For all of its progressive sonic experimentation, electronic music often feels like a blank canvas. Unrelenting kick-drums or atmospheric synths are inherently abstract, making it more difficult to grasp what producers and DJs want to say—at least in comparison to genres like hip-hop or pop, which frequently use lyrics to impart meaning.
This is why graphic designers and artists play an especially critical role in the world of electronic music, helping to convey a DJ's musical sensibility or the atmosphere of an upcoming rave, often more viscerally than a press release or artist's statement ever could. Over the years, well-conceived imagery like Emil Schult's record sleeves for Kraftwerk and Ninja Tune's logo of a cloaked figure hurling a vinyl 12" has become definitive reference points, proving that the way music looks can be just as considered as the way it sounds.
To gain some insight into this process, we asked 10 of the most prolific and exciting graphic designers and artists around the globe about what they think of the current state of visuals in dance music, and what they're doing differently to stand out from the pack. Some of the people we spoke to—including the co-founders of socially engaged multidisciplinary collectives like NON and NAAFI—are the architects behind their crews' aesthetics. Others, like Studio Moross and Studio Remote, work with artists more collaboratively, and are staffed by teams of designers capable of a wide range of styles, creating hand-drawn typography, interactive music videos, or elaborate live show visuals. Check out the work and words of the artists shaping the way dance music looks and feels like below.
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Style: Amobi's slick, popping type and use of Russian-style characters for NON occasionally resembles military propaganda, while his Photoshop brushstrokes reveal a softer, sometimes glitchier side.
Notable projects: Co-founder and art director of NON WORLDWIDE (logo, album art, merchandise, NON Quarterly online magazine etc.); album art for Angel-Ho, Rabit, and Moro.
Approach: "NON WORLDWIDE locates itself at the dead center of innovation within the field of music and graphic design for music. The raison d'être of NON is to exorcise the language of domination. The function of our gestalt is to aesthetically as well as spiritually unite our Citizens, and to promulgate The Glory of The NON State across the globe. NON Shall Rise Above."
Location: Mexico City, Mexico
Style: Bustamante's output is a good example of total design: he frequently photographs real objects, which he's also created, in situ.
Notable projects: Co-founder, creative director, and designer for NAAFI (record covers, flyers, apparel etc.); shirts and posters for queer club night Traición in Mexico City.
How would you describe the current state of graphic design for dance/electronic music? Do you consider yourself a part of that world, or do you try to set yourself apart from it in some way?
Bustamante: There's a lot of pure type flyers now, but brand events look really safe. They should embrace a 90s MTV kind of and commission crazy artists and illustrators; forget in-house design.
The NAAFI look is very locally aware, or referential. We don't produce any of the images using computers. I prefer making objects or situations and then photographing them. Sometimes, the image is more about the process than the end result. And lots of collaborators.
How do you think graphic design can enhance dance music—what can it bring to the table?
You have to be really protective of the music. Sometimes adding a visual can really hurt it, or box it forever into a certain look. It can bring an identity element to it; you can make people feel they belong. I like that social element of design and, of course, the political instrumentality that comes with it.
Location: London, UK
Style: Eastlight's imagery—rife with references to the golden days of rave and thoughtful typography—is brought to the next level thanks to her studio's eagerness to experiment across digital and analog media.
Notable projects: Co-founder of creative collective 555-5555 (alongside the band patten); design for patten's Kaleidoscope label; record covers, music videos, and apparel for Daphni; limited-edition live gatefold vinyl for Caribou; artwork for Giorgio Moroder's Tron video game soundtrack.
Approach: "Things are very exciting right now and it's just increasing all the time. We're seeing these weird hybrids coming out between print and screen, art and design, static and animated, sonic and visual... the way a single set of ideas can slide around through all these different image environments is insane. We're very inspired by that here at the studio. I think as well that there are so many overlapping worlds, so why choose? Things get unpredictable and surprising when there's friction between all these elements.
All of the most inspired moments in music seem to have been really connected to this energy running back and forth between the sound and graphics. Videos, club spaces, and clothes as well, from something like the Hacienda and Factory Records to Metalheadz. All the stuff with 555-5555 is very rooted in that way of looking at things. Like we are making these sort of micro-ecologies of sound, images, textures. Once we've made one, we can then let it out there see what it does."
Location: London, UK
Style: The studio made its name due to founder Kate Moross' squiggly, juicy hand-lettering style. Now, as a team, they're able to create sleek layouts for record covers, customized tour visuals and more, all imbued with a sense of fun and mastery of vibrant colors.
