Creating Your Own Album Art on a Budget

Jeff Sheinkopf  •  March 27, 2014

One of the best parts about being an independent artist is the near-total control you have over your creative output. And aside from the songs themselves, nothing sets the tone for your music more than the album art. It’s often the first visual exposure people have to your band, so make it count. With a little planning and some creative thinking, you can put together an impressive design on any budget.

COHESIVE DESIGN 

Elements from your album cover will be used in many ways: posters, t-shirts, press materials, and all over the web. Having assets that can be adapted for a variety of platforms makes everything easier down the road.

You might also want to consider developing a long-term creative direction. It can be a logo, a color palette, or even an overall layout template. If you use it consistently from the beginning, it will become part of your visual identity. Think about The Smiths’ duotone cover images or the entire Blue Note catalog; part of the reason those albums are so iconic is because of their distinctive -- and consistent -- visual styles.

Whether or not you choose to establish a recurring motif, the design process for each album should start with deciding what kind of visual tone you want to set.

SIZE MATTERS

jeff-sheinkopf-album-artWhether you’re releasing CDs, records or digital-only, keep in mind that many people will only see your album art as a tiny thumbnail on their computers or phones. Always preview your design at various sizes to be sure it will work in those small spaces. 

Decide what the end product will be before you get too far along in the design process. If your file isn’t big enough, you’ll either have to rebuild it from scratch or risk some loss in quality when enlarging. And even if you’re not making physical products, you'll still have to meet minimum size requirements for online stores and streaming services. 

A note on package dimensions: Digipak-style CD cases are generally wider than jewel case inserts and standard album covers, so be prepared to create a modified, perfectly square version of the cover for digital use.

Finally, most manufacturers provide free templates for various design software. Since every company has slightly different specs and file requirements, those templates are crucial. If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to ask for help or hire a designer to finalize the pre-press output.

HANDMADE IS OK!

jeff-sheinkopf-album-artOne of my favorite projects to work on was an old band's early EP, which I made using custom rubber stamps, old school stencils, and photocopied card stock covers. The response was great, and we all had fun with the assembly line production.

In addition to saving money, handmade stuff is always popular at the merch table after a show. Experiment with materials to come up with some crafty ideas and you just might turn your record into a collector's item.

Do you know your local screen printer? In addition to posters and t-shirts – both of which you’ll probably need – they often print short run album packaging and likely even offer design services. As independent artists, too, they’re usually happy to sit down and discuss ideas for some unique packaging options.

DESIGNING YOUR OWN ALBUM ART: DOs AND DON'Ts

jeff-sheinkopf-album-artDO be aware of color variations between what you see on your monitor and what will be printed. The colors and brightness are also affected by the weight, texture and coating of your packaging. Ask your manufacturer for help with picking the best material. And if your artwork has sensitive color settings, you can always pay for a high quality proof before the full order is printed.

DON’T use images you find online without verifying that they’re copyright and royalty-free (which is unlikely). Legal issues aside, you're probably getting low-resolution files that won't print well. The camera on your smartphone is likely high enough quality for a CD cover, if not a full 12” record sleeve. Whenever possible, just take the photo, paint the picture, or create the digital artwork yourself.

DO keep all your original files and source materials. The stuff you trash will inevitably be the only stuff you need later on.

DON’T beat yourself up over imperfections. It's a good idea to have several people proofread your liner notes, but a typo might still slip through. Let it go.

DO embrace the happy accidents. Some of my favorite designs have happened completely by mistake.

Finally, DON'T use Comic Sans.

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Jeff Sheinkopf is a freelance graphic designer who specializes in music and film work, creating packaging, posters and other materials for clients around the world. Over the years, he's worked with dozens of labels, including Sony, Atlantic, Universal, Astralwerks, Matador, Virgin and V2; and on countless creative projects for releases by Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash, The White Stripes, The Cure, Björk, Joy Division, Joni Mitchell, Missy Elliott and Moby, to name a few. He’s also worked directly with managers and artists as wide ranging as Al Jarreau, The Church, Bloc Party and Duran Duran.

Prior to starting his own design company nearly 15 years ago, Jeff held a creative position at Elektra Records in New York. He's a longtime ASCAP member, having spent many years writing, recording and touring with a variety of bands.

To view Jeff’s work or to get in touch, visit jeffsheinkopf.com

…and on Twitter: @jeffsheinkopf