It’s Only Graphic Design (But I Like It).

With apologies (and many, many, many thanks) to The Rolling Stones.

My ‘formative years’, as they say, were the 60s and 70s. And that’s why I became a graphic designer.

I was maybe 5 years old when I first heard The Beatles She Loves You on the radio in my parents house in rural England. We (the neighborhood kids at least) all knew something about that sound was kick ass. What we couldn’t know was that we were essentially present at the birth of a genre of music that would dominate our lives and become an incredibly powerful cultural and political force.

Fast forward 8 or 9 years and my big brother and I are hanging out in our tiny shared bedroom in Vancouver. He’s spinning 33 rpm albums on what passed for a sound system back then. (You’d better believe a penny taped onto the top of the stylus was innovation! Google that, kids.) Jethro Tull, The Who, Rod Stewart and the Faces, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Gentle Giant, The Guess Who, King Crimson, Focus, Wishbone Ash, Genesis, UK, The Rolling Stones—the list of awesomeness could go on forever.

What we couldn’t know was that our shared experience would lead us both to our careers. While my brother was totally engrossed in the drum solo from Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and the lyrics to Frank Zappa’s Montana, I was totally engrossed in the album cover design and liner notes from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, 10cc’s The Original Soundtrack and Black Sabbath’s Technical Ecstacy.

He went on to drum lessons (yes, questionable parenting there) and a music-driven career, first as a drummer in a touring rock band and ultimately as the driving force behind Tempus Drums, whose custom fiberglass drums are a cult favorite among serious players worldwide. I went on to design school and a career as a brand / video / website / communications designer, not really a cult favorite of anyone, but what the hell.

Two thoughts. First, we’re basically products of our experiences. And second, the power of music and imagery is unmistakable. The definition of ‘sharing’ when it comes to music and the imagery that surrounds it has obviously evolved along with technology. I have to admit it saddens me a little when I see my kids download songs from iTunes (for a number of reasons, but let’s not get into that here), and to know that the iconic power of the physical album cover—an art form that influenced millions and millions of people (definitely this one)—has pretty much gone bye-bye.

From a branding standpoint the question is simple. Will websites and videos viewed on smartphone screens generate the kind of long-term emotional connections to artists and their work that a pile of 12″ x 12″ cardboard sleeves did? Time will tell.

Or maybe there’s an app for that.


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  • Paul Mason
    January 21, 2014 at 14:39

    Love the blog! Thanks, man.

    I’m occasionally asked, at age 56, why I still play my instrument; my stock reply is “because I can’t imagine ever NOT playing my instrument”.

    To quote Frank Zappa, you are what you is; I’m good with that.

  • Shelley Walker
    January 21, 2014 at 14:43

    “I’m a Believer” Dave. Although my LPs run more along the lines of Bob Marley, the English Beat, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, the imagery and the tactile joy of holding a record cover, (sometimes a double-record with extra insert pieces if you were lucky!) were strong influences in my path to graphic design. I am a designer who has somewhat reluctantly embraced the shift from print to digital media, and I’m hoping that, like most trends, there ends up being a balance between the best of both.

  • David James
    January 21, 2014 at 22:17

    Hey Dave, Just hitting midlife and I think what I’m missing is some vinyl. I want my kids to feel the music in their hands and play a whole side not 1/2 a track in suffle mode. My wife…. she’s not so sure we need a wall of album, plus I sold all hers years ago.

  • Colin Mason
    January 22, 2014 at 10:52

    Being the offspring of someone who owns literally thousands of records, CDs, cassette tapes, and even reel to reel tapes, I’ve always had an appreciation for the artwork that comes with them, especially vinyl. Only recently have I actually started to build my own record collection, but having 60+ years of old vinyl to be found all over, I feel like a kid in a candy store when I walk into a used record shop. I’m happy to see that vinyl is starting to make a bit of a comeback, too. Go into most HMVs (if there still are any), some Future Shops (ironically enough), even London Drugs has a decent selection of brand, spankin’ new records.

    Groovy, baby.

  • Lynn Warburton
    January 22, 2014 at 16:26

    Keep the faith Dave, there is a culture percolating in the downloadable world and it just hasn’t clearly emerged yet (not unlike your five year old self hearing the burgeoning sound of the Beatles). But even if there’s a vacuum in the chilly digital experience, it will foster army of thinkers who are determined to find something tactile that is real, meaningful for them…. And any parent who raises two kids to enrich the world with culture the way you and your brother have should not get called into question.

  • Lorne Terry
    January 23, 2014 at 02:13

    No music, no life…it’s that simple. I love music and I love album art, but also included in some albums were great liner notes. With the physical format you got it all: great tunes, cool art, and insightful thoughts. In the case of one album by Chicago, the one that felt like a giant bank note, you got a sense of touch as well. Try getting all that from a digital file.

  • Mike Friedin
    January 23, 2014 at 08:34

    There is hope, Dave. I love this post for a few reasons: first, the music choices (ELP, Genesis, Tull…) these bands brought a creative sophistication to three chord, four minute songs, and allowed some of us time during a 20 minute instrumental foray to dig into some deeper thinking; second, while technology has changed the rules of engagement, the gist is still the same…perhaps not as tactile, but imagine in 1972, if you could have placed your fingertip over the name of a song on an album cover, and then have a video immediately start streaming of that band playing that exact song live. That would have been pretty cool. Imagine…

  • Neville Mason (cousin)
    April 20, 2014 at 16:07

    I really wouldn’t call Baginton as ‘rural England’ but hey ‘nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!’ One day hope to make it to Vancouver from Liverpool, England. Cheers Dave!

  • Dave Mason
    May 27, 2014 at 17:34

    A village of 300 people with a two room school sure felt rural to an 8 year old!

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