There’s a widely circulated statistic claiming 75% of all purchase decisions are made in the store.
Although the exact number is open to debate, having a product with a well-designed cover can persuade buyers and perform well in a retail environment. And if your packaging design is extremely good it can even move goods straight into consumers hands even without prior exposure to the product.
This is the kind of promotional power new music and musicians will find handy. Music can be one of the most abstract art forms and having a cover design that translates it into something visible or tangible can make it more appealing to a wider audience.
In this article we’ve gathered some of the best album covers throughout the years — designs that have become an integral part of the music they represent. Paired with them are Canva templates applying the design lessons exemplified by each album cover. Just click on templates with an edit this design in Canva label and use them for your own music.
01. Abbey Road, The Beatles (1969)
Abbey Road ‘s working title was “Everest,” a title inspired by the cigarettes sound engineer Geoff Emerick smoked. For cover art, they’d use aerial photography of the famous mountain.
Soon, however, The Beatles became eager to finalize the album and opted for a much more practical approach. They’d head outside, shoot their cover art on the street they recorded on, and name the album after it.
Iain Macmillan, the photographer behind the photograph, had a mere 10 minutes to hop up on a ladder and shoot the iconic photograph. Amazing to think what little time and planning eventually went into producing Abbey Road’s cover, one of history’s most recognizable photographs.
One of the greatest lessons here is that sometimes the cover doesn’t have to be overthought and packed with layers upon layers of profound meaning. If it speaks to the audience about the content, it can be as simple as an inviting picture of the road.
02. 1989, Taylor Swift (2014)
During a livestream on Yahoo and ABC News, T. Swift dove into some of the detail surrounding her popular album, 1989. In it, the singer shares how much of the inspiration for 1989 came from pop music from the late 80’s. 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 visual approach — an image within an image.
This effectively frames the main focus of the album. It could be the artist or the ambiance of the music, as shown in the above-templates.
03. Aladdin Sane, David Bowie (1973)
They say inspiration is found in the unlikeliest of places. In the case of the cover for Aladdin Sane, the sixth album by David Bowie, this unlikely place is a rice cooker.
Rumor has it that the famous red and blue lightning bolt painted across Bowie’s face was inspired by the logo on a rice cooker in photographer Brian Duffy’s studio kitchen. After spotting it, Bowie and make-up artist Pierre Laroche headed back to his makeup station to develop the world-known bolt with red lipstick.
As for the teardrop on Bowie’s clavicle, that was added in post-production by Duffy. Bowie thought it was sweet and decided to run with it. Here’s to you, David Bowie, and all your rockin’ alter egos.
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 dipped in both music and fashion. If your music has that kind of zing, try using a glam rock-inspired photo on your album, like in the contemporary template we’ve included above.
04. Beyoncé, Beyoncé (2013)
Todd Tourso, Beyonce’s creative director, is said to have considered over a hundred options before returning to his original thought to shape the cover for Beyonce. Early on, he’d envisioned the contemporary cover we see virtually everywhere today.
Tourso wanted to create the unexpected—something completely counter to the overused glam shots commonly found on album covers. To do so, Tourso drew inspiration from Metallica’s Metallica (The Black Album) album cover and type used in boxing-match placards.
The result? A cover decked with bright pink letterforms which have made their way into merch of all kinds (including one of my favorite fab sweatshirts), highlighting the its immense popularity.
Capture the same effect with a lightly colored font on a dark background. Try it quickly using the Canva template we’ve include just above.
05. Rumours, Fleetwood Mac (1977)
Even though it’s a classic, it is arguably one of the strangest covers in our selection. Here’s what makes it so uncanny: the pair of toilet-chain balls dangling between Mick Fleetwood legs. The drummer claims it’s a good luck charm he never performs without.
It also features two band members dressed as classic figures: Rhiannon of English prose literature and a Renaissance man.
If your music or onstage persona takes a bit inspiration from the classics, try a vintage-style aesthetic on your album cover. Click on the customizable album cover featured above to try it out for yourself!
06. Patti Smith, Horses
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. With the right elements, it can be twice as meaningful, just like the Canva template right here.
07. A Sky Full of Stars, Coldplay
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.
Simulate the effect by putting together a collection of details. Make it so these smaller figures represent smaller, individual stories and create a larger narrative that encompasses them all.
08. Celebration, Madonna
Madonna boasts an impressive private art collection. In it, you’ll find over 300 pieces by a myriad maestros including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Damien Hirst, and Frida Kahlo.
With an undoubtedly huge love for fine art, it seems only natural for Madonna to have commissioned street artist Mr. Brainwash to design the cover of her album, Celebration. The cover, based Jean-Baptiste Mondino’s 1990’s portrait of the artist for Bazaar, became an instant pop art classic.
