Music by Design

Three graphic designers who collaborate with musicians on art that is the perfect marriage of sight and sound.

Christian Helms + Will Johnson

The first album package that Will Johnson and Christian Helms ever designed together happened quite naturally, over “a few beers” (a common theme between the two artists) and a faith in Johnson’s art that would continue to define their collaborative relationship for years to come. Helms also managed to come up with what might be the most ingenious business plan to date: “I let Will do all the work!”

The album, Candidate Waltz for Johnson’s band Centro-matic, was a roaring success. “We have no set recipe for each album,” Johnson says. “It’s a matter of mood and the feel of the record.” Helms adds: “It’s really casual and conversational. Other projects I have are very long, layered and involved, so it’s fun to make art together in a natural way.”

Apart from Centro-matic, Johnson heads another band, South San Gabriel, and also records under his own name. As for Helms, to say he keeps busy with his company, Helms Workshop, is an understatement—he’s designing for bands like Spoon, Modest Mouse, The Hold Steady and Wilco, as well as big name brands like Austin Beerworks and Jack Daniels. “I think so much of the energy between us is driven by the fact that we both grew up total rock n’ roll kids,” Johnson says. “I was always looking at layouts and designs — music is important too, yes, but the other element, visually transmitting a sound onto an album cover, is just as important.”

Both have called Austin home since the early 2000s, and lucky for us, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Catch Johnson on his Living Room Tour now with his solo album, Scorpion. Catch Helms on South 1st Street at the Helms Workshop.


Chris Simpson + Joy Gallagher

For a touring musician, there’s nothing quite like hearing the songs you’ve worked so long to perfect come to life in the midst of a crowd of strangers. Chris Simpson knows the feeling all too well. After his band, Mineral, took a two-decade-long absence from the music industry, they’re back for a 20-year reunion tour, and playing to crowds that are larger and more familiar with Mineral’s music other their ‘90s bands. What’s more, friend, fan and graphic designer Joy Gallagher is tagging along for the ride; this duo’s potential knows no bounds.

“It’s pretty simple: Chris contacts me when he has a specific project that he wants me to help with,” Gallagher says. “I’ll spend some time listening to the music, focusing on the lyrics and coming up with concepts. I’ll typically email him several, which we’ll discuss and revise together based on his input.”

For Simpson, it’s all about the music; Gallagher follows up with a mix of his and her interpretations. When not designing for Mineral, she’s working with her main client, Whole Foods Market. Simpson also spends time with Zookeeper, a largely solo recording and writing project. “The process has to be its own reward,” Simpson says. “Having hardships in a musical career is not a guarantee of triumphs. And having triumphs isn’t a guarantee that you won’t have hardships again. It has to be a passion.”

Simpson knew from the start that that’s exactly what it was: a passion he couldn’t temper. It’s what drives both his and Gallagher’s creative work: an excitement for not only the end result, but everything it takes to get there. “I feel like I kind of always knew that I wanted to make music,” Simpson says. “I loved that it could make people sing passionately at the top of their lungs on the way to the grocery store with their two small children in tow.”


DJ Stout + Darden Smith

There’s an art to collaboration that DJ Stout and Darden Smith have just about mastered: letting go. Arguably, it’s in their DNA; Stout and Smith are both Texans, through and through, so it’s not surprising that they both have an easy-going, humorous nature that pairs well with the collaboration process. And there’s a wit about them as well; no conversation would be complete without talk of the Texas myth, folk humor and why one shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. It’s tradition, after all.

“I’m a fifth-generation Texan,” Stout says. “I work all over the world, but because I’m such a part of Texas, and Texas is such a part of me, I think it influences my work no matter what I’m doing.”

The Texas perspective is a unique one and has been a vital part of Stout and Smith’s friendship since they met over 20 years ago right here in Austin. Introduced by friend and photographer Michael O’Brien, the pair didn’t start working together until the release of Marathon in 2010, Smith’s 13th album that went right back to his roots, with a tribute of sorts to West Texas.

“I’m a Texas singer-songwriter,” Smith says. “If you get too far removed from where you come from, you’ll lose the thread of your work. I’m part of the Texas tradition…I just can’t imagine that Texas wouldn’t be a part of it.” At the time of their first meeting, Stout was the award-winning art director for Texas Monthly. He eventually left in 2000 to become a partner at the world’s largest independent graphic design firm, Pentagram, and is now anticipating the arrival of his second book, Variations on a Rectangle, out this fall. Smith continues to write music and perform across the country, while also devoting his time to SongwritingWith:Soldiers, a program that pairs writers with soldiers to collaborate on songs about combat and returning home.

Stout and Smith have since collaborated on another album, Love Calling, and together performed their keynote presentation on Cowboy Poetry, The Importance of Place, for the American Marketing Association 2014 symposium. Once again, never far from their roots.


Photography by Jessica Pages

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