Music as an Experience: The Invention of Album Art

A collection of Alex Steinweiss album covers. Steinweiss was inspired by the graphic style of Soviet poster art.

A collection of Alex Steinweiss album covers. Steinweiss was inspired by the graphic style of Soviet poster art.

Have you ever admired the image on an album cover? Music didn't always look this beautiful.

In 1934, executives at one of the biggest and most successful record companies in the nation, Columbia Records, faced a vexing problem. The 78 rpm records of the time were being inadvertently scratched and damaged by the coarse kraft paper in which they were packaged. For the execs at Columbia, this was a bothersome technical issue. But Alex Steinweiss, the 23-year-old advertising designer they asked to solve the problem, saw something else.

The plain brown paper wrappers of the day had either stark black serif type with the name of the music or, if they had designs, they were unrelated to the actual music or the artist performing it. Here is what they looked like:

Big record companies put their music in sleeves with elaborate designs and advertisements.

Big record companies put their music in sleeves with elaborate designs and advertisements.

Columbia had asked Alex Steinweiss to come up with a better wrapping paper. He did, but he also did much, much more. Instead of simply figuring out a way to avoid scratched discs, he saw an opportunity to use the packaging for a larger purpose.

"I love music so much, and I had such ambition that I was willing to go way beyond what they hell they paid me for. I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music," he later remembered.

So Steinweiss created new record packaging, with hand-drawn typography, metaphorical illustrations, and eye-popping color that no one had ever seen before. Customers fell in love with the images and Columbia record sales increased by 800 per cent. Steinweiss had invented the modern-day album cover. And, of course, had also alleviated the issue of scratching records.

I learned about Steinweiss recently, while viewing some of  his work at a gallery show celebrating his achievements during AIGA Design Week in D.C. I was inspired. I thought about what Steinweiss had done and what it can teach us today. How can we use that same kind of thinking to reframe today’s business challenges to go above and beyond?

  1. Age is just a number. Steinweiss’ age resonated with me. As a 23-year-old myself, I'm grateful that younger team members are granted a chance to shine. Peer Insight’s culture of radical openness and play pushes me to reach my potential.
  2. The visual communicates at a deeper level than the verbal. As a visual designer also trained in ethnographic fieldwork, I am keen to understand how people create meaning from their environment. Steinweiss wanted people to experience the music with all of their senses. Although his graphical style is no longer relevant in the modern era of rock music, his hunch about the importance of aesthetically-pleasing album covers inspired generations of designers to create extraordinary art. If you want to see 35 beautiful modern album covers, check out this Smashing Magazine article.
  3. Permission to stretch boundaries. Columbia saw Steinweiss' talents and trusted him when he went beyond his original assignment. I feel lucky that our clients trust us to co-create with them and try to reach the kind of breakthroughs that can come only from discovering unarticulated emotional needs.

Be inspired by Steinweiss's story here. What's your story? Have you ever been passionate enough about something to execute regardless of the constraints?