Mr. Brainwash has a signature style and he made full use of it in Modonna’s album. If you have a set of distinct colors already associated to your name or your brand, maximize it. If you don’t, maybe you can try the pop-y combo above.
09. Narrow Stairs, Death Cab for Cutie (2008)
EE Storey, a Montreal-based designer and the artist behind a number of Death Cab for Cutie’s album covers as well as other artists, like Tegan and Sara and The Reason.
The cover for Narrow Stairs reflects much of the darkness and strangeness that characterizes many of its tracks. Just like with previous covers, Storey does not disappoint.
An image or several images set inside shapes can make for a dynamic, contemporary design. Click on the image above to try it out.
10. Hot Space, Queen
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.
Want to try it out? Here’s a template you can incorporate icons representing your band.
11. Power, Corruption, and Lies, New Order (1983)
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. In 2013, he was awarded the prestigious London Design medal. If you’re not familiar with his work, you should Google him now.
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.” And just like that, New Order’s album cover was born.
12. Riot!, Paramore
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. It the perfect pick for Paramore’s second studio album.
This is a cover direction that’s striking, and yet very easy to do. The chaos and handwritten quality of the image gives it a feeling of authenticity — and blaring sounds. If that’s what your music’s like, why not give this template a try?
13. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures, 1979
Peter Saville again knocks it out of the park with his cover for Unknown Pleasures’ Joy Division. For it, the band provided Saville with the graphic they’d like him to work off of: the wave image from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy.
Saville set it in beautiful black and white and felt that nothing else, not even the album title or band name, was needed. The graphic was so perfect that it stood alone. The band agreed and they ran with it.
It has become one of the most replicated graphics, seen today on t-shirts and tattoos globally.
Dare to center on an image that feels right but is actually open to different interpretations? Give the above graphic a chance.
14. Sonic Youth – Goo, 1990
For its sixth album, Goo, Sonic Youth worked with illustrator Raymond Pettibon on a black and white masterpiece.
The illustration is based on a paparazzi image of Maureen Hindley and David Smith, two key witnesses in the Moors murderers in 1966. The popular cover has been parodied countless times since its creation.
You can also use a lineart illustration for your CD cover, just like in the template right here.
15. Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973
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 and albums powerful lyrics.
Curiously, this wasn’t Thorgerson’s first pitch. Initially, he had a created a cover for The Dark Side of the Moon that featured Silver Surfer. The band obviously chose not to go with it and eventually ran with the famous prism.
Going for symbolism? The Canva library has many icons and images you can try out — starting with the template above.
16. Weezer – Weezer (The Blue Album), 1994
Weezer’s Weezer (The Blue Album) cover photograph was shot by Peter Gowland, a well-known American glamour photographer. The image of the 4 band members set over a blue background served not only as the album cover but also as the main piece used on promotional material.
Matt Sharp, the bassist of the alternative rock band, wasn’t feeling the way his head looked in the final shot. So, he had it removed and replaced via a design program.
Weezer’s albums always feature a different prominent color as the background. Different colors mean different things — choose wisely.
17. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (RAM), 2013
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 come together beautifully to make the contemporary cover an absolute visual hit.
Once you have the black background and the sleek imagery, don’t forget the last element: symmetrical assymetry.
The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967
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.
You’d think it was chalked off due to it sexual charge but it was actually difficulties in the manufacturing process (which delayed the album’s debut) that eventually render the design unviable. If only we had today’s printing capabilities back in the late 60’s.
19. Homogenic, Björk
Björk’s album covers have always been known to be as experimental as her music and Homogenic’s artwork was no exception.
For it, Björk worked with designer Alexander McQueen to create an outfit for the character she’d envisioned for the cover. Björk describes this character as someone who has endured many struggles yet has managed to re-emerge as a warrior whose weapon of choice is love.
20. Led Zeppelin
And how could we leave out Led Zeppelin’s iconic debut album cover, featuring a burning airship moments before its crash? Even though the image isn’t of the highest quality, it remains a classic and a true representation of the album’s contents. As Greg Kot put it “The image did a pretty good job of encapsulating the music inside: sex, catastrophe, and things blowing up.”
You can bank on Led Zeppelin’s visual style by taking a symbolic black and white image and dropping in accents of color. Check it out in action in the bird-in-flight album above.
The CD album cover has both artistic and promotional power. Use it right and you can move your music from the shelves (physical or digital) and straight into the hands of your market.
If you want to get started with your album cover, just click on any of the templates in this post or create one from scratch.