HOW I DID IT | FONT TRENDS BY DECADE | THE ALBUMS OF TODAY | DATA AND NOTES
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They say you aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it's even truer that you can't judge a song based on its album art. To put it nicely, there are a lot of absolutely incredible songs out there with horrendous album art. Think about Girls Like You by Maroon 5, featuring Cardi B. Or these two monstrosities from DJ Khaled.
However, constantly judging the graphic design of hit songs got me thinking: has the design changed over time? To answer this question, I chose to focus on my favorite element of design, the love of my life, the purpose of my passion. Fonts.
The most immediate takeaway is that sans serif fonts have been the most popular category of typeface on album art for the past forty years. Serif fonts, in contrast, are less popular than handwritten ones—though they hit a peak in the '90s.
However, doing a deeper dive into the data reveals a lot more.
How I Did It
I used the website billboardtop100of.com to select the top 20 songs from each year. Why 20? It was enough to get a representative taste of genres, but few enough that I was able to conduct the research manually over the course of two weeks. I ended up with almost one thousand rows of data.
Once I had a list of each year's top songs (and their artists) I set to work looking up every single album cover. I used the one assigned to the song on Spotify, which I deemed Most Likely To Be The Official Album Art. Anthology covers did not count, since they were often modern redesigns of earlier artwork. In these cases, I did a quick Google search to determine the original album art.
Finally, I sorted the fonts into categories: serif, sans serif, script (cursive fonts clearly computer-drawn), and brush (handwriting, or a typeface meant to simulate it). I also charted how many songs opted to "go fontless."
Most album covers contained more than one typeface, which allowed me to identify which pairings were most common. One of the most popular combinations, with 78 instances, was a serif with a sans serif—no surprises there. However, the overwhelming conclusion was that serifs didn't play well with anything else. Note: For this particular data set, I grouped all of the display fonts (medieval/blackletter, geometric, stencil, typewriter, digital) into one category.
Font Trends by Decade
I started my research in 2019 and made my way all the way back to 1975. Along the way, I took note of any trends I saw popping up in each decade. Some of the findings were predictable—for example, the 70s and early 80s were dominated by "groovy" typography—but some of them were more surprising. Here are some of the categories I used to identify each typeface.
Do Fonts Reach Peak Nostalgia at Age Thirty?
One of the coolest findings? Certain categories of fonts come in and out of style, just like trends in clothing. As you can see in the graphs below, a lot of the popular display categories from the 70s and 80s had a second wave of popularity in the 90s or early 2000s. According to my research, the gap between spikes was just shy of thirty years—roughly one generation.
The 70s: Groovy Type (And Lots of It)
The compact disc was not invented until the 80s, so album covers of the 70s were designed to sell vinyl records. As a result, a lot of the artwork contains a full list of the songs—consider Carl Douglas' Kung Fu Fighting, which displayed the track list beside a picture of the artist in bright orange wushu uniform.
Unsurprisingly, the artists of the 70s favored that curvy, smooth typography we now associate with the decade. Some of the tamer typefaces included Adobe Caslon Pro, Windsor, and Cooper Black, which have surged back into popularity today. The Beach Boys used the same font as today's clothing at Brandy Melville. Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville used the same font as the latest redesign of Chobani Yogurt.
The 80s: Images Take Priority, as do Serifs
If the 70s were filled with text, the 80s started pushing for the opposite. Album covers began featuring massive photographs of the artist, often shoving the text into box-shaped spaces. We can also see a spike in the use of serifs, which I can only assume is a direct backlash to the bulbous, blob typefaces of the previous decade.
The 90s: Welcome to a Digital World
You can see the affect of the new Internet in the digital typefaces popularized in the 90s. Almost every font from album covers in this decade makes use of a geometric style reminiscent of computer code or bitmap video games. Take a look at TLC's Fanmail, the album that brought us the hit No Scrubs. The entire thing looks like it belongs in TRON.
The 2000s: Ye Olde Medieval Fonts
As album art reached the new millennium, fonts took a step back in time. The 2000s exploded with medieval-inspired blackletter fonts from artists like Beyonce, The Pussycat Dolls, Sean Paul, Chris Brown, Gwen Stefani, and Akon. The early 2000s are unquestionable proof that the gothic typeface is one of the most universal categories. Today, you'll see them in both Kanye West's The Life of Pablo and Taylor Swift's Reputation. (Which, if you're wondering, was definitely on purpose.)
The reason for this? It isn't completely clear, but the 2000s is the first year where the top 20 was disproportionately filled with hip hop and rap songs. These genres have always clung to blackletter fonts such as Cloister Black, associating their ancient feel with royalty, richness, and power.
The 2010s: Hiding the Font
While album covers traditionally slap a font on top of the artwork, the 2010s began experimenting with the use of type within the design. Consider Ariana Grande's Thank U, Next, where the title is tattooed across the singer's chest. Or Post Malone's beerbongs & bentleys, where the title is superimposed on a CD case (how meta). With the information hidden in this way, a person has to work harder to figure out what album they're listening to.
However, absolutely zero people are looking at the artwork to determine the song. We live in a streaming world. At the beginning of the era, people searched for songs on iTunes. Now, almost everybody has an account on either Spotify, Apple Music, or Pandora. And almost no one is buying physical CDs from the store. The role of an album cover is no longer to identify the music, but instead, to accompany the album as a complementary piece of art.
We started in the 70s with vinyl record covers that listed the whole album. Now, we live in a world where half the album covers don't even have text. By digging through the typography of music artwork, you can see the shift from vinyl records to CDs to Spotify. Sometimes, we were nostalgic. Sometimes, we were futuristic. Often, we were both. The humanity is in the fonts.
The Modern Rise of Handwriting on Album Artwork
With all of this research in mind, I focused on the songs from the past decade to see if the latest trends told a deeper story. My first finding was that 2019 was the first year in observable history that handwritten fonts outnumbered all other types of fonts—serif and sans serif. But oddly enough, 2019 was also the peak in top 25 songs with no fonts at all.
Why could this be?
Why are more artists choosing to either handwrite their words or leave them off entirely? To follow the trend of hiding fonts in the artwork, as seen above, it seems that there's been a shift toward eliminating the use of fonts at all—a turn away from technology.
I shared these findings with my friends in the music industry (over iMessage, of course) and we formed a hypothesis. In our social media culture and our age of a curated public vision, we've seen a shift toward realness.
People no longer glorify the use of computer editing or digital typesetting. We've had decades to get used to technological creation. Today's audiences want authenticity and realness—and sometimes, that means leaving fonts behind.
Data and Notes
Creating this data set and analyzing these numbers was a long and tedious process. If you'd like to do similar research and skip the first ten hours of work, here is a link to my data set. In addition, here is a guide to font classification—just in case my methodology doesn't make sense. And finally, for entertainment purposes, a selection of the best worst album covers I found in my extensive research.
Worst Uses of Typography
Best Uses of Typography
Looking for more album art discussion and critique from me?
On my Spotify account, you will find one playlist called Songs With Above Average Graphic Design. There are some tracks on here that I appreciate merely because their creative team did an exemplar job expressing the song through its visual artwork. (Please note, I don't actually listen to this playlist. Good Design is not to be confused with a Good Song.)