Etikettarkiv: graphic design

Interview: Emily Mahon on designing book covers

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Doubleday, Illustration: Rizon Parein

 
I have made interviews with several great Swedish and American graphic designers specialized in book covers. I have asked them rather similar questions, but the answers have varied considerably. This suggests, I think, that designing book covers is a craft. You can learn how to create great and captivating covers, but above all you have to make covers, over and over again. The final covers that we get to see, are only a fraction of those that are made.

I had the privilege to ask graphic designer Emily Mahon a few questions. She has worked for some of the most well known American publishers, and she has made covers for books of literary fiction as well as for books of non-fiction, contemporary as well as classics. She has made several stunning covers; one of my favorites is the cover she has made for Heidi Julavits The Vanishers. Further below you can see both the final cover, lush and irresistible, as well as two killed covers.

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Doubleday. Photo: Mike Lambert

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

I studied Graphic Design at Penn State University. I needed to apply for the program which only accepted 22 students a year; it’s a very small program in a school of over 35 thousand students. After graduating, I focused on landing a job at a book publishing house in New York. To me, designing book covers is the most creative job I could have. Every book tells a different story, and reading has become a crucial part of my life. And I love that each cover is like a poster—there are no guidelines in terms of imagery or type that I use—it’s all based on what feels right for the audience.

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Doubleday. Tactile Typography: Dominique Falla

 
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Vintage. AD: John Gall, Photo: Holly Lindem

 
What purposes are book covers supposed to fill?

Designing covers is not about making art. We need to sell books at the end of the day. Covers should market a specific audience for every book and they should give enough of a visual impact needed to inspire someone to pick up the book and read it!

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Random House, Photo: Bob Croslin

 

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Penguin. AD: Paul Buckley, Photo: Rich Evenhouse

 
How would you describe your style(es)?

I try never to have a style. I always try new approaches to how I look at a problem and to how I design. The content should dictate the style. It’s hard to stay fresh and current all the time but I think it’s important not to try and emulate trends, and stay true to the content.

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Doubleday. Photo: Andrew Purcell

 
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Doubleday

 
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.

As I’m reading a book, I usually jot down visuals or notes from the text that could help in defining the direction the cover will take. I usually make lists and sketch ideas before every turning to the computer to guide me. Sometimes I find it helpful to go to museums or look through magazines or books as I brainstorm, and I try to find inspiration in looking at other current book covers. There is so much great work out there, and seeing recent book covers inspires me to keep pushing my work and make myself a better designer.

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Flatiron Books. Killed

 
Can you please tell us a little bit about the cover you made for The Guineveres and explain how it came about and how you intended it to work?

Well, as of this moment, the cover has been killed! This happens all the time, albeit a bit disappointing. I loved this novel and tried several different iterations before coming to this solution. The book takes place in the 1950s in a convent where four girls named Guinevere have been abandoned to be raised by nuns. I wanted to set this cover apart from what’s out there and felt that because the catholic theme was so strong, showing the cross in an abstract kind of way made for an interesting visual.

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Killed version

 

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Killed version

 
I’m also very fond of the cover you made for Heidi Julavits The Vanishers. Do you have any shelved versions of it, that we might take a look at?

This cover started in a very different place from the final version. Initially I took an interest in photographing the Barcelona chair, and projecting the title on it to create a dimensional feel.

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Doubleday. Final version

 
After many iterations of this cover the author decided she wanted to focus on more of a feeling rather than a depiction of the story. I decided it would be fun and energetic to work on a layered floral collage, that better represented the multi-layered emotional impact of the novel. It was really fun to create this cover. I originally preferred the type knocking out in white from the art, but the publisher felt that using a color would have more impact so that’s how the final cover was printed.

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AD: Emily Mahon. Design: Ben Wiseman

 
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 Nan A Talese/Doubleday, Photo of cut paper lettering: Geoff Spear

 
What are your favorite graphic designers, specialized in book covers, and why?

Gabriele Wilson, Keith Hayes, Kelly Blair, Peter Mendelsund, Oliver Munday… the list goes on! They are all extraordinarily creative and ambitious with their approaches and I’m very lucky to work around such talent in my office in the Knopf Doubleday Art Department every day.

If you have cravings for more beautiful covers, visit Emily Mahon’s homepage. Don’t miss the designs she has made for The Modern Library Classics.

Ola Wihlke

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Interview: Alban Fischer on designing book covers

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Horse Less Press, 2015

I have made brief interviews with a few Swedish and American graphic designers I admire. I have asked somewhat similar questions, but interestingly enough the answers vary to a considerable degree. “It’s a hopeless question,” one of them answered, while another answered the same question with enthusiasm.

I really enjoy reading about how each and every one of them approach the task to make an excellent book cover, one of those that makes you want to snap up that book, not one of the others, immediately. Alban Fischer, author and graphic designer, have made several covers with that quality – beautiful, haunting, melancholic and nostalgic.

