Archive for the 'Books' Category

What Do You Want To Do Before You Die?

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A worthy question. A crazy project.

The question doubles as the title for MTV’s The Buried Life‘s first book. If you gave up on MTV the way I did in college, I needed to be reminded (and a little restored) that every once in a great while, the channel puts out something with an interesting hook. So for the uninitiated, The Buried Life is a group of four friends from LA with a substantial bucket list. Such examples from the list include but are not limited to: playing basketball with Barack Obama, teaching an army of fire ants how to Dougie and streaking a football stadium. They ingeniously scored a way to get MTV to pay for their cross country travels (for at least one season), documenting the execution of these big list items one by one.

One item on the list, as it happened, was publishing a book. Since publishing a book makes for lousy TV, they teamed up with Artisan Books to make it happen. The resulting tome is an illustrated bucket list lending a kind of absurdist visual aid to 100 goals which they intend to accomplish before passing on.

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Myself, Chris Brand, Matthew Hollister, Ted McGrath, Oliver Munday and Jeff Scher were recruited by Kevin Brainard (who designed the book) to illustrate nearly all of the bucket list items page for page. The brief was, for me, the best kind of crazy. We each had to incorporate the list item typographically into each image using handmade means whenever possible. The images had to comment on the list item in question rather than simply reinforce their intent. Each image had to retain a sense of swift execution and immediacy–as if the image was conjured and illustrated as quickly as the corresponding thought was conceived. Of greatest significance to me was a specific request regarding execution. Because the aspirations on the list ranged from globally altruistic, to personal, to whimsy, to obnoxiously self-serving (i.e wanting to deliver someone else’s baby), we were asked to throw any kind of stylistic consistency out the window. Each image had to give the impression that it was being fostered from a different voice. That hooked me.

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The process was a little intense. Among the recruited illustrators, the full-time freelancers were given 30-40 list items to illustrate. Those of us who were pre committed to a full time job (like me) were given 20-25. The sheer number of items and concepts helped to fulfill the brief’s request that the images retained a sense of immediacy insofar as that all of us had to work as swiftly and as thoroughly as possible in order to keep pace and deliver on time. There wasn’t too much time to obsess on the details which made another component of the brief: that each image stand alone stylistically, a little easier to accomplish. Because we were working so fast, we became exclusively focused on the storytelling component of each image. If a wash of watercolor on canvas felt like a form-fitting solution to the item at hand but watercolors weren’t your technical strength, you had between 60 and 80 minutes to make your case, as your list was long and available time was short.

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In the end, some of my experiments were more successful than others. And even if certain images I worked on came up short in my own personal court of opinion, the opportunity to freewheel so thoroughly is rare enough that it’s tough to regard any one illustration I took a crack at as an out-and-out failure. Feelings on The Buried Life and MTV notwithstanding, the book is worth spending some time with just to see how much visual variety and inventiveness came from all of the contributors’ speed, imagination and instincts.

Three Books and a Book

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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

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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

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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

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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:

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson – Riverhead

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Art direction by Helen Yentus

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1. This book is equal parts hilarious and alarming. It should be read. I’m a slow reader and I polished this one off in two days between juggling work at Motown as well as other freelance assignments.

2. Jon Ronson wrote the book. He also wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats and is a guest commentator on This American Life on NPR. Although this is far from a thorough encapsulation, Ronson, in essence, profiles an imprisoned leader of a former foreign death squad, a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane and a wealthy power lusting CEO and arrives at some uncomfortable parallels with regards to how a psychopath (and psychopathy) is defined and applied in modern society. I am not a power lusting CEO, (nor am I leading a death squad, nor do I live in an asylum), but if I was hired to design this jacket based upon personal behaviors which matched the types of psychosis explored in the book, then things do not bode well for my domestic situation.

3. Riverhead did not skimp on the production touches for this one. They sprung for a combination gritty matte finish (which covers the white paper portions of the jacket) and a shiny gloss for the yellow/magenta “crazy” half, thereby giving your sense of touch a noticeable edge if you find yourself blindly scanning your shelf for this book in a dark room (which I have done). This treatment was handled beautifully. Thank you, Alex Merto.

