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Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. album cover

Contributed by Nick Sherman on Apr 18th, 2017. Artwork published in
April 2017
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. album cover 1
Source: License: All Rights Reserved.

The cover of Kendrick Lamar’s new album, DAMN., is very basic: A four-letter word and a period set on top of a photo of Lamar with the requisite parental advisory labeling. Many people have criticized the stark simplicity of the composition, but one of the designers involved, Vlad Sepetov, has defended “the value in making something that didn’t fit the mold”:

already seeing a lot of discussion about the cover. and i’m really excited about it. it’s interesting to see people talk about “bad” design.

but i’m incredibly proud of this cover. i sort of bucked a lot of what my teachers taught me. i wanted to make something loud and abrasive.

[…] just given the bare bones we fleshed something out that has a lot of people talking. it’s not uber political like [To Pimp a Butterfly] but it has energy imo

— Vlad Sepetov (@VSepetov) from Twitter

Embracing a simple, type-driven solution is commendable, and I wish more designers would feel comfortable using font sizes this large. However, there are still several issues to be addressed …

[Quick aside: I don’t often weigh in on controversial new designs publicly, but since the main sticking points of this design are related to its typography, it seemed a relevant topic for Fonts In Use. In the interest of brevity, my comments are focused just on the cover titling. The small text on the back appears to be set in Bold Monday’s Nitti typeface. The parental advisory label looks like an unofficial interpretation of Garage Gothic, perhaps taken directly from the seemingly auto-traced label on Wikipedia.]

First, it’s a stretch to say this design doesn’t fit a mold. Using a default system typeface like Times for its raw aesthetic has become a cliché of contemporary graphic design (see for endless examples). Similarly, using large simple type in the upper third of a photographic cover is well within the bounds of existing trends – and with Times, no less. Even within the genre and format, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo has made default fonts and awkward typography a mainstream solution for hip hop album art (if it wasn’t already before). This is not to say that a design must avoid trends to be good. There are many trends that I love, but their practitioners are decidedly fitting molds.

Second, ignoring for a moment that the version of Times that was used for the cover is a default system typeface, it was still not adjusted for use at such large sizes. The cover’s rejection of visual glamour matches the sentiment from “HUMBLE.” where Lamar says “I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop”, however there are still many Times-like options that would give a similar plain-spoken, loud feeling but with better-fitting details. Something like Times Eighteen (proportioned for large-ish sizes), TS Riccione (suited for titles, with a subtle flavor of 1970s/80s display type), or Starling (with finer serifs that stay sharp even at very large sizes) could give the same modest desktop-publishing aesthetic without the clunky finish. Heck, for a project of this scale, one could probably commission a custom-tailored interpretation of the elusive Times Modern. Even if awkwardness is the goal, it’s better to be confidently sharp in your awkwardness than hide behind backwards-justification of typographic non-choices. Using default system typefaces is not edgy or conceptually profound.

[Another aside: There’s nothing inherently wrong with using default system typefaces. It’s possible to do very good work with Times, and choosing something less ubiquitous doesn’t automatically make a design better. The wide availability of system fonts makes them less unique, but many of them are well-made and perform dutifully for their intended purpose. In some cases there are even practical factors that make them a necessity. But using default typefaces is not bucking the system.]

Third, and perhaps most glaringly, is the poor spacing of the title. The inconsistency makes it read as “DA MN .” From a cursory comparison, it seems the D and A were heavily kerned – somewhere around 140 units tighter than the default – while all other glyph pairs were left unchanged. Naturally any type set this large for such a prominent title may need some manual kerning adjustments, especially with a tricky combo like DA. But heavily kerning that pair while leaving everything else as-is results in what feels like a well-intentioned but over-enthusiastic adjustment. And why not kern the N and period tighter? Perhaps the poor spacing is intentional, but even if that is the case, why mess up the distance between two glyphs and leave everything else with default spacing?

With everything above, the titling gets stranded in a typographic no-man’s land: not offbeat enough to feel really raw but not refined enough to be good. Luckily, the musical production of DAMN. is handled with more complexity and sophistication, showing ambitious confidence that succeeds regardless.

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. album cover 2
Source: License: All Rights Reserved.

24 Comments on “Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. album cover”

  1. I had read on reddit that “DAMN.” was set in GNU FreeFrontFreeSerif? Although, I am not sure how credible that is. Apologies if I am missing something here, just bringing it into discussion.

