Epitaph for a record label

NHS381 marks a sad moment in my music industry design career. I’m no stranger to design and identity projects for labels that have had short runs and naturally fizzled out, but Med School is the first one to very firmly close its proverbial doors after more than a decade.

It came as a bit of a shock to me – and everyone, including the decision-makers, I think, to wind down the label at just shy of 100 releases. It was a hell of a thirteen-year run, but the decision was made, and Hospital decided the best way to acknowledge the label and its exploits should be in the form of a ‘Graduation’ LP on the big label.

The artwork project proved to be a bit of a battle, but in the end my awkward illustration skillz saved the day, and we ended up with something we all liked. Below is an alternative cut in classic Med School scrubs-green, which didn’t quite win the office popular vote over the full-colour version, but it’s the one I prefer anyway.

Alternative, classic-green Med School Graduation record cover

Beside the Graduation LP, though, it’s worth a moment to look back at the Med School design history, if a little critically. Continue reading “Epitaph for a record label”

Waschmann spins again

My new attempt at an old painting of a spaceman-washing-machine

It feels a little silly to paint a picture I already painted a few years ago, but the Waschmann caught my attention again recently. I was thinking about how my attempt at contrasting a matte space sky with a glossy robot body didn’t really work on the canvas surface. I decided I’d give it another go on a harder surface, and it would be a good excuse to have another go with Stuart Semple’s Black 2.0 paint (and by funny coincidence I then heard it featured on 99 Percent Invisible recently too). I’ve got to say – the Black 2.0 paint is super disappointing. The best thing about it is how it photographs, as it’s very easy to blow it out to 100% black when post-processing, but in person it’s laughably not-black. Even regular old System 3 process black is dramatically darker to the human eye, even with a gloss glaze over it. I hope Semple’s Black 3.0 paint is an improvement, but I’m less inclined to try it considering how disappointed I am by the 2.0.

My old attempt at painting the Waschmann

My painting is a little better anyway – it’s a lot more subtle without the thick black outlines.

Screen star

Screenprinted illustration of a castle on a hill

I first encountered screenprinting at the London College of Printing (now LCC), where I was given an introduction to the method, before I dropped out of my course there and set off on this terrible career of mine. I loved spending time in the printing studios at LCP, and at the time, it was my biggest regret about never going back. A couple more flirtations followed (including a misguided attempt at making my own UV lightbox and photosensitising screens that didn’t go very well), and the last time I really tried to do any screenprinting was now somehow about twelve years ago.

My significant other got me some new screens and squeegees for my birthday this year, so I have spent the past couple of months teaching myself how to do it again. It took a couple of attempts at a couple of methods, but I am pleasantly surprised with my eventual results. This is a (nine-minute) video of the entire process.

I picked an illustration idea from the post-it archive and got to work tracing it, separating it into the two-colour print I had imagined, and scaling it for the size of print I wanted to make. Once that was prepared, I made my first attempt at preparing the screens.

The drawing fluid and screen block method was a pretty miserable failure for me, but it’s hard to tell how much of it was user-error, how much was because my mediums were old enough to walk themselves to secondary school, and how much was just the limitation of the technique. The drawing fluid part went OK, but though the screen block didn’t seem thicker than I remembered it being when it was new, it looked a lot thicker than what I had seen in other demonstrative videos on YouTube. It took ages to dry, began crumbling even when washing out the drawing fluid, and generally yielded miserably blurry, bleedy results.

After sulking for a bit, I heard about a technique using sticky vinyl and a plotter-cutter. I don’t have a plotter-cutter, but I am a patient person with a Stanley knife, so I gave it a shot. To quote Brian Butterfield, the results have been incredible. There was still plenty to learn though – in particular, the seagulls in the design ended up coming off the first screen because I think I handled their vinyl cutout pieces too much (better get the tweezers out!), so half of the prints don’t have the gulls in them at all.

Also, my favourite 3M 3434 blue painter’s tape is too sticky to transfer the smaller details to a screen, so that required an intense tweezer job too. I was convinced this was going to fail like the seagulls, so I didn’t bother recording that part of the process. I proved myself wrong; it held up way better than the gulls, and yielded brilliant results that even survived the washing of the screen at the end of the run. My next port of call would be to try some low-tack vinyl transfer tape, but that’s another project for another project.

There is still also a lot to be improved with regard to registration, but I have a couple of ideas for addressing that. I really liked the unpredictable results from my badly-mixed paint streaking through the blue layer, and that is a technique I will also do more to exploit in future printing projects. In all, it’s only a dozen prints, but each one is a little bit different, which I love – if they were all perfect then it wouldn’t have been worth it and they may as well have been giclee prints.

I have been sucked into the world of restoration videos on YouTube recently, particularly the channel of Hand Tool Rescue. The way I put this video together is a little inspired by his (and the whole subgenre’s) work. Making video is lots of work, and lots of overhead on disk space.

If you’d like to buy one of these prints you can email me at ricky@trickartt.com. They are 20x15cm / 8×6”, which is a standard picture frame size.

Wave and spin

Behold my latest record cover! Long-time collaborator Logistics has a habit of kindling inspiration in me, usually by bringing his music with some kind of twentieth-century art or design reference point that is totally in my wheelhouse.

Logistics - Waveforms EP cover

For this EP, Logistics gave me some images of library music sleeves, so I took these reference points and set about creating a unique piece of artwork that (hopefully) feels like it could be part of the same niche. I came up with a scheme to do a spin painting for the artwork. The technique is wildly unpredictable, and (as is the way in the topsy-turvy world of independent music) the constraints didn’t afford the luxury of creating an entire spin-painting turntable, but I managed to cobble together a setup using my power drill, some scraps of wood, and my communal back-garden on a sunny day.

The trial-and-error began. I discovered that acrylic paint was too thick and ink was too thin, but paint from a spray-can was just about the right consistency to drift with the centrifugal forces, but still stay opaque. A few attempts later I was starting to get results I was happy with.

A little colour-shifting later, the results pleased the label and Logistics himself, so it was on to the packaging details. The cover design was divided into thirds, so I found a slightly abstract way to divide the centre labels into thirds too.

Waveforms EP centre label

Because this is a cover for Hospital’s most-prolific musician and the reference point for the artwork was library music, I also went to the effort of presenting the inner sleeve as a library of Logistics’ music in itself. I combed through the entire back catalogue, fought it into a sensible (again thirds-based) layout, and after a bit of to-and-fro over what should and shouldn’t be included where, we have another satisfying detail for the project!

The Logistics Music Library, 2019

The record is available on Hospital Records now.

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!