Dmitri Siegel | Essays

More Rules

Cover art for The Information by Beck. Art direction and design by Matt Maitland/Gerard Saint at Big City Active with Beck. Sticker art by: Jody Barton, Beck, Juliette Cezar, Estell & Simon, David Foldvari, Genevieve Gauckler, Michael Gillette, Jasper Goodall, Mercedes Helnwein, Han Lee, Matt Maitland, Ari Michelson, Parra, Melanie Pullen, Gay Rie[***]aleksey Shirokov, Will Sweeney, Kam Tang, Adam Tullie, Kensei Yabuno, Vania Zouravliov, 2006.

Beck's new album, The Information, comes out tomorrow but the cover art isn't going to be quite done by then — in fact it will never be finished. Each copy of the album is packaged with a unique kit of stickers and a sheet of grid paper, out of which fans can create their own one-of-a-kind cover. There is a website where fans can upload their designs and plans for a contest to choose one for the second pressing of the album. The cover art is essentially a project for the buyer, bound by the simple rules of the template. Beck's decision to present a set of parameters as an album cover brings to mind the artist Sol LeWitt, who thoroughly explored the strategy of instruction-as-art decades ago. But now, as then, the gesture reveals a tension about where the creative act is situated: in making the work or making the rules.

Wall Drawing #146, Sol LeWitt, 1972.

In hindsight it makes perfect sense that LeWitt worked as a graphic designer (while serving in the U.S. Army and later in the offices of I.M. Pei). His radical stance toward the role of the artist was, in a sense, an appropriation of the art director's role — the articulation of directions and guidelines. But this process challenged the conventional notion of the artist as craftsman and LeWitt was often accused of opting out of the creative process. It still bothers some people that he gets credit for a work like Wall Drawing #146 when all he made was this list of instructions:

All two-part combinations of blue arcs from corners and sides and blue straight, not straight, and broken lines. September 1972. Blue crayon: dimensions vary with installation.

Yoko Ono experienced similar resistance to the book Grapefruit, which she released in 1970. The book is a collection of instructions, many of them only a singe line, including:

Draw a line/Erase a line.
Light a match and watch till it goes out.

In a 1971 interview Ono and John Lennon (who wrote the introduction) discussed the hostile response the book received. "I don't understand people who say they don't understand it because even a seven-year old could understand it," Ono complained. Lennon added, "People seem to be scared of being put on."

Sticker art for The Information by Beck, 2006.

It's hard to imagine such resistance to The Information even though it is playing to a much wider audience. There is a public expectation and even demand for interaction now. Audiences have a symbiotic relationship with media and the technology used to produce and distribute it. Fandom has become a mechanized process of blogging, programming playlists, shooting and distributing videos, file-sharing, and even remixing tracks. Beck's sticker cover is just one way that he has acknowledged this shift. He has also released mutliple versions of his recordings, made raw tracks available for remixing, and provided video elements online for fans to use as source material for their own music videos. In a recent interview in Wired he said, "The idea is to provide something that calls for interactivity and that's totally different from what you'll have if you just download the album."

Cover art for Show Your Bones by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 2006.

The rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs have also been experimenting with art directing their fans. The cover of their most recent album, Show Your Bones, is the result of a flag-making contest; another band-sponsored contest had fans voting on what outfit lead-singer Karen O should wear; in another, fans competed to play the bandmembers in a video for their song "Cheated Hearts." If Sol LeWitt left any doubt that there is an art to writing rules, consider these guidelines for the flag-making competition:

1) Whatever size you want.
2) Whatever colours you like.
3) Relative to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
4) Embodying the symbolic message that you have vibed off the band totally to the max.
5) Recognisable as above all a flag that can be stuck on a pole and waved around.

The language blends detached irony with reckless enthusiasm in a way that is instantly recognizable to a fan of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' music. Through these contests fans learn to interpret the rules more accurately and the band the learns how to give effective direction. The common language between musician and fan helps avoid the kind of trainwreck that Chevrolet recently experienced when they asked the public to shoot commercials for their Tahoe S.U.V. The contest was swamped with attack ads that focused on the truck's poor gas mileage, wasteful design, and negative social and enviromental impact.

Japanese trailer for Awesome I Fuckin' Shot That!, 2006.

