The Design Process Behind Classic Album Artwork

Storm Thorgerson is a British designer and artist responsible for more classic album covers than you can possibly imagine one person could create in a lifetime. From Pink Floyd to Audioslave, The Cranberries to Muse, he has produced the most compelling and memorable album artworks of the last 40 years.

An excellent exhibition of his artwork runs in the east-London Idea Generation Gallery from April 2nd to May 2nd, 2010. Part of the exhibition highlights his creative process for a specific case study. Check out the exhibition yourself to see the process in action and in detail. For now, here’s a quick overview:

  1. The Brief. The designer listens to the music (possibly only demos at this stage), reads the lyrics, and talks to the band. These create a ‘brain soup’, from which ideas can be extracted to form the brief.
  2. Roughs. Over a number of meetings/days, the designer meets the band again for discussions, in an attempt to pin-down a theme or big idea. This

    stage is creative, with word-play, honest thoughts, and scribblings. The best are converted to more complete illustrations (the ‘roughs’).

  3. Tests. Once a rough is accepted and a budget agreed, a prototype is often created to ensure that the idea works. Depending on the idea, this could involve the creation of scale models from clay or polystyrene. If everything works, the final models are constructed.
  4. Shoot. A location is researched and booked, possibly for a long-time if outdoors and in uncertain weather. Models are erected and positioned, with help from volunteers if the shoot is big and complex. A wide range of photographs are then taken, under varying light/weather conditions and filters.
  5. Editing. This could be called ‘selection’, where the best shot from the shoot is chosen. This can take several days, if hundreds of similar shots need to be compared.
  6. Artwork. Finally, having chosen the perfect shot, any cleaning-up or final computer editing is performed, before handing over the final product.

Written down like this, the process seems so simple. When you consider that some ideas involve 700 or 800 iron beds arranged on a beach with the tide approaching, you begin to appreciate that it might not be so simple after all.

Dan Zambonini

View posts by Dan Zambonini
Dan Zambonini is a co-founder at Eighty-Five Technologies Inc. Their most recent project is Docoh - SEC EDGAR Filings Search. He wrote A Practical Guide to Web App Success, the leading web application book. You can usually find him twittering on about something on Twitter at @zambonini.


  1. I used to run a record label and it struck me that the music fan experiences the album in the reverse order to that of the musicians. The fan sees the sleeve as the very first thing, the music comes later and so on…

  2. I love album cover art work. And I find it sad that today so many people download individual tracks and miss out on buying hard copies of music. Part of the magic of music for me, was also connecting it to the image art work.

    The Sgt Pepper Album sleeve fascinated me as a child. I used to spend literally HOURS pouring over it. I wasn’t really exposed to much popular music other than the Beatles growing up, and I am sure that one sleeve helped to make me very much interested in images. Let alone the music!

    I also prefer vinyl sleeves because….well I think it’s mostly because it’s larger and it’s like owning a piece of art work! CDs always feel like brochures on car insurance. Well they do to me 😉

    I simply adore Storm Thorgerson’s work here!

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