  2. I also saw that thread, Ben, but as with many things on reddit I took it with a grain of salt. It’s easy to understand how the typeface could be ID’d as FreeSerif, since FreeSerif is essentially an open source clone of Times, intended to be an interchangable alternative for use in open source projects. I believe it even has the same width metrics for most glyphs so changing between the fonts won’t cause a lot of text reflow.

    I made an overlay comparison between Times and FreeSerif using the default spacing except for the over-kerned DA pair and you can see that while FreeSerif is (not surprisingly) very close, Times lands dead on.

  3. Thank you for the clarification and comparison!

    Just another thought on the album art:
    With today’s technology and overwhelming accessibility for apps/programs to create and manipulate images, graphics, etc. does design even matter anymore? People who understand the rules and principals of design will agree with the points you addressed above. However, because of accessibility, I wonder if designers, alongside their fundamentally “correct” work, will diminish and/or become absorbed over time? It appears as though design’s current direction is how long can it catch and grasp your attention in such a visually polluted world, regardless of the rules it follows or breaks.

    Long story short:
    I agree with your statements, but I love the album art and it’s imperfections. More importantly, the music is superb.

  4. Julian Kelly says:
    Apr 18th, 2017 8:44 pm


    You’re right, “designers” as we once thought of them matter a whole lot less or not at all in the digital age. What bugs me, and I think those bothered by the type, is the “DA” kerning is so clearly tightened that it ruins the “default” effect the designer may have intended, and only ruins it for other designers. It’s inconsequential to those who don’t notice it and offensive to those who do.

  5. Metin Saray says:
    Apr 19th, 2017 11:07 am

    I couldn’t agree more with Ben Nelson’s comments.

    “Correct” works are there when we want it now. If we want a, let’s say an IKEA brochure. But i see a good division in design now where we kind of set when and where to break these rules. I think with today’s precise tools, we went back and started to make things imperfect to give them a characteristic look. And to be honest, It’s the photo that matters here. And as long as it’s not interactive, I think these anti-aesthetic rules are not doing worse than very well-thought aesthetic design works.

    I think these design shifts are also a bit about boredom. It was too sterile in the early 2000s. Everything was uber-modern, sleek, typography was being treated like it’s a floor plan. I think it was more like design for designers. Now it’s a bit more expression than the main message.

  6. Mark Fletcher says:
    Apr 19th, 2017 12:01 pm

    I largely agree with this review. Everything said about the cover, typesetting and concept rings true. BUT, inexplicably I’m drawn to the cover. Right or wrong, it strikes a cord with me. Maybe—slightly post-rationalising—the ‘ill-set’ type is a reflection on the raw nature of the album and being ‘sick and tired of the Photoshop’ (the over perfection of the visual) and the fact it is wrong is what makes me look twice.

    The fact we are discussing it points to a successful piece of work.

  7. Ben: It’s an interesting thought, but people have been pondering the Demise of Design ever since Gutenberg (and probably even earlier). Back then it was “Will this new ‘typography’ thing kill the quality that’s practiced by hand scribes?” Then similar questions came up with mechanical typesetting, phototype, digital typography, and the web. In each case, the process of visual communication became more democratized, but here we are, hundreds of years later, and there’s more of a demand for design than ever.

    I feel I should also mention that I don’t really believe in the idea of design “rules”. I like weird design. I like design that is raw or unpolished. “Proper” typography is often boring. But a lot of design that positions itself as edgy or rule-breaking is actually a relatively lazy (and often unambitious) adaptation of ideas from the rulebook of an existing trend.

    Metin: I probably should have clarified in my article that I’m not opposed to what you’re calling “anti-aesthetic” design. My argument isn’t against that trend. I’ve seen many examples from this genre that are very interesting and provocative. I just don’t think this cover is one of them.

    Mark: The simplicity of the design definitely works to its benefit. It’s hard to ignore giant red text! Following Julian’s comment, as someone who cares about type, you’re among only a small amount of people who would look twice. The design isn’t really raw enough to be considered as groundbreaking as it is being spun.

    I disagree with the idea that something is automatically a good design if it causes discussion. I’m reminded of the Gap logo controversy from 2010: that design triggered thousands of conversations but was still decidedly bad. Many of the discussions were good, but that didn’t make the design good.

