Some album covers will stay with us forever; instantly recognisable for their artistry as much as about the music they represent. A great album cover is like a great logo—it endears an audience to your ‘brand’, giving them a glimpse further into the world that you’ve created through your music and performance. Rather than being an afterthought of creation, all elements of the album cover, from colors to typography choices, should be carefully considered. Here’s our guide to creating an album cover that represents you and your music.
Although music is an abstract art form, there’s an undeniable commercial element to its creation, too. If you want an album to sell, a cover design that sends its own message about the music contained within and catches the eye is also crucial, even when music is purchased through a digital store rather than plucked from record store shelves.
There’s also a legacy of great album cover designs that retain a place in history because of their distinctiveness, with that image becoming an inextricable part of the music the visuals represent. It mimics the way clever branding communicates certain messages about a company; the way you want your audience to understand you and your music can be helped along by the visuals that accompany your album release.
Branding is the practice of creating a visual identity for your brand and in a way, your album cover should be a similar exercise. Before you can design an effective cover, you need to understand a few fundamentals: who are you as a musician or band? Who are your audience? What do you want your listeners to think or feel when they listen to your music? Are you inspired by anyone or anything in particular? Answering these questions can help give you a deeper understanding of your identity as a music creator and later, help you to visually express this. As you would in a branding exercise, try and boil your music down to a core mission statement and use this as a springboard to creating the visual representation of this.
Although it may be difficult to immediately discern, even the most uncomplicated designs still convey a message—just consider how much Apple’s logo communicates about their commitment to forward-thinking, simple and user-friendly design.
Color psychology has a huge role to play in this regard. The vibrant, exciting color red has a wildly different impact than that of the soothing hue of blue, so it’s important to think about what colors best communicate who you are.
Consider how color affects your perception between these iconic covers:
Although there’s something undeniably striking about this painted vision of Lorde by artist Sam McKinniss, the prevailing shades of blue classic painting creates a kind of peaceful power rather than the dramatic, mysterious pulsar signal-inspired design in contrast to Peter Saville’s design for Joy Division.
Want to capture the powerful simplicity of Joy Division famous cover? Try Canva’s Geometric Circles Album Cover template.
Typography has an incredible capacity to evoke feeling: just imagine how it might feel to read your daily newspaper where the text is depicted in Comic Sans as opposed to something classic like Georgia. You can harness the power of typography in your album cover, especially if you made this a focal point.
Todd Tourso’s contemporary cover for Beyoncé’s self-titled album is unexpected in the context of the overused glam shots commonly found on album covers including the artist’s back catalogue. Tourso drew inspiration from Metallica’s Metallica (The Black Album) album cover and type used in boxing-match placards.
Many album covers choose to depict the artist within its artwork but, as many creatives prove, that doesn’t necessarily mean a typical glamor or backs-against-the-wall band shot.
To Swift, the 80’s were “ a time of limitless potential” and a decade she truly loves. It then seemed fitting to shoot her album cover using a Polaroid. Although Polaroids have been around since 1937, it wasn’t until the 80’s that instant cameras became affordable, making them one of the decade’s preferred mediums of expression.
The polaroid concept added a layer of authenticity to Swift’s music (or at least to how it was perceived). But aside from a meaningful concept, it was also a differing visual approach that still captures her as the face of her music but in a new, creative way.
A good starting point when it comes to album cover design is to familiarise yourself with both the music and the artist(s) you are designing for. A thorough understanding of the tone that the music is trying to achieve can make the design process a lot smoother and bring the outcome closer to the artist’s vision.
Björk’s album covers have always been known to be as experimental as her music. For her album Homogenic, Björk once again channelled her unique vision of immersive performances and worked with designer Alexander McQueen to create an outfit for the character she’d envisioned, bringing the spirit of her music to life visually.
Would an all-white cover with no detail reflect her music accurately? Likewise, would a smiling shot of her in a t-shirt capture the depth of her creations and musical legacy? This cover is the perfect example of how knowing the mood and aims of the music contained within will affect the outcome of your design.
