By Erin Kalejs
Do you think album art is dead? That’s exactly what I spent an hour discussing with Clarita Hinojosa, a Seattle based graphic designer also the creator and host of Design Freaks, a podcast show dedicated to exploring the lives of the unsung heroes of the music design industry.
Besides my initial and obvious question we also discussed the inspiration behind the show, how it’s changed since its launch back in 2018 along with what exactly makes an iconic album cover.
The Curve: What made you want to become a graphic designer?
Clarita: I’ve always loved record covers and packaging in general and found that fine art was great for me but not necessarily sustainable. After having art shows for years I decided I wanted to work in a more visual space and was becoming pretty obsessed with album design. It was my dream to go to design school and it took me a while to get there. I was bartending for a really long time but I eventually got to do it.
TC: Was the transition from fine arts to graphic design difficult?
Clarita: It was awkward because I was a self taught designer at first so I would make posters for friends’ bands and local clubs. I didn’t really know what I was doing, I wasn’t using photoshop properly I was using a version I had gotten from pirate bay. It wasn’t professional work but I was trying. It was a bit of an awkward transition because when you don’t get trained properly it takes longer to learn everything.
TC: Who are your biggest creative influences?
Clarita: Barney Bubbles is my favourite album designer, but there are a lot of different artists that I love for different reasons and because design is so huge and varied there are so many different types of designers. It would take me an hour to answer that question [laughs]
TC: What’s your design process like?
Clarita: If I’m working on a digital art piece then the idea will just pop into my head and then sometimes I’ll sketch first and then I’ll do the analog pieces first and then move those into the computer to finish it.
But if it’s a client project I usually like to be guided by them. I go through the usual steps of sketching, mood boarding, giving them options but not too many and only showing the best work which is a lesson I have learned over the years [laughs]. After we’ve narrowed it down we move into colour options.
Other jobs are different in that I am given the artwork and I am doing the print production for it, so taking the art piece and for example, incorporating it into an album cover or any other type of packaging piece.
TC: When you’re working with clients do you ever find it difficult to balance your own artistic expression with the business side of things?
Clarita: It all depends on the client, sometimes people have seen my work and they say “go for it, do whatever you want!” Then there’s other clients who are not difficult but they have a more specific idea in their head, so if I propose an idea and it doesn’t work for them it doesn’t really feel stifling because I can always repurpose it.
A lot of designers take their artwork that’s been rejected and just build a library with it so that later on they can look at the pieces that they still have available for inspiration.
It is a different purpose because there’s a client and commerce involved and sometimes the client and the record label are both involved and they both have different ideas, so that can get really complicated. Working with a client is different to my own personal art because I’m not expressing myself as much, I don’t take it personally if my idea for a client gets rejected.
TC: You’re currently based in Seattle, how does that influence your own artwork?
Clarita: It’s a music town so there’s opportunities here to design for musicians which I love! I’m not a musician but I have a background in radio and I’ve worked with bands and have DJ’d a lot. Being immersed in that world keeps me thinking in that way, so for me music design is my preferred work that I do.
TC: How does the design art from Seattle compare to other big music and artistic cities like New York and L.A?
Clarita: I see the design work that comes from L.A and New York but graphic design has become such an online community that I don’t know how regional looks are. I think the differences in design are more based on genres or industry than region. Because the trends in America at least are pretty similar.
But when you look at the designs coming from the UK they’re just out there and wacky and fun, like even the commercial stuff is crazy which I love but in America design is a little bit more conservative.
TC: Your podcast show ‘Design Freaks’ discusses art design in the music industry and was launched back in 2018, what was the inspiration behind the show?
Clarita: Well back when I was in design school somebody asked me “what do you want to do after you graduate? What kind of design do you want to do?” And I was like “I want to design album covers” and they kind of laughed and said “well duh we all do! But where are you going to apply for a job?” I just thought god that’s so sad that we all get into this field because of these weird interesting things we love like posters, zines and album covers and then we end up doing things that are very different from that, obviously that’s life.
When I graduated I listened to a lot of podcasts and really liked the fun, loose format shows and there weren’t any design shows that were fun and kind of wild. There were some that talked about album covers but there weren’t any that were dedicated solely to music industry design, and they were all pretty serious.
So I just thought “I wish somebody would make that podcast” and then finally one day I thought “I guess I could do it?”.
I started doing research for it in 2017, just a whole year of research to see if there was enough there, and I found so many stories. Once I looked into it and found there wasn’t a single podcast show dedicated to record covers anywhere and there was so much interesting stuff I found that I just thought “well I have to do it.”
TC: How did you come up with the show’s name ‘Design Freaks’?
Clarita: I wanted to celebrate the freaks of the industry, not just the biggest names. I just wanted to highlight the weirdos and give a space to tell the stories about people who’ve never been talked about, the people behind imagery that we have all seen a million times.
For example, Vaughan Oliver if you think about the Pixies album immediately the cover comes into your mind, like you can hear the music in your head but for me the imagery comes into my head first.
The cover is very much intertwined and attached to the music yet we don’t know about the designer. Again in the UK they have a different relationship with graphic designers, it’s a little bit more mainstream to know who a graphic designer is over there.
Whereas, in America we know a lot about the musicians and almost nothing about the designers. I think it’s imagery we look at and love so why not know who did it and what they’re about and their crazy life story.
TC: The show’s slogan is “by freaks for freaks” however, do you also want people who don’t have good music or design history knowledge to listen to it?
Clarita: Yeah, it’s really for anyone who’s interested. That slogan came from there being very little dedicated room for people to only discuss obscure music. There’s plenty of other places for classic rock like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and all of that.