Notable projects: Album art, live visuals, and music videos for artists including Disclosure, Redlight, Tala, Jonas Rathsman, Simian Mobile Disco, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Odesza, Buraka Som Sistema, L-Vis 1990, Craig David, Eats Everything, B.Traits, and MK.
Approach: "Graphic design is more accessible than ever, and technology too—things like music visuals are something more people can get involved with than in the past, and that's a good thing. I suppose I am a part of that music world inherently as I work at a design studio that is focused on music, but we try to not to overthink it, not get tied down in being too similar or too different, just make what we do and put out it there! Project by project, track by track.
Design is massively important in that it helps get tickets sold and brings people to clubs. This is kind of overlooked, but flyers, posters, branding, hand stamps, logos, Facebook banners, et cetera—you can't just have a night, it needs to be properly displayed; the visual side of things adds a whole new depth to a club or event. Aside from that, there's records, merch, all that stuff, which again can only add to the overall experience, part of something bigger."
Location: Chicago, Illinois; New York, New York
Style: Rolfes seems to be sending us messages from the future. His background in the fine art world is apparent from the painterly quality of his still images, and his videos proudly display his unique of warped, mind-bending abstract experimentation.
Notable projects: Video and still image projects for artists including Amnesia Scanner, Danny L Harle, and Caroline Polachek; album art and animation for Kingdom; live visuals for Lafawndah, Squarepusher, and part of Rihanna's VMA 2016 performance; EP covers for Dawn Richard, Nick Léon, Kai Whiston, DJ Orange Julius, and Nobel; live 3D sculpting/visuals for Evian Christ, Mumdance, Lightning Bolt, and Teengirl Fantasy.
Approach: "I'm just going off feels here, and it feels like more ground is being covered in typography and collaged graphic design right now than any kind of object-based imagery, other than the generic shiny eye candy that's been dogging the supposedly tasteful side of the new media world for the last few years (if not longer).
I'm definitely more a part of the electronic music visual sphere than the white box art world at this point, partially just because there are so many more points of harmony between my work and worldview and those musicians than, say, a blue chip gallery curator. I try to set myself apart from it to the extent that I approach my creative path as fluidly as possible, flowing into whatever scenes and industries offer the path of least artistic resistance and the most leeway for me to both make challenging work and not have to come to terms with my short scene-attention span.
Especially in the realm of dance music, the inherently abstract nature of it and the way in which it operates partially within your mind with some creative freedom means the visual element that is paired with it can be incredibly important to communicating a narrative or emotional context to the listener. More than just a simple promotional device, which it's often approached as, the visual augmentation of a musical piece both allows for some added nuance to the sonic message and provides crevices in the rock-face of the track or album for the listener to grab ahold of. Without the anchor points of visuality, it's far easier to slip around and glide on the surface of a song without truly being able to explore the depths of its emotional or conceptual implications."
Location: Berlin, Germany
Style: Lozano is the king of purposefully crude design. His chiseled pixel type, busted cartoon characters, and old school graffiti lettering may appear naïve, but that's just the way he wants it.
Notable projects: Co-founder and art director of Klasse Recordings, Grafiti Tapes, and Zodiac44 (record covers, album art, apparel, posters, flyers, and logos); album art and flyers for various international labels and parties.
Approach: "There's a good healthy scene—at least for the kind of art I am interested in—where the DIY ethos is encouraged, and I'm happy things are becoming easier and more available for anyone that wants to make a contribution. I'm part of some world for sure, but I try not to be too aware of what else is happening. Ignorance is bliss and it's easier to try and create a unique identity when you're not so caught up with what's going on around you.
I think the sleeve/center sticker design is usually the first thing to mark out a release as being interesting, especially in record stores. There's also a 'collector mentality' when it comes to buying records—the artwork's quirks and little details can make that a lot more fun. In my opinion the artwork can help familiarize the music with the audience and can also, in some cases, elevate it to an iconic status, sometimes just by simple repetition."
Location: Glasgow, Scotland; Somerset and London, UK
Style: Studio Remote has the ability to hone in on a musician's essence, helping to form their identity in listeners' minds via outlets including futuristic videos and 360-degree sensory experiments. Using the latest technology, they're at the top of their game.
Notable projects: Co-founder and art director of Numbers; clients and collaborators include Brian Eno, brilliant corners, Craig Armstrong, Darkstar, FKA twigs, Hudson Mohawke, Jessie Ware, Offshore, Redinho, Rustie, SBTRKT, SOPHIE.Approach: "People's brains are rewiring creatively right now to adapt to emerging technologies and the constantly changing social media climate (and promotional limitations), enabling the creation of new forms of visuals to accompany music. At Numbers we've recently been working with a broad range of visual artists who all make really outstanding and unique work with very different processes and outcomes.