Iain Macmillan, the photographer behind this iconic Beatles cover, had a mere 10 minutes to hop up on a ladder and shoot the iconic photograph. One of the greatest lessons here is that sometimes the cover doesn’t have to be packed full of symbolism and profound meaning. If it speaks to the audience about the content, it can be as simple as an inviting picture of the road. Its power is in its simplicity, arguably like a lot of The Beatles early loop melodies and spare, joyful, lyrics.
David Bowie already had a reputation for shattering stereotypes even before this iconic album, but it was his Ziggy Stardust persona that made androgyny cool. This also made him one of glam rock’s pioneers — a movement that sat somewhere in between music and fashion. The cover reflected Bowie’s attitude and music perfectly; left of centre and full of personality.
Patti Smith and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the two figures behind Smith’s Horses cover Polaroid, were pals long before Smith’s debut studio album. The pair met when Smith inadvertently walked into Mapplethorpe’s New York City apartment looking for somebody else. The two became close friends and lived together during the time that both were developing their art.
It was their intimate friendship that led them to collaborate on what the social critic Camille Paglia has called “one of the greatest photographs ever taken of a woman.”
When done well, a black and white design can be striking and timeless. And that’s a great thing for a musician.
Try something classic like Canva’s Rose Minimalist Album Cover to channel a timeless aesthetic.
For A Sky Full of Stars, Coldplay chose to continue working with Czech etching artist Mila Fürstová. The artwork for the cover was developed around the same theme as their cover for Ghost Stories: Magic. Fürstová’s breathtaking etchings for the album feature smaller figures, like angels and birds, contained in a large star chart.
You can simulate this effect by pulling together a collection of details. Make it so these smaller figures represent smaller, individual stories and create a larger narrative that encompasses them all, adding to a feeling of mystery for your work.
Custom illustrations make the music truly stand out. Canva’s Brown Illustrated Acoustic Album Cover template is a great example of this.
For an artist that hadn’t revealed much of himself during the early days of his career, Frank Ocean’s album cover, Blond, reveals a lot while also holding onto some mystery. Moreso, the color of Ocean’s hair, paired with the white space used in the album, gives the photograph a modern and contemporary feel.
This album cover is a great lesson in simplicity for designers working with musicians who have a clean and simple aesthetic: more isn’t always more, as Ocean proves.
Queen’s Hot Space was a big departure from the band’s previous direction, both musically and stylistically. It seemed only fitting then to produce a cover that departed from what was expected of them as well.
The cover, Freddie Mercury’s idea, featured a graphical representation of each of the band members. Its simplicity and boldness were a perfect pair to Queen’s new brighter, dance-driven tunes. No cover could do a better job of representing Hot Space’s all time classic, Under Pressure.
Colors can communicate a lot in the visual realm so if the music is different, let the album cover be also.
Behind the cover of New Order’s Power, Corruption, and Lies is English art director and graphic designer, Peter Saville. Saville is known for his record and album cover designs for Factory Records as well as an impressive career that spanned several decades.
When tasked with designing the cover for Power, Corruption, and Lies, Saville went down to the National Gallery in search for inspiration. At the end of the day, with no clear direction in sight, he purchased a few postcards at the National Gallery’s gift shop and called it a day.
One of the postcards featured Fantin-Latour’s famous roses. Saville thought them the perfect image for Power, Corruption, and Lies. “Flowers,” Seville says, “suggested the means by which power, corruption and lies infiltrate our lives. They’re seductive.”
The lesson here? Inspiration can strike anywhere so keep looking for your next visual ‘aha’ moment.
Talk about expressive type. Riot’s! cover, covered in loud type, doesn’t only visually depict the album’s title but also its raw energy. The chaos and handwritten quality of the image gives it a feeling of authenticity — and blaring sounds. It gives you more than a hint about the musical direction of this album, which means it’s done its job.
