[Photo by: Doug Dean] 

Music design is a part of the industry that has a huge impact, but isn’t often talked about. Sure, there’s painter Esao Andrews who has become known for his work with Circa Survive and classic covers by famous artists such as the Velvet Underground’s self-titled debut by Andy Warhol; but how else do those important designs come to be?  

Doug Dean is a music designer who creates album covers for artists, most notably working with Less Than Jake, the Homeless Gospel Choir, Anti-Flag and Good Charlotte’s Benji Madden.

Read more: Photographer Pamela Littky reflects on shooting Fall Out Boy’s Infinity On High album art

Based out of Pittsburgh, Dean attended art school for graphic design and now serves as the creative director at Wall-To-Wall Studios, a brand design agency. Having been a music fan his whole life and a musician himself, Dean broke into music design by creating the brand packaging for his own zombie-themed band, the Wakening.

For one of the Wakening’s records, Dean came up with the idea to print an image of a brain on the CD face and place it on cardstock that resembled the Styrofoam-type material meat packaging comes in. He then hand-wrapped the product in plastic wrap and slapped various stickers on top of it. Though only a couple hundred copies were made, the packaging was very effective.    

the wakening album packaging

[Photo by: Doug Dean] 

As a creative way to gain exposure and promote his art, Dean created #30GreenDays. Each day in the month of June, he posted an image on social media that represented one of Green Day’s songs. The art pieces varied in style and media from a lung-shaped flower bouquet that represented “Still Breathing” to a collage of pills creating singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s face for “Basket Case.”

30 Green Days artwork

[#30GreenDays, Artwork by: Doug Dean] 

The project was meant as a dual strategy to get in touch with larger bands, like Green Day, as well as to advertise to up-and-coming artists, signaling that he wanted to do more album artwork. “I was told to do something on social media, and if the fans dig it, they’re going to share it. And maybe, ultimately, the band will see it,” Dean explains.

Luckily, much of the work that Dean got involved with, and is working on now, resulted from his efforts—one of them being Less Than Jake’s Sound The Alarm EP.

Less Than Jake saw the #30GreenDays project and wanted Dean to do something similar for their cover, where each song was represented visually. Dean came up with the idea to have seven different icons for each of the seven songs.

sound the alarm EP less than jake

[Artwork by: Doug Dean] 

“[Less Than Jake are] a band that always really paid attention to the album experience,” he says. “So I thought that that was a good opportunity to propose something to them that is a little bit more than just like a typical album cover.”

While Dean had to work with Less Than Jake remotely due to their busy schedules and geographic distance, he prefers to meet with clients face-to-face.

“I prefer meeting with a band to get to know them, get their personalities, their quirks [and] what they’re like, and try to take that in and regurgitate that out in the art that I’m proposing,” Dean says. “It’s definitely not necessary, but I think it helps my process to get in the minds of the artists because, at the end of the day, it’s their work that’s being represented.”

Over the years, Dean formed a very close relationship with Pittsburgh punk rock band Anti-Flag, having gone to college with the wife of one of the members and creating a music-based art show with Chris (No. 2) Barker.

When their most recent record, American Fall, was in the works, the band asked Dean to design the cover. Due to the wordplay of the album title, he came up with the concept of a skull made of money placed in the Oval Office.

anti flag american fall album cover

[Artwork by: Doug Dean] 

“It’s not like we can just walk right up into the Oval Office and put a bunch of money down to take a photo of it,” Dean says. “We had to strategize how we can figure that out, and we kicked around a lot of different ideas, like, do we make little dummy sets of stacks of money and photograph that at different angles? But I was always interested in the idea of doing something with 3-D.”

Luckily, Dean was able to find a 3-D model of the Oval Office for purchase, so the team could manipulate the room’s environment. From changing the drapes and the carpeting, to the way the light streamed in through the windows, they had complete control. To place the money skull, Dean partnered with a company out of Pittsburgh that specializes in realistic render designs.