The main challenge that artists face in designing these collaborative projects is how to engage their audience while still maintaining some level of editorial control. Beck does this by providing raw materials for collage, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs curate the results of their contests. Earlier this year the hip-hop group The Beastie Boys took another approach to this challenge when they made the concert movie Awesome I Fuckin' Shot That. The film was shot by fifty fans at a show in New York City and the resulting footage was edited together by Nathaniel Hornblower (an alias for bandmember Adam Yauch). The randomly selected fans were given a Hi8 camera and one rule, the blunt humor of which would be intuitively understood by a fan of the band:

You can rock out. You can do whatever you want. Just keep shooting!

The simplicity of this instruction underscores a technological sophistication in the audience that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago when few people knew how to operate a video camera. Now the dual role of cinematographer and extra is second nature. (Incidentally, fans got the thrill of participation but they didn't get a free camera: the band repackaged all fifty and returned them to J&R Electronics the day after the concert for a full refund.)

In his 1960 essay, Man-Computer Symbiosis, J.R. Licklider wrote that the primary obstacle to the fluid collaboration between humans and computers was the lack of a common language. Artists like Beck, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and The Beastie Boys are realizing that music may be that language and they are writing very elegant code for the human-computer hybrid that is their fan base. As Beck puts it, "In an ideal world, I'd find a way to let people truly interact with the records I put out — not just remix the songs, but maybe play them like a videogame." Every game needs rules.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Music

Comments [37]

Wonderful article.

I think this points to a shift towards the distributed nature of self in general as a result of new and more user friendly technologies. Designing the use of these technologies becomes a matter not simply of communicating its use, but also allowing for feedback and interactivity as a core and essential element.

By interacting with these technologies we give up aspects of self in the interaction. This, to me, points to a phasing out of the notion of autonomous action in favor of networked interdependence.
Lucas Krech

Tomorrow I will be purchasing a new CD, from a store, for the first time in years. I won't wax intellectual on the reasons why, but as a designer (and a Beck fan), how can I resist?
Ben Wexlar

Also this was pretty interesting and fun.

Bush of Ghosts
Erik Braun

Saw Beck at Redrocks amphitheatre outside of Denver.


He used a mirror ball during one song. Looking behind me during the song he was playing, I lauged at the effect. Tiny lights going into the croud and on the surroundings.


His music still influences me. So does that concert. Wow!

The Cardigans opened.

Joe Moran

I'm in the middle of writing an article about scrapbooking as a kind of vernacular page layout, and this just adds to my thesis...great article!


I've always believed in the validity of the instruction as the creative endeavor. That isn't to say that it trumps the act of making the final piece, but both have their place and can certainly coexist.

Beck's latest packaging and a Sol Lewitt piece differ in that the purchose of a Lewitt wall drawing is unlikely to result in the owner actually drawing the piece. I'd go out on a limb and propose that such an event has never happened. Any individual, gallery, or museum that owns one of these pieces certainly hired a 3rd party or had interns or assistants execute or install the drawing.

Beck's packaging is far more likely to be executed by the purchaser even though in this case the artwork is not the primary purchase as the Lewitt piece would be. In Beck's case, it's safe to assume the music is what's sought after and the packaging is a bonus.

On second thought, the do-it-yourself and share it cover is a genious move to encourage the purchase of the physical CD now that they've lost most of their intrinsic value.
Randy J. Hunt

Beck's decision to present a set of parameters as an album cover brings to mind the artist Sol LeWitt...

It also brings to mind the artwork for Towa Tei's Best album which included a Letraset sheet, stickers and a blank booklet (designed in 2001 by a certain Sheffield-based studio).

And then there was Alchimia's Unfinished Furniture (1981), which had 30 designers creating various components that could be arranged individually.

Anyway, it's still a nice idea.

At the risk of deflating Beck's clever cover effort, is this really that much different from the stickers that come with a common Happy Meal toy? OK, so kid's can't download their sticker creations to a website (yet). But this effort really just taps into a sense of participatory fun that Beck's audience no doubt experienced as kids.
Daniel Green

This is a great idea, but not an original one by any means. Andy Mueller did this at least a couple years ago for a band called Pinebender. It didn't include stickers but it was, more or less, the same idea. The package included graph paper and a pencil inside the hollow side of the cd case. Now I'm sure someone did this before him. This is just the way things go, things get repeated, but credit where credit is due.

Check the link below for his version of the design your own cd cover.
Andy Mueller
Charlie Williamson

I'd have to agree with Ben Wexlar. It's interesting that suddenly neither he or I have any interest in downloading this new album (legally or not). I'd rather go to the store and by the CD just to experience the interactivity of the cover art.

It's funny that there's all this discussion of Beck's appeal to modern technologies amidst this revolution in the music distribution industry, when what he's actually doing is forcing us to return to the existing model of distribution, albeit in more modern ways.