If there is a symbol that is synonymous with Pink Floyd, it is definitely the prism. Designed by Storm Thorgerson, the prism is meant to convey the brand’s characteristic lighting as well as the album’s powerful lyrics.
Symbolism is an age-old visual technique of creating mystery and depth, giving audiences only a hint of what they can expect. Don’t feel like you need to be so explicit with everything your design contains—leaving some things to the imagination builds tension and excitement.
Going for symbolism? Try something from Canva’s extensive image library.
As Daft Punk got ready to return to the dance music scene in 2013, they reached out to creative director, Cédric Hervet. Hervet, who had previously worked with the band on films Electroma and Interstella 5555, was tasked with Random Access Memories’s (RAM) art direction, concept, cover art, and creative direction.
The black background, sleek graphics, and expressive type on the top-left hand corner all represent the contemporary nature of Daft Punk’s music perfectly. Between the black background, the sleek, futuristic imagery and the symmetrical asymmetry, you’ve essentially captured a Daft Punk track in an image.
Andy Warhol wasn’t just behind The Velvet Underground and Nico’s iconic album cover—he was a huge driving force behind the band, serving as both designer and manager. Originally, he’d designed a cover for The Velvet Underground and Nico that featured a banana sticker fans could peel off to reveal a nude-colored banana beneath.
Printing difficulties resulted in this final version, which echoes Warhol’s obsession with mundane objects rendered in new and different ways. Putting an everyday object at its centre was the key to Warhol’s attention-grabbing art—and this cover.
Arguably during one of the most exciting times in rock music, The Beatles released one of their most iconic album covers, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Designed by Sir Peter Blake, each member of the mega band wanted to choose a few muses that they were inspired by to accompany them on the cover. Stars like Marilyn Monroe and Bob Dylan appear as collages on the front cover.
While many modern-day album artworks tend to favor strict minimalism, The Beatles make a serious case for going bold without restraint—especially when the goal is grabbing your audience's attention.
Bruce Springsteen’s album Born in the U.S.A is filled with songs that have become true classic rock anthems. While you can’t see the US flag in its entirety in the artwork, the album uses the red and white stripes, faded denim jeans and a trucker's cap to symbolize many of the themes touched on in the album.
Photographed by Annie Liebowitz, this cover gives us a quick glimpse at the central themes explored through Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics—thus, enticing the listener before they’ve even heard a song. From a branding perspective, the artwork matches Springsteen’s overall brand at the time which aimed to appeal to many working-class Americans.
Aside from the striking color choice used against a black and white image, part of what Makes this album artwork by The Clash so iconic is that it was intended to be a homage to Elvis Presley’s first self-titled album.
The contrast between its original inspiration and the result is the real inspiration here. Don’t think that using a source as inspiration means you have to use it exactly in the way it was intended; subversiveness is a powerful visual tool, too.
Designed by Mark Ryden, Michael Jackson’s album cover for Dangerous is meant to reflect much of Jackson’s personal and professional life. While many sources have linked each image to a significant moment in Jackson’s life, sources also believe that the artwork depicts a circus and that this is how Jackson felt about fame and the music industry.
The intricate nature of this image gives you something new to look for every time you glance at—it unfolds in front of you and it’s a visual delight, layering with meaning.
There’s bold, there’s simple and then there’s ultra-minimal, which was the case for the album artwork for Beck’s album, The Information. In the name of anti-packaging, Beck released an album cover that was a simple sheet of graph paper. Listeners were also given a set of stickers that they could then arrange as they wished.
Here, Beck’s design cleverly mimicked his sensibilities as an artist. What does the musician you’re trying to represent believe passionately in?
It’s a stark contrast: A doe-eyed baby on the cover of an album titled Ready To Die, but many believe that this is exactly the point. Positioned in the front and center of a white backdrop, the idea of human innocence, vulnerability, and new beginnings is clearly communicated through this album cover.
Bridget de Maine