We are not supposed to judge books by their covers, but I do whenever I see a book. If I have to choose between two similar books, I always go for the one with the most appealing cover. And if a cover is appealing enough, I might get the book without knowing much else about it. Jeff Clark, poet and graphic designer, makes covers that grabs my attention in this way – they make me want to hold the book and leaf through its pages. Some of them would be brilliant as posters.
Clark designs covers for several publishers, among them Farrar, Straus & Giroux, University of Minnesota Press, Wave Books and he design all the covers for Ahsahta Press. For this blog post I have selected 20 covers that Clark has designed for Wave Books and Ahsahta Press, two cool independent publishers specialized in poetry.
Juxtaposing covers made for these two publishers shows that Clark can move effortlessly between minimalism with beautiful type and more extravagant and colorful designs. Clark has, I think, contributed immensely to the visual identity of both Wave Books and Ahsahta Press. I had the opportunity to ask him a few brief questions.
You are a poet and you design covers mostly for poetry books. What’s the difference between designing covers for poetry books and, let’s say, academic studies from University of Minnesota Press?
– It turns out that—usually—I have more design autonomy when I work on a book for Minnesota than I do on the average poetry book. I think this has something to do with the fact that the average poet believes they have a good visual sense, so that when they submit their manuscript to the publisher, they will often submit their artwork ideas. In my experience, it’s not often that these design ideas are strong. A publisher like Minnesota, however, has a staff of design and production people who understand that all a designer needs are:
1) the manuscript
2) a general, non-restrictive design brief
Do you have a relatively large artistic freedom when you design for Wave Books and Ahsahta Press? Is your approach different when you design their respective covers?
– I do. Wave’s house style for book covers is black ink and type only, on uncoated, natural cover stock. Beyond that, I’m free to do anything.
– With Ahsahta I’m also fairly unfettered. Roughly half the time, though, manuscripts come to me with specific design/artwork ideas from authors. I need to either try and use them, or demonstrate by way of alternative concepts, why these directives aren’t worth exploring.
Could you please describe your work – how you work, the environment, if you listen to music – when it’s most fun and rewarding?
– Once my daughter is off to school, circa 7:00 a.m., I hit the decks. I work in the main room of my studio, and in the studio I’ve also built out rooms for photography and screenprinting, as well as a woodshop with a spray booth. Most of the art I use for book covers is made here. I listen to music when I’m typesetting pages, but not much when I’m trying to design.
– The work is most rewarding when I get to witness an author’s pleasure in my design—I live for that. It’s funnest when a client’s attitude is like: fuck everything we know about normative book design; just go for it. In those situations, I tend to work very minimally, or sometimes very messily.
– But where things get really fulfilling for me is when I’m designing for free for activist groups like RAW or Keep Ypsi Black or when I’m cutting stencils and spray painting signs for the street. My grounding is in the design of printed literary books, but it turns out that working with type for 20 years has really just been preparation for doing pro bono work for the people.