  8. Ian Crowther pointed out that the extreme kerning of “DA” has been reverted for the official t-shirt design.

  9. I’m enjoying the discussion!

    There may be a demand for design more than ever, but does it matter? Does it’s purpose matter? It’s just like you said, design that is rule-breaking can often times be lazy, but where is that line drawn? Is it in the visual or ideological representation that defines this line? Because even “lazy” design can achieve it’s goal, if that goal is “lazy”. And then, since it achieves that goal, does that classify it as “good”?

    For example, I took this photo of a sign:
    Plain Hotdog and Chili Dog sign

    It is perfect, and couldn’t you state, in this day in age, it’s designed by someone? Furthermore, I don’t believe there is any separation between myself, or anyone else, and the person who designed this, meaning, we all have the chance to be designers today. Just because the demand and evolution has shifted, doesn’t mean design matters. This sign is proof, that someone, in the mountains of West Virginia, needed this sign to clarify the pricing between “Plain Hotdog” and “Chili Dog”. They could of paid a “designer” to do this but instead they produced it themselves, with their accessibility, and can be called a “designer” now, which is great!

    BUT, this bring us full circle:
    Design does not matter. It, like most areas of creativity, is a representation of the creator’s choices. Both the album art and example sign (above) are visual representations that hold no consequence to their existence. They are someone’s decision that we aim to glorify or scrutinize.

  10. Is it me or did the deisgner just want to stretch “DAMN.” out to the cut marks, regardless of the mechanism, thus leaving a gap?

  11. Mark S says:
    Apr 20th, 2017 5:10 pm

    I understand the critique that using Times isn’t as edgy as intended, but my original thought was not that it was trying to be anything at all. Using Times seemed right to me. If the designer had come up with something we hadn’t seen before, I think that would have defeated an obvious theme that Kendrick carries throughout his work. He tries not to show that he cares about anything at all. Having a fashionable font, or one that is both edgy and groundbreaking, doesn’t seem to work. Using a font that is a typographic fail, and one that has been failed with so much so that it became trendy and then overdone, seems like a good fit.

  12. Dunno. It’s a fairly simple flux between doing “anti-design” and “design.” We’re decades past the point where anti-design was anything other than a result of the exact same methodology but using / eschewing trends. there is intention here, by design, and none of this horseshit formal critique by a bunch of people who haven’t done a kendrick lamar media project is relevant. There is nothing to think about here as at some point unintentional poorly executed design is indistinguishable from intentionally poor design executed successfully. There are literally millions of examples of this. Is his not giving a shit about design lending itself to the optics of kendrick as badass? obviously that was the point.
  13. Agree with the review. I don’t find the album design special but the combination of image, colors and letters somehow works. T-shirt – D A M kerning yes, but now we need more space between M and N ;-)

    Ben, while I enjoy your enthusiasm I disagree with your conclusions. Using a tool does not make you a professional.

    in this day in age, it’s designed by someone

    Yes it is – but not so much by the writer of the message as by what you correctly point to later: accessibility. There have been a lot of design decisions in order to create the tool with which the sign is made. All the way from deciding commercial paper sizes to making Times the most available font on computers to the default linespacing in the software, the human computer interface, and more. To be able to use a tool does not make you a professional. If you nail together two planks you do not become a carpenter.

    we all have the chance to be designers today

    Yes true, but people have always had the chance to be designers. At least since the time design became a profession. The fact that you have a piano at home, and can play “Row Row Your Boat” does not make you a pianist. Much less a composer. But you have a better chance at becoming a pianist than your neighbor who don’t have a piano. Computers have made the tools of, for instance Graphic Design, accessible to more people. And speaking of tools, the sign in the picture is most likely made in Microsoft Word. While Word have replaced the typewriter it is arguably not more of a design tool than the typewriter.

    they produced it themselves, with their accessibility, and can be called a “designer”

    No they can not. You can argue that they have made a design and that they have designed said poster, but this is not the same thing as being a designer. Ref. above arguments.

    Hey – there is red vinyl inside? Nice…

  14. Pablo Impallari says:
    Apr 21st, 2017 3:06 am

    haha, the t-shirt… D      AMN.

