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Ahlawat Gunjan on the art of designing book covers, and why he loves experimenting with fonts

(From firstpost. Read full article at the link below.)

Ahlawat Gunjan, the design head of Penguin Random House India, has had a prolific career thus far; he has designed over 200 book covers. After having studied graphic design at the National Institute of Design, the maverick designer did his Master’s from The Glasgow School of Art. In this conversation with Firstpost, he talks about latest work — a series of covers for a box set of Premchand’s works, which have been appreciated for the subtle use of imagery and colors.

Was it a passion for design that led you to become a book designer?

In my case, I think it was purely accidental. I started off by working at Hidesign in Pondicherry as a graphic designer. I moved back to Delhi in 2006 and joined Dorling Kindersley. While at DK, I freelanced for Penguin with a cover, and this turned out to be the first of many. I then decided to move to Penguin, but I was always clear that I wanted to study further. I realised that my heart lies in creating book designs while pursuing my Master’s at the Glasgow School of Arts. This passion for books bagged me a job at Faber and Faber in London.

How do you ideate and settle in on the color, pattern, fonts and design?

While there is a process and parameters involved in designing a book cover, I think one needs to observe and listen, above all. You need to hear the echo in an author’s words and with your skill set, lend a visual personality to them. Also, it is quite an intuitive process and has a lot to do with one’s understanding of the subject at hand. But the one rule that I always stick to is to design, not decorate!

For me, fonts are the most important ingredient in cover design, and getting them right is very crucial. Choosing the right font is a sort of sensory experience. For example, you cannot use an Archie comics font for a book like Indica, and vice versa. It’s a marriage between the image and the typography. I do have ones I am partial to. For example, I’m currently hooked to ‘Baskerville’ and ‘Garamond’. I’ve used ‘Gotham’ and ‘Archer’ for a long time. Whether it’s the title, author, or sub-title, these particular fonts do find ways to sneak in somewhere. Font defines an image, too. There are different ways in which a designer can use the same font, just by playing with size, color, and letter case.

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What happens when a book designer is totally stumped

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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