I prefer external references rather than looking towards what others are doing in the graphic design world. I've always felt a little isolated from what's 'current', which is partly where the original name of the studio—Remote Location—came from. However, I do enjoy the work of many contemporary graphic designers who are forging their own visual paths, which is something I definitely respect and strive towards myself.
Good graphic design should fit the music like a glove, so the visuals and audio become inseparable in the consumer's mind. I am interested in looking beyond the traditional relationships between graphic design and dance music and exploring alternative methods of visual delivery. This can engage new audiences in unexpected ways and help expose them to new sounds and ideas. Interactive music videos, sound-reactive installations, generative identities, and real-time documentaries of the creative process are a few of the different approaches we've explored over the last year in collaboration with various music artists."
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Style: Shiryaev's posters and flyers are informed by his clear love for typography, whether it's a clean, well-placed sans serif or a riotous stretched font that allows letters to fill an entire canvas; he's also got a penchant for collage and messing around with shapes.
Notable projects: Posters and flyers for event collective/label Roots United in St. Petersburg, as well as for Capital Bass and Hyperboloid club nights in Moscow, plus various clubs across Russia and Europe.
Approach: "There is a lot of different music being produced nowadays and one has to look for new and innovative ways to represent it visually. There are quite interesting, unusual, and even strange (in a good sense) approaches. It is curious to observe the evolution of these techniques and, at the same time, to be a part of it. I would like to design not only for dance music, but also for other styles (shoegaze, ambient, drone) but, unfortunately, there is no demand for such design.
Graphic formalization gives volume to the music. It's an additional qualitative dimension. I think design should stimulate you to explore it for a long time, looking for all the details."
Location: Hamburg, Germany
Style: Solman's work most often involves employing thin black lines to create the visages of the world's best electronic musicians, sometimes adding fields of bright colour to make them pop.
Notable projects: illustrations for FACT mixes; flyers for Golden Pudel in Hamburg and Kompakt Records; album art for Demdike Stare.
Approach: "I don't think that illustration and graphic design made for dance and electronic music are any different to the work made for any other music genre. Sleeves designed for techno albums look like goth bands' releases, and black metal dudes have colorful sleeves with unicorns and dolphins flying over rainbows together on them. This is more than okay, because it brings a lot of freedom.
In my view, there are no borders in design anymore—if they have been there at all. Art/design and borders are things that do not go very well together. It's the same in fashion and music itself, of course. There are always some styles that are en vogue, but over the last two decades everything has become a mixture of ingredients that have been there for a long while. Maybe this is because it's getting harder and harder (if not impossible) to come up with something totally new and unique. So, there is no need or reason to set oneself apart from this 'world'.
There was this idea in the early days of techno that the music should speak for itself, and nobody should be interested in the person who played it. I don't think this worked very well, even though the idea wasn't that bad. Same for record sleeves. I like generic sleeves, but I like it even more when a record has a nice and fitting sleeve, too. The visual aspect helps people remember and store it somewhere in their brain. But sleeves do not really enhance the music and, on the other hand, bad artwork won't ruin it. There are some records in my collection that I love for the music, but the artwork is horrible. This won't stop me from loving this record. And, maybe someone else loves this 'horrible' artwork. It all depends on personal taste."
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Style: Acid-bright colours, digital airbrushing, and photocopier distortions meet innovative and often hand-drawn typography on Amado's idiosyncratic iconography.
Notable projects: Posters and logo for Good Room in Brooklyn; posters for Musicbox Lisboa, LUX, and Lounge in Lisbon; record covers for Discotexas and Fool's Gold.
Approach: "I don't really think I'm part of the electronic music world. I mean, I do go out to clubs quite a lot and listen to some of the music, but I guess I'm more into the punk/noise/weird scene. I started to make posters for electronic music because a friend of mine was booking all these parties at the Good Room and she asked me to help her out. I had so much fun working on something different from what I was doing, that I just kept going.
There are so many people doing so many different things right now, and the Internet has such an overwhelming amount of visual information that I don't really think there's a specific going around. I do think that variety is good and important. I try to be [something like] a DJ whenever I'm designing a poster. Mixing different styles, trying new stuff, picking up on some weird references and making them new and fresh. For me, going to a club means finding new music, meeting new people, having fun—I think the graphic design needs to reflect the same."