Behind the Scenes is a new Spotify Design series that offers an inside look at creating experiences at Spotify.
“I feel like we're in such a unique position to really create evolution...Spotify can take it to the next level and incorporate a lot of creative things—it just seems to make way too much sense,” says Cole Cuchna, creator of Dissect, a Spotify Original podcast that spends an entire season breaking down the lyrics, meaning, and music of a particular album.
Podcasting as we know it today really took off in the early 2000s when portable audio players adopted the MP3 format and were able to share these files for broader listening. Now, decades later, podcasts are experiencing a boom in popularity. In this year’s annual Infinite Dial study, 2020 podcast statistics boast record numbers: 75% of the U.S. population is familiar with the term “podcasting.” Since 2017, monthly podcast listeners have grown 54%. And for the first time ever, more than 100 million Americans listen to at least one podcast a month.
Podcast Listing statistics from the 2020 Infinite Dial study
To keep up with that growth, more people than ever are creating podcasts. But with such a high volume of podcasts being released every day, it can be easy to forget how much work goes into designing a podcast experience from start to finish. For Cole, a big part of producing Dissect is the preliminary background work: He’ll spend months digging through album after album to find the right record to analyze before he begins diving into research around its making. (The podcast has previously covered Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Blonde, and Beyonce’s Lemonade.)
“Choosing the artist/album is the most important part, obviously, since that's what I'll be dedicating the whole season to. Personally, it's like 6 months out of my life,” Cole says. “I take my own personal interest in the music, incorporate what people are asking for, and then try to find that balance. It's been strategic in terms of finding albums that have enough thematic, interesting, and important things to say, but then also exist in the popular realm of some sort.”
In Season 7, Cuchna dissects Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet album.
After deciding on an album, Cole approaches his research much like he did when he studied music composition in college: He’ll study the artist, go through artist interviews about the work, and gather context around the album’s content and setting. Now, after joining Spotify in 2017, Cole still scripts the line-by-line analysis of the album himself—it’s one of his favorite parts of producing Dissect—but he’ll bring in a larger team for other parts of the process, like research and visual branding.
Creating the visual identity of a Spotify Original podcast is exactly what the Studios Design team specializes in. The team is co-led by Sarah Gainer and Jessie Harte and completed by designers Haelee You, Elise Harven, and Talia Rochmann. (Jessie, Elise, and Talia were originally part of the Gimlet design team before joining Spotify in 2019. Sarah and Jessie are now working to streamline processes across studios now that the teams have merged into one.)
“For podcast show art, the most important thing is being legible at small scale, connection to the content—is it provocative?—and some thumb-stopping quality because on [a mobile] platform, which is how the art is going to be seen most of the time, it’s so small that one just needs to be able to scroll, stop, and decide that the content is interesting,” Talia says.
“We have conversations about this all the time though,” Elise adds. “If actually picking a podcast is the same as picking up a bottle of wine in the store, where you pick it [based] on the label.”
Despite the focus on the show’s thumbnail, also known as “the square,” creating show art is a comprehensive design process: Designers receive a brief, go into a project kickoff, brainstorming and exploration, and multiple iterations in a specific direction. Jessie Harte describes the preliminary work her team dives into before starting any kind of design.
“We do a lot of writing—which is probably unexpected for what we do, but it really helps us ground everything conceptually,” Jessie explains. “We [also] come up with mood boards, which are really our bread and butter. They help us figure out where the show belongs in terms of category before we've taken the time to really do a full-blown articulation of the concept. It's a process that really works for us.”
Examples of Gimlet explorations, write-ups, and mood boards.
But with podcasting’s recent rise in popularity, shows now have more marketing support—allowing designers like Haelee, Talia, and Elise to be more experimental and think beyond just the thumbnail when telling a cohesive podcast story. Designers aren’t just making squares; they’re creating assets for multiple social platforms, rollout plans, and experimenting with more immersive ways to present podcasts on Spotify (like the newly-launched video podcasts).
Visual cues play a core part in Dissect’s rollout plan for instance, as Cole will drop small hints on social media leading up to each season’s launch. To introduce Season 6, which analyzed Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade, the team posted close-ups of Beyonce’s famous yellow dress from her “Hold Up” video. The yellow dress was a key symbolic figure in the album and Cole’s analysis—so it only makes sense that the design team would bring it to life as the primary art for the season.
Focusing on one symbolic figure is a common theme in Dissect’s cover art—and that’s intentional. It was a decision the team made in Season 4, which discussed Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy. Haelee explains that they “wanted to give Dissect a system that was consistent throughout the seasons, and having an enlarged single subject matter works both conceptually and technically. If we’re using different illustrations every season, this concept seemed like the thread that would tie everything together.”
Accurately representing the album’s message, feel, and identity are at the core of Dissect’s show art. But Cole also leans into his own aesthetic and usability principles from his background as a web designer: “I definitely lean towards minimalism, simplicity. I love black and white—those are my favorite colors—eastern art, zen art. If you look at the first Dissect logo in Season 1, it was just the white logo on a plain black background. We've stayed true to that but also tried to make each one unique,” he shares. “We've changed the artwork each season to…[make it] easy to tell where seasons start and end by just the color of the icon. That's more functional, but also a strategy in the design itself.”
Sarah, who’s worked with Haelee on show art for the last five seasons, dives into how they’ve evolved the podcast’s visual identity over the years: “While Dissect already had a logo [when it joined Spotify in 2016], we started to expand the visual identity to speak to each season individually. This began with revisions to the logo type treatment and with simple color palette differentiation that reflected colors shown or discussed in each season’s album: For Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, we chose red and yellow, which mimicked the cover of Kanye's actual album. Our choice of yellow and white for Season 3 was chosen as a play on Frank Ocean's album title, Blonde.”
Today, technological development and increasing demand for podcasts are creating numerous opportunities for designers to take the podcast experience even further. From animated show art to immersive podcast videos, there are endless possibilities to experiment and define what the future of podcasting really can be.
“Originally podcasts didn't have a lot of marketing support behind them—now we're all trying to figure out what best practices are for marketing podcasts,” Elise says. “You're not just hearing about it for the first time on the platform. You’re seeing campaigns. You’re hearing it in other places. You're seeing it on social [media]. It's a really interesting time to be working in podcasts because there's so much change happening.”
Check out Season 7 of Dissect, which dives into Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet, or browse through old seasons here. Follow Dissect on Instagram to hear about new releases and more.
Eda is a UX Writer for Spotify’s messaging platform. Outside of work, she enjoys raising houseplants and writing about the intersection of art and identity.