What makes a great album cover

Feist and the graphic designer of her album "The Reminder" discuss the fascinating process behind cover art

Published May 23, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

When I met Simone Rubi in 1999, she was living in Oakland, Calif., a singer in a popular band and working as a graphic designer for ESPRIT. Simone immediately won me over with her delight and appreciation for the design of the simple things in life -- a redwood tree, a tiny mushroom, a perfect wave, hand-knit slippers -- and her ability to ignite others with her enthusiasm and heartfelt propaganda. Over the past decade, I have observed with a smile as I've watched my friend travel the world, arriving in each town like a magnetic Pied Piper, luring together musicians and artists to participate in her never-ending lifestyle of artistic collaboration and celebration of good times.

Simone Rubi. Photo by Mary Rozzi

In 2007, Simone designed the cover for Feist's Grammy-nominated masterpiece, "The Reminder."

For me, this is one of the greatest album covers of all time. In the same spirit of Joni Mitchell's cover for "Ladies of the Canyon," the image captures the spirit of a woman at a particular point in her life, without hitting you over the head with a glamorous beauty shot. The elegant silhouette (shot by Mary Rozzi), the hand-crafted typeface, the sparse yet perfectly executed use of color. The sum of all those parts is one single image that visually exudes the soul of the brilliant collection of songs on the album.

Joni Mitchell's cover art for "Ladies of the Canyon"

Over the past few years since "The Reminder" was released, I have noticed other album covers having a similar feel and I can't help thinking that other designers have been influenced by the work of these inspired ladies. See below.

In the 2010 documentary by Anthony Seck, "Look At What the Light Did Now," the audience is taken on an exciting ride behind the scenes of the years spent creating the music for "The Reminder" and the resulting artistic collaborations Feist, a fellow Pied Piper, made to enhance her music visually through videographers, a photographer, puppeteers, and a graphic designer. In the film, Simone Rubi states: "With anything that you put out into the world, you're fully shaping your identity." The cast of characters Feist gathered to help create the identity for "The Reminder," and therefore herself, all possess a level of integrity that is elegant, innovative, and cohesive.

I had the chance to speak with Simone in depth about the process of creating "The Reminder" cover and, as usual with Simone, it was more than just a project, it was a journey to Paris, a coming together of creative spirits, a meeting of new friends, sharing good wine and good laughs, unleashed brainstorming, slowing down long enough to notice little bits of magic and then, once fully submerged in Feist's world, taking everything absorbed and giving it back as she interpreted it. It is this full-bodied, open-hearted approach to design that makes Simone's work so good.

For more insight into the creative process behind "The Reminder" cover, enjoy these interviews with Simone and Feist herself.

A chat with Simone Rubi:

How did you originally get the job to create the packing for "The Reminder"?

I had done some work for Leslie during a tour she was on with the Kings of Convenience back in early 2005. They recommended me for merch/T-shirt designs. This was after we met and instantly had life/art crushes on each other. She sent me an email proposing that I work with her to do her artwork for her upcoming album after it went so well with our initial working together on the merch designs. I was in the middle of making my own album for my band, and jumped at the opportunity to step away from my own music to jump into creating the artwork for her music because I was blown away by her talents and spark-filled energy.

Can you explain the creative process you went through with Feist and what sort of art direction was given to you?

She suggested I come to her flat in Paris to hole up and work together to get the concepts together. She had seen a mural I did with my friend/art partner Nat Russell in Los Angeles for a gallery show that showed two figures connecting in a million ways by different colored thread. I used that as a springboard for when I arrived in Paris. I was in the middle of tracking an album with my band and flew in from Stockholm. I arrived there with a message that she would be one day late and that her roommate would be there. I showed up with my enormous suitcase and guitar and a bag of crystals that I collected from Stockholm (after many hi-five-related "light refraction" conversations that resulted in the fact that we were both fascinated by the way light danced on surfaces and the way prisms were formed). Her roommate, Mary Rozzi (photographer), welcomed me with a bottle of wine, a board with incredible cheeses and cured meats. It felt like a first date. It was then that Mary and I were able to first discover how we were both searching for the same things in our art. It was perfect how it panned out. Then Leslie arrived and the three of us moved around each other in that flat with such artistic excitement and curiosity. Like curious lions and the prey was the art. Leslie and I brainstormed for a couple of days, went to a huge art supply store, bought tons of supplies, and had a book we called the ZAP book. We wrote down tons of ideas in there that we referred back to. I created the mural on the wall in their apartment and stayed up all night building that out -- based on how I knew her -- and what her music revealed to me. I use color to tell stories and put a lot of thought into deciding what colors to use in my work. How these colors related to different lyrics or tones. Both in her music and in my depiction of who she was at that time. Mary offered her skills as a photographer and friend and we all ended up in one big powwow. Leslie would offer direction in the form of a story or a connection to certain symbols. It was my job to interpret those stories and her personality in the form of tangible artwork. It was difficult at times for me because I felt so close to the nucleus of her album and its creator. It was forcing me into the true details. The center of the concept. I felt confident making crucial and informed decisions. Trust was a big part of this project. I felt a controlled artistic freedom. It was like a machine. The process felt very streamlined and deliberate.

