Archive for March, 2012

Three Books and a Book


New book covers! Which is to say that they’ve been in work for a while and are now seeing the light of day all at once.

First off: The Taliban Shuffle, above, is another take on the U.S.’ epic snafus in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it’s a twentysomething memoir in form. Kim Barker, who at the time was a freshly minted war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, recalls how she was drawn to the conflicts in the region in part as a means to avoid making her big, twentysomething life decisions back in the states. As she becomes more and more seduced by the lifestyle and drama of living like a first-hand war junkie, she gets as fixated on partying and casual dating in the warzone as she is with witnessing the gradual self implosion of both countries.

The book tows a tragicomic line between one of the biggest military blunders of our time and a young writer’s confessional. It’s funny except when it isn’t.

Art direction: John Gall


Next up: Black Cool for Soft Skull Press. The book is an anthology curated by author Rebecca Walker which pools a not insignificant grouping of black writers and artists (dream hampton, Hank Willis Thomas, bell hooks and Dawoud Bey among others), each of whom contribute an essay offering up their respective takes on how and why black people are cool.

More specifically, they each seek to define what makes the singularity of ‘black’ coolness so distinct.

This project was intimidating in every respect. Primarily, Rebecca assembled an inspired group of contributors to write about something which, by her own admission, was not something that could (or theoretically should) be articulated with words.

Secondly, I am white. Also, Jewish. Design credentials notwithstanding, I had a near-impossible time bestowing any confidence in any visual for the cover which I felt could serve as a catch-all representation of an inimitable essence of culture which belonged to a group of people of which my shared history is thin. Even if I thought I landed on the right treatment, who was I to declare it was the right treatment?

This kind of thinking gave way to an internal stalemate in which I would automatically presume any idea I initially thought was worthy to be wrong because I instinctively thought it had merit. I attempted to circumvent said stalemate by designing comps with specific formal rules. Some would be type only and others would be image only. The ones which had a more traditional type/image combination were ultimately rejected outright, which I count as a good thing. One particular experiment which I allowed myself to get excited about for a second or two involved a completely black cover with all of the text printed with a clear gloss varnish save for the word ‘Cool.’ Alas, no-go.

While I’m personally very happy that the author and publisher favored the stark type treatment which won out, it’s been hard to shake the suggestion that a book which celebrates an indescribable, uncategorizable “something”, shouldn’t have text on it at all. Or maybe I’m wrong. Still thinking on that one.

Art direction: Rebecca Walker, Denise Oswald and Laura Mazer


With a book on race following a book on war, the book on politics naturally follows the book on race. Herding Donkeys by Ari Berman charts how the slow groundswell of small Democratic grassroots organizations scattered across the country in the early 00’s grew to mobilize Howard Dean’s presidential run in 2004. The lessons both good and bad from which were not lost on Obama’s campaign strategists in 2008. Berman frames the events to demonstrate how small satellite organizations were able to enact real activity and sway in an election year (which, in retrospect, paved the way for the kind of leaderless activism like Occupy Wall St. which we’re seeing more and more of now). One of the blurbs on the back of the book compares Berman’s data crunching based narrative to the same kind of storytelling employed in The Social Network, and that’s not far off. A thorough, data-backed reminder that elections are about a helluva lot more than the candidates and their platforms. Designed for Picador.

Art direction: Henry Sene Yee


And then there’s Religion For Atheists.

The jacket copy distills Alain de Botton’s new one nicely:

What if religions are neither all true nor all nonsense? [de Botton] argues that the supernatural claims of religion are entirely false, but that…rather than mocking religion, agnostics and atheists should steal from it—because the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on…how to, among other concerns, build a sense of community, make our relationships last, overcome feelings of inadequacy, inspire travel and reconnect with the natural world.

Art director and general design superfreak Peter Mendelsund at Pantheon discussed this project with me under the terms of a kind of Devil’s bargain (pun emphatically not intended). He invited me to go hog wild with whatever elaborate jacket materials I could think of (which was great), but as the cover was a rush, he needed to see comps in one week (which was great’s opposite). So I had a somewhat trying week.

At the end of said week, and with a few additional nips and tucks, we arrived at an idea which made literal the expression of ‘poking holes’ through a belief system. We elected to create a recognizable bible cover and punch a hole straight through it. To better simulate the impression of a leather bound bible, we texture embossed the jacket and gold foil stamped the front and spine with a huge production assist from Pantheon designer Linda Huang. In holding firm to the rule of die-cuts that they’re pointless without a payoff, we wrapped the case of the hardcover under the jacket like so:

de Botton’s approach to this material is in no way snarky, mocking or dismissive. All the same, I have not yet personally confirmed with Pantheon the extent to which they anticipate public condemnations, protests outside the office and/or letterbombs. The man himself offered up his own personal bottoms-up to that point last week on Twitter: