A vinyl album cover – and the entire design – should be more than a translation of your CD art to a larger format. Here’s advice for killer vinyl design.
Even though CDs and vinyl records both make use of similarly-proportioned circles and rectangles in their design templates, each format presents unique opportunities to create graphics that your fans will love. Here are some tips from experienced designers and product managers to help you craft an album cover design worthy of the music enclosed therein.
Get to know vinyl LP designs, physically and digitally
Spend a little time searching the Internet and you’ll find plenty of examples of vinyl album art done right and wrong. Lists like these are subjective, of course, but taking in a slew of album covers will help you figure out both what makes you want to hear every note contained inside — or run away screaming.
Even with countless album covers available to look at online, make sure to get your hands on physical vinyl albums as well. I’ve interviewed many successful musicians, engineers, and producers who came of age during the original era of vinyl; so many have remarked about how much it meant to them to hold a vinyl album package in their hands, gaze at the art, and read all of the album notes as they listened. If done carefully, your album design can have that sort of impact, too.
Whether you’re flipping through your own vinyl collection or the record bin at a local music store, again, pay attention to what inspires you and draws you in, what looks good and is easy to read, and what isn’t. Such observations can help you make the right choices when it comes to designing your own album art for vinyl.
When you’re designing a vinyl album, you have about four times the space on each panel that you do on a CD. Disc Makers Product Manager Mike Weakley offers simple advice: “Use it.”
“Because most people are releasing both a vinyl and a CD version of their record, you often see the same album cover design on both, but it shouldn’t just be ‘the same CD design, but bigger.’ It’s probably better to think of it the other way around. Start with the art for the vinyl version, then shrink it for the CD. Your vinyl-buying fans will love you for it.”
Graphic designer Mike Wohlberg echoes the sentiment. “If you’re designing a layout for vinyl, always design bigger than what you think you’ll need,” he advises. “Too often people will design for the CD first, and realize that they have to upscale their image to fit the size of a vinyl jacket.”
If you’re working in a design program like Adobe Photoshop with a raster file — AKA psd, tif, jpeg, or other similar formats — Wohlberg warns that increasing the size of the image could yield gnarly results like pixilation or distortion. “Sometimes the results can make parts of your album cover design – or the entire design – illegible,” he says. “The image for each panel should start out at the size of the vinyl jacket proportions and then be scaled down to fit the size of a CD later.”
Don’t hesitate to outsource
Just because you can find your way around Photoshop or InDesign doesn’t mean that you’re the best person to design your vinyl packaging, advises graphic designer Doug Heusser. In fact, just like calling in a professional to mix and master your audio master, so can calling in a trained expert to help you design the package that your music calls for.
“If you are not a designer, then find someone who is to help,” he says. “The outside of your package is a selling point and it needs to be clear and eye-catching. Chances are, you spent a great deal of time and energy putting your release together and this may be the last step in the process. If this is the case, make the extra effort to treat it with the same pride and respect that you gave the rest of the project.”
Need help finding a designer? If you choose to work with Disc Makers, the company can hook you up with seasoned in-house professionals like Heusser and Wohlberg; similarly, asking your indie artist colleagues for referrals can get you far.
Get your file sizes and formats correct
As a vinyl album is larger than a CD, your digital design files should beefier as well. “Generally speaking, in order to maintain the best print quality when designing a project for vinyl, you need much larger, higher-resolution images than for a CD design,” says Weakley, “about twice the length and width of a CD jacket. Good photos look great when they’re big, but bad ones look very bad.”
Both Heusser and Wohlberg recommend a minimum file resolution of 300 dots-per-inch (dpi) when working with vinyl. “I wouldn’t recommend anything smaller than 12.5″ by 12.5″ at 300 dpi,” says Wohlberg. “This will give you plenty of image to reach the bleed line of whatever jacket you may be working with. Since vinyl has only recently increased in popularity, even very famous musicians put out records with poor upscaling and it gives their layout a very junky feel. Always design bigger than you think you need. It will save you from some very unnecessary stress down the line.”
When it comes to dimensions, build in some flexibility. “Don’t make an image that strictly requires the proportions of a vinyl jacket if you are later converting it to a CD layout,” says Wohlberg. “Vinyl jackets, CD Digipaks, and CD booklet covers all have slightly different proportions and don’t always necessarily scale well into one another. Give yourself adequate safety room between the important information on the cover, things like the artist name and title, and the cut line of the jacket. If you have too much information that extends to the very edges of the safety margin on a vinyl jacket, it’s going to be much more difficult to scale it down to the proper proportions of a CD cover.”
One final tip from Heusser: “Avoid scanning your CD artwork to generate files to use on your LP,” he says. “Those previously printed inserts carry a printer dot pattern that will not reproduce properly, especially if you are enlarging or stretching the images. Find a designer to help you rebuild the artwork using the original files and fonts.”
Keep it clean
Given all of the extra design real estate you have to work with when it comes to a vinyl album cover, it’s easy to go crazy — but remember that, with great power comes great responsibility.
“Don’t make the art too busy,” says Weakley. “While there’s a lot more space for text and such, it’s important to make sure it is still readable, with a good layout. Every once in a while I get a record with an insert that just looks like a block of text. This makes my brain hurt.”
Wohlberg offers some specific tips on keeping your design clean and readable: “Leave out any unnecessary small text or important small details from the cover,” he says. “Though vinyl has increased in popularity over the past ten years or so, it still pales in comparison to digital sales and most covers are seen much smaller than they would on a vinyl jacket.”
It’s nice for visual artists to have a much larger canvas with which to work, he continues, but small details can be lost in translation when an image is cut down to a small JPEG, or seen on an iPod. “Any important information should work just as well small as it does large,” he says.
Respect the label
“A CD face and a vinyl sticker are two completely different things,” says Wohlberg. “Though they’re both round and appear on the media that actually plays the songs, the dimensions and specs are completely different and are capable of holding very different amounts of information. The vinyl sticker, especially for a seven-inch record, isn’t meant to hold a large amount of information like track lists, contact information, and recording credits.”
Since the label on your record is a different beast entirely from on-disc CD design, designing with care is a must. “Keep the LP label simple and think about using some colored wax,” says graphic designer Doug Heusser. “It’s always more exciting and desirable than traditional black. There are endless color combinations, patterns, swirls and splatters available.” (To see some of the options available from Disc Makers, click here.)
Print and proof
Many artists and producers listen to their final masters time and time again to make sure everything is perfect before calling the project done. When it comes to album design, the same level of meticulousness can be a blessing — especially when it comes to vinyl.
“Proofread!” says Weakley. “Vinyl is big and costly, and that makes mistakes even bigger. Find a way to print your design and proof it at actual size. Sometimes something will look great on your small screen, but once it’s full-size, you’ll find that it needs a few tweaks.”
Don’t rush the proofreading part of your album production, or any part of the design process, he continues. “Pressing a record is a big deal,” he says. “It’s better to get it perfect than it is to get it tomorrow.”
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