  15. Walter, maybe we can agree to disagree, however I am enjoying this discussion too much :)

    I do not consider myself a carpenter, but I can buy (or find) precut wood and cinder blocks. I can place these things on top of one another and it functions as a shelf, all without nailing anything together. Could it be better? That depends, because it accomplishes the goals I intended it to do – cheap, quick, sturdy, however, in another person’s mind I failed completely, hence, it’s all an opinion. There is no good/right or bad/wrong.

    “You can argue that they have made a design and that they have designed said poster, but this is not the same thing as being a designer.”

    At the core of your statement, yes it does make them a designer. Where would you draw the line? They went through the same process and thoughts to make the sign as a “designer”. See above statement about a carpenter. I by no shape or form consider myself a carpenter, but I can function and make decisions to meet my need with what is available today. Hence, people can make designs with the tools out there today and there is no right or wrong to what they produce. In conclusion, because people are producing/publishing designs (anything from memes to look books) at an astonishing rate, the line for good/bad, designer/not designer, becomes more of a blurred circle than a clear cut.

    Hence, it still makes me ask the question does design matter?

  16. Ben: The crucial difference with the hot dog sign is that its maker surely never claimed that their design was bucking any system or not filling a mold.

    The difference between being a “Designer” or not isn’t of much consequence to me. People make stuff and put it out in the world and they can call themselves whatever they want. That will never stop.

    Mark: It’s fine to not use a fashionable typeface – I mentioned in the article how it’s still possible to do this but still use something that works better. It’s also fine to aim for a typographic “fail”, as you call it. It’s also fine to not be edgy or groundbreaking. But aiming for a typographic fail and then spinning it as an edgy solution is disingenuous.

    dunno: You said “There are literally millions of examples of this.” That is part of my point. The design is being pitched as something that doesn’t fit a mold, but it clearly does. Fitting a mold is not necessarily bad, but it shouldn’t be promoted as something that doesn’t.

    Walter: I agree the spacing on the shirt isn’t much better.

    I imagine the concept you and Ben are disagreeing on isn’t necessarily what makes a designer, but what makes a professional designer – i.e. someone who is paid to do it. Having said that, being paid for something doesn’t mean you’re good at it. But as I mentioned to Ben, I think the whole idea of making distinctions between classes of people who make things is a bit irrelevant.

  17. Roy Wilhelm says:
    Apr 22nd, 2017 2:07 am
    Ben: “Does design matter?” Yes. More than ever. Design is a broad practice and approach to solving problems and relating objects and communication to humans. You are expressing a highly limited view of design. I appreciate the existential approach to questioning the state of design, but your proclamations are not new or novel. We’ve had home printers and word processing software for decades. Graphic design is still a thriving practice. Don’t you see that people realize we have a spectrum of options to create visual communication, and each option is valid and supports demand? I could use a pencil and a notecard, I could paint a sign on canvas, I could use Adobe indesign to create a poster, I could use Microsoft Word, I could hire an agency, etc. Do you refer to yourself as a photographer because of your instagram photos? (Assuming you’re not actually a professional photographer).
  18. The secondary conversation Ben started on the question “Does design matter?” is interesting, and all the comments are appreciated, but it’s getting a bit off topic. Let’s keep the discussion focused on the specific subject at hand from here out.

  19. The justification for attention-grabbing kitsch can be summarized in a metaphor as such: “Since we won’t know 100% that our babysitter won’t abuse our baby, we might as well just hire a crocodile.”

  20. I think the amount of chatter on this thread points as to how successful the design is. Its purpose isn’t to be “liked” but to be expressive and to communicate with K.Dot’s audience.

  21. I think the poor kerning (intentional or not) works in this instance. Is there perhaps a reference to time magazine here?

  22. Ryan Polich says:
    Sep 7th, 2017 6:26 pm

    Shoulda just used Century and we’d all be talking about these posters instead.

  23. Jonas Bø Cassel says:
    Sep 21st, 2022 6:52 pm

    AMAZULU (1986)

  24. Ben:

    They went through the same process and thoughts to make the sign as a “designer”

    No they did not. For the same reason you did not go through the same thought process as a carpenter. It has to do with knowlegde and skill in your profession. As for your tangent:

    does design matter?

    Let me ask you this: When you, ie. go looking for new cups to take home to your kitchen, do you like Mr. Bean bring some coffee to see if the cup can hold it, or do you take the functionality for granted and instead look at the design?

    The necrothreadmancer ;-)

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