Graphic design is an essential facet of the music industry but it’s often overlooked. We’ve spoken about the importance of establishing a visual brand for artists in the past, but today we’re diving deeper into the topic of visual art as we have the pleasure of connecting with Jack McArdle. For those unfamiliar, Jack is a Leeds-based designer who works under the moniker skinterest and is the creator of Album Art Archive. For longtime FUXWITHIT fans his work is likely familiar as he’s done covers for anti., RemK, Acrillics, Electric Hawk & many more. With Album Art Archive he provides advice to up-and-coming creatives, gives away free resources, and sells his own design packs. We spoke to Jack about how he got into graphic design, the evolution of Album Art Archive, creating your own style, the essentials for good cover art, why graphic designers are undervalued in the music industry, and much more. Dive into our full interview below.
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Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get into graphic design? How long have you been in the industry?
So I first picked up Photoshop in 2011 when I was about 14, and I’ve posted my work online since then under various names but I’d say I managed to break into doing work for album covers and music projects in 2016. I got into design because I wanted to learn photo manipulation as a kid just because I thought it was cool to make impossible stuff look real in Photoshop, and eventually through tutorials and experimenting on my own I found my way to learning almost all of Photoshop CS2.
What made you gravitate towards the music industry?
My cousin (Jimmy Long) who I grew up with is now a pretty popular rapper locally in Leeds, and he has always been way into rap music and grime since he was a kid. He introduced me YouTube and Limewire when I was way too young, so I was the 12-year-old nerdy white kid listening to 50 Cent or Chipmunk and ripping Soulja Boy music from Limewire because it’s what my cousin got me into. All that lead me down the YouTube rabbit holes to Skrillex and Deadmau5. I feel like I discovered my music taste way before most people do because everyone else I knew at that age was just listening to what their parents listened to or maybe whatever was in the charts. Since then I have had a big connection/love for music.
What inspired you to create Album Art Archive? How has it evolved over time?
Album Art Archive was basically just a fun side project that has now taken over my life. I have been making album covers under the alias “skintrest” for years, and it’s really hard to get design work noticed by the music industry even if you’re talented because it’s so competitive, one day some of my work got picked up and reposted by this page called Digital Archive and straight away I had people in my inbox offering to pay me for my work. Before this point, I had been burned so many times by big artists taking my work for free or promising payment and never sending it, so I was amazed at how easy it was after getting a repost from this big page. After that I felt I was always chasing a repost from one of these big pages to get more clients, so one day I just thought, I’m done chasing that, I’m gonna start my own.
When I started the page I had recently dropped out of university and I was working at a call center making not very much money. I would just go get my phone on my break and pick a few people to repost and then go back to work, so for the first few weeks, it was reposts only. When I hit 8k followers I started giving away some resources for free because my goal was to hit 10k and after releasing the first free pack I went from 8k to 15k in like 3 weeks which was crazy. Right now the page has evolved into being where I sell the design resources and give out a lot of advice to younger/less experienced creatives about how they can make more money from their work.
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Do you listen to music while designing? If so, what are your listening preferences like while working? Does it change based on the project you’re working on?
Yes, I am listening to music right now too! I did produce music for about two years but I found it super lonely because you are sometimes just sat in silence listening to snare samples for 2 hours straight, so my favourite part about my job now is that I get to listen to music literally all day every day. My listening habits don’t really change based on the project I’m working on, more just how I’m feeling. Sometimes if I am feeling a creative burnout coming I usually go back to a project like Suede Snowflakes by Bailey Snow , or pretty much anything by anti because I worked on their artwork and it helps me break out of the burnout and realize I am actually pretty good at making album covers. Other than that you can catch me listening to anything that is either electronic or rap/grime.
I think most designers stay away from traditional methods because digital is so much more advanced but if you can mix the two together your work will stand out because most people are too scared to show their weak traditional skills!
Can you talk a little bit about the connection between traditional and digital art within your work? How do the two work together? What does creating in a more traditional sense add?
I absolutely suck at traditional art and actually drawing/illustrating physically with a pen on paper, so I used to try to avoid having to do any of that stuff at all costs, but now I am super comfortable with 2d and 3d software I have kind of embraced my crappy drawing styles and I’ve been using them alongside my digital work. I think most designers stay away from traditional methods because digital is so much more advanced but if you can mix the two together your work will stand out because most people are too scared to show their weak traditional skills!
How important is creating your own style as a designer? How do you balance this against individual client/project needs?
If you want to be your own person and have your own name as a designer, then having your own style is the most important thing. If you look at designers like Mona Thomas or Safehaven you would never find those kind of people just doing a random logo commission for a small business or working at an agency on corporate design work, they have their own lane and they have carved out their own space in the design world for their style to exist in.
