Goodreads App: Back from the Dead

This summer, during an effort to streamline the apps on my phone and organize them in a more coherent way, I decided to finally get rid of my Goodreads app. It made me sad, but honestly, I never used it.

Goodreads is one of those products that I want to love. It’s right up my alley, using technology to enhance the reading experience in new ways. It’s focus on the social aspects reading—the shared experiences created by reading books, recommending books, talking about books, and discovering new books, is awesome. I love it. I religiously update my profile online every time I finish a new book.

But that Goodreads iPhone app was not great. I was really not a fan of their brown-on-brown-on-brown color scheme, and it was kind of clunky to use, with its opening screen taking me from my iPhone homepage to a second homepage of Goodreads app-like icons that seemed to head off into their own worlds. In addition to these icons, there were five navigational options along the bottom bar, and along the top, a Search Bar and Messages and Updates indicators. There were so many options, a lot of which I wasn’t interested in, that it felt more overwhelming rather than enticing me to use it. It didn’t help that the app seemed buggy and was constantly logging me out.

the old Goodreads homepage

So I was thrilled when I learned recently (thanks to this TechCrunch article), about the Goodreads app redesign. Glad for the excuse to give their app another try, I immediately re-downloaded it from iTunes App Store. Upon opening it I was greeted with this elegantly simple What’s New page:

Goodreads UpdateUnfortunately they have stuck to their brown-shtick (only so much you can do about branding), but aesthetically I’m a fan of the simple line-icons, layout and clean typography that is much more inline with the new iOS style. Tapping “Get Started” took me to their new Home screen which is perhaps the best improvement in the new app—instead of a landing page of “app” icons, I was immediately shown content in the form of a newsfeed. This is similar to the Goodreads website experience, and makes so much sense, as it is bringing the focus of the app back to social activity.

Outside of the new Home screen experience, a lot of the functionality has been simplified to focus on key interactions, but remains fundamentally the same. Previously there were five icons along the bottom,and now there are four: Home (the Newsfeed), My Books, Search, Scan, and More (which hides all the extra less-frequently-used functionality previously found on the homepage). At the top of the screen, the Messages and Updates notifications have been removed, leaving only the Search Bar. Even this is a little unnecessary, considering that there is also a Search Icon on the bottom, and I might be tempted to get rid of it, perhaps replace it with some sort of title or branding.

All in all I think this redesign has made a significant difference to the app experience. Goodreads hasn’t done anything groundbreaking or really actually exciting from a design perspective. What is exciting about it is that they’ve *finally* released a redesign that is a significant improvement over their previous app design, and they did a pretty good job with it. It has definitely increased the usefulness of the app for me, resulting in it once again earning a place in the reading section of my phone.

The reading section of my phone

Use Your Words! The Creative Typography of Ben Wiseman

I recently discovered a mini treasure trove of book covers designed by Ben Wiseman (view his portfolio). He seems to be best known for bold, simple graphic illustrations, but I was completely bowled over by his typographic book covers. These covers focus on the creative design of the letterforms, and imbue the titles themselves with subtle significance and a sense of visual delight.

I was impressed with his creativity and the range of styles that he was able to bring to this collection of book covers. From clean, vector san-serifs for The Shallows to rough, textured, hand-painted letterforms for The Melting Season, Wiseman brings rich visual detail and attention-grabbing graphics that are appropriate to each title. I also love his bright color palettes—a skill he no doubt honed as an illustrator, Wiseman’s color combinations bring a fun energy to the typography. These six are some of my favorites:

 

I came across a fun interview with Ben Wiseman talking about his career and design process. It was interesting to read his thoughts on what makes a good cover, and his favorite examples of this artform:

“A great book jacket is one that makes you pick it up. It can be a great photo or a great illustration or just a great concept. But the best ones are the ones that stop you in the store and make you look. As for favourites, I love Paul Rand’s cover for HL Menken’s Prejudices and Alvin Lustig’s Lorca.”