It's also interesting that the art directors chose to provide the instructions simply and visually and as part of the canvas itself, rather than writing them out verbally.
John Ellis

Dimitri, dear, you have overlooked the connection with Al Hansen, Beck's grandfather. He was an early member of the Fluxus art group of the early 1960s; with which Yoko Ono was also affiliated. Fluxus was the precursor to Conceptual Art.

Haven't you ever wondered why Beck's packaging often features work from the most current artworld stars?

Now get thee to a googlery.
m. kingsley

Good idea. Dated looking form but that is all relative. Haven't websites been doing this type of thing for the music industry for a while without the waste and toxic printing of stickers. Buy the album using design observer's link to amazon and the receive a percentage of your purchase.
Mac Wilson

Great idea poor execution. The art looks lame.
Von Glitschka

I think in a new digital world of mp3s something like this is needed to get people out to buy an actually cd... great stuff....

do you need to label something art to be willing to buy it and enjoy it? wouldn't it be the same if you would haved done it by yourself. in our society, where appearence is a mythical virtue, everything has to come from above, with a sacred aura of important quotations. Otl Aicher was always right.

I hate to be the lone dissenter, but I'm a bit tired of this 'personalization' trend. It's really nice that Beck's people are trying to get people to buy jewelcases instead of making downloads but the technique, to me, seems overwrought, the result of some overzealous MTV 'insight managers' who discovered that 'kids of today want ownership' of brands! When customization is an inherent part of the product - Converse Chucks, for example - it's easier to swallow as part of a brand's appeal. Wasn't there a perfume brand: mark. by Avon or something similiar that allowed users to 'doodle' on their cologne bottles? I just don't get it. Maybe I'm too old, but I now admire brands who aren't afraid to put out their point of views and be done with it. Create the rules and answer them in a dynamic and completely original manner. Both tasks are the job of the designer, are they not?


yeah, it's inherently a good idea, interaction and all, persuading people to buy the physical record over a download but this isn't by any means original. And this isn't by any means the first time I've seen a journalist write about how good and clever Beck is for doing it.

I know I'm just echoing Charlie Williamson, but Art Brut also did something very similar with their debut album a year or two ago, that also had an 'upload to an online gallery' facility. I'm pretty sure Hope Of The States invited their fans to submit artwork for inclusion in one of their music videos a little while ago.

Hi, saw a few weeks ago another nice one: The Garden, Zero 7's album allowed you to create the cover online and print it.

Bill Hates

I can't help but mull over the idea of "rule-based" with/next to/fighting? the "hand-made". Rules, to me implies rigidity, order, and even pre-fab expectation, whereas hand-made translates to fluidity, spontaneity, and organic. I find this Beck gimmick (among other commercially-interested campaigns) to be at an odd intersection of each. It's very um, political.
Jessica Gladstone

Have to agree with Ben Wexlar.

Holy shit! Ben Wexlar! How's it going?!?

I haven't bought a physical album in almost 2.5 years... but who can pass up the opportunity to design your own beck album?

Also, if you don't like stickers, then you must be a communist.

Bill Kerr

Dmitri, thanks for the great article.

Something worth adding; some of you may already know:
Janet Jackson invited her fans to create the cover art for her latest album (no professional experience needed, though I think they provided some kind of design software). Also, the album was going to be entitled "20 Years Old" but during the contest the album was renamed "20 YO" because of fan suggestion.

From what I've seen, however, not one of the four winning designs were used for the "official" cover art but were included with the album as alternate covers. So much for that.

The website for the competition is down now, but you can read about it on Wikipedia.
Andrew Twigg

One interesting thing to note is I just purchased the album and the artwork is different than the one pictured above. The copy I have is more muted in colors and has more 'questionable' artwork. I wonder if they are shipping multiple sticker sets or if I just got an early pressing before they toned it down.

Great idea. I just hope the music delivers.

Andrew: I don't know the details of the Janet contest, but a good percentage of such competitions, for musicians, design, etc., have a clause in the terms that specifically states the winner's submission will not(not even may not) be used for the actual release.

Although I like the idea of personal customization, as it brings me back to grade school drawing KISS logos on my notebook, I am not that impressed with Beck's attempt. Stickers? I might be crazy, but how custom is layering premade stickers? I am more of fan of Andy Mueller's Pinebender version....it at least came with a pencil.
Tom Futrell

Nice attempt but it still doesn't top those stamps for freshness and fun.

