The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

August 28, 2015
by Dan

Kelli Anderson: The Price of Advice

Adobe’s Inspire magazine has a remarkably forthright post by designer Kelli Anderson on ‘advice culture’:

Will the creative community ever get its fill of advice?…

…Since advice is a nurturing impulse (a way to pass wisdom on to the future…or just next year’s graduating class), is there really any harm in this oversaturation? Does the monotone nature of our conversation on success, work, and failure actually hurt us?

I would argue yes—there is a dark side to the peppy culture of pretty advice. While other shades of goodwill, such as compassion, generosity, and friendship, only improve with quantity, advice has a cumulative effect—pooling emphasis and importance around the notion of individual initiative. More than slogans, working hard, being nice, and doing what you love have gradually become canonized as the actual reasons that success or failure occurs. When the logic of advice is allowed to co-opt reality, we begin to believe that individual initiative is why things happen.

The result may feel good and empowering, but it also creates the distorted impression that an individual’s good work, alone, will translate to a proportional reward. Conversely, failures stemming from other factors—like ingrained structural prejudice or simply bad timing—may too easily be misattributed to an individual’s lack of commitment, failure to work hard enough, or insufficient love-doing. A culture of self-help advice fosters a belief that we exist in a pure meritocracy, where everything is fair, and that our shared work of shaping an equitable community is done.

This is not the world we live in.

via Brandon Schaefer on Twitter.

August 26, 2015
by Dan

Pushkin Vertigo Crime Series Designed by Jamie Keenan

Vertigo Keenan

At the Creative Review blog, Jamie Keenan talks about his cover designs for Pushkin Press‘s new crime fiction imprint Pushkin Vertigo:

“From the beginning I wanted to come up with something that looked alien, as though someone had brought it back from a holiday in a country you’d never heard of”

They make for a stunning set.

Jamie also created that rather nice “PV” logo for the imprint. Nicely done Mr. Keenan.

I Was Jack Mortimer Keenan

Master of the Day of Judgment Keenan

She Who Was No More Keenan

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia Keenan

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders Keenan

Vertigo, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia and Master of the Day of Judgment will be published by Pushkin Vertigo on next month; two more titles, I Was Jack Mortimer and She Who Was No More, will be published in November.

August 25, 2015
by Dan

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith

fox and the star

At the Penguin blog, the remarkable Coralie Bickford-Smith talks about The Fox and the Star, a new book she has written, illustrated and designed:

The inspiration comes from a place of personal experience that I wanted to document. It’s a life lesson that I found hard to learn; one of love, loss and the ability to adapt to the constant changes that are a part of life. On a visual level my inspiration came from my design heroes, William Blake and William Morris. My love of pattern and book design is evident in the illustrations.

It looks absolutely beautiful as you can see:

fox and the star int

And here’s Coralie talking about the project:

The Fox and the Star is available from Particular Books August 27.

August 24, 2015
by Dan

David Pearson on Slow Design

david pearson melbourne writers fest WH Chong

Award-winning Australian designer and art directer W. H. Chong interviews David Pearson — who is giving a series of talks on book design in Australia this week — for his column Culture Mulcher:

I love the Gandhi quote, ‘There is more to life than increasing its speed’ (particularly reassuring words for a slow-working technophobe).

I do worry that many technological advancements are enabling us to achieve not very much, but at a much faster rate. For example, I cannot understand the very modern desire to produce work using a series of time-saving shortcuts when it is the duration of the working process itself that allows us to question, edit and fine-tune our output. To speed up or bypass this process is to give up on so much and risks the work lacking any discernible ‘human’ quality.

That said, I do work very slowly and sometimes think that a warm and welcoming hobbyist’s industry, like publishing, is the only place that would have me.

David is delivering a lecture, We Are What We Read, at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney tomorrow (Tuesday, August 25) at 6.30pm, and will be discussing contemporary book design at the Melbourne Writers Festival on August 29 and August 30, although I believe the second event is sold out.

August 24, 2015
by Dan

Amazon: Pass This Letter To My Wife and Kids

I wasn’t going to mention that New York Times article about Amazon. We already know the company treats its workers poorly (there are almost too many articles to link to at this point),1 it’s just that some people rather admire this kind of ruthlessness (or simply don’t care if they’re getting a good deal). Nevertheless, I did quite like this cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez for The New Yorker on the subject:


“It’s from Aaron, the Amazon employee who packed my headphones. He’s asked me to pass this letter on to his wife and kids.”

