How to design album covers

The thing about Information Professionals/Librarians/Whatever is they need to have a diverse skill set. One minute you can be cataloguing books by emotion and the next you can be splitting up a knitter’s circle that has gotten dangerously loud and is frightening the children in the soft book section. You have to be able to adapt.

One of the most lucrative areas that I have found myself working in is designing album covers for bands. Like a lot of things in my life, I got into this by chance.  It started with my capstone project on classifying 1980s cassette covers using the British Catalogue of Music Classification system which I did purely to impress a hot looking library student. I put a lot of work into that.


More importantly, I get insane amounts of money for designing album covers and this helps me to be of benefit to mankind. It is still not enough to keep a book shop open so I have to work like everyone else. I get offered edgey guitar bands which suits me down to the ground. Film scores and experimental jazz I farm out to my friends.

My favourite tool for designing album covers is a Random Flickr Blendr created by John Johnston that he uses for self help book covers. This was originally used for gonzo digital media bootcamp DS106, but like a lot of things on the internet it is only limited by imagination.I give it bonus points for using Flickr cos I love creative commons.

Below are a few of my album covers.






Hard Light


Color burn


Color Dodge



What the MOOC?

One of the interesting changes that has been happening in recent years in the world of information is the rise of the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course). Heralded by many as a revolutionary and disruptive, they are like a lot of things on the internet, actually not that new. Online learning has been one of the drivers of the web since Tim Berners Lee first started creating networked webpages to share information. One of the great promises of the internet is education and increasing access to it and the MOOC seems to meet this demand.
A MOOC is essentially an online learning course created by teachers and amplified by social networks. Always fancied going to Harvard, but couldn’t afford the bus-fare from rural Ireland? Sign up to their MOOC, watch their top lecturers on video and discuss what they are talking about with your new classmate from down the road in India on a a forum or through twitter hashtags. Or don’t.

Based on ‘la vaca de los sinvaca’ by José Bogado Creative Commons Licence.

Based on ‘la vaca de los sinvaca’ by José Bogado Creative Commons Licence.

Online Education has traditionally been managed by Learning Management Systems such as Moodle or Blackboard. These are usually closed systems and they give the educator more control over the learning experience.

However, the rise of smart phones, video and web 2.0 tools has let the cat out of the bag. Education academics are arguing over the pedagogy involved and its impact on the future of universities. The high drop-out rate is a feature of MOOCs and so is the fact that those who do well are those who do well with self directed learning anyway. Are video lectures not just a high tech version of the teacher in Ferris Bueller droning on and on? There is also a  concern that some courses are just dumbed down general introductory modules for those who cannot afford university and that the end result will be a two tier education system. That has not been my experience so far, but it is a concern.

Business people are wondering who is going to pay for all this content. I am sure that it will not take them long to figure that out. Yes, MOOCs do increase access to education as long as you have access to technology so there is that ongoing struggle, but that is not new. Librarians are worried about copyright issues and how to manage the distribution of the content. Students are worrying about credits for their courses, but on the other hand that new module on Big Data in Archaeology looks like it could really add to my own specific learning needs and let us not forget the network that we are being introduced to (Big wave to all my virtual classmates) and how MOOCs contribute to lifelong learning.


Coursera is the leader in this field. It was set up by Stanford after they saw the success of their online lectures. They chop up their lectures and offer online quizzes for students to complete. Some of their courses have gained accreditation this year. However, they got a lot of negative publicity after one of their courses crashed due to technical problems, leaving 40,000 students without any course. Ironically the course was in Fundamentals of Online Course Design. A good learning experience for everyone.

Udacity was set up by another Stanford professor who could not go back to face to face teaching after his online lectures were so successful. It currently operates as a commercial enterprise.

EdX is a MOOC that was set up by Harvard and MIT at a cost of 60 million dollars. Along with video lectures, it has interactive virtual labs, etextbooks, and online discussions. It currently operates as a free service. offers hundreds of free courses, mostly in basic multimedia, office skills etc and it is used by a lot of US employers to upskill their employees. This is actually a growth area for online learning.

FutureLearn is a new initiative which has been set up between Open University and 23 universities in the UK, including Trinity College.

Google have already released a free open source course builder as an experiment. It allows courses to be created by webmasters using Python and Javascript code. They have partnered with Edx to create

WordPress have developed a plugin (Sensei) which creates courses with built-in lessons. You can put videos or pdfs in them and then run a quiz that people have to pass in order to advance to the next lesson. There is the option to tie this in with e-commerce plugins to facilitate paid courses.

Personally, I think MOOCs are great. I am a big fan of DS106 although they will probably argue that they are not a MOOC. I like that I can pop in and out of there at my own pace. I can see a lot of what other participants are doing and I never fail to get inspired to try out new things. For this sort of content (digital media), I like to take my time. I am also participating in a more traditional MOOC with weekly lectures and academic readings about storytelling. Both these two and the one that I dropped out of (metadata – sorry Coursera, it wasn’t you, it was me) were three areas that I wanted to learn more about.

What has been your experience of MOOCs?

Design Safari

As part of DS106 last week, I had to go on a Design Safari. Armed with my camera I had to get out and about and look for some photos to illustrate certain design elements. The first thing that it thought me was how hard this was. I tend to use my camera like a gun, shooting off rounds in all directions. Sooner or later, I usually hit something and I tell myself that this is what it takes to get into the zone.
This is grand when I am looking for nothing in particular, but when it comes to following a design brief it is a woeful strategy.
The other thing that I have noticed lately in a lot of areas relating to information is how long it takes to get what you need. I spend an awful lot of time waiting for information for different projects. It could be a sign off on the copy for a blogpost, a picture, a logo or just the go-ahead for a social media plan. I am quick to get frustrated when this happens with others but this assignment showed me just how difficult it can be to capture specific design elements myself.

