MUSTAFFA AHMAD HIDZIR started designing album covers when he was 21. Now, some 40 years later, he is still at it, producing over 300 album covers to date. “I make album covers out of passion,” confesses the 62-year-old, who is also known as Tapa. He explains that the process of creating an album cover based on an artiste’s image and songs is challenging, thrilling, exciting and addictive, all at the same time. The first cover he made was way back in 1979 for the album, Kebebasan, by a group called Carefree. Since then, he has made album covers for well-known artistes such as Sudirman, Sharifah Aini, DJ Dave, Noorkumalasari, Ramli Sarip, Sheila Majid, and rock band Search, among others. Mustaffa credits his accountant father, Ahmad Hidzir Shamsuddin, as the first person to get him interested in art and design. His father was an ardent reader and loves collecting all kinds of magazines. Mustaffa recalls browsing through his father’s collection of magazines, and while he was too young to know how to read the text, he was captivated by the pictures and layout of the artwork. But his love for doing album covers was inspired by his uncle, Mohd Salleh Hashim, who was a teacher. “He exposed me to English singers such as The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan,” says Mustaffa. “I love listening to their songs and looking at their album covers.” One cover that really made an impression on him was Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The album cover showed two gentlemen shaking hands. One of the men was on fire. Mustaffa says he admires the fact that cover designer Storm Thorgerson and his team did not use an image of the band. Instead, they chose to tell a story with this graphic approach. He finds the cover to be a symbolic representation of how corporate figures are killing creativity in the name of profit. Mustaffa used a similar approach in some of his designs, the most prominent being the one for ZZ, the second solo album of Hillary Ang, former lead guitarist of Search. Mustaffa decided to use a surreal image of Ang’s guitar collection for the cover. Unfortunately, not all artistes are as happy as Ang with this approach. Some were offended when their faces were not used. “Even some recording companies were not happy with my decision,” he says. “They believed without the faces of the artiste, the albums would not sell.” But Mustaffa never let those detractors stop him from pushing the boundaries of his creativity. One singer he really loved working with was the late Datuk Sudirman Arshad. “He was very open to suggestions, and ever willing to invest his time and energy to get the best result,” Mustaffa says. He did the covers for Sudirman’s albums Lagu Anak Desa and Perasaan. One wonders, given an opportunity to work a design for a particular Malaysian singer today, who would he pick? He answers: “A young music group called Pitahati. I feel its music has universal appeal in terms of sound and words. This would give me a wider option to work on the visual possibilities.” He also longs to do an album cover for Datuk Siti Nurhaliza, and has already come up with a concept that will be a mixture of traditional flavours with a modern feel. His advice to young designers is to always be on their toes and keep up with the changing trends around them. “What works in the 1970s may not work now,” he adds. He keeps up with the changing trends by looking at the latest album covers, and visiting bookstores to look at book covers. “Seeing these covers will spark some creativity in me,” he says. He also loves to watch films to find some inspiration for his work. Last year, Mustafa came out with a book, 12x12 Album Cover Design, published by Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Malaysia Bhd. It features nearly 200 of his album covers, and the inspirations behind them. The book has gone on to win two design awards. Now, those with a keen eye for art can catch Mustaffa’s work at the George Town Festival, starting from Aug 4. There will be an exhibition of his album covers in Penang House of Music from Aug 4 to 10, as well as a talk by this designer on Aug 5 at 3pm.