Design Notes: Julian Alexander

ADC Member reflects on his Grammy-winning Miles Davis album design

ADC Member Julian Alexander photo: © HEAPS International, Inc.

The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions by Miles Davis is a standout in my body of work. Miles’ legacy and the fact that it earned me a Grammy for Art Direction have a lot to do with why it gets special attention. But, it is also significant, to me at least, because I had to step outside of my comfort zone to get the job done.

When designing an album package my process generally involves meeting the artist, hearing the music, setting up a shoot, creating logos/typography, and then designing. It doesn’t always go this way, but that’s the best-case scenario.

Without access to Miles I couldn’t get his perspective on the album. The lack of words in the music added to the challenge. Each track creates a feeling, but I wanted spoken words to get a sense of his character. His autobiography gave the context that was needed.

This set included unreleased music from the sessions that came to be the Jack Johnson album (released in 1971). Even though I had the music, I didn’t listen to it while working. Instead, I used photos from that period as my main inspiration.

Miles had an incredible sense of style. The hardest part of selecting images was deciding which ones to eliminate. Once that was done, I picked up a few environmental shots taken at Gleason’s gym that relates it back to Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world.

Boxing posters were a key typographic reference. This was an obvious choice, but it avoiding it would have been a mistake.

This release included a 120 page book. Prior to this package the largest booklet I designed was 16 pages. Maybe 20. For the sake of consistency each page went up on the wall of my office the minute it was printed. Seeing the work as a whole allowed me to make sure the flow felt right.

When this box set comes up in conversation, the Grammy tends to overshadow the work itself and I don’t get to talk about it much. Its significance was clear from the beginning, so I was scared to take it on. I don’t have a favorite project, but The Complete Jack Jonson Sessions may have been the most challenging. It reminds me that fear is a great motivator and taught me that process is a set of guidelines, not a list of restrictions.

Julian Alexander photo: © HEAPS International, Inc.