Secret 7″, Record Store Day & Roxy Music


Here was a perfect reason to work for free.

I was invited to participate in the epic Secret 7″ project this year. The organization solicits wordless art to pair with 7″ sleeves which are then auctioned off as mystery singles on Record Store Day with all of the proceeds going toward a charity chosen annually. The charity benefitting from the sales of this year’s auction will be going to War Child Syria—which is fantastic for existing and also abominable that it still needs to.

The only ground rules the contributors were issued going in was to choose one song from seven possible titles and produce an image that could allude to the track on the vinyl in question without giving it away. No band names or track titles were permitted on the sleeves. Every 7″ was auctioned off anonymously and bid upon solely by the merits of the art on the sleeve. The recipients had no idea what music they bought until they opened the package.

I was given the option of choosing between seven different songs to design for and I opted to take a crack at Roxy Music’s Virginia Plain—which, in addition to being a perfect piece of music, can also stand alongside the best of the absurdist pop greats with lyrics that manage to be inscrutable without sounding off-putting or phoned in. In that spirit, for the imagery I wantonly and aggressively ripped off the stylings of Tadanori Yokoo and Keiichi Tanaami. From an art-making perspective, it was one of the most selfish exercises I’d tried out in years and I’m only mildly ashamed to say that I loved the process of trying to wrangle my way into another artist’s skin. Such catharsis.

Here is a complete list of this year’s contributors and their monster gallery of everything they commissioned this year. It’s worth digging through if you have the time as there’s some legitimate invention on display (which is more than I can say for my thievery).

Books, Talking, Agony & Occasional Fun


I’ll be speaking at the Type Director’s Club on Thursday, 3/13 as part of their annual Book Night with cover design heavyweights Megan Wilson and Jim Tierney. At which time I will likely be wondering aloud why something as difficult and demanding and heartbreaking as designing book covers remains fun and somehow inspiring. As far as I know, this is not intended as a roast. Though I can’t be surprised if it ends up that way. Details and registration are here.

I’ll be sharing horror stories, victories and how art direction and illustration inform my approach to designing covers and vice versa. Among them, some background behind a few recent projects which are coming out soon if not already:

For Soft Skull Press.
A collection of black comedic short stories about death. Or at least they’re told to ease the creeping certainty of death’s persistent advance. Any laughter is commensurate with your personal abilities of disassociation.

For Pantheon. Art direction: Peter Mendelsund.
Alain de Botton argues that the artless monotony of news delivery misses the chance to engage people the way true storytelling can. Working at a newspaper myself, I have complicated feelings about this.

For Viking. Art direction: Paul Buckley. Photo: Godlis.
If I ever score another book project as close to my heart as this it will likely involve bribery or something worse. Alex Chilton’s & Big Star’s music has been lining the inner wall of my ribcage ever since The Replacements tipped me off to them in high school. As a matter of course I try to keep personal attachments off the table when designing, but it gives me no secret selfish happiness to have my handwriting on the jacket for a book about one of the guys who’s music helped get me through high school, college, my post-college 20′s, half of my post-college 30′s and last night.

For Verso. Art direction: Andy Pressman
A new account of the oil industry’s backdoor movers & shakers and how they are, in their singular way, vampires of the land raping the soil for what remaining natural resources we have—and why those businessmen and this business have made us all dependent and complicit. A comedy.

See you next week.

Inequality and Sex

The title of this post is only just misleading enough to leave it be and go with it. I do have images to show concerning inequality and sex, but not together.

Art direction: Nicholas Blechman


The picture above was done for the Book Review a few weeks back for a review that David Leonhardt wrote about Angus Deaton’s new book, The Great Escape, which by Leonhardt’s account is an optimistic-while-sober account of how the inequality gap has narrowed over centuries and how that history should be mined for reconciling inequality’s present condition. This illustration found life on account of having the dumbest of dumb luck to discover separate engravings well over a century old of one very rich man and one very poor man sitting in my overstuffed files at home. Like the header promised: sexy, right?



This one—about whether or not sex can really, truly be counted as exercise—was done for the magazine in early December. Whether omitted for space constraints or for a good, old-fashioned benefit of the doubt, the writer gratefully declined to entertain any remote notion that just lying there during such a congress merited any such measurement. Personal trainers and one night stands all over the world can rejoice in a glad-hearted, communal high five.

Art direction: Jason Sfetko

The Tyranny of Strategy


Here is an illustration about over-dependence on strategic planning for the December issue of the Harvard Business Review. The text opens with an argument that Satan, while rhetorically gifted, wasn’t much of a planner. I don’t know how anyone illustrating anything which contains even a passing mention of Satan is supposed to gravitate toward anything or anyone else.

Art direction: Karen Player

New Book Covers: Dysevolution and Decay


Art direction: Megan Wilson (!)


Earlier this year, I worked on two different book covers about our decaying planet and our decaying bodies simultaneously from the same publishing house. I won’t be reading into that.