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Trnsfr Magazine, 2015

Fischer has designed covers for poetry and literary fiction for some of the finest American small presses, including Horse Less Press, YesYes Books and Birds, LLC. He has also designed magazines like Trnsfr and PANK. His portfolio is varied and very enjoyable to explore, some of my favorite covers have a layered quality to them, a depth that makes them visually captivating.

Fischer is the author of the poetry chapbook Status Area (Varmint Armature, 2011). His work has appeared in BlazeVox, Kindling, Past Simple, Thieves Jargon, amongst other publications. He is the founding editor of Trnsfr and he lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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Aforementioned Productions, 2014

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

I became a designer somewhat by accident. I’m a little wary of how that sounds, I must say; it seems blithe or capricious or something. Serendipitous, even. But I’ve certainly worked hard to make a career for myself. When I was young, I thought I’d grow up to be an artist. I’d discovered at an early age that I had a talent for drawing, for making things. I was even excused from handwriting exercises in school because I had such nice penmanship. The trade­off was that I’d clean erasers instead. (It’s funny—it occurs to me just now that this is something of a model for what my life is like now as a freelance designer.) I don’t think I had any real idea what an artist was, though, or what an artist did, exactly. I figured I’d just go on drawing things.

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Tiny Hardcore Press, 2014

Then, in my early teens I became a voracious reader, and discovered what I’d really wanted to do was write. So, naturally, in my twenties I began reading tons of literary journals, and submitting my work. And I thought, sort of vaguely, that maybe one day I’d start my own journal. And at thirty I did. Obviously, I knew I’d need someone to design the thing, but I didn’t know anyone. So I taught myself. Trnsfr was my education in design. At the time, though, I didn’t think of what I was doing as design. I just wanted to make something unique. A few years later, I was out of work for a brief period. It occurred to me that I’d developed through Trnsfr a number of contacts in indie publishing. I thought maybe I could get work doing layout for a small press or something. Luckily, there were a number of them that needed help. Some of them really responded to the look of Trnsfr, so I started doing book covers as well.

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Curbside Splendor, 2015

What purposes are book covers supposed to fill?

Well, obviously book covers were initially purely utilitarian. Dust covers were just that—meant to protect books from dust and whatnot. They’re now of  course a kind of art form unto themselves. Naturally, we want them to be pretty. And pretty certainly goes a long way, but we need them to do more than just look pretty. A lot more. They have to say, I have what you’re looking for. They’re advertisements. We also need to be able to trust them. So in a certain way a good book cover has to tell it straight. But in the most attractive way; it has to be astute. And book covers are a kind of visual shorthand for the book itself, for its contents. A designer has to be cognizant of that. And a cover has to be able to withstand that responsibility, that challenge. And when it does, it can sometimes itself become as iconic as the book it clothes.

When I think of one of the books that has always meant a great deal to me, Ulysses, I think of the cover—in this case the Gabler edition, with that beautiful design by Carin Goldberg (whose work I revere). And I think this is all the more underscored by the current age, with so many people buying their books online. Covers have to be more aesthetically concise than ever before. But I think they have to reward us too. Maybe like a validation of our taste and intelligence. People want to possess something that is really remarkable, something they can cherish. We need covers to reinforce our belief in a book’s power, that its contents are invaluable and truly meaningful (this extends to a book’s interior layout and production, too). You’re not impelled to pick up an ugly book.

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Arcadia, 2015

Are there differences between book covers and other kinds of graphic design? I think quite a few of your covers would work well as posters.

Absolutely. And certainly there are similarities. For instance, what I said about rewarding us, and the validation of taste. With any design—in whatever discipline—those are definitely concerns. But perhaps we view books as even more tied to our taste and intelligence as intellectual flags, signifiers, mirrors, projectors. We view them as communicating something deeper about who we are than, say, one’s choice of footwear. I know this all sounds a bit superficial, but at the same time, I think those concerns are important. Because these signifiers are communicating a certain truth. What a person wears obviously says a lot of things about him or her, but class and fashion can be cleared away. Intelligence, what we know, our moral core—these are something else altogether.

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Elixir Press, 2015

And I think the haptic nature of books informs their design to a greater degree: they don’t become what they are until we open them. Obviously, one could say that about a shirt, but a book keeps becoming a book, forever. Its stories don’t exist until we imagine them. And then, too, we want precious objects to feel good in the hand, but with books this feel also tells us something that is directly connected to the content of a book. Is it serious?, say; or is it light?

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Trembling Pillow Press, 2015

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.

I don’t—not really. Certainly no ritual, or at least nothing I would recognize or categorize as ritual. Maybe just that I don’t think a book cover should pander to easy expectations or simply be a patchwork of fashionable motifs. I don’t see why a work of genre fiction, for instance, should look a certain way or should follow a proscribed set of visual tropes. Design for me is more an intuitive process than anything. And I don’t see why those same tropes can’t be exploited or queered, too—even for genres with which they’re not customarily associated. I think tradition is important—hugely so. Without it, without a keen knowledge of it—and even respect for it—what do you have to push against, spring off from, broaden, or tear down? It’s heuristic, in a sense: paradigms can themselves be tools to dismantle other paradigms. As far as process is concerned, it is in many respects different for each book.

