by Jason Malmberg, Sisarina
When I was teenager I was a music junkie. Still am, actually, but as a teen (and remember, this was before downloading) I could only afford to buy one or if I was lucky two new records a month. I would supplement this with frequent trips to used record stores to swap and trade CDs back and forth, but with limited means at my disposal I still needed something to trade.
One winter, I had used a twenty my grandmother had given me to buy some record that was so forgettable I can't even scour my brain for the name of it right now. My memory of it has completely dissolved into the ether. I can only remember 3 things about it:
The single was a beast. Of course, that’s why I picked it up in the first place.
Literally every other song on the record occupied a space between “background noise” and “aggressively awful.” And...
The packaging was brilliant.
The point of this essay is that last thing. Now, of course, lavish packaging was nothing new, especially in those CD Gold Rush days. Lots of labels were throwing money in to CDs in a big way to get people to both make the jump from vinyl and cassettes and to get them to re-buy records they had owned for years. This wasn’t the greatest packaging I’d ever seen and it certainly wasn’t the first or last time I would buy a beautifully-designed Very Bad Thing.
But what sticks out in my mind about this, and really it’s the only thing: I cant even recall the band’s name at this point, is that the packaging seemed to be actively lobbying on its own behalf. I already strongly disliked this record but found myself second-guessing my own feelings because this design was so strong. It was perfect. And it was terrifically smart too. Any other record would be in the New Arrivals rack of the used shop by now, but I just couldn’t get rid of this one.
How could something this turgid come enveloped with something so sharp and clever?
Maybe there was gold in there that I wasn’t seeing.
Maybe more listens would help tease it out.
I tried and tried but there really was no “there” there.
The design kept me guessing at the artists’ intentions, both the band and the designer.
Was it just a really top-flight designer saddled with a crap project that decided to make the most of it?
Was it someone close to the band that was better at expressing a theme and carrying it through?
Was it just a label throwing money at a project to give it some extra momentum?
All of these?
Possibly. But I’ll always remember that awful album as a lesson about design as flag for you to fly and uniform for you to wear. Around the time that Pulp Fiction came out, Tarantino famously said that the sharp black suits that he’d outfitted John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson with (a stylistic carryover from Reservoir Dogs 2 years previous) were meant to be more than just costuming. They were a “suit of armor.” A kind of superhero outfit that not only described character but informed action.
A great design and brand works the same way. It quiets the room and makes your introduction for you before you’ve even had to say a word. And often it can speak for you in ways better than you yourself are capable of.
Often it does that in spite of yourself.
If the design is a strong enough flag, people will read strength into it and, by extension, you. Even strengths you weren’t aware were there.
Fly the flag. Wear the uniform. But PLEASE use good design no matter what.