Brian Roettinger is a seminal graphic designer who has produced work for the Liars, Beach House and No Age - which he was nominated for a Grammy Award for. He is heading to New Zealand to speak at Semi-Permanent, the two day creative conference that will take place in Auckland at the end of this month. UTR caught up with Roettinger to discuss how changes in the music industry have affected his visual output and how he collaborates with bands to produce work that evokes ideas over sounds.
Hey Brian how are you?
Itís going good, itís just one of those days where I'm trying to cram a bunch of things into a short period of time.
Youíre heading over to New Zealand for Semi-Permanent: are you looking forward to it?
Yeah Iím really looking forward to it! Itís the first time Iíve ever been over there.
Did you go to Semi-Permanent when it was in L.A?
I went to three screenings but it was only a couple of one hour stints.
I wanted to start at the beginning. What interested you in graphic design in the first place, and how did you develop the style you have today?
There was a lot of things that I was interested in that led to design. Probably the most obvious was music and record covers: those were my gateway drug to design, my true introduction. It was where I started working at graphic design even though I wasnít a designer Ė I didnít know anything about design but it was the first time I had an immediate response to a visual image. I wasn't really doing graphic design but playing music and putting records out with friends and touring around the place. From there my interests switched and I stopped playing music and I became more engaged in design. I started doing design for friendís bands and record covers and then it took off from there. Then I went to school for design and learned more about the history of design and how to think like a designer and thatís how my interest and curiosity changed from music to design.
I was always interested in things besides design like fine art and architecture and so all of those things influenced the way I looked and thought about it, and I think thatís potentially where any sort of stylistic thing that you could draw out of the work would come from: based entirely on my schizophrenic interests.
What is your process for creating a visual image when a project presents itself?
I just try to tell a story first. Rather than creating something thatís a seductive image that someone could respond to or not respond to, I always ask my question: ďwhy am I doing this? Why am I making this look or feel a certain way?Ē It all goes back to ďwhatís the narrative? What am I trying to tell?Ē Itís less about graphic design and equally about telling some sort of story or sharing some sort of interest that whoever I'm making it for has.
Itís different all the time too, because itís project specific. If Iím designing an exhibition catalogue for an artist Iím basically given a platform for someone elseís work to become my work: I design the exhibition catalogue but the work inside of that is the work of another artist. So then itís like ďhow can I present someone else's work without having my fingerprints all over it?Ē In an exhibition catalogue itís all about the content: you really want to tell a story or make something present itself in a nice way without it being about design. But then there are other times that are different. When Iím designing an album cover or making fine art which is my own work Iím on my own and I can express anything I want in any way I feel like it. Thatís when I can get as much out of what I want to do - when I can do whatever I want.
I find it interesting that you put the designing of an album cover in the latter category. Tell me about your process of working with bands - youíre trying to get the albumís idea across in the artwork right?
Itís funny because the idea of an album cover has changed so much from originally just being LPs and Cassettes. But also from the LP shrinking to the CD and then the CD shrinking to the 2Ē x 2Ē square that we see on iTunes, what an album cover has to be now is not what it used to have to be. It can almost have no reference to the band on the cover: It doesnít have to say the bandís name, it doesnít have to say the title because a lot of times when people are introduced to a record itís in response to some text that says what the album is and what the title is. It simply becomes a graphic signifier for that album.
Itís interesting because now youíre designing for a different scale. I canít just design for an LP size then shrink it to a CD then shrink it to a 2Ē x 2Ē square because the way that design works it may not work at two inches, so you have to design it at multiple scales and see how it works and thatís one interesting thing.
The other thing about my process for album covers is that I like it to be fairly collaborative if possible. With most of the bands I work with weíll meet and discuss the record and talk about what was going on while the record was made or how the songs came about. Instead of sitting in a studio and riffing, I know that thereís so much more to the process than that and I like to know that stuff. Thatís what sparks ideas for me about how an image could relate to music. So itís related more to the process and the idea of the music rather than what it sounds like: I never try to make an image that reflects what the record sounds like because if you make an image that reflects the ideas on the record then I think itís more true to an overall story.
Itís interesting interviewing you because I spend a lot of my time interviewing bands that you have done the cover art for and they note the collaborative visual process too: so itís nice to hear the full circle.
Oh yeah cool well itís definitely a collaborative process, thatís for sure.
The visuals are such an important part of understanding the album as a whole: how do you think the change to digital formats has affected the understand of a full album?
Yeah I mean, and maybe this is an answer and maybe itís not but anyone who physically goes into a record store and buys a physical object is willing to spend more money to get that object and I think itís the job of the label and the band and the designer to express more with an actual package. They should make something thatís really special, because if itís going to cost something more they should get something special. A lot of bands arenít as interested in packaging and just do the standard object thing like ďhereís a dual caseĒ and that just kind of makes people not want to buy it; it makes them want to download it or steal it from the internet. But if you put ideas into the cover and turn that into an actual package then youíre more likely to encourage people to buy it.
With No Age for example, the label understands all of that so they let us go with it with the packaging because they know people are going to want to buy it so if you make it something special you might sell more.
Tell me about Hand Held Heart which I believe is a record label / curatorial project?
Originally Ė before I considered myself a designer Ė it was the name of the record label. I liked it because it was a bit abstract and didnít necessarily have anything to do with music, but if I really thought about it, it maybe had something to do with making something or giving something back or collaborating, and so when I stopped doing the label as a real thing and started just doing design I wanted to keep that name because a lot of the ideas are the same. Even though Iím not putting out records and Iím making design itís still my interests in how I want to do it and how I think about it are the same as when I was doing the label: itís a continued thing in a different medium. I like that itís a moniker thatís not my name so Iím a little bit more on the periphery.