I like Radiohead. I’ve always liked them. From the earnest songwriting of their youth to the rejection and gradual acceptance of their own fame to their continued exploration of what “music” is. I also appreciate the attention they have always paid to the visual component of their works having hired numerous designers, animators, illustrators, filmmakers and artists to create their albums’ packaging, videos, posters, websites, t-shirts and more. And that is precisely why I was a bit perplexed to see the masthead on the website for their new album, The King Of Limbs.
As an all-around lover of type my first reaction to seeing “distressed” typography is to check if the designer simply tapped-out the letters in a distressed font or if they set the type in a non-distressed font and then, after getting the kerning and such just right, added said distressing. Why this matters is hopefully obvious at first glance of the word RADIOHEAD. It’s bad enough when the same distressed character is repeated in close proximity, but when you have a pair of these characters, such as the “AD” in RADIOHEAD you might as well circle them with a red pen. This pitfall doesn’t just affect distressed typefaces. Any stylized type that is supposed to have a natural, unrefined look—scripts and handwriting fonts, for example—often suffer the same fate when just tapped-out.
I don’t know who the designer of this piece is nor do I mean them any disrespect. I’ve heard the spark of genius last just a nanosecond, but, honestly, here’s all of about ten minutes of work. And don’t get me started on the copy-and-pasted-and-horizontally-flipped tree artwork on either side. Many OpenType font families these days come with contextual ligatures and similar “awarenesses” that can automatically substitute alternates of the same character for creating variation and, if there ever was a case for using one, it’s right here. Even if the font doesn’t contain such features, how much work would it have been to set the nine letters in R-A-D-I-O-H-E-A-D and then apply a layer mask to distribute the distressing randomly across the whole word?
Any other band and I wouldn’t have noticed. But Radiohead have raised the bar for themselves with each successive release that to see such lackadaisical artwork is a bit of a knock against them as a band. For me at least. I know this might sound a bit harsh, like a pass/fail test. No, I’m not that disappointed with them. I still really like them and their music. Nevertheless, it feels like something important—the band’s visual identity—that appears more like a mock-up than a finished piece…and was missed by everyone.