What influences do you consider most responsible for your design aesthetic and style and what is "good design" to you?

A lot of my influences come from when I was 18-22 years old. I started noticing design in nature. How colors worked together and repetition created graphics. I was really into credit design in old movies, chairs from the 1940s-'60s, wooden houses, fashion as expression, tailored suits on dudes, skateboarding, jazz (I demanded that my piano teacher switch from classical to jazz my junior year of high school), French New Wave films, classic Italian cinema, music from the '60s-'80s on vinyl, classical piano like Satie and Debussy, and really bold color combinations. I had a chair and dress collection that I would display in my apartment in college. I would stare at the old fabric on these dresses and try and re-create them in paintings. I sketched out a line of shoes during my last year of college based on classic chair design by Mies Van Der Rohe, Corbusier, Thonet, Saarinen, and Herman Miller. The strength of composition and clean lines found in a lot of work by modern painters and furniture related more to the social and political climate at that time. I wanted to figure out how to solve problems using color, line, and text. I painted in high school and continued as a studio art major in college. I changed from painting to graphic design in college studying formal color theory and doing work on illustration board before Quark/Illustrator/Photoshop was really used. I really loved finding the positive in the negative. Leaving lots of space to allow people to interpret comfortably. I discovered the power of three. I find that good design usually has three strong components. That third thing brings the early concept into final design. Too much more just seems confused.

Do you think that being a musician yourself gives you any special insight for designing for fellow musicians?

Definitely. I really enjoy working with musicians that aren't quite done with the album so I can see the insides and bones of the album before it is finished. I understand how much goes into the making of an album, so I want to put just as much energy and thought into the visual representation.

What was your involvement in the making of Anthony Seck's "Look At What the Light Did Now" and what did you learn from the process?

I was asked to do the credit design, DVD/CD packaging, iTunes single design, poster, and screening invitation for the film. I didn't know at the time that I would end up being in the film itself. While I was making the credits in L.A. (all handmade and shot in-camera), there were times that Leslie, Holle Singer (editor), and I all brainstormed and riffed ideas around to help shape the film at the early stage. Leslie had me around in NYC for an early screening where we discussed what to change and sat in with the editor a bit. I really enjoyed being involved with these phases. Almost a year passed ... then we started up again and got some perspective on the film after it got moved into a new direction. There were a lot of aspects to this project that were new to me and now I am really interested in motion graphics. I had done some video and editing work at the time and this project solidified my interest in the process. It was incredible to build text and see movement and light. I really enjoyed working on the DVD menu, specifically building type out of white paper and shining a flashlight on the type to create some expression, then using my little Canon digital camera to take a video of that and then using it as a background for one of the DVD menus. This project was so full of ephemera. It almost feels like a spoof that could just keep going. Like we could have filmed the Q&A after one of the screenings, and then the traveling to the screenings, and then interview people about what they thought of the film, etc., etc. Like a continuous discussion on what it is to make things and create something from nothing. We should make a Part 2 in five years.

Poster for the film.

Paper letterforms lit and filmed for the titles of the film.

More images from the filming of the opening titles.

What would be your dream job for the future?

To create a collection of songs that would be considered an album, but the only way to listen to the album is to watch a film that is created in tandem with the music. So the visual/audio has completely synthesized into one thing. A complete visual/audio experience where one depends on the other. There would have to be some humor involved, otherwise it could be too pretentious. I would love to work with different designers, filmmakers, musicians to create this. I really enjoy the feeling of togetherness through art.

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And a few questions for Feist:

How did you come to ask Simone to create the cover of your album, "The Reminder" ?

I asked Simone to come to Paris and brainstorm the entire visual palette up with me. To have her hear the songs and find her font sparks and send little color wheels spinning in her eyes. When she got there, we went to an arts supply store and bought all sorts of paper, pens, gluesticks, markers ... another store for crystals and tarot cards for Broad Stroke giant and mysterious symbology ... and searched Paris high and low for a prism. I guess we must have already had ideas about light refraction and she had a vision of taking Polaroids of prism-cast rainbows. That was some of her and my early connectivity, getting really excited about things like tiny thumbnail-size seashells and light refraction.

How much art direction did you give her and what were the highlights of your creative collaboration?

The direction was given by the project itself. We knew what needed to get done and dove in together. But of course, this is Simone's world, so I was her scissor and pin needle nurse, handing her what she needed and following her certainty. Mary Rozzi was there with us as well and started to hear our direction, which in turn sparked her idea for the silhouette portrait. Simone then took the portrait into her world and built the radiating threads. The three of us came up with the raw material, and Simone carved it and formed it to feel like something.

In our opinion, what is "good design"?

If you develop a discerning eye and a sense of balance in elements, textures, light, space and general voodoo mojo, and know what you like, then you will live a happily satisfied life of placing objects next to objects and having it bring you happiness. Not everyone has that and, once discovered, it feels like it did when we all discovered we liked wine and onions and garlic. There was a time, remember? Before you liked those basic necessities.

Feist, Mary, and Simone passing through Laurel Canyon last year on their way out to Joshua Tree.

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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