What’s In The Box?

2019 has been a productive year so far, and has featured a few more ambitious music-packaging projects than I usually get the pleasure of contributing toward. The project I’ve been most excited by this year has finally become real:

Jet Star meets Hospital stopmotion

Jet Star Meets Hospital is a collaboration album between Drum & Bass record-label-and-good-friends Hospital Records, and legendary reggae record label Jet Star Music. The album has been a long time coming. We have all worked on it for multiple years, through various moments of flipflopping between looking like it’s definitely going to happen and looking like it’s never going to see the light of day, but it’s finally here!

JSMH Dinked Centre Labels

The physical product is special. It’s eight 7″ 45RPM records, each of which have been ‘dinked’ (which means they have the huge centre holes, like classic reggae 7″s have). It’s a full version of the album on CD in a digipak packaging. It’s a pair of exclusive 7″ Hospital logo slipmats in a unique ‘Surgical Slippers’ packaging. And because centre holes are big and label copy is long for collaboration records, it’s also a minuiature poster/flyer of the artwork and credits too. And all of this is wrapped up in a miniature record box adorned with the artwork, and ready to fill with the rest of your 45RPM record collection.

Inside the JSMH box

It’s not often I get to design a package with so many individual parts, but doing all the pieces proved to be the easy bit. As is often the case in my world, the much harder part is the creative idea. We didn’t want to go too dumb with the reggae clichés, so we agreed on a cover design approach featuring all the names of the artists involved in the album. I found a nice old record sleeve from the seventies I liked as a starting point, but quickly found that fitting so many names around a central title using pre-designed type an unnecessarily difficult task, so quickly changed my approach to doing it all by hand.

JSMH Cover Design Process

This idea was sound, but direction came from Hospital to make the title more pronounced and to use this as an excuse to emphasise the 7″ format of the project, so we did that. Everyone on the Hospital side was happy, but when Jet Star saw it, they were concerned that it looked too much like one of their competitors’ albums, so back to the drawing board I went. The solution I ended up finding was to not throw all my nice hand-drawn type out completely, but to change its layout, wrapping it around the centre-label design in the middle. The idea got signed off, and after a few more foolish changes, we were approved enough for me to get working on everything else.

JSMH Box

Many elements of the package (the centre labels in particular) were inspired by some of Jet Star’s designs from the seventies. Using these and a little of my own inventiveness, the package came together like a dream. I was very excited to assemble my own box on a visit to Hospital’s offices earlier this month, and I’m very proud of the work!

Fate Has Been Tempted

Considering my last post here involved inventing runner-up positions for imaginary awards, fate has been tempted and now one of my projects has been nominated for an honest-to-goodness real award: the packaging I designed for the 2019 edition of Hospital Records’ Sick Music album series is a nominee for Best Creative Packaging at the Association of Independent Music (AIM) awards. If you scroll far enough, you can see that the nomination really has happened in this BBC News article!

As Hospital’s label manager Romy put it, it’s kind of amazing for us to be competing against Keith Richards.

The record came in a pretty unique hardbacked sleeve, which was packed in a further box containing stickers, T-shirt and extra versions of the album on CD and USB. My favourite part of the packaging, though, was the set of inner sleeves, featuring my petri dish artwork:

Sick Music 2019 Disc 1

Sick Music 2019 Disc 2

Sick Music 2019 Disc 3

Sick Music 2019 Disc 4

Welp, I’m officially a runner-up! We’ll find out if it’s anything more than that in September.

Me As A Movie Poster

An unhappily introspective moment caught me considering the bounds of my career-so-far. I decided to get myself out of the funk the best way I know how, which is by making something. I always enjoy designing posters, so I made myself a poster of myself, both playing into my strengths and needling at my shortcomings in one image.

Make no mistake about it – this is meant to be entirely self-depreciating. I had particular fun making the palmares. I think I’ve got the competition edged on Rickmansworth Hair Grower Of The Year for 2019 too.

Me as a Movie Poster

Cover for me

Designing record covers is ostensibly my job! Here are a couple of artworks I made this spring that I am particularly happy with:

Hospitality On The Beach 2019 Record Cover

This year’s kind-of-annual Hospitality mix album was timed to tie in with the label’s Hospitality On The Beach party. Our first idea turned into an awkward problem involving a girl with a tattoo, so I decided to follow the form of the last couple of Hospitality albums, but this time make it out of sandcastles. Well, I really raided my baking cupboard and made it out of brown sugar, but the effect was perfect. I sculpted moulds out of foamboard and filler, and the cover basically did itself. I am pleased with it!

