What happens when a book designer is totally stumped

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I find designing book covers to be tremendously difficult, and every time I start a new cover, my first thought is usually: Why on earth did I commit to this? Rarely do I find joy in this pursuit. I love the feeling of a perfect, beautifully finished cover in my hands, but getting there generally entails a long, hard journey.

When I’m lucky, a cover essentially designs itself—I read up on it, generate a few images, execute them, and one gets published! Designing Up Up, Down Down was not one of those times. I still consider it somewhat of a miracle that the final cover came out so nicely; looking at it brings back tortured memories of a painful process—a long, difficult exercise in “designy” design: a true exploration of concept, layout, color, and type. When I say exploration, picture not so much an expert explorer, but a hapless amateur, lost in the jungle, frantically trying every trick and tool they know, hoping and praying that one will be the way out. I am pretty sure lots of designers feel this way—or maybe it’s just me.

I tend to think I can have an intelligent opinion about most books I pick up. One of the things that drew me to book design is how much I like to pore over a book, pick it apart, pull out themes, discuss it, and dive deeply into it. It’s like a visual book report. But Up Up, Down Downstumped me. I read the entire manuscript, took tons of notes, made lots of sketches, and still closed the book wondering what the damn thing was about.

The text itself is a collection of short essays from one author. There was a lot of interesting subject matter. Normally I would relish rich visual material about amateur wrestling, UFO hunters, and skateboarding. But I couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to say with these pieces, especially when viewed as a whole. Essays would often start with what could almost be considered reporting, go straight into personal anecdote, and wind up circling the author’s anxieties about writing. I was stumped.

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