From Selena Gomez's Rare to Grimes' Miss Anthropocene, the look and purpose of today’s album covers are shifting to accommodate co-production between fans and artists.

By Emma Madden
February 24, 2020 at 12:00 PM EST
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Illustration by EW

Under the Cover is a column analyzing album artwork.

Ever since Kanye West unveiled the chaotic PowerPoint slide-looking artwork for The Life Of Pablo in 2016, a running joke has accompanied the rollout of kitschy album visuals: “Graphic design is my passion.” For those not in on the gag, the phrase emerged on Tumblr some time in the 2010s, in an unsettling Papyrus font on top of a gray marbled background, inexplicably accompanied by a poorly overlaid frog. That mishmash of deliberately tasteless graphic design, some music fans now believe (either ironically or not), has come to define the style of album artwork today.

The clip art-chic of Vampire Weekend’s latest album cover was mocked for its resemblance to the frog meme. A chorus of “graphic design is my passion” resounded when Lana Del Rey released the visually incoherent artwork, designed by her sister, for last year’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! Drake proved that graphic design was his passion when he dropped 2019’s Care Package, with artwork that was a clear throwback to the days of early, amateurish web design. Ditto Dua Lipa, whose “Future Nostalgia” single cover is embellished with the irony of ‘90s net art. Selena Gomez’s latest was picked apart too (the cover was designed by Petra Collins, both a friend of the artist’s, and a pioneer in graphic design today). Taylor Swift has also been the recipient of album design-based insults. When she released Reputation in 2017, one joke among many took aim at how it resembled “2003-era fan website graphics,” while 2019’s Lover apparently looked like “a fan-made aesthetic post on Tumblr.” Grimes’ self-designed artwork has received similar slander, with one fan describing her latest, Miss Anthropocene, looking “like a girl from tumblr took a screenshot of her digital drawing but she forgot to crop the image and now you can see the entire drawing program.”

At a time when streaming has made album covers almost obsolete, limiting it to the size of a thumbnail, today’s most in-demand designers are looking to bring back the lost days of unrefined, self-expressive internet art. “Because the format has become smaller and lower fidelity, I’m finding that art has become bolder and more idiosyncratic, out of necessity,” Mark Kingsley, founder of Malcontent and designer of several Atlantic Records album covers, tells Entertainment Weekly.

Call it ugly, call it kitsch. But graphic designers are refinding their passion and visualizing new ways of creating digital instead of handheld intimacy. The way to do this is to incorporate the fans, by making the artwork look almost fan-made.

“I think about Lover, and all the glitter heart eyes it inspired and the way people photoshopped themselves on the cover: everyone, from my neighbor to Ellen [DeGeneres],” Valheria Rocha, who designed the artwork for Swift’s eighth album, tells Entertainment Weekly. “There’s a level of iconicness and relatability that made the cover influential. People saw they could easily make their own versions of Lover and I think it makes them feel a little closer to Taylor.”

As well as “the pastel wave,” which is being embraced within the hyperfeminine aesthetics of artists like Swift, Gomez, Ariana Grande, and Meghan Trainor, Rocha notices “a lot of mixing of very glossy digital elements with very raw, handmade elements.” In an era where bootlegs, remixes, and TikToks can drive artists to the top of the charts, the look and purpose of today’s album artwork is shifting to accommodate co-production between fans and the musicians they love.

Valheria Rocha designed the artwork for Swift’s eighth album, Lover.
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“Considering how many followers Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift have, it makes sense for them to have album art that looks like something they could have made on their own to post on their Instagram,” says Lordess Foudre, who designed the net-stalgic artwork for rising indie star Soccer Mommy’s second album Color Theory. “Their fans engage with their social media as much as they engage with their music.”

While the artwork for Soccer Mommy’s upcoming album is an exceptional example, it’s also an aliquot of several trends within graphic design today. It features the “glossy digital elements” Rocha mentioned, as the singer fits neatly inside a faint square grid, while throwbacks to old video game cartridges and PC games (“batteries not included,” “1 or 2 players at once”) makes it appear a little closer to home, as though you could dig the album out from some dusty and forgotten box in the attic.

Since the internet and its digital natives have both come of age, it’s developed a nostalgia for itself — which is something we’ll see increasingly reflected in art and culture within the coming years, and which designers like Foudre are exploring early on.

Perhaps you can pin the incorporation of Web 1.0 elements into today’s album covers down to the cyclical nature of fashion. But Foudre sees it as a rebellion against social media and streaming platforms’ rigid design dimensions. “We almost feel compelled to push against those pre-set boundaries,” she says. “I think modern album design is a creative visual response to the iron grid of the streaming media format.”

At a recent conference, one of the world’s most experienced and esteemed digital designers, Daljit Signh, gave a talk about the joy of discovering early internet, Flash-based design. “When it was first adopted, digital design gave way to huge creativity in the industry. We were able to do incredible, beautiful pieces of work,” he recalled. “But in a digital world where you expect things to be really experimental and beautiful, we now live in a world where things are incredibly flat.”

Today, some of the best and most “graphic design is my passion” album art designers are turning this culture of blandification on its head. While Foudre notes that the fundamentals of album art design haven’t changed — ”It shows you who the musician is or adds to their mystique; it answers some questions and asks new ones” — Jose Jehovanny Garcia, who designs under the moniker Phresh Alias and has done work for Post Malone, attests that it has taken a turn towards the chaotic. “There are more perspectives, which means people have more to say and that is reflective in the design,” he says. Clean, sterilized arrangements, the likes of which we witnessed in the mid-2010s (compare Selena Gomez’s album cover for Revival to Rare, for instance) have been jilted in favor of lawless, intimate, nostalgic art.

Right now, this new wave of design seems to be mocked more than it’s celebrated, or even understood. As Instagram shows, anyone can — and everyone is encouraged to — fit within the square-shaped mode of visual expression. Album designers today are just combatting the professionalization and homogenization of visuals by attempting to scrawl outside the box.

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