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  • Siren Creative

The Visual Language of Image Design

Updated: May 19, 2020

Artists exist in a highly visual space, one that demands never-ending content. The PR shots, artwork, graphic design, social content, videos, lyric videos, merch designs... it just keeps going. And once you expand your team, content marketing strategies and image development are ongoing and important conversations with managers, labels, marketeers and publicists.

The most demanding space for content (for a new artist at least) is without a doubt social media. It hosts every type of content you are likely to produce, and a lot of the same rules apply. And if you want to really get into the flow of how visual content supports you as an artist; Instagram is the probably best place to start.

A key rule for social media is consistency while you're building an audience. It's not about posting everyday, it's about not posting furiously for three days, then taking a two week holiday. Consistency in your posting feeds the algorithms, and equally, consistency in your visual language also feeds your audience.

Visual language is one we all speak, even if we don't do so consciously. Say you walk into a record store (just go with me, pretend your Spotify crashed....) and you want to take a chance a something totally new, you daredevil you. You browse the aisles and pick up an album - the cover is of a dude in a plaid shirt and giant belt buckle. He's sat on a wooden gate, looking intense and a bit mournful with an acoustic guitar slung over his back. What genre will this be...?

...Country music! DING DING DING, ten points to Griffindor!

At the very least, we're looking at a country offshoot. That's a really simple example of the kind of visual language that we all understand across multiple genres. We have been exposed to it through fashion, films, photography, books, art and even just a rough understanding of music alongside history.

Guaranteed you are already using all those reference points, but if you can make it a conscious effort then it becomes so much easier to really curate your visual content and get a lot smarter with your image. The music will always been a tipping point, the moment where someone becomes a fan or not. But all of your visual cues are the lead in that often gives your music a chance.

On top of genre, there's a huge range of further information that you can send out through elements of your visual design. Colour palette, textures, illustration style, font, photography, graphic design and styling can express instrumentation, speed, energy, the narrative of your music and the venues you want to perform in. For your audience, all of that tells them whether you might be something they like; you might remind them of other artists or events they enjoy, that they align with your values or your music complements their lifestyle and aspirations.

It's much easier to demonstrate how this works with visuals, so here we go....

This is the cover art for Gallows' debut album Orchestra of Wolves (2006)

Here are the facts:

Gallows are a UK based hardcore punk band. This is their first release, which came out in 2006. iTunes was the biggest music distributor, but people still bought CDs frequently. The top charting songs that year included Shakira's Hips Don't Lie and Justin Timberlake with SexyBack.

So what does this cover art tell us about this new band in 2006?

Colour: It's predominantly black, so we can guess that it is heavy and serious. Black is traditionally the colour of punk, rock and metal; black leather jackets and anarchy.

Format: An illustrated cover suggests that this won't be "mainstream" in 2006 - photographic covers are usually (not exclusively) associated with pop and R&B etc. Illustration has long been the domain of folk artists, rock and more recently the hardcore genres. Think how tattoo culture is particularly relevant to that scene (fun fact; former Gallows frontman Frank Carter is a tattoo artist).

Subject: The album is called Orchestra of Wolves; these are manic, slavering wolves in a thorny looking forest, backed by the full moon. It's almost like a dark fairytale, and when you get into the record it does have a narrative bent to it; with songs like Abandon Ship and In the Belly of a Shark. Wolves are fast, aggressive and dangerous and these ones look pretty mad - like the product of a dark imagination. Which is also a good way to describe the music. There's a tangle of black with many glowing eyes and teeth... it's dangerous. So do you want to join the pack or be eaten by them? Do you want to get involved in the scene, jump into the mosh pit?

Typography: You might have noticed that metal acts often use typography that looks medieval. It was a time of war and blood, also called "the dark ages", a time of mystery and the occult. I don't have enough word count to really go into that, but in this instance 'Gallows' is still essentially a formal, calligraphy font in that style. But it's also slightly americanised - there's a little of wild west about it - and it's jumbled together. Like punk, it's all off-kilter. Interestingly, Gallows were successful in America and this design has a few elements of Americana about it. So this isn't quintessential British punk.

Before we've even listened to a single track, we can already make a really good guess at what this album is about from just those touch points (if you want to listen to it, you can check it out here).

Again - YOU ALREADY KNOW THIS! But understanding that you know it means that when you're creating content or setting creative briefs, you understand a bit more about why you want what you want. Also if you know that something feels off, this is a great way to think about whether your content says what you want it to say, and to help you get noticed by your potential audience.

However, I can almost hear you asking why you need to do it the way it's always been done, isn't this just sitting in the same rut and recycling everything again and again? On the surface is looks like it, but the question is how do you successfully override the decades of semiotics that every person on this planet has absorbed?

Dissonance is a term to describe what happens in our brains when there is a conflict between what we expected (based on marketing) and the product itself. So if you had bought that album with the dude on the gate, and all the songs were gangsta rap... you would be confused. And if you really did fancy a bit of country, you would be disappointed. And more importantly, the person who wanted gangsta rap would most likely never pick it up.

Which is why it is important to fully understand your own vision and your audience, and also to work with the right creatives when you get the opportunity. Part of what makes creators so invaluable is their ability to work with and reimagine a creative language that still resonates in the right way, but feels like a new approach. And if you want to understand more about how this can all be put to work for your project, you can drop us an email about Image Development here.


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