Ever since Beyoncé and Drake released classic solo projects without paid media campaigns, the most popular way to promote an album has been to share the music album cover design on social media.
When you drop a new album, your fans will notice your album’s cover art before they turn to the songs you cooked up in the studio.
The good news is this trend is convenient and less expensive. However, it requires you to tell your story in milliseconds with a single photo or design, which is really hard if your go-to muse is music.
Listeners want a glimpse at what the latest chapter of an artist’s journey is all about because it gives them a hint at what ride they’re going on with you and your latest music.
In our complete guide on how to design an iconic music album cover, we’ll explore:
- The evolution of music album covers with examples.
- Basic design elements for music album cover art.
- How to create a music album cover.
- Online uses for album covers.
Let’s (literally) drop the beat.
5 Examples of Album Cover Art’s Evolution
What does it take for album cover art to transcend into a generational icon? Just like there’s not a guaranteed formula for an all-time great song, there’s not a single answer for album cover art.
Still, these five examples of classic album covers provide a snapshot of what’s worked across vinyl, tape, compact disc (CD), and streaming services.
1. Vinyl: London Calling by The Clash
Music offers a ticket to freedom and creativity. It’s a powerful vehicle for iconoclasts and misfits, and the cover for The Clash’s London Calling reflects that sentiment perfectly.
London Calling sold around two million copies after its release. Vinyl dominated as the most common form of music consumption from the 1950s until the early 1990s.
2. Tape: The Chronic by Dr. Dre
Counterculture spurred many fantastic albums because it dared to redefine what is acceptable. Dr. Dre didn’t need to smash a guitar on the cover art for The Chronic in order for it to solidify itself as mandatory Hip Hop 101 listening material—the art was good enough to do that.
So, he propped himself up on a royal mural to let you know he was worth idolizing like a king and wouldn’t flop on his solo debut.
3. CD: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill
During the Y2K craze, a lot of change was happening at once when Lauryn Hill dropped her only album to date. While the world eagerly awaited the new century, Lauryn Hill traveled back in time with soul and R&B influences that organically created a down-to-earth masterpiece.
Hill’s self-portrait carved into a brown wooden desk uses earth tones to give off a natural and authentic vibe that was impressive enough to help win a Grammy Album of the Year award.
4. A Seat at the Table by Solange
Solange Knowles’ A Seat at The Table dives into deep seas of introspection and tackles themes surrounding experiences around identity and self-healing with bravery and humility.
In the cover art, she complemented those themes by posing similarly to the Mona Lisa—paying homage to the stillness and strength the iconic painting exudes.
5. To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
When racial tensions boiled during the mid-2010s, Kendrick Lamar responded by creating an album that centered on Black empowerment.
To Pimp a Butterfly spurred anthems like “Alright” and “Blacker the Berry” that captured the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement.
3 Basic Design Tips for a Music Album Cover
Okay—so that’s how the GOATs did it. But, what basic design principles does successful album cover art follow?
Peep at these expert ideas—tips you’ll want to keep in mind:
1. Eye-Catching Visuals
Music videos rely on eye-catching visuals to get views. Good album cover art often needs attention-grabbing, unforgettable imagery, too.
If you take a risk and opt for a look that deviates from at least one standard design convention, you might stand out enough.
2. A Provoking but Concise Title
Your album title doesn’t need to be an essay. Whatever title you go with, it’s okay to take a gamble on a clever, contradictory, and compelling name that sparks curiosity and makes people want to learn more.
Just err on the side of concision.
3. Reflective of Genre
Let your freak flag fly. However, it’s worth paying attention to what cover art design trends exist across musical genres you participate in the most.
Making a huge commercial pop-rap push? Consider using modern lighting, photography, or cartoon-ish designs.
Doubling down on a small, but extremely loyal alternative indie fanbase? Get a faded, tint-rich, and filtered look.
How to Create a Music Album Cover
Alright—now that we got a feel for the basics, it’s time to bring your vision to life.
What Is a Concept Album?
A concept album sticks into a central theme and fictional narratives that personify the music and overall experience listening to your project. How deep you take a concept is up to you. Artists can dabble with this idea or avoid one altogether.
Not crafting a concept album? Then reflect on which themes stand out most in your music. Package those into a cohesive story that can be told on your album and its cover art.
Here are a few examples of pro design tricks to make your album cover art look as professional as can be:
Anomaly is when a visual element deviates from the rest of the design without throwing off the overall aesthetic. It’s differentiating enough to captivate an audience, yet it coexists enough to uphold the rest of the snapshot.
When your biggest goal is to place emphasis and gain attention, overlapping is a smart go-to tactic. Overlapping hides items in a design with other elements.
How they create an illusion effect is similar to the way kids link one-by-one when playing a game of telephone.
Whether you design a symmetric or asymmetric cover matters. Symmetric covers don’t always symbolize a grand, belonging, and perfect-sounding album. Yet, they offer a balanced design that’s visually appealing.
Meanwhile, an asymmetric cover may hint at a messy and unabashed sonic energy that breaks conventions.
Depending on what content you release and which platforms you use, you’ll want to be well-versed on requirements and best practices for publishing content on specific channels.
Design Your Music Album Cover Art with PicMonkey
With PicMonkey, you can design your album cover art from scratch with 1:1 canvases:
- In PicMonkey, click Create new > Blank Canvas.
- Choose a pre-sized canvas, or enter your dimensions into the dimension boxes in the top-right corner of the blank canvas screen. Then click Make it!
- Click Background color on the left Text Tools menu to set your background’s color.
- Click Photos and Video > Add photo to add imagery. Choose from PicMonkey’s stock library (it’s full of Shutterstock imagery!), or click Upload from computer to import your own.
- Open the Text tab and click Add text to add a text layer to your design. Type your message and change its font from the Fonts menu.
- Customize further with graphics, colors, and effects.
- Click Download on the top toolbar to export your finished design as a JPG or PNG.
Online Use Cases for Album Covers
We’ve talked about the versatility associated with music album covers, so let’s leave you with a few specific digital use cases. What kind of cover art are you creating?
1. Album Cover for a Podcast
When you design cover art for your podcast, platforms you release episodes on likely have a series of rules or guidelines for what you can upload.
Apple prefers you compress your podcast cover art file and save it as a 3000 x 3000 .PNG or .JPG. Apple also requires a 1:1 square image. In the past, cover art as narrow as 1400 pixels and as large as 3000 pixels has been approved.
2. Album Cover for a Single (Spotify)
Dropping a single on Spotify? Before you upload cover art for your single, make sure it meets these requirements:
- Spotify does not accept cover art files larger than 4MB.
- Cover art files need to be formatted in a 1:1 aspect ratio.
- The image itself cannot be smaller than 640 pixels in length and width.
- It must be saved as a .TIFF, .JPG, or .PNG file.
- Spotify also recommends encoding your cover art using sRGB color space at 24 bits per pixel.
3. Album Cover for a YouTube Mixtape Video
Putting your mixtape or album out on YouTube? Despite the fact YouTube videos appear in a 16:9 format, most album covers on its platform appear in a 1:1 aspect ratio, as well.
If you want to make your album cover art your profile picture, YouTube prefers your file is 800 px by 800 px, and saved as a JPG, .GIF, .BMP, or .PNG.
Cover image via pedro nekoi on Behance.