I Was a Twenty-something Print Designer

The RopersWay back when I had no idea how cool the information superhighway really would be — this was the mid-1990s — I was trying to make my way in life as a print designer. I did some lamentable work at a small advertising agency in McLean, Virginia and then at a slightly more glamorous design studio in downtown Washington, D.C., basically graduating from real estate advertisements at the former to stylistically fickle marketing work at the latter. Neither position was particularly satisfying for my creative aspirations.

For a while, I took refuge in freelance work, mostly doing work for the small army of independent bands hiding out in the outer-reaches of Northwest Washington. This meant designing album covers, CD covers, tee-shirts and posters on little or no budget, but getting a fair amount of creative license. I only did this for a few years and, because my day job at the time was so time intensive, I never became particularly prolific, producing only a handful of pieces during my four years in D.C.


Hey, Hey, They’re The Ropers

By far, I did the most of this kind of work for a band called The Ropers, one of the founding members of which had been one of my best friends since the seventh grade. It was a fun collaboration, and when I look back on the work I did during that era of my life, these pieces are still among the few that I can look back at fondly, without cringing.

Recently, I dug up the archived work from some old CD-ROMs and, because I don’t even have a copy of QuarkXPress running on my computer, had to ask a friend to output PDFs of the layouts for me. One day I’ll get around to putting together a proper online portfolio of work, but I thought I may as well put these samples up in the meantime. You can click on each of the images to see them at a larger size.

Below: Plane crazy. Album art for The Ropers’s full-length debut.

All the Time

This is the LP art for the band’s debut full-length release, “All the Time,” released by Slumberland Records in 1995. It’s really difficult for me to believe that this was done ten years ago, and when I pulled out my copy of the CD to have a look at it, I noticed the tray card was yellowed with age. Reminisces aside, I drew all of those airplanes — including the full-rendered blue plane that appears on the front — painstakingly with Adobe Illustrator. The design hasn’t withstood the test of time as well as I’d have liked. The layout fails to completely hang together; there are some awkward parts and some miscalculations on the visual strength of the imagery here and there. Overall, though, I can’t help but feel a certain affection for it, because it was one of the first designs I saw through from start to finish with my own concepts intact.

The Ropers “All the Time”
Below: Parents just don’t understand. Artwork for the vinyl edition of the last Ropers album.

The World Is Fire

For their last full-length album, released by Teenbeat Records, I pushed my illustrative ambitions a bit further and actually painted two images for the front and back — with a real brush, acrylic paint and stretched canvas. The paintings are portraits based on old photographs from a 35mm roll that my mother had recently had developed for the first time: a time-capsule of shots of both her and my father, circa 1970. I thought they had a great attitude to them, and they accurately captured the melancholy and posed coolness that the band’s music hinted at. To mix it up a bit, these paintings were laid out differently for the CD and for the LP; I much prefer the album, which appears below. Not coincidentally, that format offered so much space for design. Looking at it now, it’s really one of my favorite designs I⁏ve ever done.

The Ropers “The World Is Fire”
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  1. That album cover for the last Ropers album is beautiful. Brilliant that the orange matches the skintones somehow, and also coveys the era the photos were taken in.

    Also great use of the two thirds rule, all over.

    I do not know if it works for the music but I will find out in a couple of hours or so.

  2. Agreed with Joe, that last album is furiously dope. Hou Hsiao-hsien has a new film, “Three Times,” that hopefully will run here at some point. A segment of the film plays out in 66′ Taiwan, the pool halls and pop songs of smoke filled rooms and post-mod dress. Your work here channels it; your parents seem TRAGICALLY hip :)

  3. Damn, Khoi. Nice stuff for a twenty something back in the day. As others have mentioned, that second album cover is fantastic.

    Oh, and nice work on the new MisterPresident.org. I’m really diggin’ on the chosen colors.

    Nice work.

  4. Your points concerning the luxury of the LP format as a great design canvas are so dead right. I’m of the belief the overcome of digital technology on this respect has done nothing but to destroy the connection between music and visual art that we had for a given since the Alex Steinweiss era and reached its peak on the late 60s-early 70s. First trying to cram a 12″x12″ design glory into a lame 5″x5″ square, and now what we’ve got? A .5″x.5″ space on an iPod, at best. Sad.

    Oh, and BTW I’m definitely digging the second Ropers album cover as well.

  5. Boy we sure took alot of shit for the target on that plane. I still stand by it though, I think it was a great idea.

    I personally love how all the LP covers were very much “album” covers and all the 7″ covers were simpler and more fitting for two song singles (if you ever get a chance to post some of them, I dig them all).

    I’m really proud that we got to release everything on vinyl. It really gave us a chance to show off the cover art on these releases. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to find a vinyl copy of that last LP.

    I remember making a high school promise that when I had my first band you were gonna do the album cover. I don’t know if I ever properly thanked you for all your effort. Remarkable stuff all of it.

    Cheers mate.

  6. The “All the Time” cover art has stood the test of time, for me at least, as has the music. So much so in fact that I actually ended up with about 50 copies of the covers (MikeS was cleaning out his attic and bequeathed them to me). When your redesign on the NYT makes you famous perhaps I can sell them at auction :) If you want some, let me know.

    A couple of years ago I wrote a short article on how Interpol are essentially an update on the Ropers sound. Anyway, great label, great art, great band.

  7. Wow, two blasts from the past. Ladies and gentlemen, “Mike” is my good friend Michael Hammel, founding member of The Ropers. And “Matthew” is Matthew Dingee, founding member of Lorelei, a band contemporary to the Ropers. Good times. Thanks for stopping by fellas, and thanks for the kind comments.

  8. I love seeing work like this. The second LP is particularly well designed. Beautiful.

    It seems that record covers are the area where designers can really have freedom. Lets hope they don’t die out with the download generation.

  9. Nice work Khoi! I especially like the portraits of your parents and the inspiration that you found in their photographs to create that cover. Definitely cool.