August 20, 2015
by Dan

Europa Editions’ Small Objects of Desire


The New York Times T Magazine profiles Italian small press Europa Editions:

Even if you haven’t heard of Europa Editions, you’ve probably heard of some of its hits. There’s Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” (more than a million copies sold); Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth” (now in its 20th printing); and Alexander Maksik’s “You Deserve Nothing” (so far, the biggest title by an American). Like any good branded product, the books have an instantly recognizable visual stamp: stiff paper covers edged with white borders that frame color-drenched matte backgrounds. According to Europa’s Australian-born editor in chief, Michael Reynolds, “When you see them all together, they draw you in like a bowl of candy.”

That effect is completely deliberate. Europa books are the invention of the Italian husband-and-wife publishing team Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, founders of the independent Roman house Edizioni E/O, who have been bringing the likes of Christa Wolf and Ryszard Kapuscinski to Italian readers since 1979. Because their countrymen are notoriously unenthusiastic book readers, the Ferris designed alluring covers to tempt reluctant Italian eyes.

Interestingly, Motoko Rich already profiled Europa Edition in the Times in 2009, so I guess they must be doing something right…

August 20, 2015
by Dan

Bob Gill: Design as Idea

Mark Mahaney: Bob Gill

Mark Mahaney: Bob Gill

In another great profile for It’s Nice That, Rob Alderson talks designer, illustrator, and writer Bob Gill:

“I don’t know what people talk about when they talk about a golden age because of a million designers in 1950 or 1960 or 1970, 13 did anything that was worth ten cents. They can call that a golden age but the gold has been tarnished I think.”

What has changed of course is technology and the way it’s altered the design process…. In fact now that the craft side of design has become demystified and democratised, he thinks designers should be able to come into their own.

“Now for a designer to make a living, they have to do more than just know how to set some type because the client can do that. So what’s left? Well the most wonderful part is left, which is to discover how you say new things. I often talk about design as idea; I am not interested in design as layout – obviously I have to lay things out in order for them to be read – but it’s very low down on my priorities. I spend the majority of my time having an opinion and trying to invent an image that says that opinion like nobody’s ever said it before. That’s the fun of it.”


Mark Mahaney

August 18, 2015
by Dan

Dan Stiles Covers for Undermajordomo Minor


Next month sees the publication of Undermajordomo Minor, the new novel by award-winning Canadian author Patrick deWitt.

An “ink-black comedy of manners”, it apparently involves an Alpine castle, a mysterious Baron Von Aux, and a lot of bad behaviour — including, if the Quill and Quire‘s Steven W. Beattie is to be believed, “an extravagant act of Hieronymus Bosch-like grotesqueness… perpetrated upon a large rat.”

It sounds a little like a horror movie directed by Wes Anderson. Or Terence Fisher doing something nasty to Gilbert and Sullivan.

While the cover for the US edition (published by Ecco) was designed by the talented Sara Wood, the UK and Canadian editions of Undermajordomo Minor feature the distinctive artwork of Dan Stiles, the American illustrator and designer who designed the covers of deWitt’s previous novels The Sisters Brothers and (the reissued) Ablutions.

Although Stiles has created different designs for Granta, and House of Anansi, the UK and Canadian covers (both featuring that unfortunate rat) have strong echoes of those previous books. According to the Canadian art director Alysia Shewchuk, this was a deliberate decision. “Dan Stiles created a very a distinctive look for The Sisters Brothers — highly stylized, dark yet playful — and we wanted to pick up these threads in our cover for Undermajordomo Minor.”


This is most apparent in the Anansi cover. Its bold geometric design is similar to Stiles’s theatrical cover for Granta, but its colour palette and texture bring it back to the The Sisters Brothers.

Interestingly, the focus of the Canadian cover is different too. “We’d seen early versions of the covers for both the US and the UK editions, and while we liked the different directions they’d each gone in, for our edition we thought it was important to feature the main character (Lucy Minor) and the castle where he lives and works,” says Shewchuk. “Dan understood exactly what we were looking for and he nailed it on the first go-around.”

Undermajordomo Minor will be published on September 3rd in the UK, September 5th in Canada, and September 15th in the US.

In the meantime, watch the slightly Monty Python-esque trailer made by artist Joanna Neborsky, with music by deWitt’s brother Nick deWitt, released today:


The same team made a similarly bizarre trailer for The Sisters Brothers. 

Correction: When first posted, I stated incorrectly that the US cover was also designed by Dan Stiles. The final design and illustration for the Ecco edition of Undermajordomo Minor is by Sara Wood. The post has been amended and updated to credit Sara for her work.

August 14, 2015
by Dan

Popular Science Bestseller Title Generator

popular science

Tom Gauld for New Scientist magazine.

