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Inside Hot Chip's 100,000 Album Covers

Designers Nick Relph and Matthew Cooper told The Creators Project about how they used a custom algorithm to generate the art for 'Why Make Sense?' out May 18 on Domino Records.

DJ Pangburn

DJ Pangburn

GIF courtesy Domino Records. Images courtesy Matthew Cooper

Don't be alarmed when you pick up a copy of Hot Chip's new album Why Make Sense? (out May 18 on Domino Records) and notice that the person standing next to you has the same album, except it looks subtly (or completely) different. Designed by Nick Relph and Matthew Cooper, the album sleeve comes in 501 colors, with even more variations on its graphic image. Describing it as “a unique and bespoke printing technique,” Relph and Cooper used an algorithm to randomly alter the album's color and image for each vinyl pressing, resulting in hundreds of thousands of different combinations.

Cooper recently spoke to The Creators Project about the Why Make Sense? design and printing technique. While it turned out to be a rather tricky process, he noted that Relph had conceptual free-reign for the sleeve.

“One thing Nick said to me about when he was thinking about initial ideas for the cover is that he tried to ignore the album title Why Make Sense?,” Cooper said. “Everything he was coming up with was negative, so I don't think the title had much bearing on the finished design.”

Relph ultimately settled on a moiré-like pattern inspired by English artist Bridget Riley's optical illusion-laden work. Art critic Robert Melville once said, “No painter, dead or alive, has ever made us more aware of our eyes than Bridget Riley.” In a similar sense, Relph's moiré pattern makes viewers very aware of their eyes, which then focuses their attention on Why Make Sense?'s color and graphics variations—if, of course, they're perusing the vinyl in a record shop.

“Nick was quite interested in the variations being quite subtle,” Cooper said. “You've got hundreds and hundreds of different colors, but the difference in tone and shade of some of those colors is quite close.” The graphic's vertical lines are fixed, according to Cooper, while their algorithm alters the diagonal lines' orientation. Some of the diagonal lines almost become vertical, while others cut across at nearly 90 degrees.

Cooper explained that the trick was to push information on color and graphic swatch variations from InDesign into an Excel spreadsheet, in a way that could be recognized by the printer. While he and Relph devised their own way of doing this, Cooper wouldn't go into exact details—he doesn't want every Tom, Dick and Harry replicating their process. 

“If you're holding it in your hand, there is an illusion of movement like a Bridget Riley painting... and if you were flipping through the vinyl racks at a record shop, you might find two that look really, really close,” he added. “In the same way as if you picked up two normal record or CD covers and looked at them, and said, 'Hold on a second, this one has a fleck of dirt on it, and this one has a slightly different color because it was made at the beginning of the print run.'”

While Why Make Sense?'s sleeve is visually attractive and conceptually satisfying, the potential number of design variations is also mathematically intriguing. Cooper said that total number of possible random color and image iterations surpasses 130,000. In other words, it's a true "meeting of the minds" between man and machine.

Hot Chip's Why Make Sense is out May 18 on Domino Records.

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