Artwork specs for digital releases

If you’re just creating an artwork file to upload to SoundCloud, then all you need to pay attention to are SoundCloud’s image specs. The same goes for Mixcloud or any of the other similar services.

If you sign up with an aggregator (the digital distributors who make your music available on the various streaming and download services), they will provide you with a more comprehensive set of specs. Your artwork should meet the requirements of the services you choose. Although these are all very similar, there are some differences between them, so make sure you create your artwork to the right size(s), resolution and in the right file format(s). You can create the ‘base’ artwork file at the largest of the required sizes (or even larger, in case it will ever be used for anything else), then save copies tailored to the different services’ requirements.

Artwork specs for physical releases

Observing the specifications is even more important for physical media, such as vinyl and CD. Even though people think of albums as being 12″ square, that’s only a rough size – the covers are actually larger than this. They’re also not quite square. And they also differ slightly between manufacturers. The same is true of CDs too. If you get the sizing wrong, the text that’s supposed to appear on the spine could end up encroaching onto the front or back!

And unlike with purely digital services, once the items have been printed, you can’t just change the cover artwork to correct any mistakes or things that didn’t work out so well.

Manufacturers of records and CDs, or the brokers who place your orders for vinyl and CDs with manufacturers, always make their technical specs available. They either give you them when you set up your project with them or make them available on their website. Again, there are some similarities, but some differences.

In an ideal world you’d always have the correct manufacturer specs before you start creating your album artwork design and layout, but the world isn’t ideal (perhaps you’d noticed!). Therefore, if you need to get started, you can always create your artwork fairly roughly or use any artwork templates you find on the internet – plenty of people do this! Just be aware that the sizes, dimensions and technical requirements may be different to those of the manufacturer you ultimately use, and that your artwork will later need adjusting accordingly.

General tips for when you design your album cover

Create and save big versions

Even if your release is only coming out digitally or on CD (yes, yes, I know, CDs are digital, too!), it’s worth creating your artwork larger than actual size, in case it’s needed for other purposes later.

Use the highest quality scans and photos you can to create your album cover artwork and packaging layouts. At the very least, I’d recommend creating it at the right sort of size for vinyl, in case your release becomes a roaring success and gets reissued on vinyl. Then just save a smaller version to the right specs for the various streaming/download services, or use smaller copies of your album-sized pieces of artwork to create your CD packaging layout.

There’s no upper recommended size apart from the limitations presented by the size and resolution of your photographs, the resolution of your scanner and/or your computer’s processing power and RAM, but it’s always a good idea to make your artwork files as futureproof as possible. Who knows, your release’s artwork may be needed for future T-shirts, posters, magazine ads, lifesize in-store marketing materials or gig backdrops!

Save editable versions

Save editable versions of your work as you go along. Some people flatten Photoshop® layers as they work, presumably to keep file sizes to a minimum. Then, when it later turns out that there’s some problem with their artwork and it needs to be fixed, they no longer have the building blocks that make it easy to do so. Make copies of layers or layer groups before rasterising them or doing anything else irreversible to them. Do the same before converting text to paths (outlines) in Illustrator® or InDesign®. That way, if things don’t work out the way you’d hoped, you’ve got something to fall back on.

Go easy on filters

New users and non-designers tend to go at special effects like a bull in a china shop, adding big, bold, ugly embossing, drop shadows and glows to everything. Less is more. Use sparingly.

How to design an album cover – wrapping up

Hopefully you now have a better idea of how to design an album cover.

There’s a lot to consider, so if this is overwhelming, consider getting someone in to help. After all, maybe you found the process of recording, mixing and mastering your music overwhelming too, but in this case you may have had someone do these things for you!

Have you ever designed your own album cover? How did it work out? Was it a success, or do you now wish you’d done it differently, or got someone to help you? Let me know in the comments below!

Paul Jackson

I’m Paul Jackson, a British graphic designer/web designer in Essen, Germany. “I help record labels and other creative people realise their music, book and website projects.” See my about me page for more information.

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