Music’s Shrinking Canvas

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What's missing with iTunes?

The relationship between design and music is vast. One of my favorite elements – and from a pop culture standpoint one of the most memorable – is the role design plays in telling the story of a particular album or song. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s great to go to iTunes and download any song I want, whenever I want it. Especially those songs you don’t want to admit to having (i.e., Justin Beiber). Search, find, buy. But what’s missing in the iTunes buying experience is a big part of the wonder and story of music: the album art.

I know it still exists, primarily in a digital form, and some argue it’s more important than ever. But what’s different is the physicalness of it, what the tangible art did to the music itself. I remember going to the music store and flipping through the records. I remember doing the same with cassettes and CDs – not as impactful because of size, but cool nonetheless. Opening that package and pouring over the jacket or sleeve was exciting. I remember the first time I looked at Pink Floyd’s The Wall by illustrator Gerald Scarfe. Exploring the art helped me conceptualize the music and relate to its message more than if it had not existed. Or Milton Glaser’s Sign of the Times poster originally placed in Bob Dylan’s 1966 Greatest Hits album, a rock poster that symbolized the time and the artist. There was an extra dimension at play. What was it? The album art, which often concealed meaning – clues, a spirit – made it feel like the band was connecting with us at a deeper level. It allowed us to interpret and wonder at some of the meaning behind the music. It juxtaposed the title with the art and the lyrics. It gave us something to keep and identify with. I find myself missing these things today.

Media and technology have inarguably changed the game, forever. Designers have new parameters to create albums and book covers that capture some sense of awe in the digital storefront; all at the size of a postage-stamp. But as humans, we respond to (we need?) the extra physical dimension of our experiences. We were made to see, hold, and touch.

The next time you pass an old record store… stop and look. You’ll see what I mean.