On the other hand, there are lots of projects you can get paid for where you are expected to comfortably work in a very specific style for a client. So, it’s okay if you don’t have your own style as long as you can work in other styles, you just probably won’t have the same kind of cult following as the artists I previously mentioned.
In terms of balance honestly most designers will have this figured out long before anyone pays them for their artwork and it’s just a matter of turning down and accepting the right projects.
How do you bring tangibility into your designs?
This is a hard question just because sometimes what makes a design unique is because it is so unrealistic and ridiculous that it cannot possibly be tangible. If you look at work by an artist like Kitasavi or Jappari their work is so crazy that it would be ruined if they tried to make it look realistic. On the other hand, there is stuff like the Beerbongs & Bentleys cover by Travis Brothers and Bryan Rivera which started this huge trend of making realistic CD covers and using physical mockups in cover art.
So for my own design work, it’s more just deciding if I am going to make something tangible and realistic (like this painted series) or am I going to make something abstract and weird (like this dragon I rendered). I do a lot of texture work with acrylic and watercolour paints as well as doing weird 3D and photo manipulation in my artwork so for me I just have to go all-in on either making something weird, or making something realistic/tangible and commit to it.
your cover art is in competition with everything else on social media and you just have to make something that people won’t scroll past.
What are the essential ingredients to good cover art for a release?
If you want to go viral right now there’s this weird trend of really bad cover art (Playboi Carti, Pop Smoke, Lana del Rey) on big releases, but it gets the album trending on Twitter so that makes me think it’s deliberate.
For me as a designer and a music fan I think artists need more continuity in their visuals so that a single cover isn’t just a single cover, it might be something that leads into the album cover or just has some clues that make sense later down the line. Right now when I work with more independent artists and I can have more input. I’m asking questions about what their plans are for the next 12 months and how this fits into their release schedule, rather than what they want in their cover. If you look at artists like Baauer and how he did the rollout for his Planet’s Mad album, the artwork kind of evolved over the single releases and it all came together in the vinyl and the website (website has changed now but it was good), so if you had seen the first single cover, seeing the second one or the vinyl you’d be like “wow what did i miss?” rather than oh another album promo. Machinedrum and Victor Scoranno also did a great job of this on the A View Of U LP last year. People have a really short attention span nowadays especially with short-form content like TikTok being everywhere, so your cover art is in competition with everything else on social media and you just have to make something that people won’t scroll past.
If musicians were getting paid more, designers/management/photographers etc. would hopefully get paid more too.
Do you feel graphic designers are properly valued in the music industry? If not, what could be done to improve this?
Graphic design is properly valued, graphic designers are not. I think that the blame is to be shared equally between musicians/labels and designers though, there are a lot of designers who get taken advantage of because they undercharge but you can’t blame the label/musician for taking advantage of low prices especially when streaming revenue is as low as it is.
I think the biggest problem is that streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music are taking a huge slice of the pie, the knock-on effect of musicians getting less money means that some of my friends have done artwork for the biggest songs and albums in the world but they still work part-time behind a bar or waiting tables because they aren’t getting paid properly and that’s just normal now. If musicians were getting paid more, designers/management/photographers etc. would hopefully get paid more too.
You seem to be quite passionate about ensuring graphic designers are properly compensated. How can freelancers learn to better value their work?
The reason I care about it so much is because I wasted 2 years at University before dropping out and then another 3 years at a job I hated before I actually worked out how to get paid properly for my work, so I don’t want anyone else to waste their time.
It’s really hard because at Universities and schools, at least in the UK, the people teaching those courses have spent their entire career as an academic so they can tell you how to write an essay about Helvetica Neue but they don’t tell you how to send an invoice or how to price a design. So if you go and spend thousands on a design education you still come out the other end of that system with no idea how much your work is worth, whereas some kid who just spent years on the internet trying to make money will know exactly how much they are worth.
I think most people fall into the trap of only pricing their work based on how good it is rather than also considering how valuable it is. If you want to do freelance work in a particular industry, whether that’s music or fashion or anything really, you need to know about that market before you can say how valuable your work is. I’m pretty lucky because of the vanity metric of having the number 40k next to my Instagram username I can usually get a reply from most designers if I want help with something, and I’ve spoken to people who have literally been paid 30k for design on an album campaign and they are just normal people like me, but they know how to apply their skills to the market they exist in better than most.
regardless of what you’re trying to do just keep going so you’re always ready for the opportunity whenever it comes.
What is your biggest piece of advice for up-and-coming artists and creatives?
Honestly this sounds really stupid but you just have to keep going and don’t give up on your goals. I’m very lucky to be in the position I’m in, but before getting here I got bad grades at school, dropped out of university, worked for 3 years at a non-design job I hated, but for some reason, i just kept going with design the entire time and I was ready for every opportunity when it came. So, regardless of what you’re trying to do just keep going so you’re always ready for the opportunity whenever it comes.