Despite whatever language the Yeah Yeah Yeahs et al may employ to communicate with their fans regarding their aesthetic, they differ from Beck's efforts in that they retain curatorial control over the result. Beck has productized a system, if you will, whereas the others have systematized a product, using their audiences to further their respective (and in many cases well-entrenched) aesthetics. I don't mean "used" in a necessarily perjorative sense here, although it is wise for anyone participating in a project like this to remember who he or she is working for, so to speak.

Beck has been interested in system-as-product, it seems, since his label issued a takedown notice against the website detritus.net, which had hosted a Beck remix project that Beck himself allegedly was quite fond of. He has proved to be quite forward-thinking in integrating so-called "free culture" elements with his process. He's playing the "curator-as-artist" card whereas the others are going with "artist-as-curator".

It would be interesting to see the flags the Yeah Yeah Yeahs rejected. It would also be interesting to see the degree to which the resultant Beck album art converges, aesthetically or otherwise.


beck's awesome and this is a cute idea, but a little evil to make the fans buy the same album twice in such a short span of time.

they could've uploaded all those images as a zip and let the fans play with on their comp, but i guess that wouldn't have been as fun.

khy, what's so fun about downloading things and pushing them around your screen? Ever play with legos? Color-aid? EZ-Bake oven? Beck recognizes the nostalgia of Hands On! Leave the screen based design behind for while, and indulge yourself.

i agree with daniel green in that i think this cd on the surface has more in common with sticker sets of gen x childhoods (and personalization of mix cd/tapes) than it does with sol lewitt's art. sol lewitt's art is much more rational and predictable; the instructions are the art. ultimately, sol lewitt's art is generative, mathematical, infinite, and universal in its banality. whereas beck's album is a set of elements (all designed so that they signify 'design-y', 'cool', and 'hip') to play and compose with. i presume there are no rules governing how one composes the album cover; one is only given a set to do whatever one wishes. its a lot more democratic, and, given that there is a contest, a lot more competitive. with sol lewitt's instructions, you end up with the order of geometry; with beck's kit of parts, you end up with the disparate elements of collage.

the cover art is analogous to graphic comments (a digital version of stickers that work the same way as banner ads, but much more akin to viral marketing, see here for an example) on sites such as myspace. the irony is that viewed through the lens of graphic comments, "The Information"'s packaging is an analog version of a digital activity that itself was inspired by an analog form very similar to beck's cover. ultimately, the album strikes me as so many other 'indie' gestures: exclusive in its 'cool' language, sophisticated in its attempt to be authentic, and ultimately nostalgic. if 12 year olds are today are more likely to be using graphic comments to describe themselves on community sites than playing with sticker sets, why should adults be playing with stickers?

beck's cd is considered a "tawdry marketing gimmick" in the UK. it's been banned from the UK chart because they "decided that the jazzed-up packaging gives the Beck CD an 'unfair advantage'"

You're not actually serious? Some entire artists are tawdry marketing gimmicks.

here's the link: http://www.harpmagazine.com/news/detail.cfm?article=10721

Sue, that's funny. And in fact, the negative publicity will only increase people's curiosity----there's no such thing as bad PR.

Su, you're 100% on the money:
"Some entire artists are tawdry marketing gimmicks."

Beck has created an image as multi-faceted and shape-shifting as his sound. To me the playfulness of this album art riffs seamlessly with the variety of sounds he has programmed into this disc.

Just read through the liner notes and take note (as usual) of the number of instruments Beck himself is responsible for laying down on record. He treats instrumentation like a vast sheet of stickers at his disposal in the studio. With them he creates catchy and ironic musical collages for the rest of us to collect and tap our toes to.

He even lists 'Game Boy' as one of his instruments. Maybe I am too much of an 80's cliche, but something about this patchwork of music and image speaks to me. I feel like there is something to get, and like I am somehow on the inner loop based on my limited life experience, and I'm guilty of dishing out cash to prove my inner circle status.
Andrew Miller

This is merely the illusion of choice, which is a lie advertising and design have been feeding us steadily since post-WW2 (if not longer).

And I find it pretty cynical and hypocritical as well -- after all, who profits from the fans' participation? The artists, of course. The fans (how I hate that word) are being used; we'd all be better off if they were simply inspired to make their own works of music, art, etc.

Is it just me who got the impression that
the cover was "used" as Big Active's self-promotion kit? Then it's certainly clever. It gets delivered to wider audiences than an illustration magazine can do. But then again, it's not quite right as an album cover, it's too selfish.

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