Etched vinyl disc for Urbandawn's 'Come Together' record

Urbandawn did a cheeky cover-version of The Beatles’ Come Together, and it blew up the club scene so much that Hospital felt obliged to release it. The cover design job fell in my lap, but having never been a fan of The Beatles, I found the job hard. It was as difficult as I found the task of designing beer labels as a non-drinker: these are worlds with very deep, revered cultures with which I have no relationship.

Given that, I must confess I don’t feel great about the actual cover I made. It’s a neo-Junglist agglomeration of Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road, so as a total outsider to Beatles Culture, I worry it seems like an awkward mashup of two things that a more learned person would never want together. But hey, it pleased the label and the artist, and has been well-received by its target market too, so maybe it’s a case of two great tastes that taste great together after all.

What I do feel great about, however, is what’s inside the sleeve! Hospital have been making an effort to make their vinyl more special as the market has continued its shift from DJs to collectors. Because this was a total one-off track, we got to do something for this I’ve wanted to do for a long time, which is to etch some artwork into the reverse of the record, as in most other contexts, the other side would’ve had another track.

Even better still, the design we had etched into the reverse was a revival of an illustration I did several years back. The illustration never ended up getting manufactured as the T-shirt I had intended it to be, and I was always a bit sad about its rejection as I was a big fan of the design. It suited this project perfectly, so it was an extra sweet reward to bring it back in such a unique context.

Etherwood's Lost In The Right Direction packaging

Etherwood has been living/touring in a campervan while writing music for his latest EP, ‘Lost In The Right Direction’. We wanted a way of snapshotting his life on the road, as it seemed like such a crucial part of the experience, but we only had a handful of in-the-moment smartphone photos to communicate that. We ended up using projector slides to contextualise these images on the cover, but my favourite part of this package is the inner sleeve.

Given the retro-photography concept of the cover, I extended the metaphor with the packaging of the inner sleeve. I wanted to evoke my all-too-brief darkroom days, and based on a couple of lovely comments left on my Instagram, it seems like it evoked it for other people too!

Levela - Cerebral EP

I still work with Critical, but my role with them has been a bit more technical lately, as they’ve been getting some excellent artwork done by some of tomorrow’s graphic artists. It was a nice treat to do a whole cover for them again, and this was a Critical classic – mostly black, but a shot of colours and oh-so-minimal. I’m pleased with how this one came out!

My Alma Mater

America is pervasive: Every March, Twitter lights up with talk of March Madness, a huge college basketball knockout tournament, and I am gradually beginning to understand what’s fun about it. Even though I made a new hobby out of watching NBA basketball this winter (which is another story in itself), it’s not the March Madness games that caught my attention.

America is pervasive: It’s always puzzled me a little as to why American college-style clothing became such a thing in the UK, but it did, and it always made me a little happy that my American better-half has a genuine college hoodie from a real university that she, you know, actually graduated from.

As I don’t really have any skin in the game(s), I learned that the fun part of March Madness is to look at the bracket. Look at all those fancy schools, with their fancy logos that the world likes to emulate in fashion. It brings me a small amount of disappointment to think that Kentucky would be full of kids in ‘UK’ hoodies, and small amount of pleasure to think that there are probably thousands of students walking around in Houston wearing sweatshirts that say ‘UH’ in massive on them.

Because I’m neither American nor someone who even made it to a bachelors programme to drop out of, it all made me feel a little left-out. What I am, though, is a capable designer, so in the spirit of March Madness, I took it upon myself to create an alma mater of my own:

University of Great Hair

Here’s a little timelapse of the design process:

Now I don’t feel so left out. The finished result:

A small gift to a niche of the internet

I discovered a Great Thing a couple of years ago: The Casio VL-1. It was totally up my alley – a combination synthesizer/calculator invented 40 (!) years ago. It pushed two practically-unrelated functions together to make one charmingly terrible device (maybe it was more impressive in 1979?). I adore things that make me wonder how they came to be – how someone had the notion to make such a device, how a corporation approved the creation and sale of the machine, how people must’ve also thought it was a great enough idea to buy it (me?). Brilliant.

I couldn’t help but gravitate toward eBay almost as soon as I learned of the VL-1’s existence. The one I bought showed up wrapped in somebody’s local newspaper, but without a manual. No big deal, I thought – these things would be easily available on the internet. I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t right either: The only copies I could find were available by jumping through some hoops on some questionable websites, and yielded pretty miserable, almost unreadable scans of the manual, which naturally upset the designer in me.

I can’t really explain what took over me, but I got an urge to recreate the entire manual. I matched the typography, redrew the illustrations by measuring my own VL-1, and put it all together as a nice and shiny PDF. I did a slight bit of re-flowing of the text to avoid splitting some of the paragraphs like Casio did with the original, but otherwise it’s a faithful recreation*.