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4. As is the case with most other incredibly rewarding projects, this one did not come together quickly. Helen and I explored enough directions that by the time we arrived at the final, predatory treatment which became the approved cover, we were both sufficiently confident that no stone had been left unturned. Helen’s guidance was key. Disregarding the wholly separate directions which we tried on, a sampling of different versions of the final direction are below.
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Various alternate comps

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After much as-yet-documented exploration, arriving at the bunny vs. jungle cat combination bore one of those rare moments of consensus in which designer, art director, publisher and author all shared equal enthusiasm for the final direction. Once all was approved, proofed, printed and bound, this unsolicited note from Jon definitely didn’t hurt:

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…and exhale.

The November Criminals by Sam Munson

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Art direction: John Gall

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The November Criminals by Sam Munson is a first-person account of resident smart-ass Addison Schacht: a self-loathing, pot peddling, hyper-articulate high school senior who enlists his best friend Digger (who he emphatically swears is not his girlfriend) to help investigate the mysterious death of a fellow student who was neither their friend nor their enemy. The story is told in the form of a lengthy protracted confessional college essay addressed to the admissions board at the University of Chicago.

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Between the overall mythos of high school, Addison’s verbal cadences as well as the story’s essay structure, this cover was a gift to design for. I handed my comps off to John one day, time passed and a few months later I was informed that we had an approval for the above cover with nary an art amendment requested. A sampling of other ideas I submitted in that round went like this:

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I kept waiting for a sudden, critical about-face from the publisher sending me back to the drawing board to grind out new ideas, but the moment never arrived. The good fortune in this instance all but assured that I will never have it so easy again in my life. To further cement this certainty, neither marketing, nor the editor nor the publisher seemed to mind when Addison hijacked their back cover copy with his leaky red marker either.

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Less Than Human

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Final cover: Art direction and design by Jason Ramirez

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Mr. Jason Ramirez at St. Martin’s Press contacted me a short while back about this book cover with an extremely succinct brief for Less Than Human: “DEHUMANIZATION. SLAVERY. OPPRESSION. HUMAN VIOLENCE. TREAT IT LIKE AN OP/ED. GO!

Actually, he was substantially more calm and thorough than my paraphrasing above would suggest. I only heard it that way as I was in the middle of an extended traveling jag which had me on planes, trains and/or buses for eight weekends straight and as a side effect of moving seemingly all of the time, I began processing emails faster than I do on average. Travel insanity aside, passing up an opportunity to work with Jason struck me as a roundly ridiculous idea so I accepted and we were off to the races.

Jason’s initial idea for this cover was to treat the jacket as a ripped-from-the-headlines styled op/ed newspaper layout and asked me to come up with ideas for simple, direct illustrations which would support the suggestion of dehumanization. I knew to a certainty that working on an illustration for a book cover was going foster my own opinions about the application of type regardless of whether or not it was my anointed task, so Jason graciously agreed to let me submit my own type treatments for the cover in addition to his principal concept while sharing the illustrations. I was in airports for the majority of our initial correspondence, so I ended up scribbling ideas on the plane:

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To my own great aid, the direction of the sketches were given the go ahead quickly, so I worked up some semi-complete sketches which enabled both of us to experiment on various directions. Jason forged ahead with the op/ed direction (the comps of which I would post if I still had them, as they looked both awesome and completely different than what I had imagined when he told me the idea). A sampling of my own comps, traditional by comparison, are below:

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(The head-as-shackle concept was totally Jason’s idea).
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Although both of our batches of comps were cut away throughout the various rounds of approvals, the idea of the shattered hand which we had at the very beginning would prove to have enough traction to endure through to the final approved cover which Jason designed. Through measured, professional collaboration and conversation were were able to achieve the visage of rank, putrid, godless human debasement which we had sought all along. Dehumanization accomplished.

30 Covers / 30 Days – Day 7

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It’s difficult to overstate the amount of design talent involved in the 30 Days / 30 Covers component of National Novel Writing Month this year, (the full list of participating designers is here), so there was no small bit of honor and slackening of the jaw when I was invited to take part. Despite having navigated any number of rush assignments in the past, this felt to me like an intimidating project—largely on account of having to show my own results alongside the results of the outsized talent featured on that list.

Therefore, after a 24 hour scramble, including an impromptu visit to the florist, my submission for Chasia Eidson’s The Impersonal Business of Death was posted along with her manuscript’s essential plot points over the weekend. Mucho thanks to Chasia for providing me with such a juicy premise to pick apart and to John Gall for putting me in the game.

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