Visual Design

Album Cover III

This is the third in my series of posts about the visual design for my Canons album. I’d like to share some photos of the culmination of the process: the physical CD.

Instead of a conventional jewel box, I decided to go with a four-panel digipak, which actually has six design components: front cover, back cover, spine, inside flap, cd tray, and cd surface.

I debated whether to include the liner notes in the album but decided against it for a few reasons: wanted to have the flexibility to edit the notes later, wanted to keep printing costs down, wanted to simplify the process of designing the packaging (took a long time even without notes!), and wasn’t sure how many people would read the notes. This was still a very difficult decision because I think that printed notes are one of the main advantages of a physical album over digital, and I know I’m more likely to read notes when I can hold them in my hands.

Even without the notes, the physical album still has a blurb on the inside flap and a painstakingly typeset track listing on the back cover. I acquired a special font that has the OpenType feature of Tabular Figures just so I could get the numbers to line up perfectly. (Anyone interested in the notes, please read them here.)

I’ve posted the square version of the album cover before, but here you can see the rectangular version that I made specifically for the physical CD. You’d think that taking a square design and making it fit a rectangular template would be pretty easy, wouldn’t you? But even with a slight change in aspect ratio, I found I needed to resize the fonts, rekern the text, and reposition all the elements and it was almost like starting from scratch.

I’m delighted by the way the digital designs translated into the physical object: I feel that the real, printed thing actually looks better than the designs!  There’s only one very small detail that didn’t come out with perfect accuracy — can you guess what it is?

All right, I’ll tell: it’s the self-eating snake that I placed on the CD surface close to the center. That snake is an ouroboros, a medieval alchemical symbol of eternal recurrence. In the context of this CD, it’s meant to evoke the way some canons proceed in an infinite cycle. The ink got shifted slightly in the printing process so the gap that should be present between the two colors of the snake isn’t preserved all the way around. No big deal. Overall, the look and feel of the physical album is precisely what I aimed for. A debt of gratitude to my friend Angelynn Grant who guided me through the many questions that came up during the design process that spanned several months!

See my previous posts on the design: Album Cover (all about my search for cover art) and Album Cover II (thoughts on the Jamnitzer’s drawings as they relate to the album).

Visual Design

Making a CD

[Facebook Post from March 1, 2017]

For much of my life I’ve wanted to make a CD — not just in the abstract sense of “an album,” but a real physical thing with cover, spine, notes, etc. I’m glad to be getting in while there’s still a chance! In anno domini 2017 there are still some people, in some places, who possess the hardware required to play these shiny discs, and there are still some companies that manufacture them. I remember when CDs first came out. This was in the 80’s. I was in computer camp. Five-and-a-half-inch floppy discs were all the rage, overtaking cassettes. In a magazine, I read about some newfangled optical storage technology that was on the horizon. I went around telling the other kids how many megabytes of data we were going to be able to store on these new discs–amazing!–and they called me a nerd for being so excited about it. Yes, the kids in computer camp called me a nerd, how about that? Fast forward. I’ve just spent a month working on the visual design for my CD. I uploaded PDFs of the design to the manufacturing service and they generated this 3D virtual-reality preview of what the CD is going to look like. How cool is that?


Addendum — April 3, 2017

Here’s what the boxes of CDs looked like when they arrived at my house. I posted this image on Facebook with the note: “Help. I ordered an album by this obscure composer and they sent me 600 copies! What do I do with all these?”



Addendum — April 7, 2017

I sold a few copies of the CD to Brattle Bookshop in Boston. Here’s what they looked like on the shelf. Having grown up in the 80’s and 90’s and having spent countless hours scouring record shops, there was one thing I wanted to experience in my life (well, more than one, but this was a big one): I wanted to see my own CD on the shelf at a record shop. I posted these photos on Facebook with the note “Brattle Book Shop is one of the few places left in Boston where those of us who are still attached to the experience of shopping for physical CDs can indulge in our increasingly archaic pastime. Should you choose to go to Brattle and peruse their eclectic collection, you might notice three copies of the album Canons by Rudi Seitz and Matthew McConnell on the shelves, while supplies last.”