This recreation has been sitting on my hard drive for two years, so I figured I would gift it to the VL-1 owners of the internet. Maybe I was the only one who wanted a more legible copy than the existing scans, but if you do too, here is a link to the manual in all its glory. Happy calculating, internet!

*I wish I was smart enough to have amended the instructions to make the synthesiser sound like a duck or something, but alas it’s beyond my skillset!

Bozos

This is a post about the Bose SoundLink Micro. It’s a thing in my house. It sounds fine – better than a phone – so it is good to take on holiday. It is also waterproof, so when not on holiday, it lives in the bathroom. Every time I look at it though, I wince a little at the design:

It looks like the speaker grille on the front was designed by filling a text area with full stops and setting the text alignment to justify. I find it awkward how it follows the curve of the body of the device, until it doesn’t, and just reverts to a jaggedy edge. It’d solve all its problems if the lines followed the shape of the device, rather than just going in unevenly spaced horizontal lines:

Sometimes I wish reality was this easy to photoshop!

The New Future of Pop Music

Like most dorks of the internet, I have a small habit of buying domains without projects to go along with them. A great example of this is TheLivingJacksons.com; a domain I have been sitting on for more years than I care to admit.

There is half a reason for keeping this domain – around the time I bought it, I had decided that if I had a band, I would call it The Living Jacksons. Never mind the fact that I have no known musical skills – I can still just about beat-match records on a pair of SL-1200s, and I can drop the Rhumba rhythm on my Casio VL-1 to great effect, but beyond that, I’ve never even tried to learn an instrument. I figured, though, that an absence of musical skill doesn’t necessarily exclude a career in pop music, and decided I would put a stake in the ground and claim The Living Jacksons as my own idea by buying the domain.

If this all sounds like an incomplete thought, that’s because it was: I knew I had no musical talent, but I didn’t even consider that I didn’t have something to put on the website. The domain sat doing less than nothing, absorbing renewal money for years, until the penny finally dropped on what the shape of my band was. Introducing The Living Jacksons:

N.b. I’m a lot more handy playing the washing machine than ironing boards, but the publicist and I both agreed that bending over to unload a washer wouldn’t have conveyed the message we are looking to convey with this band!

So finally – I created some press images of the band, and put a website together, with marginally more than nothing on it. Still no music though.

Headstand

Whiney's Waystone LP

Catching up a little on this one: Last autumn I had a fun extra-project for an album I worked on. Med School came to me with Whiney’s second album, and the title for it was ‘Waystone’. I really liked the title, and it made me think of the Giant’s Causeway, which was the main inspiration for the artwork. To make it a bit more interesting, I had an idea of using rotational symmetry to ‘break’ the faux-3D graphics, making it feel like it bent around the other way.

The idea was a sell, but as this is Drum and Bass, Whiney wanted my original version to be grimier. I obliged, and although it wouldn’t have been my choice, it ended up opening up an interesting opportunity further down the album’s development run. The label wanted some extra video content and asked me if there was some way I could do a live painting of the artwork – I thought a stencil would suit the more roughed-up design very well.

Conveniently, the label had recently moved into a new office featuring some dead space waiting to be converted into a new studio. The back wall of this space was offered to me to fill with spray fumes, and I was glad I brought a new respirator with me (Don’t spray-paint indoors without one, kids)! I spent a dark winter afternoon down south of the river laying down a bit of colour:

It made for a good backdrop for a live-streamed DJ set before it was entombed behind the new Hospital Records studio this winter. And it gave me a good excuse to do a bit of artwork on a different scale to what I usually do!

Sweet, Noggy Christmas

We’re always searching for unconventional ideas for our annual hand-letterpressed Christmas cards in my world. Always plenty of bad unconventional ideas come up (I actually think the Angel Grinder was pretty good!), but this year’s was a doozy: eggnog.

I’ve been spending Christmas outside of the UK for so long now I’m not sure if eggnog has finally been imported to these shores, but even in its cultural home of America, it still baffles me. It’s kind of like the milkshake you never wanted.

It doesn’t really taste eggy. It sits in the same American Holiday category as pumpkin pie in my mind – a kind of not-entirely-sweet thing that is equally misunderstood outside of the US. I’ve acquired a taste for pumpkin pie now, but every year I’m on that side of the Atlantic ocean at Christmastime, I drink eggnog and wonder why I’m doing it.

I even went to the effort this year of making my own eggnog from fresh ingredients – the real stuff is basically the same ingredient set as a good gelato, so nothing to be afraid of (though your pipes might feel differently). The homemade stuff was definitely better, but still utterly perplexing.

Perplexing – perfect for our Christmas cards! To print we went, with a nice little halftone pattern giving the illustration that extra bit of depth. Super satisfying!

 
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