Graphic design plays a crucial role in the music and art world. An artist’s brand identity, album covers tour merchandise, and more rely heavily on solid visuals to captivate fans. Throughout history, some graphic designers have indelibly impacted popular culture through their iconic works for top musicians and artists.
Let’s take a look at 12 of the most influential graphic designers who have shaped the visual landscape of the music and art industries:
The legendary Peter Saville is one of the most visionary graphic designers known for his innovative album covers for bands like Joy Division, New Order, Pulp, and more. Some of his most iconic works include:
- Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” album cover: Saville designed the quintessential post-punk album cover featuring wispy white lines on a black background, said to represent radio wave frequencies. This innovative design perfectly matched the band’s dark, minimalist sound.
- New Order’s “Power, Corruption, & Lies” album cover: Inspired by Henri Fantin-Latour’s 1888 flower painting “A Basket of Roses,” Saville adapted the artwork for New Order’s critically acclaimed sophomore album. His clever use of the color alphabet to code the album title was revolutionary.
Besides album covers, Saville also co-founded the legendary Factory Records in 1978 and created record label identities still used today by artists like David Byrne and Peter Gabriel. Known for his avant-garde style and reinterpreting fine art, Saville became instrumental in bringing graphic design into mainstream music culture.
Hailed by Time magazine as “the closest thing to a rock star” in graphic design, Chip Kidd is behind some of the most iconic book covers for authors like Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, and more. Some of his most celebrated works include:
- Jurassic Park book cover: Kidd designed the renowned book jacket featuring a round sticker with skeleton imagery for Michael Crichton’s dinosaur thriller. The concept stuck and became the basis of the Jurassic Park film logo.
- The Cheese Monkeys book cover: Kidd’s cover for Chip Kidd’s debut novel is considered one of the best book covers ever. The striking black-and-white image of a stretcher bent into a crooked smile ingeniously captured the offbeat humor of the coming-of-age story.
Having designed book covers for Knopf, Penguin Random House, and Columbia University Press, Kidd brought bold innovation to book jacket designs. He also wrote graphic novels like “Batman: Death by Design,” making him one of today’s most famous cross-disciplinary graphic designers.
The bold and eccentric Stefan Sagmeister has created some of the most unique album covers for bands like The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Talking Heads, and more unconventional artists. Known for his avant-garde designs and stunts, Sagmeister’s most famous projects include:
- The Rolling Stones’ “Bridges to Babylon” album cover: Sagmeister hand-carved the band’s name into his skin with a knife for the provocative album art. His shocking conceptual covers caused controversy and acclaim.
- “Obsessions Make My Life Worse and My Work Better” poster: As part of his 1999 studio AIGA Detroit lecture poster series, Sagmeister created five thought-provoking self-portrait posters exploring designers’ emotional struggles. His brave honesty about mental health resonated deeply.
Never afraid to take risks, Sagmeister also famously created The Happy Show, sharing his explorations of happiness through interactive experiments. His ability to grab attention with bold visual commentary has made him hugely influential.
The iconic street artist Shepard Fairey has designed legendary tour posters and merchandise for bands like The Black Eyes Peas, Led Zeppelin, The Smashing Pumpkins, and many more. Some of his most groundbreaking works include:
- Barack Obama’s “Hope” poster: Fairey designed our generation’s most defining political artwork. The red, beige, and blue stencil portrait symbolized Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and changed politics.
- Led Zeppelin Mothership album cover: Fairey’s art deco-inspired design full of celestial symbols and occult references for the band’s most significant hits album cover connects deeply with Led Zeppelin’s mythic rock god status.
Starting designing skateboard graphics and stickers, Fairey learned how to brand bands by creating anti-establishment identities that fans want to sport. His Obey Giant campaign brought political street art into mainstream culture. Today, Fairey runs design studios like Studio Number One, creating iconic imagery for musicians.
The multi-talented Mirko Ilić has art-directed albums for artists like Bruce Springsteen, created animations for MTV, and illustrated New Yorker magazine covers. Some design highlights include:
- “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” album design: Ilić’s black and white photo-realist design marked Bruce Springsteen’s artistic evolution from fresh-faced singer to working-class hero.
- MTV Marathon packaging: Ilić created the chaotic iconic network graphics and montages that defined the visual style of 1980s music television.
His simple yet powerful Eastern European style communicates raw emotion and complexity. Having grown up in communist Yugoslavia inspires Ilić’s subtle anti-establishment bent. He brought fresh, provocative dynamism to both music and media.
The “Father of the Album Cover,” Alex Steinweiss, pioneered the art of album packaging. In 1939, as Columbia Record’s first art director, he convinced executives that design was needed to market the new album format. Some groundbreaking innovations include:
- First, illustrated album covers: Steinweiss introduced covers with original artwork, like his 1943 Smash Song Hits design featuring musical notes. This was revolutionary in an industry reliant on plain brown packaging.
