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How to Avoid Cliches with Your Visual Branding

When it comes to branding the easy option is always to go for what everyone else does, blend in with the crowd, make sure people definitely know what you're all about in the most obvious way. You're a metal band, put a skull on the cover, job done! Well, not on my watch.

It's lazy. And now that your branding is just like everyone else, you become part of the grey goo pumped out onto the internet on a daily basis. So here some ideas to avoid cliches with your branding. And why it's vital.

1. Find a New Hook

As a half-competent musician it's pretty easy to copy anyone. To make an EDM track, a Techno track, a Rock track is easy. What's harder to make a song that people remember. They remember that track because of the hook. This might be a riff. A piece of lyric. A new way of processing a sound. Something that just grabs the listener. You know when it happens. You love that bit of the song! It's not a Xerox of a Xerox, it feels fresh and vital. Your branding needs this level of hookiness. Something that makes you go: Wow. I'll remember that. Spend time searching for that same feeling when putting your branding together.

2. Subvert the Cliche

There is a very simple, but time consuming, solution to coming up with a great idea for your branding. And that's to find a subversion to the cliche. What do I mean by that? Take something that everyone would expect and make it go in an unexpected direction. Something recognisable but in a format that grabs your attention. Take the example of skulls on a metal album, how about finding a glass image of a skull on a velvet pillow. Not really metal, but the skull still says metal. Or the cliche of ambient records always having lonely landscapes, why not chop it up with a second landscape or even a completely different image.

It needs to be something that makes potential listeners do a double take. It's right for the genre but it's also intriguing. There's something incongruous there enough to make someone stop in their tracks.

If you can't come up with visual ideas, off the top of your head, then maybe go to a stock image site and search on your cliche until you come across something that stands out. My tip is to use the search term 'strange' or 'odd' in front of your cliched idea when searching. Trawling stock images sites can be time consuming but you'll eventually see something you like. My top tip is: what catches your eye will catch a potential listeners eye too.

3. Subvert the Palette or Material

Sticking with this concept there are some simple ways you can take a cliche and subvert its meaning by simply changing the colours or material that image. For example, a skull made out of wood says something different from a skull made out of metal or a even skull made out of water. Or a real bone skull splattered in bright colourful paint. Likewise a landscape but instead of trees, a river, mountains, the whole thing is coloured like slabs of meat. It quickly and effectively takes an idea and adds depth and moves it sideways, so it's no longer a cliche.

4. Using the Building Blocks Incorrectly

Many contemporary visual artists use common (i.e. cliched) materials as building blocks to make something new. It started with Duchamp's Ready-made and hasn't let up in pace. Go to any city modern art gallery and they're making artworks out of everyday objects, making you think of the object, and the final composition, as something completely different. And this beautiful contrast between object and composition is where the art lies. So find images of your object which reflect your music, cut them out and use them like lego bricks and build something completely new out of them for your artwork. Go crazy.

5. One Way Ticket to a Daydreamsville

Soundtrack composers will come up with music to fit with the pictures they're given, to tell a story, but what we want you to do is the complete opposite. Find the story from the soundtrack.

Take some time away from the rest of the world and go sit in a comfy chair, in a darkened room, and listen to your music on headphones. Close your eyes and just listen to the music without any distractions and let you mind wonder and daydream. Give you a brain a chance to float off into the music and start to paint pictures of it's own in your head.

And three ... two ... one ... you're back in the room.

List down all the strange things in your mind's eye. It doesn't matter how outlandish. Your brain made that connection and other people will. Use that as your idea for the artwork. It came from your brain so it must be right!

6. It's About the Emotion, Stupid

Throughout all my advice I'll always come back to the same concept. Music: it's all about the emotion. You can also use this concept to avoid cliches in branding.

Forget about images for a moment, get a pen and paper to list all the emotional adjectives your music is getting across. A nice long list. Then turn your music off and start noting down all the things that share those emotional adjectives. Your music is soft, gentle and warm? What other objects or concepts make you feel soft, gentle and warm? List them all down. Make a nice long list, then cross off all the ideas that you've seen other people use on covers. You should end up with a unique idea. Or a few ideas you can juxtapose on the same artwork which sum up your work perfectly.

Vaughan Oliver was an absolute master of this way of working for 4AD.

7. Go Steal Ideas from Proper Artists

When you're as big as Blur, in their BritPop hayday, you can get your favourite artist to design your Greatest Hits artwork, but until then you have little chance of that happening. But what you do have, is the internet at your disposal, which you can use to search for artists living and working today. Use these as inspiration for your creation. Go to the MOMA or Tate Modern website, or search for something like 'Top 100 Modern German Artists', 'Oddest Artists Working Today', sit back and look at lovely images till you find some concept you can replicate for your covers. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and artists avoid cliches like the plague.

8. Or Just Something Infinitely Cool

Does good artwork even have to mean anything? I would say not. It can just be it's on thing on its own separate from the workself. Unlike book covers, the artwork isn't necessarily telling a story, nor is it like a cereal box telling what's inside and persuading children to eat the contents. You can put absolutely anything for the artwork as long as it's eye-catching, cool, fun, or whatever superlative you want.

If you're stuck for ideas why not type some of those abstract or random words into a Stock Image website and see what pops up. You might just find the coolest image ever!

9. Be Brave

On a night out you'll always see one outlandishly-dressed dandy, it's the one at the club every sees. Half the people will think what an idiot. Half will think: what a fashion icon. Six months later everyone is wearing the same thing. It's the same with music, there is always one originator of a sound and then everyone jumps on the bandwagon.

Be first with whatever you come up with for your concept. You'll be remembered. Even if it falls flat on its face, then who cares, at least people remember you for that. All publicity is good publicity, even when it's for your bad / weird cover.

10. Something Truly New

If you can sit there and say to yourself, in all honesty, that no one has ever come up with the same idea for their artwork as you, you're onto a winner. Whether that be in the combination of colours, shapes, imagery use or concept.

This is what your music is. Something you've made that's your own creation and it feels personal. Branding artwork should feel the same, rather than just a basic serviceable cover.

It should be art.

Is it important for it to feel this way? Damn right, because A&R people and labels are looking for the next new thing and if your stuff already looks different they're more likely to think it's different when trawling the in internet for new talent.

Be creative.


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