BEHIND THE DESIGN
The conceptualization process, the sound of the music, the origin of the album and the creation of the artwork
Before we deconstruct this project, it’s worthwhile to start from the very beginning, detailing the thoughts and consideration put into the concept prior to the design.
This past spring I was contacted by RanDair Porter of the Seattle-based band, Ransom and the Subset. The band had just wrapped up most of the recording process of their debut full-length album No Time To Lose. They were seeking an artist to design the cover of the album and associated collateral (logo redesign, album artwork, t-shirts, posters, Bandcamp page, etc…). One of the first tracks they sent over was “Anna,” and once I heard it, I was hooked. Seriously, listen to this and try to get it out of your head. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
INTERPRETING THE MUSIC
As you can undoubtedly hear, this band embraces power pop. I should note, this doesn’t fall under the vague “pop” label that’s slathered on any tune that happens to reach a specific chart level. Think Fountains of Wayne, Cheap Trick, Weezer, Elvis Costello, etc. One thing you’ll notice about this band is that they harness the best and catchiest aspects of the genre without sounding retro, dated or yearning for the “good ol’ days.” It’s modern power pop and that is something that definitely needs to be reflected in the design.
UNDERSTANDING THE ALBUM’S ORIGINS
If you’ve ever worked with an artist or graphic designer on a big, conceptual project like an album cover, you know it’s not a matter of picking out cool photos and pretty colors. Every designer has their own process, but I try to understand the foundation of each project, what went into the music, and where they want it to go. Luckily, since Ransom and the Subset and Renegade Chihuahua both hail from Seattle, I was able to have an initial in-person meeting to really understand what went into this record.
Well, A LOT went into this record. This thing sounds amazing, and there’s a reason. Over the course of a year, recording sessions were held in Seattle, New York, and Boston. In addition to the core of the band, there’s a few notable guest performances on this record, one being a cameo by Jody Porter of Fountains of Wayne, who played bass & guitar on “Sticking on to You” which you can listen to here:
CREATING A HOLISTIC, INTERCONNECTED WORK OF ART
From a design perspective, the band wanted the art to be in tune with the songs and convey the same concepts. No Time To Lose was settled on as the title of the record and they wanted that idea to be present on the album cover.
I started to think about how the cover should work with the rest of the album and the environment these songs created. In the world of single digital downloads, I’m still a big fan of “the record” as a holistic and interconnected being that is the sum of all parts. With that in mind, I really dove into the songs and lyrics to flesh out what should go into this design. Overall, I know the band wanted something that retained a rock sensibility without being too grungy and refrained from dated retro elements that are too easily applied within the power pop genre.
The title itself was my starting point. Here, No Time To Lose is very much literal. Life is finite and you only have one chance to do what you want. That’s an important concept and one this record exudes beautifully without being cliché. I wanted the art to express that in the same way.
With a fist full of unreleased songs and some concepts floating about, I started to piece together the elements of this cover. So next, I’ll break apart the design itself and talk about its significance and what it means to the record as a whole.
The best album covers are those that relate to something genuine, be it the songs, stories within, or some other type of symbolism. It should never be just some “cool design.” Now, I don’t necessarily mean that every record is or should be a concept record. I love a good double LP prog-rock space opera just as much as the next girl. But a record can be a collection of songs and still work with the art, even when it’s meant to be perceived in an ironic way. And sometimes the art itself might be the narrative.
I have a pretty extensive questionnaire that I send out to all of my clients before I begin working on the album art. With RanDair, the questionnaire is what initially presented me with an idea to begin with. I followed up, and after talking with him further on the subject, I established the concept for “No Time to Lose”: essentially, our time is finite, and acting urgently while still living in the present is imperative. After brainstorming a bit and taking his initial ideas to heart, I saw an opportunity to really expand on the original concept.
I tell all my clients this, so it’s certainly worth mentioning here: part of my job entails a bit of psychology and detective work. I’m not just a designer; I’m a translator through visual storytelling. It may sound silly, but it’s true. I start every project with research, research, and more research before ever hopping onto my art pad or into Photoshop or Illustrator. And in this case, while doing my research I was really captivated by the idea of a large cityscape. (Personally, one of my favorite sights in Seattle is the view of downtown across Lake Union as you travel south on I-5.)
To me, a cityscape can simultaneously seem inspiring and intimidating. It’s a place you can find opportunity, or get utterly lost. Its ordered streets are filled with chaos mixed with destitution, but it is also a strong visual implication of movement, growth, excitement, life and possibility.
You’ll notice the silhouette of a man standing before the city. You’ll also notice the city is literally popping out of the ground, as though it’s sprung from somewhere deep below. Perhaps it is a mirage because the observer is thirsty for something that is missing. The city represents an unintended impediment or a turning point for the traveler. It demands attention as it looms overhead with signs that are personal for the observer.