I wanted to make it clear that with this show I’m not trying to appeal to every single person, every single person is welcome to listen if they’re interested obviously. I just want a space for the nerds, the people who collect obscure records and like nerding out.
TC: You’ve done over 50 episodes of the show now, so what can you say has changed and what have you learnt since episode one?
Clarita: Oh my gosh, so much! [laughs] I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning and I honestly didn’t think anyone would listen so there was probably a little too much wine being had in the beginning. [laughs]
Maybe not enough sticking to the story and the editing was a little off but it was also charming and raw and punk rock like a crusty zine. That’s how I described the podcast in the beginning I was like “I want to do an audio zine! I want to chop it up and put weird sound effects and vintage commercials.”
It wasn’t supposed to be polished by any means but the show’s structure did improve over time, and joining Ruinous media really helped me get the formula down. Because I like a formula when I listen to a show even if it’s a wacky show, I still like when there’s segments.
Obviously over time having somebody master my audio helped, along with getting better at editing, interviewing and using the equipment.
TC: Do you have a favourite podcast episode that you have done so far?
Clarita: I definitely have favourites like the Sonny Kay episode was so cool, and I can’t believe I got to talk to Nicholas Galanin. That was amazing! The King Khan episode was a good excuse to reconnect with him, the podcast has opened doors to new friendships for me.
Of course the Barney Bubbles’s episode and then I have a best of that I did in 2021 just to highlight the big names that I was covering in the beginning like the Ramones and Black Flag.
TC: When you’ve been researching for an episode in the past has there been any particular story that really surprised or shocked you?
Clarita: I have to say that I am so grateful to Jerome Harris for his exhibition at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery it was called “As, Not For”. It was a survey of 20th century African-American graphic designers. I didn’t know about Sylvia Abernathy and I learned about her and how she was the first woman, definitely the first black woman to be credited with album design, specifically jazz album design.
She’s responsible for one Sun Ra cover that I know of and some other record covers, I had no idea about her history and how she was an activist. The more I read about her, the more I loved her and wished that this aspect of design history was more available and accessible.
I really try to uncover those hidden gems and it’s difficult because I think a lot of women were doing graphic design. It does seem to be historically male dominated so I think there’s a lot of people who didn’t get name credit because they’re in house with the record label.
It takes a lot of extra research, and I certainly would like to keep digging into who the in-house designers were during certain eras on certain labels.
TC: Over the years you’ve discussed so many different record covers on ‘Design Freaks’, so what do you think are the specific elements that make a good record cover and more importantly a timeless and iconic record cover?
Clarita: For me it is being able to embody and capture the sound of the album visually. That’s so hard to do but it makes the album that much more iconic, when that’s done well and it also looks very cool. I’m also a huge typography nerd so one of my favourite covers is by the band Can “Delay 1968”, it’s their first cover and it’s only type.
A record cover doesn’t have to be that complicated, it just sticks in your head and fits the album well, that’s what does it.
TC: To flip the question, what makes a bad album cover?
Clarita: Just slapping somebody’s art there that doesn’t fit. Also, there was so much bad design in the 90s. The problem with 90s graphic design is people were trying to do everything all at once like outlining a shape, shadows, gradients, shine, chrome effect, there’s just too many things happening. [laughs]
TC: In today’s digital world with music being online, do you think album art and design has declined, it isn’t creative enough and doesn’t push enough boundaries like it did once before?
Clarita: Yes and no, the yes part is I think it’s declined because there’s less emphasis on money for the packaging aspect of it. The printed records are pretty bare bones, it’s obviously like you said, not our only media so we’re not relying on that piece to be the only vehicle to get music to people.
So in that aspect yeah the printed piece is more boring with the exception of coloured vinyl there’s a lot more of that now which I love.
But at the same time no it hasn’t in a way because of all the social media and online promotion that it takes to get a record out there, people are still looking at the artwork, it’s a smaller format but I still think it’s important and it still has the same effect, either it’s successful or not, for the album.
There’s been so many changes over the years to record cover design because you go from a 12 inch record cover where you can have weird inserts and all kinds of interactive stuff and then you go to the eight track which nobody even kept the packaging for.
It’s rare to find a vintage eight track still in the box and even with those they had that big awkward window and then the tape itself is just a label, then it just became a band name and maybe a photo of the band.
Then, cassettes changed the approach because we had these long folded out pieces with all the lyrics printed and the cassette itself doesn’t have much on it. CD’s again, the format just kept morphing but LPs and 45s have been persistent throughout they’ve remained in production and have been collectable throughout the whole process.
For the mainstream, yes the artwork is mostly digital but having the colour space be predominantly RGB because it’s mostly digital, it can be a lot brighter and it can pop a lot more than a print piece, so there’s pros and cons.
TC: You hear some people say “record covers don’t matter anymore, nobody goes into record stores” so it’s not like you’re flipping through records and picking the coolest looking one, what’s your response to people who believe this?
Clarita: I think anyone who would say that doesn’t quite have their finger on the pulse of music collection. I would say that’s not entirely true, it’s true for some people.
Records are awkward, they take up a lot of space, it’s hard to move them. People who don’t like clutter and are minimal don’t want records as part of their decor.
Other people just love them, it seems like record collecting has been on the rise for the past 10 years. It’s similar to when things go in and out of fashion like skateboarding, there’s people who have skateboarded the entire time but for a while in the 90s there weren’t any skate parks so it was just the nerdiest biggest weirdos doing it and that’s the same thing with record collecting.
It’s always been there. It’s just become more niche at certain times and then other times people want to buy them again which I think is cool.
You can follow Clarita’s journey here: