Typography in Album Artwork: From Groovy Typefaces to Handwritten Calligraphy

Emma Kumer
Apr 7, 2020 · 8 min read
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They say you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover and it’s also true that you can’t judge a song based on its album art. To put it nicely, there are a lot of absolutely incredible songs out there with horrendous album art. Think about “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5, featuring Cardi B, which features three sins of graphic design: white text on a high-contrast photo, three or more typefaces, and uneven line spacing. Or these two monstrosities from DJ Khaled, which use outline text and faux plaques reminiscent of the design nightmare that was Microsoft WordArt.

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Why Top 20? It seemed like deep enough that I’d probably incorporate a few different music genres, giving me a generous dataset to work with.

The most immediate takeaway is that sans serif fonts—those without the small “feet” you might find on newspaper type or book copy—have been the most popular category of typeface on album art for the past forty years. Serif fonts, in contrast, are less popular than handwritten ones (though they hit a peak in the ‘90s).

However, a deeper dive into the data reveals a lot more.

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As you can see, a lot of album art contain more than one font. I indexed the first cover as [serif, brush] and the second one as [sans serif, brush] to count them for both categories.

Most album covers contained more than one typeface, which allowed me to identify which pairings were most common. One of the most popular combinations, with 78 instances, was a serif with a sans serif — what most designers are taught to regard as the Holy Grail of typeface pairing. However, the overwhelming conclusion was that serifs didn’t play well with anything else.

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Note: For this particular data set, I grouped all of the display fonts (medieval/blackletter, geometric, stencil, typewriter, digital) into one category.

Font Trends by Decade

I started my research in 2019 and made my way back to 1975. Along the way, I took note of any trends I saw popping up in each decade. Some of the findings were predictable — for example, the ‘70s and early ‘80s were dominated by “groovy” typography — but some of them were more surprising. Here are some of the categories I used to identify each typeface.

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The display font categories are a bit harder to determine. When analyzing fonts on every album cover, I identified the main typeface with some adjective, using the popular typeface website DaFont.com as a guide to common qualifiers.

Do fonts reach peak nostalgia at age 30?

One of the coolest findings? Certain categories of fonts come in and out of style, just like trends in clothing. As you can see in the graphs below, a lot of the popular display categories from the ‘70s and ‘80s had a second wave of popularity in the ‘90s or early 2000's. According to my research, the gap between spikes was just shy of thirty years — roughly one generation.

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The 70s: Groovy Type (And Lots of It)

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The compact disc was not invented until the ‘80s, so album covers of the ‘70s were designed to sell vinyl records. As a result, a lot of the artwork contains a full list of the songs — consider Carl Douglas’ “The Soul of the Kung Fu Fighter,” which displayed the track list beside a picture of the artist in bright orange wushu uniform.

Unsurprisingly, the artists of the ‘70s favored that curvy, smooth typography we now associate with the decade. Some of the these groovy typefaces such as Adobe Caslon Pro, Windsor, Souvenir, and Cooper Black have surged back into popularity today. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds used the same font as today’s clothing at Brandy Melville. The Eagles’s Best of My Love used a typeface known to have inspired the latest redesign of Chobani Yogurt.

The ‘80s: Video Killed the Typography Star

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If the ‘70s were filled with text, the ‘80s started pushing for the opposite. Album covers began featuring massive photographs of the artist, often shoving the text into box-shaped spaces. At this same time, MTV launched in 1981 to begin broadcasting music videos of popular artists. The image of a singer/songwriter was more important—and more visible—than ever before.

We can also see a spike in the use of serifs, which I can only assume is a direct backlash to the bulbous, blob typefaces of the previous decade.

The ‘90s: Welcome to a Digital World

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You can see the effect of the mainstream Internet in the digital typefaces popularized in the ‘90s. Take a look at TLC’s Fanmail, the album that brought us the hitNo Scrubs.” The entire piece looks like it belongs in TRON.

Almost every font from album covers in this decade makes use of a geometric-inspired typeface, reminiscent of computer code or bitmap video games. (And for a good reason: 1996 marked the boom in instant messaging and gaming consoles like Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation.)

The 2000s: Ye Olde Medieval Fonts

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As album art reached the new millennium, fonts took a step back in time. The 2000s exploded with medieval-inspired blackletter fonts from artists like Beyonce, The Pussycat Dolls, Sean Paul, Chris Brown, Gwen Stefani, and Akon. The early 2000s are unquestionable proof that the gothic typeface is one of the most universal categories. Today, you’ll see them in both Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Taylor Swift’s Reputation. (Which, if you’re wondering, was definitely on purpose.)

The reason for this? It isn’t completely clear, but the 2000s is the first year where the top 20 was disproportionately filled with hip hop and rap songs. These genres have always gravitated toward blackletter fonts such as Cloister Black, associating their ancient feel with royalty, richness, and power.

The 2010s: Hiding the Font

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While album covers traditionally slap a font on top of the artwork, the 2010s began experimenting with the use of type within the design. Consider Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next, where the title is tattooed across the artist’s chest. Or Post Malone’s beerbongs & bentleys, where the title is superimposed on a CD case (how meta). With the information hidden in this way, a person has to work harder to find the title of the album they’re listening to.

However, absolutely zero people are looking at the artwork to determine the song. We live in a streaming world. At the beginning of the era, people searched for songs on iTunes. Now, almost everybody has an account on either Spotify, Apple Music, or Pandora. And almost no one is buying physical CDs from the store. The role of an album cover is no longer to identify the music, but instead, to accompany the album as a complementary piece of art.

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We started in the ‘70s with vinyl record covers that listed the whole album. Now, we live in a world where half the album covers don’t have text at all. By digging through the typography of music artwork, you can see the shift from vinyl records to CDs to Spotify. Sometimes, we were nostalgic. Sometimes, we were futuristic. Often, we were both. The humanity is in the fonts.

The Modern Rise of Handwriting on Album Artwork

With all of this research in mind, I focused on the songs from the past decade to see if the latest trends told a deeper story. My first finding was that 2019 was the first year in observable history that handwritten fonts outnumbered all other types of fonts — serif and sans serif. But oddly enough, 2019 was also the peak in top 25 songs with no fonts at all.

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Why could this be?

Why are more artists choosing to either handwrite their words or leave them off entirely? To follow the trend of hiding fonts in the artwork, as seen above, it seems that there’s been a shift toward eliminating the use of fonts at all — a turn away from technology.

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I shared these findings with my friends in the music industry (over iMessage, of course) and we formed a hypothesis. In our social media culture and our age of a curated public vision, we’ve seen a push for authenticity. A person’s handwriting is incredibly personal; after all, we still consider signatures a form of personal identification. Even if an artist pays someone else to hand-letter their album art, it still projects a general sense of intimacy and realness.

It’s 2020. People no longer glorify the use of computer editing or digital typesetting. We’ve had decades to enjoy technological creation. Today’s audiences seek artists who are uncensored and genuine — and sometimes, that means leaving fonts behind.

Data and Notes

Creating this dataset and analyzing these numbers was a long and tedious process. If you’d like to do similar research and skip the first twenty hours of work, here is a link to my dataset. In addition, here is a guide to font classification — just in case my methodology doesn’t make sense to you. And finally, for entertainment purposes, a selection of the good and bad album covers I found in my extensive research.

Bad Uses of Typography

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Good Uses of Typography

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Looking for more of my album art discussion and critique?

On my Spotify account, you will find a playlist called Songs With Above Average Graphic Design with tracks that I appreciate merely because their creative teams did an exemplar job expressing the song through its visual artwork. (Please note that I don’t actually listen to this playlist often. Good design is not to be confused with a good song.)

More about me

I’m a Northwestern University student majoring in journalism who spends roughly 50% of her daily life analyzing the typography of the world around me. I have designed two of my own typefaces, animated a few music videos, and created three album covers for artists — and I’ll admit, I use my handwriting as the inspiration for almost all of these. :)

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Thanks to Noëlle Rakotondravony

Emma Kumer

Written by

Freelance journalist and graphic designer

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Emma Kumer

Written by

Freelance journalist and graphic designer

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

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