If you look closely, you’ll see there are instruments stacked in with the buildings, a subtle nod to the idea about what the music and album represent for the band. In this case he can choose to avoid it and take the path of least resistance or he can choose to dive into the unknown and see what’s in store for him. You can almost look at it like the adventures of the four companions in the Wizard of Oz.. or better yet, The Wiz!
A LUMINOUS TIME KEEPER
As the clouds clear and the sky opens up, another reminder comes into view, looming somewhat ominously over the city. A ticking clock, formed into a full moon that lights up the sky into a yellowish glow, represents an awakening, a new dawn. However, the face of the clock is crumbling under the sheer gravity of the urgency inherent in the situation. Time is breaking down and on the verge of quickly fading away. This is one of the more obvious symbolic aspects of the design, but one I really liked and felt worked well.
As is with life, time is always counting down. He has to make a choice. Confront and pursue a dream that has grown into something much larger than life at this point (literally emerging from concrete), or ignore the dream and carry on with life, always wondering what could’ve been. An opportunity for curious new adventures is lost in the fear of the unknown.
REPRESENTING A JUXTAPOSITION: HOW I USED COLOR
You might be thinking that’s some heavy stuff for a power pop record! I’ll admit one of the challenges of this cover design was showing these concepts without seeming depressing. After all, there’s some seriously catchy tunes on the record:
This is why colors and style are so important, which in this case represent the bright and polished tones of the music. I feel that with the color choices we used and the sketched organic look, we hit the sweet spot of representing a personal, serious concept in a light-hearted way. The blues and purples give a feeling of calmness, while the yellow is more positive and vibrant while also implying a bit of urgency. The overall atmosphere is imaginative, but down to earth… not too bright, not too bubbly.
Next, we’ll dive into the design of the album liner notes and take a look at some interesting choices that may surprise you. Additionally, we will look at the finished package design, and I’ll include some of the awesome places in the world that this album has ended up since it’s release.
The whole notion of “No Time to Lose” to me personally is not a grave one, but rather a positive sentiment. While life is finite and time is always running out (something we can all relate to), it is nice to make the connection that if you recognize your passions and take action, in the end, you are still in control of your future.
Once we established the concept for the music and conveyed that into the cover art, it was time to move into the design of the digipak packaging, along with the lyric booklet, the actual CD and a separate jewel case layout. With so much focus these days on developing cover art that may only be used online, I was excited to have the opportunity to build the album to it’s fullest. Along with that, I also designed their Bandcamp site and took their promo shots. Click the photos to view them larger.
Photo Credit: Rebecca King
EXPANDING THE NARRATIVE
The approach to the cover art is significant because it has multiple layers that contribute to the establishing shot of the story behind the album’s concept. Early on in my conversations with RanDair, I knew I wanted to keep his story a prominent part of the artwork. I wanted to keep telling the story, building a visual setting very much based on the lyrics, their meaning and on the emotion of the music. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this great album justice. The cover conveys this notion of being on the brink of the unknown, faced with a choice. By opening the album, you’ve decided to take a step into the narrative. You’re now immersed in the city you were once viewing from the outside. This type of design is interactive as it puts the viewer in a place that requires action.
SECRETS IN THE STREETS
The lyric booklet is something that I always get excited about. I love it mostly because I can play more off of the concept of the package design. It’s a way to amplify the visual communication with the viewer, in a way that can seem a bit unassuming. Which is why I really got a kick out of this one because I decided to hide little easter eggs in the art, albeit inconspicuous to most.
Hidden throughout the city scene are ideas and images taken directly from the songs and the overall story behind the album, bringing the themes to life. Looking at the booklet, with this in mind, you’ll start to notice a few of these. There is at least one hidden element for each song. I don’t want to expose them all since it’s a bit of a game, but I’ll show you two of the easier ones just to give you an idea:
- Anna’s Coffee sign: a playful reference to the girl named Anna from the song “Anna”
- I-805 sign: from the line “long drive up 805, hills pass me in the night” in the song “Questions”
I should also mention that while some of these hidden elements may be literal, there are others that are more symbolic.
Every project presents it’s own unique challenges and this project, as a whole, was no exception. But that’s actually what makes it so intriguing! It’s like solving a puzzle or cracking a code. In this case, the solution involves communication, creative construction and a unique approach that pulls the overall idea into a cohesive work of art. And one of the greatest things about working on albums, such as No Time to Lose, is the storytelling. Everything is connected and it makes the overall work feel very connected. It also makes for a lot of fun when you get to see how others react to the finished product, viewing it as the whole that it now is. And that’s exactly what happened.
A little extra tidbit: here’s a pretty cool photo that RanDair was kind enough to send me. Not only is this album on the shelves in the U.S., but it made it’s way all the way to Shibuya, Tokyo where it was also very well received!
To listen to or to purchase Ransom and the Subset’s full album, No Time to Lose, be sure to check out their band page, for which I also provided art design and direction.