The Good, The Bad, The 80’s (Part One): Retro Pop Album Designs

I’ll admit it. I grew up in the 80’s. One of the many experiences I had from that great decade was that of transitioning from vinyl albums to compact discs. To be fair, the transition itself was not all that great.

What once was a vibrant, dynamic design instrument was swiftly reduced (literally) to a quarter of its former self in favor of a ‘better audio’ experience. As vinyl continues making its ‘retro’ comeback, I am reminded of all those great album designs I grew up with – sensory overload for the eyes of a young designer-to-be. In the first of a series of posts on 80’s album design for Design Juices, I wanted to take a look back at some of those designs that I remember so well. First up….80’s Pop.

1. Rolling Stones – Dirty Work – 1986

Do you really even need to look for the date to know when this album was released? Neon colors were everywhere in the 80’s – and this cover proves it. If the Rolling Stones were following the latest fashion trend, then you know that it was a trend to be reckoned with. Bright, bold neon colors do their best to mask the emotionless faces of the band members. Visually the design worked for the period — the fashion and colors were all the rage and it stood out in the record bins, which prompted sales of Dirty Work in spite of a cover shot that featured one of the band members staring off into space.

2. Go-Go’s – Beauty and the Beat – 1981

At the time, I’m not sure any other design would have made me want to buy this album more. Five naked young women (covered with only towels), with pretty faces (covered with masks), looking freshly cleaned, balanced with one seductive glance while painting her toenails and the implication of some sort of group bathing activity? Did adolescent males stand a chance? You can almost smell how clean, sweet and innocent they are in this well composed photo – leaving you intrigued and wanting more.  This very simple color scheme combined with light typography had this cover oozing sexuality.

3. Buckner & Garcia – Pac-Man Fever – 1981

With video games becoming all the rage, and none bigger than Pac-Man, this simple image of the actual arcade game screen was enough to make the cover of this album unique. The hi-res image (remember, it was 1981) features a close-up of the game characters with the title overhead. It was like taking a piece of the game home with you, and reflects the ability to capitalize on a craze that was a big part of the decade.

4. Men At Work – Business As Usual – 1982

I will confess that I never (and still don’t) really understand the design of this cover. One could argue that the stark yellow color was in reference to a construction sign, as is the ‘wire-esque’ grid pattern. One could also argue that this imagery in no way connects visually with the concept of an amplifier, mountains and guitar cable. What IS clear is that the best element of this design is possibly the typeface used for the ‘Business As Usual’ title – that’s pure 80’s.

5. John Fogerty – Centerfield – 1985

One of the most effective uses of typography in an album cover design, Centerfield placed its baseball jersey – inspired logo treatment front and center. The dirt – like background, baseball glove and the All-American red/blue color combination all convey that opening day excitement of America’s favorite pastime. This album cover became instantly recognizable in the record racks, and no doubt contributed to the albums success. Everyone was looking for a little slice of Americana that year, and they got it.

6. Heart – self titled – 1985

This is a prime example of the all-to-familiar trend of (a) exploiting the sexuality of female band members and (b) changing your look in favor of the latest trends. In 1985, Heart went with big hair, bright colors, big clothes and shoulder pads for the cover shot of their self-titled album. It has Miami Vice jackets, Madonna lace (see #8), and Flock of Seagulls hair all combined with a simple serif typeface. It’s undeniably 80’s and became a huge success for the band. Not bad for a cover shot taken during a windstorm.

7. Van Halen – 1984 – 1984

Departing from the normal hair band cover photos that were everywhere in the 80’s, Van Halen opted for an illustration instead.  The shock factor of the baby cherub smoking a cigarette was fairly mild for the time, but certainly created controversy in many circles. The sharp contrast of the red, all caps serif typeface along with the soft illustration style was clearly deliberate and fueled the struggle between youth and maturity. The image became iconic of the time and forever associated with the band. ( I still think they should have spent more time on that right hand – it still looks odd )

8. Madonna – Like A Virgin – 1984

Arguably THE cover of the 80’s, this single photograph conveys innocence and sexuality simultaneously. The combination of beauty, sensuality, purity, satin n’ lace and just the right amount of skin solidified this cover as a must have. Even the simple addition of the artist name and title, set lowercase using a rather informal typeface, contributes to the sexually charged innocence of the photograph. The iconic ‘Boy Toy’ belt was simply a bonus for young men everywhere.

9. Loverboy – Get Lucky – 1981

Hot off the heals of the late 70’s disco and free love, came the tight red pants and finger crossing image that also became another iconic cover for the 80’s. The design (and possibly the band too) was definitely marketed to the female market. The unique closeness and perspective of the photo implies that something is being said, or done, or both that is only leading to one thing. An American Typewriter-esque typeface supports the photos message without distraction, and the cover quickly became the icon that we still recognize today.

10. The Romantics – self titled – 1980

The only thing better than one pair of red leather pants…is four?

11. The Cure – Boys Don’t Cry – 1980

Before scrap booking became all the rage, The Cure (or at least their designer) was just one step ahead. Familiar neon colors, bold shapes and simplistic sans-serif typography combine to create a scrapbook, hand assembled look. It’s interesting that this album was released in 1980, and had good influence (or insight) into what was to come. Miami Vice didn’t start for another 4 years…

12. Depeche Mode – Violator – 1990

Although released in early 1990, this album and artwork was produced at the very end of the 80’s decade. As one of the last 80’s designs, it’s clear that a shift in design elements, color and style had taken place as the decade came to a close. Released around the same time as Photoshop 1.0, the single rose image looks to have a simple Photoshop-looking effect applied. Some contrast, white and vibrant red color against a stark black background is a far departure from the neon, big-hair designs that proceeded. The handwritten typography in the lower right along with the single rose image communicate a sense of isolation and loneliness that makes you question what the handwriting is saying.

Those are some of the 80’s pop album designs that inspired me yesterday and today….what are yours?

Feel free to post and share!

Up next in Part 2 – 80’s Metal.