You can how these two covers, with their hand-drawn type and bold, arresting style, have influenced Wiseman’s work.

Another part of the interview that I enjoyed was about his process. Wiseman is thorough and reads the whole book to brainstorm ideas, but he also places an admirable faith in “happy accidents”to get to his final design:

“I always read the book, and spend the whole time bouncing ideas around in my head. Usually I might have a couple of ideas halfway through the book, and usually those won’t go anywhere. But once I’ve sat with the book for a while, and thought about it for a few days, things usually start coming together. And after I start working, there are hopefully some happy accidents that occur.”

Looking at Wiseman’s  book covers I was also interested to note that he submitted a cover for John Bertram’s Recovering Lolita project that I wrote about in a previous post, Lo. Lee. Ta. A Collection of Covers. This cover is a combination of an obsessive, hand-written “Lolita” over and over, censored and hidden by black marks and a clean, white ripped paper with the author’s name. Appropriately intriguing, foreboding and an unsettling combination of innocent and dark that hints at the themes of the book without revealing too much. And, once again, very much type-centric.

Lolita

While I think Wiseman has made a name for himself mostly through his illustration, I will certainly be keeping my eye out for more of his great typographic covers in the future.

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More Information about the Book Covers:

The Melting Season: paperideas.it/paperzine/news/4140-Ben_Wiseman,_book_jacket_designer,_New_York

The Shallows: bookcoverarchive.com/book/the_shallows

The Collective: flickr.com/photos/wwnorton/7296881744

The Tragedy of Arthur: isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?368149

And Then There’s This: bookcoverarchive.com/book/and_then_theres_this

Epigenetics: flickr.com/photos/wwnorton/5704006427

Lolitathebookoftheday.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/lolita/

Four Years in a Book

Dear Readers,

My sincerest apologies in having been so neglectful in writing these last few months. I have been incredibly busy finishing my MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) in Graphic Design, and sacrificed a lot of my favorite pastimes—including gardening, watching movies, and unfortunately, writing blog posts—in order to do so. But the deed is done, my diploma in hand, and I am back!

One of the final steps in graduating, as a designer, is to put together a portfolio of the work I did over these last four years. While the vast majority of people view design portfolios online, and when I go to interviews all I really ever show is my portfolio website on my iPad, we are still required to also create a beautifully designed portfolio book to showcase our work. And I have to say—despite it being less relevant than it used to be, I’m really glad to have my work collected in such a lovely, bound anthology. There is something about the heft of a book, the texture of a page, and going through all those projects one page after another, that gives a certain feeling of gravitas to my work. For all its versatility and accessibility, the online portfolio just doesn’t quite capture that same feeling.

Working Magic: TOCI had a lot of fun designing my portfolio book. I am interested in digital design and book design, and I love both cutting edge design developments as well as the history and tradition of design going back to the days before set type and the printing press, so I tried to bring that juxtaposition of modern design and design heritage into my portfolio. I chose an old-fashioned blackletter typeface and a modern sans serif, I found layout inspiration in the simplicity of pages from illuminated manuscripts, and tracked the project number in the upper right corner in a visual style that echoes the step by step indicator in software wizards. In general, I tried to exemplify my personal style, with clean and elegant layouts, lots of white space, bright colors and  little details that add fun and a bit of interest to the simplicity.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Capable of Working Magic, my portfolio design was inspired in part by a quote from Carl Sagan. In it, he talks about the power of books to communicate and bring together people from different epochs, which to him seems “proof that humans are capable of work magic.” I love that quote for many reasons, and in particular for how it seems to really express delight in design.  This idea of delightful design is something I value, and wanted to emphasize throughout my portfolio.

Working Magic-IntroductionWorking Magic-quoteOne of the challenges to creating a beautiful, professional book is figuring out how to present the rough stuff—the process, the sketches, the drafts—in a way that doesn’t look jarring next to the polished finished work. One technique I used was to put the wireframes or sketches on a navy background, sometimes with little notes scrawled on the edges to show thought process and development.

