Interview: Anne Jordan on designing book covers

The best book covers 2014

In two previous interviews we asked graphic designers Sara R. Acedo and Håkan Liljemärker a few questions about designing book covers. Acedo and Liljemärker are well established graphic designers with their own distinct styles, easy to recognize but hard to pin down. They mostly make covers for books of fiction.

In this interview we ask Anne Jordan, graphic designer based in Rochester, New York, about her work. She takes a special interest in typography and mostly designs covers for academic and theoretical texts. But the questions we ask her are similar to the ones we asked Acedo and Liljemärker.

Could you please tell us a little about your background and how and why you became a designer of book covers?

– I went to college at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where I took an intro-level graphic design class as a freshman and decided to major in Graphic Design. Typography class during sophomore year sealed the deal – I love the structure, the history, and the endless freedom that is possible within the finite system of letterforms. It didn’t hurt that I met my husband, Mitch Goldstein, on the first day of type class.

– I designed a few book covers during college and was so enamored with the format and the potential for expressive typography that I decided to make a series of book covers for my senior project. That project was the first of many personal book cover projects, which eventually led to paying clients. I continued to investigate book covers during graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, and now I am an independent designer working with various publishers.

What purposes are book covers supposed to fill?

– Form is my primary concern. A book cover must first catch the eye of the reader, or else the book will never be opened. I think good design must be visually seductive – that might mean beautiful, or interesting, or weird, or new – but without enticing form, there is no entry point to content.

– There should also be a meaningful relationship between material and message – the image should make sense with the content in a smart and interesting way. That visual-verbal connection must be present and strong. A good book cover should also reward the reader – there should be a little bit of mystery to allow for personal interpretation, and enough depth in the image so the reader’s experience of the cover changes and grows as they make their way through the text.

– I want to make work that contributes to our society’s intellectual growth – that’s part of why I love book covers so much. If a book cover encourages someone to pick up a book and read it, that adds to our culture’s collective understanding. I am interested in work that promotes thinking and ideas.

Are there differences between book covers and other kinds of graphic design?

– I have worked on countless different kinds of graphic design projects and keep coming back to the format of the book cover. Book covers provide unique opportunities and limitations that seem to align well with my interests and disposition as a designer.

– Book covers are very concise – big ideas must be communicated in a single image, usually at a small scale. A book cover designer doesn’t have the luxury of working out an idea over 200 pages or an enormous poster. I love this limitation. Projects don’t spread out over years. My process of designing a cover is very intense, but only takes a couple of weeks.

– Another part of book covers I love is the content. As a designer I get to read lots of interesting stuff, briefs on subjects I have no clue about. It’s a great way to learn lots of new things. The kinds of books that I’ve been designing lately (mostly non-fiction academic texts) allow for quite a bit of abstraction. I really appreciate the opportunity to design highly expressive, abstract pieces that explore type as image. There’s a lot of room for personal expression.

– And finally, the fact that books are lasting and permanent objects is very satisfying. I can hold the finished book in my hand. It doesn’t disappear below the fold of my laptop screen the very next day, it’s there on my bookshelf collecting dust for years and years. That’s pretty cool.

Do you have a philosophy, rules of thumb or rituals that you follow during the creative process? Please tell us a little bit about the creative process.

– My work explores the intersection of typography and materials, so I begin each project by playing with a table full of real stuff. I manipulate the materials and explore various methods and processes in order to integrate them with typography. Sketches don’t really work for me – I can’t predict how a material will react until I start to work with it in my hands. This means my process involves a lot of unpredictability, tangents, research, and accidents. I just keep going and going, working with a material in every way I can think of until I find something I like, and then refine, refine, refine. This process requires faith and stamina, and can be frustrating at times, but I think it leads to interesting results.

– I collaborate with my husband Mitch Goldstein. We work at home – the whole first floor of our house is our studio. It’s just the two of us, and we work very closely together on all aspects of our practice. We have everything we need here – lots of tables, a photography setup, printers, scanners, etc. Collecting is essential – we have a supply room full of materials and tools waiting for the right project to come along. The studio starts out neatly organized at the beginning of each project, and gets turned upside down by the end. Then we clean the space up again as a way to change gears for the next project.

You have made covers to books by great fiction writers, but you have also created covers to several academic and theoretical texts. I think you have developed a very interesting and captivating style, with a lot of distortions of images and text. Can you please tell us a little bit about that?

– The style of my work evolved from my process. I am an image-maker. I make most of my images by constructing tactile objects or three-dimensional setups and then photographing or scanning them. I love finding ways to embed text in physical objects, building scenes in-camera instead of relying on purely digital effects. Everything you see in my work is a result of a physical process, my attempt at giving type a physical body, giving letterforms a chance to misbehave and express themselves outside of the computer. I use all sorts of materials including ink, paper, plastic, concrete, light, water, etc. and the various combinations create an infinite amount of effects.

Crowds and Party by Jodi Dean. Client: Verso Books

Can you please pick one of your covers and explain how it came about and how you intended it to work?

– This book is about how political groups move from the inert mass to organized activists. Crowds and Party extends the energies of the riotous crowds of the last five years (such as the Occupy movement) into an argument for the political party.

Andy Pressman, the art director, asked us to come up with a way to communicate “crowds” and “teeming masses” without being literal. So Mitch and I knew that we didn’t want to use any human-like symbols such as heads or hands to show a crowd – we needed something more abstract. We searched through our studio for materials that evoked the feeling of crowds. We looked for materials that were messy, showed movement, felt like they were teeming, were made up of lots of little pieces that could come together, stuff that was solid but diffuse. Then we started experimenting.

– We became very interested in hot glue because of the snake-like, chaotic lines it created when we drew with it straight out of the glue gun. It reminded us of a colony of insects, squirming and full of energy. At the same time, hot glue has the ability to melt and gel into a distinct mass – all of these squiggly lines can come together to form a unit, similar to a crowd. We made lots of tests with hot glue to figure out how the energetic lines could be married with type.

– Through this experimentation we developed a process of injecting hot glue into silicone molds to create letters, and then using the squiggly lines to draw over the letters and melt the pieces together. We created a series of sculptures – each one was a different design of the cover in which all of the letterforms and lines are one piece, glued in place by itself. We photographed our favorite sculpture and added a bit of color to pull out the type, and that was it. There are no digital effects in this piece – everything is inherent in the sculpture itself.

Many thanks to Anne for taking our questions. And congratulations – Print Magazine recently named her one of the 2015 New Visual Artists Under 30.

Ola Wihlke

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