Never Judge A Book By Its Album Cover

Julian Alexander Chats About His Musically Influenced Design Career

Photo by Matt Furman

There aren’t too many designers in the ADC community who can claim they’ve won a Grammy before they’ve won a Gold Cube. Not so with Julian Alexander, Brooklyn-based graphic designer and founder of Slang Inc.. For more than a decade, Julian has been producing artwork for a number of musical artists, and the albums that showcase his talents have sold into the millions. Not too shabby for a guy who didn’t even know what a graphic artist was until he got to college!

ADC had a chance to speak with Julian about his career, the challenges he has faced as a “hip-hop” designer, as well as stepping into a new world with some projects for ADC itself.
ADC: Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you catch the art bug?

Julian Alexander: Well I am from Bloomfield, Connecticut, which is right outside of Hartford. As a kid, I’ve just always been interested in art. I loved drawing and spent a lot of time hanging out with other creative kids. Art has been something that has been a lifelong passion, but it wasn’t immediately obvious to me as a career choice. In my mind, I thought artists didn’t make money until they died. I just felt if you wanted to make a living, you had to find something else to do.

ADC: When did you start to see things differently?

Julian: It didn’t click that I could make a living from this until after I started college. I took a drawing class, and I had a teacher who took a special interest in me. The way I approached assignments and projects, she thought I was well suited for graphic design. She asked me if I had any interest in that field, to which I responded, “What is graphic design?” I never heard of it! We talked about it, and she helped me build a portfolio. Ultimately I moved to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts.

Once I got into SVA, I was fortunate enough to officially start my career before I finished school. I found some opportunities and was able to begin working professionally while I was still a student. My last year or so, I started going to school at night because I had a full time job at Atlantic Records at the time.

It was difficult to finish school because I kept asking myself, “Well, I already got the job that I want, what am I going to school for?” Looking back, I’m glad that I finished. Because I was working full time, I was able to pay for my last year of college myself, which made me… I felt good about it. It added a lot to my experience and helped me become more responsible.

ADC: What was it like to begin your career at Atlantic Records? Did you feel it was like a dream job, to be involved in the music industry?

Julian: Yeah it was. Music has always been a passion for me. Now I’m not a musician, but I felt I wanted to contribute artwork to music. As a kid, I spent hours looking through my father’s vinyl collection, and sometimes I found myself more interested in the covers than the music!

ADC: You also went on to work for Sony Music. During your days at the big record labels, which project stood out most for you?

Julian: That’s easy. I won a Grammy for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package for Miles Davis’ The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. That project, a five CD box set and 120-page book, was bigger in scope than anything I had done before.

I was scared while working on it because of Miles’ legacy. You can’t be starstruck, but this is Miles Davis! You don’t want to be the one ruining that! I read his autobiography to research this project, and worked very closely with the project manager Seth Rothstein. Seth was great. He gave me the information I needed for the project to be historically accurate, and the freedom to do what I felt stylistically would

ADC: What spurred you to go out on your own and start Slang Inc.?

Julian: My stepfather is an entrepreneur. He runs his own business and I kind of got the bug from him. From early on, I felt I wanted to be responsible for dictating my own fate.

Right around the time that I was working on the Miles Davis box set, I had also worked on the artwork for 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. We had gotten to know each for a few years before he was signed to Sony. He gave me the opportunity to design his debut album when he signed to Shady/Aftermath. We had a rapport where he felt I understood and could deliver what he was looking for. I ended up doing that artwork, and to date, that album has sold well over 10 million albums worldwide. It also put me in the position of being in demand.

From the beginning, starting out on my own has been a great experience. I’ve learned and grown a lot, and it has heightened my ability to negotiate. I learn new things on a daily basis.

ADC: You’ve been very successful with album covers, especially ones for hip-hop artists. Do you ever fear that you get pigeonholed as such a designer?

Julian: Absolutely. At first, I was all too willing to only do album covers because of my love for music. Over time, I’ve come to realize that music is really just a vehicle and design itself is my passion. I want to spread that passion across as many different things as I can.
It has been a difficult process because of the sheer volume of work that I’ve done that has been hip-hop-oriented, male-oriented, and directed at people of color. If I’m in a conversation with, say, a publisher, sometimes I hear “You know, I don’t really see any book covers in your portfolio, just album covers.” I can apply what I do to whatever a particular project is, but some people only see what is in front of them, and it’s hard for them to see beyond what’s already in my book. That is an area of focus for me right now, showing diversity and range as it relates to how I problem-solve for different sorts of assignments. I’ve recently been working quite a bit with clients outside of the music, so things are moving in the right direction.

ADC: You had a chance to experiment when you helped design the global T-shirts and bags for ADC’s Portfolio Night 11, as well as the branding for ADC’s A2A exhibit. What were those experiences like?

Julian: Working with ADC was a cool experience. I had known about ADC since I was in art school, and it was great to be able to contribute to the design community through such a well-established organization.

I was drawn to the Portfolio Night project because of the simplicity of the brief. The most basic instructions were to create a promotional tee that people would actually wear instead of toss away, and to design a gift bag that looked beautiful. I aimed to create something that looked like a bag from a high-end store.

For A2A, this was a chance to make something tactile. The exhibit was all about repurposing old ADC annuals as works of art. At first my approaches weren’t physical, but after some discussion, I decided to make three-dimensional letters out of the annual pages. It took a lot of trial and error to get them right, and building them made me feel like I was in school again, in the best possible way.

In the end, I made an animated GIF of the final piece to show that these weren’t just renderings. It was a success, and I am proud of that project.

ADC: So what you have on the horizon? What projects are working on right now?

Julian: I have a few things in the works that are outside of what people know me for. I just finished designing a set and show graphics for Complex TV’s Quickstrike series. That project allowed me to work with physical space, which requires a different approach than something that lives in print or online. I’ve also been working on few projects with Nike, including art directing pieces that were created of players for several House of Hoops locations. To get it done, I worked with five artists in three different countries. There are more things in the works that will be up on my website soon.

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