Before I set off on the adventure I had a listen to Timmmyboy share his experiences about playing with design and how it is open to all. I still have a weird relationship with art and design, and I often think it is not for me, which is crazy. What is even crazier is how important it is. Just today I was listening to some work colleagues work on an administration project. It involved gathering information and presenting it, but they had given no thought to the design of the project and they were going round in circles as a result. After a quick chat about design, everyone went away happy and they knew what information was needed. Later on tonight, I joined in with a twitter chat about the use of avatars and how they act as visual hooks when fishing in a sea of information. Design is part of our new info literacy now.

The first element that I had to find was colour. I thought this would be easy. Everything has colour. It does, but not everything is designed with colour in mind. I tend to use colour based on my own particular preferences. This is great if I want to just please myself but not so great if I am trying to convey a particular message. Some colours are warm, others are cold. Warm colours jump out of an image. Cold colours slink back into the background. I remember from my teenage years reading horoscopes, that different colours are associated with different star-signs. I am not sure how accurate that was but colours do have different connotations in different cultures. Most of us are familiar with the notion of Japanese cultures use of white for funerals but the infographic from InformationisBeautiful shows even more permutations.
According to it, the bathrobes in my house suggest femininity, freedom, cowardice and truce. In my circles anyway.


I love a good metaphor. I think that a lot of good design is based on the ability to manipulate meaning. I think that all elements in design do this, but metaphor is an extreme case. It is meaning twisted inside out to give a dual meaning. This photo does not work because it runs foul of one of the Gestalt elements – Dominance. I was trying to catch something about the castle as a symbol of oppression and the lifebuoy as a symbol of safety. I was obviously trying too hard and over-thinking. The image of the post is too dominant in the foreground and it pulls too much focus away from the castle.

The next picture illustrates Affordance. This is a concept that is used a lot in industrial and user-centred design and it is based on the interplay between form and function. The simplest example is a door knob which affords turning while a panel affords pushing. Affordance is usually brought up in examples of poor design, or false affordance. As you can see from the picture below, it is not entirely clear which way I should turn the slot if I want to open or close the flue on my range. I experience a moment of disjointedness everytime I look at it. I used to get annoyed by it and turn it both ways in frustration, but I can live with it now because I just know which way I need to turn it.

This one shows rhythm
The size of most of the stones are pretty regular so it has a pattern that my eye is drawn to and it does suggest direction, if not movement. I find rhythm very easy to sense and I had a lot of different examples of rhythm compered to the other design elements. I wonder if there are any studies done on the subject of how easy or difficult people find it to identify design elements. For example, I find typography extremely unnatural and I have to really examine different fonts to see how they differ. Once I see them, they are obvious, but I have to look hard for them. Weird.


The picture of the church window shows unity. It uses repetition of shape, alignment on an axis and proximity to achieve its results. Unity is when the different elements of a picture just work.
If anyone is interested in learning more about design, Stephen Bradley talks a lot of sense about it on his website. Very accessible and down to earth.

Image credit –

Sound Job

This week we had to create a 5 sound audio story using nothing but sound effects. I had to go through quite a few tutorials for these.
I recorded the sounds myself on my phone and then uploaded them to my laptop which meant a roundabout route through my pc using my partners camera. That nearly drove me nuts. I had to take the sd card from my phone and put it in her camera adaptor, then put it in my camera and upload it to the laptop. I used a file converter to change them from amr to mp3 and then I imported them to audacity. Then I played around with them until I got a story. I didn’t want to do too much with it because I was eager to get on to the bumper. Then I exported it as an mp3 and uploaded it to soundcloud so I could put in in the blog.

The next assignment was to create a 30 second bumper for a podacst or radio show. Bumpers are those pieces in between music or talking which advertises the show to the listener. Again, I had to go through the whole rigmarole with the phone. I really should get a mic for the laptop. I found some background music on Incompetech and some sounds on One thing I did notice was that there was a huge difference between what I could hear on my headphones and what I could hear on the speakers. Also, I learned how to clean up the audio, but that was after I had it edited, so it was too late.

Audio Storytelling

This week in DS106 I was mostly listening to audio. Radio and podcasts. Apparently, radio is very popular in Ireland, according to an ad I heard on the radio. I listened to a few radio stations. Mostly American. I love American talk radio, not the crazy stuff but the stuff that transports you with stories. I don’t listen to enough of it. The radio I usually listen to is background music, the type you can just not pay attention to. Filler. So, when I had the chance to listen to something like Guts – Radiolab, it was a real treat. This type of audio demands your attention. It had so much stuff going on in the background. Noises and effects helped to build up the atmosphere.I hope to listen to more of it. I also signed up for free accounts with SoundCloud and Freesound ( a creative commons library of sound effects) because we will soon be making our own “bumpers” for radio.
I also listened to Ira Glass, host of This American Life explain about the gist of what is necessary for audio storytelling.

This got me thinking about my old archaeology podcast from college and how this medium is perfect for subjects that mainstream media tend to ignore.


I was doing some research on MOOCs (later) and I came across this blog on Twitter, which struck a chord with me, for a number of reasons. Digital Storytelling uses a lot of open source tools that I was introduced to in Digimedia. Tools that I found interesting but that I had not found a chance to play with. One of the purposes of digital storytelling is to develop skills in digital media and I had been looking for a way to do this. I also wanted to do this in a fun way. Creating an action movie poster with Julia Childs in it sounded right up my street. I started with a few Daily Creates  on Flickr and then made this GiF using Youtube, a MPEG streamer and GIMP.


I need to slow it down and tweak it but I managed the process. This weekend I’m going to try Audacity and SoundCloud to make a little radio show. Fun.