WorkingMagic-wireframesWorkingMagic-LogoSketchesAnother fun design challenge was designing my portfolio website. For all that I love my portfolio book, at the end of the day my website is more important. The challenge with the website was to create an interactive, responsive, screen-viewing experience that had the same aesthetic as the physical 8×10 printed book that I designed. This meant the same typography styles and color scheme, and a simple, clean layout that referenced the layouts I used in the book, but adapted for the web viewing experience, taking into account things like the ability to scroll and needing to look good on screen sizes changing from a large desktop to a potential employer’s small smartphone.

Working Magic-Chap1

PortfolioWebsiteIf you are interested in viewing more of my portfolio book, you can find it online on issuu, and my online portfolio is at www.rebecca-wright.com.

Gabriel García Márquez Ha Muerto

A great man died today. Gabriel García Márquez gave the world some amazing stories—stories filled with imagination and poignancy, that blurred the line between human reality and the fantastically impossible.

Gabriel García Márquez

The New York Times shares:

The Magus of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez — who died on Thursday at his home in Mexico City, at the age of 87 — used his fecund imagination and exuberant sleight of hand to conjure the miraculous in his fiction: plagues of insomnia and forgetfulness, a cluster of magical grapes containing the secret of death, an all-night rain of yellow blossoms, a swamp of lilies oozing blood, a Spanish galleon marooned in a Latin American jungle, cattle born bearing the brand of their owner. (read more)

While I can’t call One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera my absolute favorite books, those stories captured my imagination and stuck with me far longer than most, and they left their mark on our culture.

In honor of his work and his life, I’m taking a quick break from my thesis to share a collection of covers for his books:

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Gabriel García Márquez

Capable of Working Magic

I’m in the process of putting together my final portfolio for my MFA and looking around for ways to communicate my design beliefs, so I’ve been reading a lot more quotes than usual. There are two that have really stuck with me, one that speaks to the sheer delight and amazing capabilities of books and another that speaks to the purposeful nature of design, and I like them so much I thought I’d share.

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

The first is from Carl Sagan, an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author. He clearly had a great passion and respect for the capabilities of science and technology, a deep-seated wonder at our world and the way it works, and an appreciation for books. Those qualities are shown in the following quote, where he describes the incredible power of books:

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”—Carl Sagan

That quote just gets me. It really captures how truly incredible books are. I remember thinking a very similar thing (albeit not quite so eloquently) in high school when I was reading Plato’s Apology. Our class was carefully analyzing the subtle points of Plato’s logic, and I remember sitting back for a second and thinking, This guy has been dead for 2,300+ years, more time than I can really grasp, and yet his thoughts are here, today, in this book in front of me. So many people have thought about and debated his ideas for literally millenia, ever since he originally wrote them down. How crazy is that!

And the designer in me today loves Sagan’s description of writing—”lots of funny dark squiggles.” So often people overlook the importance of typography because they take it completely for granted that these black shapes on a page, or on a screen in our case, have a meaning that is decipherable to people. How did a circle become the letter “o”, that can be used next to two perpendicular lines (“t”) to create a word “to” that has so many meanings and helps hold sentences together? It’s amazing, when you sit down and really think about it.

But one thing to remember is that quote by Sagan was from his 1980 tv show and book, Cosmos, when there was no such thing as a Kindle, an iPad, or an ebook. The first personal computer was released by Apple in 1984, and the great wave of technology that has completely changed the shape of reading has all come since Sagan originally described the magic of books.

Cosmos-older edition

So I hope he’ll forgive us if we take the liberty of expanding the meaning of his quote to refer to the many different ways that thoughts are expressed by their authors and conveyed out to the greater world. Today, that amazing ability is accomplished not just by “a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts” but also by screens of all shapes that support ebooks, and really the very many different reading and publishing platforms available, including this post published on the internet via WordPress.

We could argue about whether platforms like Twitter, which allow people to author only very concise “books,” should be included, but if you are willing to admit Hemingway’s famous six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) counts, then I think Twitter must also be included.

