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As president of SMAY DESIGN, Phil Yarnall has been creating unique, intelligent design and packaging for the music and entertainment industry for over 20 years. Performer recently had the chance to pick Phil’s brain about his career, designing for album packaging, and consulting for independent musicians on their various project needs.
How did you get your start in the design field?
Well, basically it’s what I always wanted to do. Once I started getting into music in high school, cool stuff like The Replacements and The Clash, it all clicked and I knew I wanted to do album packaging, or album covers as they were called back then. I don’t think many people refer to them as that anymore.
Well, vinyl’s making a come-back…sort of.
Yeah, oh definitely! I actually get to do quite a bit of vinyl these days. I work with the Hendrix family and every time they do a release I get to do big deluxe 180-gram vinyl versions of things for them.
That’s awesome. Now, do you approach working on a CD differently than you would an LP, with a full 12 inches of space and gatefold covers?
Sometimes. I know that there’s been a lot of talk about the scale of stuff moving down and some designers are even designing for icons on iPads and iTunes, and that’s pretty sad. Pretty soon I’m just going to be designing little graphics for a pill that you take, where you swallow the music and it just stays in your gut somehow.
The approach is generally the same, I just think when you see it large, and when you see that 12-inch vinyl, it’s just so much more impressive. It brings it all so much more to life. The smaller everything gets in your hand and the closer your eyes get together, I just find it harder to enjoy.
When you started, were you working with local bands or were you actually able to get more recognized work right away?
When I got out of school I poked around for a while in New York, showing my work around and trying to find something. My first job was not really for bands or anything, it was just for record industry ads in magazines, but the guy who I began to work for was a hero of mine. He designed the Some Girls LP by the Rolling Stones.
Oh wow, the pull out sleeve with all the faces on it?
Yes, that was him. He did that, he designed [Led Zeppelin’s] Physical Graffiti. He was a very inspiring guy. He encouraged me to stay in New York because that’s where a lot of this work is. Not long after that, I ended up at PolyGram Records, which no longer exists, but that’s where I got my start for three and a half years.
What were some of your favorite projects during that time?
Back then I worked on all kinds of stuff. I did work for Bon Jovi; I actually had my handwriting on the side of their tour jet, which I thought was cool. I did a lot of weird little projects too, I did a lot of work for Philip Glass, and I designed a logo for his label. I didn’t have any computer skills back then – I learned it all on the job. You had to deal with the classic ‘office politics’ and that’s where I learned my hatred for living in a cubicle.
Did you move on to more freelance stuff?
Actually, I started doing a couple of projects for one of the big guys at the company. He’s basically the guy who invented the box set with the big Allman Brothers Dreams.
It worked great for both of us, so we were doing stuff for a lot of people like Rod Stewart, Tim Hardin, and Roy Buchanan – these ’60s folk-rock guys. Then eventually we started talking about the Velvet Underground and shortly after I had started my first company. It was called Smay Vision; I started it with an old roommate and we had bands together in college, and we had always talked about starting a company. So we basically worked out of our apartment, shared one computer, and eventually every time we got more money we re-invested it and bought more equipment. We finally got two computers and some chairs. Those early days, it’s really slow building. You go out in the morning, you sell a bunch of your old CDs that you had got from the record company to get money for lunch, and you go back and work for a little bit, then you go out drinking. That was the lay of the land back then.
How long would the typical project take from conception to execution?
It depends on the scale of the project. I worked on an AC/DC project that was a pretty involved set and that took two years. But that was the one where the box was an actual amplifier that you could plug into a guitar. But a lot of times I get stuff and it varies so much on how much people have their act together. I just did a project for Morris Day and the Time and basically I talked to the guy on Friday, I directed the photo shoot over the phone on the following Wednesday, and then turned in the mechanicals the following Monday. I prefer it not to go like that because it just eats up all my time and it’s crazy. A lot of times there’s this three point system where you can get it done really fast, really cheap, or really well. But you can only pick two of those. I try to do as much of it as well as I can because when you’re running your own business, everything speaks about what you do and you don’t want to represent yourself in a bad light.
I’d like to focus on our audience, which is made up largely of musicians. Is there a typical faux pas that you see a lot in graphic design or packaging that bands should try to avoid? Whether it’s awful fonts, or some sort of bad composition in a photo?
Honestly, the biggest advice I have is to make sure you have someone who knows what they’re doing. In the early days, one of the things that helped me get a really good reputation was doing things right. You wouldn’t go out and have to come back and get things fixed. I did that a lot for people who kept screwing up jobs. These clients would call me and ask me to just fix these files and make them the way they’re supposed to be. When you have an understanding of how things are printed and how all that is done, it really helps the process.
Are there any basic technical considerations that artists doing it on their own should be aware of, like color spaces or things such as that?
Yeah, a lot of times people don’t realize. They say, “Oh, I have an image I pulled off the Internet or I shot with my phone,” and the resolution of the image is way too small and it’s not going to reproduce well, or it’s going to look very amateur. I think people want to represent themselves as professional as possible. Some people get a thing for a weird typeface and they want to do it and it’s like, “Alright. I’ll do it. I’m not going to like it, but I’ll do it.” Right now I’m designing some Janice Joplin single covers and I just used one of the forbidden typefaces. Well, not really forbidden but…
Please tell me you didn’t go with Comic Sans…
No no no, that’s like cardinal sin right there. I went with Cooper Black, which can actually be used well if you know what you’re doing. The Black Keys used it on their last album cover. It’s one of those homely, puffy typefaces; it doesn’t get much respect. It’s weird, I was just reading a whole thing about the horrors of Comic Sans, about how someone actually saw it on a tombstone one time. It’s just really horrifying.
It’s good to have some sort of direction. When I talk to people a lot of times I’ll ask, “What are some of your favorite album covers? Which ones speak to you? What words would you associate with your band or your music?” It can be tricky working with independent artists and smaller bands. I’ve worked with the full range from small bands to AC/DC. I just worked on a project recently with a band and I think the guy went off his meds or something; he tried to cancel the project halfway through it and the band was falling apart.
Band politics are always fun, huh?
This one has a whole system of politics and medication, and bi-polar disorders and all kinds of elements. It ended up coming out okay, and he ended up getting the main cover art [tattooed] really big on his chest. So I was like, ‘Damn! All right, go for it, man!’
So you do still offer design services for independent musicians?
Oh yeah! I’ve been thinking that I’d like to try and get more into that, to work with people who are willing to do stuff that’s a little more than a nice photo of them sitting on stage, and a nice clean, clear type-face that they can show to get gigs. I understand it, right now performance and playing gigs is where most of the money is, but I’m hoping to keep the whole album cover thing alive a little bit longer. It’s still important to me and it’s a great way to merge music and art.