I Designed a Mixtape for Me

Sophia LorenWhen I think back to some of the earliest graphic design impulses I had as a kid, I think of mixtapes and the hours and hours I used to spend manually compiling them for friends and for my own enjoyment. The only design tools I had at my disposal were a set of rapidograph draughting pens, a can of rubber cement, an X-acto knife and a surfeit of free time. Without the benefit of scanners, Photoshop or even press-type, I’d painstakingly hand-letter the track listings and sometimes create elaborate illustrations for the covers, doing my best to approximate some kind of professionally designed end product, even though I had then only a vague understanding of what graphic design really was.

It was a primitive process but it was also enormously satisfying, because it was a very personal kind of design. There were no other stake-holders involved, no clients or committee members, just me. I was responsible for the product from end to end: the songs were mine to choose and sequence, the title was mine to author, the presentation was mine to art direct. I’m sure they’d cause me no shortage of embarrassment to look at now, but at the time, I pored over them for hours, admiring and critiquing my own work endlessly.

Mix It Up

That kind of autonomy is vanishingly uncommon when you start designing for clients, and if you᾿re really driven to do design, you get used to doing without it. But after recently being asked to join a small side-project, I was reminded of how much of a pleasure it really can be to tackle something self-contained and relatively inconsequential.

Below: Photo free for all. Source photos with no meaning other than they struck my fancy.

The project is a weekly, virtual mixtape project called Out of 5, in which five participants each contribute one track that matches the designated theme: songs about trains, for instance, or favorite duets. A different member selects a new theme at the beginning of each week, and that person is also responsible for producing a 400 pixel-square ‘album cover’ to illustrate the week’s track listing. It’s simple, low-pressure and, when the new songs are posted each Monday, a nice little distraction for the rest of the week.


Not long ago it was my turn, and the theme I chose was “Songs That Make You Cry, But That Are Not Love Songs,” and my personal contribution was “O, Sing Transformer” by The Society of Rockets. It was fun coming up with the idea and selecting the track, but it was really fun designing the cover art.

Design without a Plan

I opened up iPhoto and scrolled through the past year’s worth of pictures and came up with a handful of options that had no particular bearing on the theme, but that seemed intriguing. Then I started juxtaposing them in Photoshop, swapping them in and out, cropping them differently to come up with some kind of design that struck a chord — applying no strict criteria other than whether a particular layout pleased me.

At the same time, I also started toying with the title, which, after various edits, became “Five Reasons to Feel Bad.” I set that in the biggest, boldest Helvetica I could fit in the frame, relishing in the fact that no client would ever let me size it so brazenly. I also had a shot of a poster of Sophia Loren that I had taken at a friend’s apartment earlier in the year, a kind of a throwaway shot that I had never had any intention of using but that I had never discarded. For no reason other than I thought it would be amusing to add it as a non-sequitir, I placed it on the layout in a thumbnail size and added the pointless subtitle, “And Sophia Loren Is Not One of Them.” Done.

Right: Sixty minutes or less, or the design is free. My cover for the third round of Out of 5.
Out of 5

The whole exercise took less than an hour, and it has no particular significance to anyone, nor does it even pretend to break any new aesthetic ground. But it was over and done with in an infinitesimal fraction of the time that it takes to execute a ‘real’ project, and so it came with a lot of satisfaction for me. A good deal of the fun was that it was clearly low-stakes design, executed without the preponderance of planning and paperwork that so much of design is for me these days, but most of the fun came from the fact that it was all me.

  1. Hi Khoi,

    Yes… I remember the mixtape days.

    This poist reminded me of a graffiti magazine that is put out in Canada. The magazine is done completely with cut and pasting… So exacto knives, photographs, cutting them out and pasting them onto paper. Then the page gets scanned in and printed that way. The magazine really has a raw and artistic feel to it. There’s no website for it unfortunately so I can’t link it to you… but it reminds me of old school mixtapes as they write their own headings, drawing them by hand… and this post reminded me of that also.

    Nostalgia at it’s finest. Thanks.

  2. i still have my rapidographs in my desk, and i’m finally about to start using them again.

    the future i see is in black and white 😉

  3. It’s little projects like this that remind you how little of “being a designer” is actually spent “designing”. In my current position, someone else does the little tasks like getting bids from printers and bugging clients for copy–my first month or so I was struggling to fill my day. 🙂

  4. I was in Urban Outfitters the other day and looked through a copy of Mix Tape : The Art of Cassette Culture edited by Thurston Moore. At least a neat book to browse through and it has some nice surprises like a look at the tape Dean Wareham had made for his band mates when he was starting up Galaxie 500.

    The culture of mix tapes is actually pretty important when you consider the time frame and circumstances of the 70s-90s; but that’s another post.

  5. I’m sure that given your group’s new found glory, you’re being hit with countless requests to join. Consider this another one. Love the concept, love the spirit. If you’ve got room for one more sometime, please let me know. Thanks.

  6. I swear I could have written the first two paragraphs myself. Thanks for bringing back the memories. I still have those tapes from the mid-late 80s and early, early 90s and while embarrassing in so many professional ways, they are still so satisfying in that naive way.

  7. Stefan Sagmeister designs a complete CD cover including 12-page booklet every Thursday morning from 9-noon. At 9 am he puts a CD in the player and begins working immediately. He says the reason he does it is “the decision making process is so different from our normal way of working.”

    So anyway you’re in good company.

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