As album artist for American Fall, Dean also got to work with Benji Madden of Good Charlotte, as he was working as co-producer of the record. In fact, it was Madden’s idea to flip the flags upside-down in the Oval Office. “That was his kind of nice touch,” Dean says.

anti flag release show

[Dean with Madden and Anti-Flag at American Fall release show, Photo by: Alexandra Snow, MDDN] 

Dean’s relationship with Anti-Flag also led him to partner with Derek Zanetti, better known by his stage name, the Homeless Gospel Choir. Signed to Anti-Flag’s A-F records, the protest singer-songwriter asked Dean to create the full art packaging for The Homeless Gospel Choir Presents: Normal at the conception of the record.

“Derek is a really special guy, and there was something really powerful with what he was able to come out with—something that a lot of younger kids and people who just may feel alone just can kind of see and hear and feel, and just give them those things that they need to just get on with the world and let them know that it’s OK. So it was a really cool experience to see that from start to finish,” Dean says.

Now if you’ve seen the cover of Normal, then you know it’s anything but. Adorned with a photo of two puppets and a crazy floral background, it’s just weird. And that was the intention.

normal homeless gospel choir

[Artwork by: Doug Dean] 

“That’s the one thing that Derek told me about the record that was always kind of stated at the beginning of this process,” Dean says. “He was like, ‘I want this to be weird.’ So OK, that’s the one mandatory [thing]. It has to be weird.”

That’s what led to choosing the suit, which was custom-made and hand-tailored just for Zanetti and the puppets. While Dean didn’t take the photos himself, he handled the production process and even helped in the design of the floral pattern that made up the suit and background. As for the puppets, Zanetti just happened to have them lying around his house.

“They were like these weird, not real, but kind of related to the Mr. Rogers puppets. I don’t know if you’d consider them like puppet B-sides,” Dean comments, laughing. “But he just had like a bunch of them. I don’t know where he found them at.”

homeless gospel choir normal

[Artwork by: Doug Dean] 

To round off Normal’s cover, Zanetti needed a logo to represent his music and its overall message.

“You know what Derek needs? He needs just a symbol, because he has his really strong fanbase who love him,” Anti-Flag’s Pat Thetic told Dean. “If we can give him something that’s simple but powerful, they can take [it] and run with it. That’s what he needs.”

And so Dean created the broken cross peace sign that has become the symbolic icon for the Homeless Gospel Choir ever since. “It’s that balance of making something that is strong and powerful, but making it so simple that anybody can recreate it,” Dean says.


Lots of ink... #thehomelessgospelchoir #nevernormal

A post shared by dougdeanart (@dougdeanart) on

Tattooed, graffitied and popping up everywhere, it’s hard to believe that the logo was created with just pen on a single Post-it note.

“Just taking a Post-it note makes me think in a very small format. So I’m constrained, which I feel is always an interesting way to limit yourself, because it helps you design in a simple way. And when you scan it in, you get those little grainy imperfect ink-bleeding-into-the-paper features that just can’t be faked whenever you try to do that digitally,” Dean says.

If there’s any advice Dean has to give on getting into music design, it’s making connections, getting to know people and putting yourself—and your work—out there. “That’s the best way that you’re going to be seen—from just making local connections, to doing a big thing on social media for people to see [that] says, ‘Hey, I’m hungry to do more work,’” Dean says. “That’s all the stuff that helps get you out there.”

There’s a lot more to look forward to from Dean’s work as he’s partnering with some big names for the future. His relationship with Good Charlotte’s Benji Madden is still going well: “Nothing ready to show yet but definitely been working with those guys on some other things. It’s been a great relationship.” Plus, his #30GreenDays project has led to a partnership with Against Me! bassist Inge Johansson and a project that “will see the light of day sometime soon.”

To keep up with his latest projects, follow Doug Dean on Instagram and Behance.