Skirl Records is a Brooklyn-based independent label with a focus on improvised music that skirts the edges of jazz, rock, electronic, and classical. karlssonwilker has designed packaging for the label since its launch in 2006, having created designs for almost 40 releases, as well as the Skirl brand identity and website, in what has become one of our longest ongoing collaborations.
Working with Skirl co-founder Chris Speed, we’ve developed a conceptual design approach in sync with the music, which is “avant-improv” and highly experimental. The packaging mirrors this freedom with an open-ended process. Instead of adhering to traditional, linear creative thinking rooted in logic and moving from point A to point B, the album design freely experiments with other strategies and techniques to arrive at unexpected, uncontrolled outcomes.
For each CD, we happily and somewhat obsessively work through hundreds of sketches and ideations in a free-flowing process with no end in sight, except the deadline. Each cover serves as a creative playground for exploring new methods that we haven’t tried before. It immediately starts with the execution, designing with no advance research and no clear idea of where to go. The visual exercises may utilize elements such as typography, image, shape, line, color, space, and technique as jumping off points for the joy of discovery.
We try to work without preconceived notions of what the final result should be. In keeping with the extemporaneous spirit of improvisation, the visuals have no connection with the music or the album title, and are often created without us actually having listened to the music. (When we have, we’ve found it to be quite enjoyable!) The approach is purposely inefficient, but crucial to the result. Time is the most important ingredient and only real constraint––a cover is done when it’s time.
The one constant in the series has been the packaging structure. The Skirl-specific format places the CD in a DVD-sized Digipak with a limited print area that matches the dimensions of a regular CD case. This panel in the center of the packaging is framed by a white band at the top and the bottom, creating a uniform look.
In addition to constant visual surprises, this roundabout way of working offers an informal, hands-on education in the latest technology and software. One of the first covers in the Skirl series used the then-new Liquify tool of Adobe Photoshop to distort images of a fish. Subsequent covers have offered an opportunity to play with various tools or individual filters. Some CDs have avoided Adobe products altogether, instead using programs and platforms such as GIMP and Inkscape, or Affinity. The ephemeral nature of the explorations allow us to try something new without hesitation, and the experiments sometimes influence our other work.
The Skirl brand identity pairs the logotype (set in Akzidenz Grotesk) with an expressive shape. As the series has progressed over a dozen-plus years, each CD cover has become a snapshot of a particular point in time. Let’s see what happens next.