You could argue that really what captured Sagan’s imagination and appreciation is the longevity of the thoughts in the form of a book, and how they can connect people from distant epochs, and therefore today’s technology doesn’t count as it will probably not be accessible 2,000 years from now. In fact, its a pretty safe bet that even 20 years from now technology will have so thoroughly changed that many things will no longer be accessible (floppy disk, anyone?). But not all writing has lasted that long, and many authors works have been lost over the centuries. It’s always been a process of saving and passing along only the best works of literature, and that is the same challenge we face today, just with a much larger magnitude of written work.

So I, for one, would like to extend Sagan’s wonder at books and the power of written communication to include the many different innovative forms of ebooks and digital communication popular today.

Paola Antonelli

Paola Antonelli, curator for architecture and design at MOMA

The second quote by Paola Antonelli is related, but talks about design as a whole, and how design is fundamentally about caring how something works, not just what it looks like.

“People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.”—Paola Antonelli

In relationship to books, this mean that it’s all well and good if the cover looks great, but fundamentally what’s important about the design of a book is how the format of the book accomplishes its goal, namely, getting someone to pick it up and be able to read and understand it. To enable what Sagan loves: “across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.”It means, for ebooks, that all the flashy interactivity in the world is useless, and in fact detrimental, if it doesn’t somehow serve to improve the reading experience.

And this to me is the amazing challenge of design. How do you design something that makes people’s lives better? How do you use the tools of aesthetics, of typography, of color theory, of all sorts of “cognitive science” and “beauty” that Antonelli talks about, and perhaps more than ever today, use the tools of technology to design something that “the world didn’t know it was missing?”

What a lofty, and yet worthwhile challenge! Could a designer ever hope to accomplish anything better than to give the world something it didn’t know it was missing?

What Should a Book Cover Be?

Obviously, a book cover needs to provide structure and protection for the book. But what is the purpose of the design, and what does the design have to say about the story within it? The artwork on the cover could be anything, really.

Book Cover Template

The cover could have people on it, such as the protagonist, or an abstract figure, or crowd of people who belong in the world of the story. It could have an object that relates to the title or the storyline. It could convey a sense of the story through typography only, choosing a typeface and way of setting the type that conveys the time period or mood of the story. It could depict an environment or building from the story. Or it could have an abstract image or pattern that conveys the mood and general atmosphere of the book, or the cultural setting and traditions.

With so many possibilities out there, the question that we sometimes forget to ask is not what can a book cover be, but what should it be?

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The Covers of Petra Börner

When I first saw these four book covers by Swedish graphic designer Petra Börner, I was completely blown away. They are visually arresting, almost mesmerizing even, in the way they grab and hold my attention. Her bright, bold, vivid style is in someways reminiscent of the youthful design in Paul Rand’s children’s books that I recently wrote about. But there is also an unmistakably mature aesthetic sense to them, and they feel like they could do quite nicely framed and hung up as art in a chic city apartment.

I keep telling myself that it is absolutely ridiculous to buy books in a language I don’t even speak, but they are so gorgeous that I’m genuinely tempted!

The Serious Game

Cover for Hjlmar Söderberg’s “The Serious Game”

Emma

Cover for Jane Austen’s “Emma”

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Cover for John Fowle’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”

The Lover

Cover for Marguerite Duras’ “The Lover”

The publisher, Bonnier Pocket, wrote in a release that “We believe that graphics and design have become an even more important way to get consumers to choose our paperbacks.” I couldn’t agree more, and as I have mentioned before, I think this is the result of a shift in the public perception of physical books as objets d’art. I predict we’ll see more and more gorgeous designs being released as consumers look to physical books to be delightful experiences.

After finding these covers I looked online to see if I could find more of Petra’s work. I found some illustrations she made for Wrap Magazine, and a short interview they did with her which is charming, but my favorite part of the article was seeing her pictures from her illustration process:

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