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YesYes Books, 2015

It seems most of my covers rarely resemble the original concept. Of course, I’ll read a book, take notes. Often the author or publisher has a few ideas or images they’d like me to do something with or keep in mind. Sometimes I’m given artwork to incorporate into the design. With some publishers, albeit rarely, I’m given carte blanche; with others, it’s a little more collaborative, in a way: they’ll like certain aspects of two different concepts, say, and ask that I merge them, or suggest a different angle I hadn’t thought of. And sometimes—also (very) rarely—I nail it the first round.

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PANK Magazine, 2015

You have made covers to small and cool niche magazines, like PANK Magazine and Arcadia Magazine, and to books from rather small presses oriented towards literary fiction, like Tiny Hardcore Press, YesYes Books and Birds, LCC. Looking at your work I see all kinds of different styles, from Dadaism and collage to very contemporary visual expressions, like the beautiful cover to Dolan Morgan’s recent story collection. Do you think that you enjoy a greater freedom than a graphic designer working exclusively for large presses?

I find it hard to apprehend my own “style.” A client will contact me and say they love my style or aesthetic or my sensibility. But it can be hard for me to see what that is. Or perhaps to see what they perceive it to be. I know how I don’t want something to look. Maybe a person’s style can be defined by what they choose to not do. I’ve wondered this about larger presses, whether I’d have less freedom with a major house. Perhaps one does have more freedom with an indie press. But I have no idea, I’ve no metric for that. I mean, it’s rare that I have a marketing or sales team to please, or a distributor. But I do have to deal with this too for a few of the presses I work for.

And while one might say I’ve created work in many different styles, I don’t think I’ve ever consciously tried to create anything in a certain style, unless asked to do so outright. I like to think I’m flexible. And I’m influenced by a lot things. Graffiti, for instance. Things that aren’t design—happy accidents— like the look of a casually laid stack of junk mail, even. Or completely utilitarian things, user manuals. But as a freelancer, I have to be flexible. Maybe that necessity is what accounts for the freedom one might see me as having as an indie designer.

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Horse Less Press, 2014

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

A cover I’m particularly proud of is James Tadd Adcox’s Does Not Love. There is a scene in the book in which one of the characters peruses online profiles of surrogate mothers. In all of the profile pictures, the women’s are eyes blacked out with a bar. Tadd wanted an image like that for the cover, and I believe even had a particular one in mind. Eventually, the editor on the project, Jacob Knabb, sent along the images you see on the book now. I wanted the placement of the text to work in the same way the black bars over the eyes would, to obscure identity, to give a sense of something hidden or verboten. The book has a lot to say about identity—identity in the context of a marriage. The book is about a lot of things—pharmaceuticals, paranoia, conspiracy theories, jealousy, infidelity, the American dream, the inviolable ideal of the nuclear family—and I needed the tone to encompass all of those things. So the images on the cover are somewhat classic, suggesting a more “proper” time in which our roles in our relationships and the world were, we imagine, more clearly defined. But I wanted the book to feel big, too. Because it does feel like a big novel, even though it is short (its dimensions are quite small, too). For Adcox’s first book, I placed a quote from the book on the spine, no author name or title, and I wanted a similar treatment for this one. I thought it would be interesting to have a pharmaceutical label on the spine. The mysterious pill one of the characters takes is called Milamor, so I thought it would be perfect to create a mock label for that. It would look sort of institutional and threatening, and seem a bit strange, which the book is—in the best of ways.

Ola Wihlke

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Hypnotiska animationer av 55 bokomslag från 60- och 70-talet

Ett varmt tack till Henning M. Lederer – animatör och grafisk designer – för att vi fick visa den här förtrollande videon. I ett mejl berättar han att han själv är förvånad över hur populär videon med de 55 animerade bokomslagen blivit. Den bygger trots allt på en enkel fråga: Hur skulle omslagen se ut om man animerade dem?

Lederer beskriver videon som ett typiskt projekt han gjort för sitt eget höga nöjes skull. Han säger att det på sätt och vis är en bra beskrivning av honom själv. Han gillar att sätta saker i rörelse och han tyckte att det var spännande att se hur den statiska designen fick liv.

Lederer utgick från omslag från 60- och 70-talet som han hittade på Montague Projects och Book Worship. Det är vetenskapliga titlar, vissa omslag har gjorts av kända grafiska designers men många är helt okända. De flesta av omslagen betraktades som ointressanta som samlarobjekt när de gavs ut. Nu har Lederer blåst liv i dem och deras geometriska former. Resultatet är en hypnotisk och smått unik visuell upplevelse.

Besök gärna Henning M. Lederers hemsida

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Machinatorium

Ola Wihlke

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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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