Paper circles of joy.
Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer
Back in May 2019, I wrote a blog post about the design of record sleeves, featuring some of my favourites across various design mediums. Since then I have carried on buying, looking at and listening to vinyl records; my love for the medium only growing—as too, my collection.
It’s a well-known fact that people will buy records just for their sleeve designs and artwork, I’m sure most people know someone who has Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon or Joy Divison – Unknown Pleasures hanging in their living room. And in a way, rightly so as these are pieces of art both visually and with their musically cultural context.
Of course, not every record sleeve is a classic design or an amazing piece of art (this is quite subjective but accurate still), some are less exciting. Some don’t even have any artwork at all as it’s common for records—specifically electronic music records—to be released and to be put in a blank card sleeve (or even just a paper one) with no artwork at all.
Although; there is still a place and space for design, on the small 12cm inner circle paper label. This is usually where the information for the record is placed such as the name of the release, the names of the tracks, the artist, the record label, its year of production, the speed at which it’s played and any copyright.
Since writing my original blog post in mid-2019, I have noticed myself buying more and more of these blank sleeve records; as well as paying more attention to these in shops and online. In doing so, seeing how different record labels utilise this small circular space, using it as less of a functional space and more of an actual design piece. I wanted to shine a light on some of these examples along with some special projects related to this.
Note: most of what I listen to and buy is electronic music, hence why this piece is focused heavily on this genre.
Label: Deep Medi Musik
Founder: Mala (2006)
When it comes to design, I am quite a fan of well-executed and maintained consistent style (very apparent in this whole post). Some people might see something like this as easy and lazy, others see it as “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” My opinion is that having and keeping something consistent while still keeping it fresh is a difficult but exciting challenge.
This example by the UK Dubstep label Deep Medi Musik uses portrait illustrations of the artists on the respective record which are actually done by a music artist on the label, Tunnidge aka Tim Langridge.
Each artist is drawn in a similar style; giving the listener a sense of who the artist is (if they didn’t already know). The illustration style feels quite dark and moody which relates to the genre of real Dubstep.
Label: AD 93 (Blue Series)
Founder: Nic Tasker (2018)
AD 93 (FKA Whities) is one of my favourite record labels, nearly every release from them sounds great along with their amazing record sleeve design in general.
However, this here is about their Blue series which come in blank sleeves but with a blue inner label which is essentially a playground for the label’s designer Alex McCullough.
An abstract mixture of song information, lyrics or quotes through large and small typography, illustration, shapes, photography and more as each one feels like contemporary album liner notes with everything you need to know and everything you don’t.
Label: Steel City Dance Discs
Founder: Mall Grab (2016)
Steel City Dance Discs is a record label based out of Newcastle, Australia aka the Steel City (the largest coal exporting harbour in the world) and ran by one of Australia’s biggest DJs Mall Grab.
Each release from this label is named and numbered in volumes with each volume featuring a wild illustration by the artist known as @supergoog on Instagram.
Each illustration gives a sense of how the music on the record sounds (generally loud, heavy and dark) such as shattering heads, electrifying bodies, rifle sights, spider webs and hazard symbols. You know this isn’t going to be soft and soothing music.
Label: Hessle Audio
Founders: Ben UFO, Pearson Sound & Pangaea (2007)
Hessle Audio is one of the most important UK labels, ran by schoolmates Ben UFO, Pearson Sound (David Kennedy) and Pangaea (Kevin McAuley), having broken artists like Blawan and Joy Orbison and shifting through genres of dubstep, post-dubstep, techno, bass and more.
Each of their releases features a very simple design which is the name of the artist and the songs on the record in type only. What is nice though is the use of colour each record has; unique colour combinations which go together and have their own identity.
To me, it also feels like the colours suit the sound, darker colours for darker releases and brighter colours for more upbeat releases.
Label: Blue Note Records
Founders: Alfred Lion & Max Margulis (1939)
Blue Note Records is one of/probably the most famous and established Jazz record labels ever. Releasing music by all the greats like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and also heavily sampled by Hip-Hip producers over time.
Much has been written about the design of the record sleeves (and rightly so) but since 1950 the label has had a consistent inner label circle design featuring everything you need to know about the record along with the beautiful BLUE NOTE typography.
This is such a simple and also iconic piece of design which I’m sure has massively gone unnoticed as the album sleeves in which they live are so popular.
Label: Trax Records
Genre: Chicago House
Founder: Larry Sherman, Screamin’ Rachael, Jesse Saunders & Vince Lawrence (1984)
TRAX Records is of the original House music record labels, founded when House music started in Chicago in the 1980s and releasing some of the biggest songs and now classics from this era by Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson and Larry Heard.
Similar to many of the labels featured already, this inner circle is consistent across the years, recognisable instantly by its red colour and white typography. There is more variation across these labels though in the choice of font and sizes; probably to work around various artist and song names.
If you ever see someone pull out a record with a red label; get ready for that Chicago sound.
Genre: Techno/Deep House
Founder: René Pawlowitz/Shed (2008)
Finally, this is the most consistent and minimal of all the designs featured here. Ran by René Pawlowitz, Wax is a small label with only a few releases spread over more than a decade (usually one per year).
Each time with no information other than WAX (also the name/alias of the artist) and a chronological number starting at #10001 stamped onto the white paper, nothing more, nothing less.
You might find some more information engraved into the record itself but probably not; this is the epitome of a white label record to me.
Project: The Mannequin Collective – Dreaming Vinyl
Earlier this year I came across a project by The Mannequin Collective on Instagram who’s project, Dreaming Vinyl, focuses on the design of record inner labels through animation. Below is an extract from their feature on It’s Nice That.
Founded by Jay Vaz and Lawrie Miller — also members of The Mannequin Collective– this dream has quite literally been made a reality as it visually interprets pre-existing and premiered songs in the format of animated vinyl stickers. Celebrating the relationship between music and visual art, Dreaming Vinyl is “as much about musical discovery as it is about artistic experimentation,” Jay tells It’s Nice That. “We have found the intersection between motion design and music a powerful medium to explore.”
I think this project is exciting and is brings a new audience to vinyl music, using it as a medium for visual interpretation and to create something different through the use of expressive animation and contemporary design.
Project: Craig Berry – 33 RPM
Finally, to end, a project by myself, which came to me one day while standing at a turntable in a record shop; watching the record and label spin around it felt mesmeric and I wanted to explore this as an idea.
The result is 33 RPM, a project which explores these round and revolving, hypnotic graphic forms through the medium of records; using their inner printed circle labels and all spinning at 33 RPM.
What I like about this project is how these forms feel like they are spinning at different speeds but they are all spinning at the same speed, simultaneously.