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Design lessons from the music industry

Ed Garrett   |   Sept 13th 2021  

At Garrett Creative, music is in our DNA and our blood. Between us, we have decades of experience from all corners of the music industry. From touring and running events, to managing record shops, to studio engineering and producing music with independent labels, we’ve seen and heard it all. And it’s been a major inspiration in how we approach design.

That’s true to be said even when we’re not working with musicians and record labels. Take our branding and marketing collaboration with The Bunch, for example. They’re a start-up in student services and utilities, but our music background has helped us to nail their visual identity for the target audience.

Here are a handful of the design lessons we learned from the music industry that we apply in our design work every day.

Identify your tribe

Album artwork has to do much more than just look good. In addition to being eye-catching, it needs to convey what kind of music you can expect to hear, via visual cues including, colour, photography, image treatment and typography.

Design for Music still needs to be original. But it also needs to have a certain aesthetic that makes it immediately identifiable to the right audience. Huge sound systems, tower blocks and in-your-face titles will scream out to Jungle and Drum & Bass heads, but they would scare off singer-songwriter fans, and they’d appear inauthentic on the front of Katie Perry’s next album.

Just as an artist’s stage presence is reflective of their sound, genre and audience, so it is with your marketing and online presence.

Dancers would be out of place in a Foo Fighters concert, but Beyonce wouldn’t be without them. It’s okay to sit in front of a piano all night if you’re Norah Jones, but an audience expects more movement and fireworks from Stormzy. Bowling for Soup will talk between songs and drink beer on stage, AC/DC will throw off their shirts and never be without a flat cap. It’s all a part of their visual identity, and it’s all attuned to an audience.

Design for brands work the same way. Your brand identity, website and marketing materials are where your customers get their first real taste of who you are and whether you can deliver what they need. To get them on board straight off the bat, you need designs created with your particular target audience in mind.

For The Bunch’s marketing, that meant creating vibrant, colourful designs, as well as social media campaigns and animations to appeal to their student demographic.

Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries

When designing for music, you need to relate to your audience but you can’t just stick to what’s tried and tested. It’s a fast-moving, saturated industry, so if artists and labels aren’t taking risks, there’ll be dozens more queuing up behind to push them out of the way. Music history is full of disruptive album covers that helped make their artists into household names — think of the Sex Pistols, or Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Pushing the boundaries isn’t just for punk music though. Brands need to do the same. With The Bunch, we designed a range of marketing assets with the tagline “There’s more to life than bills”, showing students on the smash or crashing out on the sofa after a big night out.

Going for such a loud, in-your-face design was potentially risky. But it quickly set The Bunch apart as a student brand, and we knew from examples like Deliveroo and Nando’s that younger audiences warm to brands that are a bit tongue-in-cheek.

The more you know the market you’re aiming for, the more you’ll know what will pay off. When KFC ran their FCK ad in 2018 after not having enough chicken to open UK branches, they knew it would be well received with their predominantly young target market. Often it’s less about whether you like the designs, and more about whether your audience will connect with it.

Always keep your ear to the ground

Pretty much everything that’s now mainstream once started out on the fringes. In music, major labels are always watching for what’s coming through the underground and the grassroots scene, to find what’s going to be the next big thing.

As designers, we have to do exactly the same. Take street art, for example. 15 years ago, mainstream brands wouldn’t have dared to use that kind of gritty, stencilled aesthetic for fear of being misidentified. But then Banksy came along and turned that on its head.

Keeping an eye on what’s around was key to our work with The Bunch. We noticed a lot of startups and also bigger brands like AirBNB and Monzo were adopting illustrations in their designs. To help The Bunch stand out and create a visual style they could own, we incorporated original character illustrations with oversized cutout photography to create an aesthetic that’s on trend, while still having a fresh twist that sets it apart.

If you’re looking to develop your brand’s visual identity with original, exciting, bold and compelling creative design, then please get in touch using the form below or by emailing [email protected]

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