August 13, 2015
by Dan

The Real-World Architecture of Monument Valley

monument valley

Architecture critic Alexandra Lange, author of Writing About Architecture, talks to the creators of Monument Valley — an award-winning video game in which players must navigate the Princess Ida through a maze of impossible buildings and architectural puzzles — for Curbed:

Much of Monument Valley operates in the impossible space drawn by M. C. Escher, whose 1960 drawing ‘Ascending and Descending’ Monument Valley lead designer Ken Wong has acknowledged as an inspiration. The Escher drawing even features a couple of figures scratching their heads about how to get around. The connection between Escher’s drawing and Wong’s original Monument Valley concept sketch is clear; Wong’s is also strikingly similar to the finished product. The whole structure floats in space in a way that suggests infinity, and it features the same isometric perspective, same gelato colors, and a similar sequence of steps and ladders and domes to give it a touch of character. In Monument Valley, sometimes you seem to be floating on water and sometimes in space; sometimes positive and negative are reversed, and you may be underground in paths and tunnels carved from rock. “We were all so taken with [Escher’s] image,” says [Neil] McFarland, that the designers said, “We don’t know what this game is, but if we can make that into a game we will be really happy.”

For the design buff, the game seems rife with visual cues, allusions to the built world, and academic references. Even if Monument Valley’s designers aren’t familiar with deconstructivism, 1970s architecture may have infiltrated its digital world sideways, as architecture-school graduates turn into programmers and once rarefied ideas turn into placeless pins. Monument Valley’s chapters have to cover a lot of territory, in scale and geography.

Sometimes Ida seems very small, like an earlier puzzle-solving heroine in a gridded Wonderland, wending your way through a music box. Sometimes she appears to be climbing a pixel version of Philip Johnson’s concrete-block Monument to Lincoln Kirstein (1985), “a staircase to nowhere.” Sometimes she finds herself holding a red flower, laying it on a rectangular sarcophagus in a sea of sarcophagi that strongly resemble Eisenman’s Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2004). Sometimes you find yourself tripping along a wall that resembles Bofill’s La Muralla Roja housing project (1968), “characterized by a series of interlocking stairs, platforms, and bridges.” Elsewhere the game recalls Tarsem Singh’s cult movie The Fall, filmed at the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur (a real-life white, floating world) and the Chand Baori stepwell, a Qbert landscape made exclusively of blocks. Some scenes are more perplexing, and require your seven-year-old to show you which button to push or which screw rotates the cube so that what was once an unbridged gap closes, in digital space, and allows you to cross.

I really don’t play a lot video games, but I do love Monument Valley.

August 12, 2015
by Dan

Françoise Mouly: No House Style

Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

It’s Nice That has a great interview with the remarkable Françoise Mouly, co-founder of comics anthology Raw, editorial director of TOON Books, and, of course, art editor at The New Yorker:

“One of the things we had at Raw which I have tried to keep is not having a house style, it doesn’t all look alike. Raw really was the sum of its parts but you can’t say that Raw magazine was Joost Swarte or Charles Burns or Sue Coe.

“At The New Yorker when I came in there was a house style, a nice cat-on-the-windowsill type watercolour and you could look at the covers and see the common denominator. I have tried to never let it settle into, ‘Oh that’s a New Yorker cover’ except in the approach.”

August 10, 2015
by Dan

NYRB: Publishing Serious Literary Books

Larry Rohter profiles the New York Review Books, the publishing offshoot of the literary magazine The New York Review of Books, for the New York Times:

“From the beginning, it was our intention to be resolutely eclectic, and build our classics series as different voices build a fugue,” said Edwin Frank, the house’s editorial director. “We set out to do the whole mix of things that a curious person might be interested in, which would take you back and forth from fiction to certain kinds of history.”

New York Review Books was founded in 1999, when the mainstream American publishing houses were shifting their focus to big frontlist titles and paying less attention to their back catalogs, sometimes allowing the rights to books that weren’t selling well to lapse, and also cutting back on literature in translation.

“We were picking low-hanging fruit, only no one knew the fruit was out there, hanging from the branches,” Mr. Frank said.

Over the years, the publishing house has revived work by English-language authors including Henry Adams, Kingsley Amis, Edith Wharton and Angus Wilson. In translation, it has issued works by authors like Adolfo Bioy Casares, Cesare Pavese, Raymond Queneau, Robert Walser and Stefan Zweig.

The writer and critic Ian Buruma, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, which was founded in 1963 and is published online and every two weeks in print, said the publishing arm fills an important niche.

“Because they are smaller and more nimble, they can do things that larger houses would be less inclined to do,” he said. “They pick up books that maybe 30 years ago, the big publishers would have done but now have to be careful about.”

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