The Life and Decline of Cover Art

With our new willingness to digitise everything we are loosing a major part of our culture. A whole art form is dying as we trade the convenience of downloading the bestselling novel to our kindle, our favourite album to our iPhones and the latest blockbuster to our AppleTV. You may not care, but I think you should. It has produced many great visual works in it's past that stand up in their own right.

Cover art is important. It is a piece of visual art commissioned by a publisher to celebrate another artistic work through promoting it. It may well be commercial but it has lead to some creative and important visual work that can have the same effect on us as a painting in a museum. Take the image of a baby Spencer Elden, swimming under water on Nirvana's Nervermind album, for example. Or the prism and rainbow of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Storm Thorgerson who produced that Pink Floyd cover art is a huge inspiration to me.

In the day when the physical medium for music was a 12" vinyl disk, the packaging was big and had impact. Because we brought them in shops, the designs on the packaging were important, competing for our attention. In fact it was partly album art that spurred on my own obsessive collecting of vintage Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin LPs when I was at University in the late 90s. Even when the CD took centre stage in the mid 90s, album art still held its importance, albeit in a smaller format. Now with the majority of music purchased online, there is no longer a need for anything special on the cover. We still see some interesting cover art but when it has to work as a 64 x 64 pixel thumbnail, it leaves little space for depth or impact.

Book shops are in decline as are the book covers on their shelves. I personally think we are a long way off seeing the death of the book, as a physical form. For one, art books don't work on these electronic devices very well. They are not called coffee table books for nothing, we want to show them off, we want them to catch our friend's attention. That aside, we love to flick through them aimlessly, or for reference. That doesn't quite work on the kindle and to be honest neither do references or travel guides generally. Sometimes you don't know exactly what you are looking for. What you do know is that whatever it is will jump out of a page at you. This something is only found by flicking through the pages like a flip book. So, no I don't think the book is dead but certainly in a world where more is purchased online the book cover is loosing its importance and impact.

It is the manufacturers of the electronic devices that store this media have done us the biggest disservice. No, not by making digital content available in this way, but by missing out on the importance of cover art. Although cover art's primary purpose was to promote and catch our attention, it has become part of our identity, the books we read, films we see and music we listen to, help define us. We are proud to show these off. In fact Amazon nearly got this right in the early Kindles, when you locked the screen and got a random classic book cover appear. What a shame they didn't peruse this further so that when you locked the device the cover of the last book you read was shown on the screen. No they dropped this for random images of typography. The iPhone makes a half hearted attempt at displaying the cover art of what your are listening to (at that moment) on the lock screen, albeit obscured by functional elements. So, where we once walked around with small pieces of visual art in our hands, we have traded this for dull bits of conformist plastic or aluminium.

There is hope though for cover art. Craig Mod wrote an interesting article on where he sees the future of book covers going. He has some interesting and creative ideas on how designers can and should adapt to the new media. We still also have the posters, billboards and advertisements that promote books, music and films. These are not going anywhere. As long as people are walking past a blank wall, it will be used to advertise to them. In time that poster may well become an LCD screen or digital ink, but it is still there as a poster or billboard. In some cases billboards may become video but in an ever fast paced world the still image on a poster will have more chance of communicating a message to the glances of passers by. So yes, there will still be cover art, but shed a tear for this important art form that we are discarding with every download.