So, Ten Billion. Here is a book which addresses the overpopulation concern with actual science and the barest language possible to elucidate how wholly fucked we are. That is a paraphrase, but the f-bomb is straight from the author. In the few rants about population concerns that I’d read prior to this, the matter of whether or not to have children when faced with such alarming data was either sidestepped or conveniently framed out of the argument in play. Not so here. He makes a sad, sober argument against procreating despite the instincts he plainly acknowledges to be innate in everyone. It’s not an upper but you can’t say he doesn’t cover his bases.

This all-type solution that was ultimately chosen for the front matter started making a lot more sense when I saw how bold and direct the design by Heather Kelly was for the inside.





Here is book #2:


Art direction: Peter Mendelsund


Here is a slightly less depressing book about, among other things, how technology has begun to coddle our bodies to such an extent that we’ve begun slowly devolving. Beyond those negatives, it does stand as a substantial account of evolution—particularly bipedalism—which is what inspired me to roll my feet in ink one fateful night and make actual human footprints for what would eventually become the chosen direction for the cover. A computer screen will do insufficient justice to the harsh neon orange that the foot is printed with to underscore the conflict between natural and unnatural changes within the body. Peter Mendelsund took a brief reprieve from being a general design ninja in order to broker this concept on the behalf of me and my foot.

American Illustration Live Cover Project


A few weeks back, I was invited (and honored) to participate in American Illustration’s gonzo live cover project. And I couldn’t.

The project involved a groundswell of illustrators congregating in the AI office over a weekend to hand-paint/hand-draw/hand-assemble the covers of a special edition of the annual in which 280 books were produced without any art on the front. I had non-postponable plans which took me out of the city for that weekend. A bummer. Fortunately, my laments to Mark Heflin spurred both him and the annual’s creative director, Richard Turley, to work out a separate arrangement wherein they shipped me 10 copies of the finished annual a week out from the live event and I worked on them after hours at night during the week leading up to it.

Had I been able to participate in the actual live event, I would have had roughly 7 hours to produce hand-made art for at least 10 books—meaning that the artists who were in attendance had roughly 35-40 minutes to work on each cover before their day was done. Since I worked on mine from home over a series of days, my terms were entirely different. I had the benefit of having the daylight hours to plan a few things through before going to work, but I also had the disadvantage of having to grind this stuff out nightly after already putting in a full day at the office. While my time and means were equally limited (albeit in a different way), I think it’s safe to say that anyone participating in the live event in a single day had a much more rigorous endurance challenge to overcome than I did. Still, I closed out that week with both a gently flowering sore throat as well as a newfound appreciation for loosening up and silencing the domineering voice in my brain which makes me over-think every. Gestural. Decision.

Our one guiding direction from Richard and Mark, loose though it was, was that each cover somehow involve the human figure. Because I had a different set of time constraints from the live participants, I decided to give myself two additional parameters for my covers:

1. Every cover is handled in a different style.
2. Every cover pursues a different idea.



Taken in the framework of an exam and grading like a stickler, I would have scored myself with an 80%. I used ink, collage, acrylic, construction paper, a red sharpie, a Chartpak blender marker, a mini-bible and a working zipper to cover what I consider to be a respectable stylistic range out of these, but my ideas kept coming from a similar point of departure. Namely, the odd mixture of pride and envy I wrestle with on the occasions that I’ve been able to see my own work in these books alongside others’ output that’s so inventive and superior it makes me want to quit. So pride and envy were my departure points.

Time after time, I kept landing on ideas about noses and cutting them in the interest of spiting the face and reconciling pride’s false end. When I ran out of interesting things to say about pride and cutting noses, I drifted toward ideas based around sloth and self pity before devolving into what became a fairly direct crossroads between virtue and sin inspired by a tiny bible which had been handed to me in the subway under Times Square by a complete stranger. Why a solid third of these images carried such a significant Biblical slant, I do not know.




Progression-wise, the ideas became much more varied and untethered the less time I had to work on them. The longer I worked on these things individually (see Nancy Reagan, up at the very top), the less time I had for the remaining editions. The less time I had for the remaining editions, the more slack I allowed my narrative reasoning to be. The more slack I allowed my narrative reasoning to be, the more likely I was to indulge a clown for a clown’s sake.


Or treat the cover the way I treat one of my sketchbooks:


Or unceremoniously elect to rip off Andy Warhol entirely, glue a zipper onto the front board and turn the book’s title into an unsightly pubic zone.


Or, at 1:00 AM, deciding to abandon any remote narrative pretense and paint an ostrich with a human hand with the remaining acrylics I had left. I mean, sure.


Painting an ostrich with Dr. Seuss’ palette at 1:00 AM on a school night while streaming episodes of How I Met Your Mother on loop just so I could hear other human voices in the apartment to provide an illusion of grounding while the part of my brain which provides measured, rational evaluations of intent every five minutes took a long-delayed nap was sufficient enough evidence for me to prove that the project helped me to break at least one or two of my traditional illustration practices, if only for a short while. Grateful to have been asked to take part.

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