Music, Visual Design

Twelve Glyph Challenge

Challenge: design glyphs to represent the numbers one through twelve.

Consider the numbers arranged on a clock face.  Your glyph system should have the following properties:

  1. The glyphs for two numbers that are opposite on the clock face (like 12 and 6) should have some visual qualities that bind them together as a pair.
  2. If you look at the glyphs for any two numbers that are adjacent on the clock face (like 1 and 2), it should be easy to see which glyph represents the “lower” number in clockwise order, and which glyph represents the “higher” number.
  3. The glyphs for any three numbers that form an even division of the clock face into three parts (like 12, 4, and 8) should have some common visual feature that makes them recognizable as a group.
  4. The glyphs for any four numbers that form an even division of the clock face into four parts (like 12, 3, 6, and 9) should have some common visual feature that makes them recognizable as a group.
  5. The parity of a number (whether the number is odd or even) should be somehow discernible from its glyph.

Thinking of this problem in musical terms, the glyphs could represent the 12 notes of the octave (assuming 12TET).  Looking at any glyph, you should be able to quickly discern the following things about the note it represents: which of the four augmented triads does the note belongs to?  Which of three fully-diminished seventh chords does it belong to?  What is its tritone, and what is that tritone’s glyph? What are its upper and lower chromatic neighbors, and what are their glyphs?

I haven’t solved this.  But, to jog your imagination, here’s one of many glyph systems I’ve come up with while considering the problem.  Do you think it has any nice properties?  Can you do better?

12 Glyphs

Language, Visual Design

Swearing Prohibited

Swearing Prohibited (Censored)

I created this sign to remind everyone that swearing is prohibited on the Internet.

Actually, I created it as an experiment in communicating with visual and textual symbols. There are three elements at play here: a red circle, the words “SWEARING PROHIBITED,” and a grawlix (“$@&#!”). When you put those elements together, what message do they make?

Last night, I asked a couple of friends at Venture Cafe. Most of my friends were willing to take this sign at face value.  Whether or not they agreed with the idea of prohibiting swearing, they felt the sign did convey a sincere message.  (In fact, a similar sign containing a grawlix in red circle has appeared in Virginia Beach as part of an anti-profanity campaign.)

For me, the sign is hard to look at without laughing because I find it fundamentally hypocritical: it swears!

Where do we draw the line between a symbol and the thing it represents? Specifically, do we take “$@&#!” as mere notation for the idea of a swear, or does it make us think and feel as though we’ve just heard someone actually swear? (This question brings to mind a joke by Louis C.K. where he says that the expression “The ‘n’ word” offends him because whenever someone uses that censored phrase, they are forcing him to say the avoided word — nig[BLEEP] — in his own mind.)

Now for me, “$@&#!” is so strongly associated with swearing that when I view it in this sign, I become witness to a curse.  And then I begin to wonder who’s cursing, and how the curse might relate to the rest of the sign.  Is someone cursing because they don’t like the prohibition against swearing?  Or do they really, really agree with it?

Even if you don’t experience the grawlix as an actual curse, you might notice a mismatch between levels of formality in this sign. SWEARING PROHIBITED sets a tone of severe formality, and yet “$@&#!” is the kind of icon we might see in a comic book. The sign has the same contradiction as a statement like: DO NOT SPEAK COLLOQUIALLY OK?

As I worked on the sign, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make an intensified version, which you’ll see below. For a while I thought that what I had come up with was so contradictory that no viewer could take it seriously. And yet, as I stared at this second version, my perceptions shifted. Where it had seemed that the swear words were subverting the circle by shining right through its porous front, now it seemed that those bold and brazen words were still captured inside the circle and still negated by it. Who wins, the circle or the swears?  I don’t know: either it’s the most obscene sign I have ever seen, or the most uptight one.

As I was finishing the sign, I had a software crash and lost a lot of unsaved work. When that happened, I assure you, gentle reader, I did not say any of the terms herein depicted:

Swearing Prohibited (Uncensored)