On my morning commutes I’ve been continuing to work my way through the Penguin 75 book that I wrote about in my last blog post, and enjoying the creativity and beauty that I’ve come across. I’ve been surprised with how often I’ve been completely surprised with what they’ve done, perhaps especially with their Graphic Classics Series where they created comic book covers for classic literature. But there were two covers in a row that made me pause and think. The first was In the Woods by Tana French, designed by Jen Wang on page 140, followed by The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor and designed by Matthew Taylor. They are two very different covers, one a black and white sketch of letterforms turning into branches, and the other a medley of ravens, tigers and butterfly erupting from an anime-looking pair of pants and unlaced sneakers. However I was struck by how similar the two author’s comments on their covers were.
Tana French, who is Irish, said
Covers on the European side of the Atlantic are so different from American ones that, to me, this looked nothing like a book cover. It was a truly beautiful thing. I could have looked at it for hours, and I’d have loved to have it in any one of a dozen forms—as an art print, a wall poster, a T-shirt—but if I’d seen it in isolation, I’d never have guessed what it was. I think I still see it that way: First as a thing I love looking at, and only second as the cover of the book.
I could appreciate that the cover was a little unusual, although I’m curious about how European covers are different. I’ll have to look into that. Turning the page to The Island at the End of the World, I read about how this cover was the result of a design contest. The author Sam Taylor’s comment on the design for his book was
I must admit my first reaction on seeing the winning cover was: WTF? It was gorgeous and striking, but not at all what I expected.
Both authors were struck by the fact that their covers were gorgeous, but not at all what they were expecting. The unexpected aspect was probably chosen deliberately by the art directors, but the gorgeous part, the artistic part, that is what helps makes these book covers some of the best in Penguin’s repertoire.
As I read these responses I was reminded of a moment during the second week of my design class last semester, when we were getting feedback on our first assignment of the class. It was essentially a warm up exercise for the semester; we were supposed to take a poster by a famous designer that we were assigned (in my case Jan Tschichold) and redesign it in various ways using only the compositional elements that were in the original design. We brought in our new posters for feedback, and at one point, after pretty thoroughly criticizing everyone’s designs, our teacher asked me “So, Rebecca, which one would you put up on your wall?”
I was surprised by this question, as we were designing announcements for events and new movies and I was envisioning them on the street or posted on the wall of a movie theater, but definitely not hanging, framed, on my living room wall. It was an interesting, and I quickly realized, a good question. Because frankly, I wouldn’t have put a single one of my own designs up on my wall—they were ugly! And attractiveness isn’t a criteria I’d really been taking into account, but it made me think of the famous Fillmore concert posters that I’ve seen on teenagers’ bedroom walls across the country. Or of the beautiful posters by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Or the simple yet elegant advertisements for railways and state parks by Michael Schwab. And I’ve liked them because no matter what their original purpose was, they are interesting, intriguing, pretty, elegant, well designed, and in some way or another gorgeous.
So with this question in my mind, I went back to the drawing board. I kept in mind some of the design feedback I’d been given, and what other students had done that I thought had worked well. And I tried to envision them on my wall; I tried to make them artistic and interesting. In the end, I’m still not sure if I’d put them up on my own wall or not (they don’t really match the mood of my room), but I think my second round of designs was much more successful than those original submissions. And a couple of people I showed them to seemed to seriously consider taking me up on my offer to give the posters to them to hang in their apartments, which to me means success.
It’s fascinating to learn how to design, coming from where I do. Its unusual for me to be studying something that I have absolutely no formal academic experience in, to be stumbling across new and interesting ways of thinking about my discipline all the time. It’s absolutely fresh, not something I’ve been told about and taught for the last twenty years, and I’m really enjoying it. And I’m finding some amazing things to put up on my wall.
(by the way, for a very interesting insight into the process and design for the cover of In the Woods, go to the Faceoutbooks.com blog entry)