Take Five: Rock Shop #9 – Design Shop

On Nov. 22, the ninth installment of Rock Shop took place at the Middle East Downstairs. This time, the focus was design – web design, graphic design, style, you name it. Design is not one of my strong suits, so I was interested to hear from a designer’s perspective what a client – in this case, a band, though the feedback was broadly applicable – should keep in mind when thinking about their visual branding.

The panelists — many of whom said they got into design by taking on such responsibilities for their own bands back in the day — included:

Aaron Belyea (Alphabet Arm)
Gary Hedrick (ElefhantWorks)
Liz Linder (Liz Linder Photography)
Marc Beaupre (Beagle Printing)
Marcus Ohanesian (Perfect Evolution)

As always, Rock Shop organizer Steve Theo of Pirate! moderated the discussion, which covered the following points:

Preparation: Ohanesian emphasized that the top thing they would advice a client to do to prepare for hiring a designer is to think about the project, not just how much it’s going to cost (that can be affected by variables ranging from content management to complex Flash programming). As Linder put it, doing it right the first time will get you where you’re going much more quickly — a good design is an investment in your future, so value the process. Ideally, said Ohanesian, the client brainstorms first, then calls a designer and brainstorms with the designer. Belyea echoed this, urging clients to do their homework and come up with a concept to share with the designer. It’s on the designers to balance their expertise with the clients’ desires.

Research: Hedrick likes to get in the client’s head, sometimes by pretend he’s in a band with them, just hanging out. He said he learns more from the first 10 or 15 minutes with a client by talking about completely unrelated topics. Belyea said he often asks bands who they would ideally tour with, to get a sense of where they want to push themselves.

Linder, the photographer on the panel, recommended that clients bring in reference images of things they like, as well as things they hate. The process should ideally arrive at the unique message that the client wants to communicate about itself. And if you don’t know what you want? “Try,” said Linder. “It’s all research.”

With bands, music is important. That is the main way they communicate who they are to the world. So, for designers, it is critical to become acquainted with their clients’ music. Belyea said, “We won’t work on a record until we hear the music.” “Music is key,” added Linder. “It’s why we’re all here.” Immersing in the music is part of building the relationship with the client, and achieving the goal of making the client look good.

Efficiency: They urged clients to look at the designer’s time as  a commodity not to be wasted — clearly communicate up front to the designer what you want and like and why you want and like it, rather than waste hours of time in back-and-forths over e-mail. In addition, Liz suggested that one person in the band should manage and own the design process, since not everyone in the band will agree on visual matters. As Hedrick put it, there are two types of bands: democracies and dictatorships. It is most helpful if the band can work as an organism, in order to get things done smoothly.

Branding: “Your band is your brand,” said Linder. An album is a mini-brand within a brand. With design, she added, you are trying to package brand awareness, since people are used to experiencing things at the brand level. The best clients are the ones who get that. Hedrick brought up a few examples from different points on the brand spectrum: Fishbone and Metallica, with their highly recognizable logos; Jane’s Addicition, which has a new brand with each new release; and Fugazi, which champions the anti-brand. Part of branding is a communicating a “feel” that lets people know that this is your band.

Bands, said Linder, should put as much attention into their visual branding as they put into their music, since you need to make an impact to stand out from the crowd. Linder said that if you have money to spend, spare the “cranes and elephants” in your music video and invest in a solid logo instead. “The masses are asses,” said Beaupre, all the more reason is craft distinctive brand awareness. One interesting example that came up a couple time is how powerful visual branding can bind otherwise temporal, ethereal media. When someone snaps a cameraphone pic of a great opening band, if they look at that pic later and see the band name on the drum kit, they can follow up and download songs, look for the band’s next live date, etc.

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