How to Avoid Cliches in Your Podcast Cover Art
The landscape of podcast cover art, as with most industries, suffers from an over-saturation of visual cliches, copy-cats and unoriginal ideas. Designs with microphones, headphones, and common "broadcasting" symbols are everywhere. Yes, we know that headphones are used when producing and listening to podcast, they're literally on my ears right now. It's not interesting that you use a picture of a microphone; every single podcast in the world uses a microphone. It's just lazy; you're not telling people anything about your podcast. Just like your show, your cover design needs to communicate a unique message in order to resonate with viewers.
If you're like me, you spend most of your time in the "Podcast" section of the iTunes store, but let's take a little excursion over to the "Music" section to browse the album art. As of this writing, there's not a single microphone, speaker or musical instrument on the front page. That's because everyone inherently understands that those things are used to produce the album and we don't care. The tools are not what make us care about the music. We care about the final product; what it says or how it makes us feel. You need to imply what your show is actually about and make an emotional connection with the viewer. Movies are another example, do you see a lot of cameras or clapperboards when you're browsing Netflix? No. Unless it's a documentary about filmmaking, that would just be silly. Why should podcasts be any different?
Unfortunately, the evil of cliches doesn't stop with pictures of recording equipment and RSS feed symbols. Every industry has it's own set of visual cliches and crutches to avoid. The classic example for business podcasts is the men-in-suits-shaking-hands photo. A podcast about video games might show a picture of a game controller. A show about NASCAR racing could use a cliche like checkered flags or a steering wheel.
All of these industry cliches make sense on a basic level, that's why they've become so prevalent. But people are so concerned with communicating the subject of their show that they use a solution that is too obvious to stand out from the crowd. You want to find the sweet spot of getting your message across while still being unique and compelling. What makes your show special? Use your cover art to set expectations about both the topic and the tone of your show.
There Are Exceptions
This doesn't mean that headphones and microphones cannot be used in a purposeful or creative way. A great example of this is the Creative South Podcast. Creative South is a conference for "creatives" to learn, collaborate and get to know each other.
"But they used headphones in their design, you said that was bad?" Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let's stop for a second and think about this. First of all, the design is really polished and attractive which not something to overlook. Peaches don't have ears so putting headphones on the peach logo is unique and visually interesting. Second, the Creative South logo is used to build brand equity and tie the show back to the conference. After all, promoting the event is a primary purpose of this podcast. But the rationale goes even deeper. Creative South has a very strong focus on people, relationships, and connections. If you attend the conference, you're really a part of Creative South so it fits perfectly with their brand to use the logo to represent people listening and learning about the event.
The lesson is that you need to take great care when venturing into the dangerous land of cliches. Do not take this as permission to be lazy. In fact, it will likely take even more work to use a microphone in your cover art without coming off as apathetic or boring.
How to Avoid Cliches
If you keep finding yourself falling back onto cliches and other crutches with your cover art, there is a simple solution: you need better ideas. I said simple, not easy. Your cover art should give a glimpse into the content, mood and personality of your show. Think about the essence of what your show is about. Start by asking questions like: What value do you provide? Who is your target audience? How do you want to make them feel? Why are you even making this show? How are you different from my competitors? Questions like this will help jump-start a wave of ideas; write them all down. Next, brainstorm visual metaphors and representations of the ideas you've written down. Grab a pencil and a piece of paper and start sketching like crazy. It doesn't matter if you think you can draw, if you can make a stick figure you can do this. Remember that you're not creating the final piece yet; you're just visualizing and exploring concepts. Get the ideas out there, then you can find a direction and refine it.
I won't be covering the entire design process in this post, the focus here is on generating better concepts instead of following the beaten path. No matter how knowledgable or experienced you are with your design software, you will always be limited by the concept that you are bringing to life. That is why it's so vital that you put in the work before you take your sketches to the computer. The ideation phase should be something that you wrestle with and put a lot of time into. If you want to look like everyone else, take the easy way out; if you want to stand above your competition, be ready to make an investment. [clickandtweet handle="" hashtag="" related="" layout="" position=""]Killer concepts lead to killer podcast covers and the only way to get there is by putting in the work.[/clickandtweet]