Design and (Dis)function

Vinyl vets Spencer Drate and Judith Salavetz regale a short history of music design missteps

With over 30 years of album design under our belts, both winning awards and sitting on juries to bestow awards on others, we have seen many “out of the box” designs for albums and other music related packaging over the years. We seen many great designers experiment with different ideas and different materials, but it is amazing to see brilliant artists falter when making sure aesthetics don’t get in the way of function.

Here are three classic examples where the idea was golden, but the practicality didn’t follow along.



Sex was the controversial coffee table book written by Madonna with photographs by Steven Meisel Studios and art direction and film frames shot by ADC Hall of Fame laureate Fabien Baron. Released in October,1992, the book was spiral-bound and made of aluminum (Madonna’s idea), all enclosed in a mylar sheet.

The problem in design was that although Sex looked impressive, the spiral binding could not hold the weight of the book and there were many book returns. It did sell over 150,000 copies the first day and topped the New York Times bestseller list. It has become one of the most sought after out of print books, even more so for a copy that has managed to stay in one piece.



Sticky Fingers, by The Rolling Stones, was released in April, 1971. The first release on the band’s own “Rolling Stones Records” label, as well as the first of their albums to feature the now iconic lips and tongue logo, Sticky Fingers is regarded as one of the best Rolling Stones albums, achieving triple platinum status.

The cover of the album was conceived by legendary artist and ADC Hall of Fame laureate Andy Warhol, designed by Craig Braun and photographed by Billy Name. The cover featured a real, working zipper and belt buckle that opened to suggestively show off cotton underwear. While this was undoubtedly interesting, and fitting with the provocative theme, the problem in design was that the zippers were actually damaging the vinyl records inside, particularly when the albums were stacked for shipment. To remedy this unforeseen problem, the zippers needed to be unzipped right to the center of the records, where they could only damage the vinyl record’s label, not the record itself.



Catch a Fire is the fifth album by reggae icons the Wailers. Released in April, 1973, it is one of the highest regarded reggae albums of all time.

Much like the Sticky Fingers example, Catch a Fire is also the first album from the Wailers released under a new record label (Island), and just like the Stones, the Wailers decided to try out a uniquely designed album cover. The end result was a special die-cut album shaped like a metal Zippo lighter but printed on board. A superb album package design Rod Dyer and Bob Weiner,  the idea was that the top of the album cover flipped open just like a Zippo, revealing the vinyl record inside. Unfortunately, after opening and closing the top of the album a number of times, the metal grommet hinge would cease to hold onto the cardboard and the top would fall off.

Only 20,000 Zippo versions of Catch a Fire were made before switching to a more traditional album cover.

Spencer Drate and Judith Salavetz are award-winning album designers, authors of 21 pop culture books and hosts of a pop-culture radio show.