- Invented branding albums: Seeing albums as art objects, Steinweiss created unified packaging with eye-catching logos and visual continuity across catalogs for diverse genres, from classical to folk.
Though his tenure was brief, Steinweiss set industry standards of graphic albums as covetable works of art that communicate musical identities. All album art today traces its origins to his ingenuity.
Aubrey Powell & Storm Thorgerson
As co-founders of the legendary design group Hipgnosis, Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson created the most surreal iconic album art for bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, Genesis, and more megastars. Their standout works include:
- Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side Of The Moon” album cover Features a prism-refracting light. It’s one of the most instantly recognizable covers with a futuristic, psychedelic edge.
- Led Zeppelin’s “In Through The Out Door” album cover – Its brown paper bag wrapping with creative stamping was revolutionary retail packaging. Fans custom-designed their versions, interacting with albums in groundbreaking ways.
Masters of mind-bending imagery and experimental photography, Powell and Thorgerson made album art as essential for self-expression as the music itself. They pioneered outsized gatefolds and 3D interactive covers, creating magical worlds for fans to inhabit.
As part of the ’60s pop art movement, illustrator and musician Klaus Voormann created iconic album covers for bands like The Beatles and Bee Gees and his records. His most inspirational works include:
- “Revolver” album cover: Voormann’s black line drawing of The Beatles won the 1966 Grammy for Best Album Cover. Its modern minimalism and unusual portraits captured the band’s evolution.
- Bee Gees’ “Idea” album cover: The bright red lips poster from their pop masterpiece brought Andy Warhol’s pop art into mainstream music graphics.
Having played bass for Manfred Mann and The Plastic Ono Band, Voormann’s insider music perspective shaped his intuitive visual style. His simple yet psychologically insightful images vividly communicate personalities.
The godfather of fantasy illustrations, Roger Dean, designed the most extravagant dream-like covers for bands like Yes, Budgie, Gentle Giant, and more progressive rock and metal icons. His epic otherworldly landscapes include:
- Yes’ “Fragile” album cover: Dean’s floating world with swirling asteroids became as synonymous with the band’s cerebral music as the logo he designed.
- Budgie’s “Squawk” album cover: The apocalyptic planetscape matched singer Burke Shelley’s banshee wailing, conveying primal heaviness.
Dean pioneered escapist imagery for rock bands, allowing fans to inhabit fantasy realms while listening mentally. Combining architecture, painting, and 3D design, his utopian album art made music a device for meditation and transcendence.
Psychedelic artist Mati Klarwein created the most cosmic covers for Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Earth Wind & Fire, and other legends fused with mysticism. His interstellar kaleidoscope designs include:
- Jimi Hendrix’s “Bitches Brew” album cover: The vibrant afro-futurist portal matched Hendrix’s genre-exploding improvisations. It became as boundary-breaking as the music itself.
- Last Poets’ self-titled album cover: Klarwein captured the poetry collective’s powerful protest spirit with the iconic black fist holding Abstract Expressionist paintbrushes, directly influencing hip-hop politics.
Having lived in North Africa, Klarwein blended Bauhaus, cubism, Buddhist, Hindu & African art into visionary visual lexicons for these avant-garde musicians. He designed unified audio-visual utopias that dissolved cultural barriers.
As the graphic designer behind prominent independent record label 4AD, Vaughan Oliver became iconic for wildly original covers for bands like Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Breeders, and more influential 80s/90s alternative rock acts. Some visual highlights include:
- Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa” album cover: Oliver’s provocative close-up of a flamenco dancer’s thighs was sensual and unsettling, matching Black Francis’ raw lyricism.
- Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven or Las Vegas” album cover: The dream-like futuristic cityscape in soft focus captures singer Elizabeth Fraser’s gossamer vocals.
Oliver pioneered grungy eclecticism, merging classical art references with punk irreverence to match these bands’ deconstructionist sounds. He made avant-garde graphic design integral to the indie music community.
The Most Forward-Thinking Designers Today
This list would only be complete with mentioning innovative designers who keep pushing boundaries for today’s music and arts industries. These cutting-edge visionaries include:
- Jonathon Barnbrook: Blurring lines between technology and philosophy, Barnbrook’s conceptual typography for David Bowie’s “Heathen” and Thom Yorke’s “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” feel like radical fine art.
- Michael Bierut: Bierut brings high design to music with brand identities for Saks Fifth Avenue and preeminent classical labels like the NY Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.
- Brian Roettinger: Roettinger’s multimedia zines for Liars and experiential designs for the Yeah Yeahs grow more immersive with each project.
The Future Of Music Design
While these legendary designers made a historic impact, graphic design continues evolving dramatically with technology. As music becomes more integrated across internet media, branding becomes more crucial.
Today’s artists require creative directors to maintain stylistic coherency as they spread across streaming channels, social media, virtual performances, and new mediums we can’t yet imagine. Designers must blend fine arts roots with digital innovation to communicate musicians’ messages impactfully.
The visual pioneers profiled here set the stage for graphic designers to remain essential partners in amplifying the cultural influence of music.