The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

March 31, 2015
by Dan

The Great Discontent: Michael Bierut


The Great Discontent has a really interesting (and long) interview with Michael Bierut about his career in graphic design:

The reason I love graphic design is because it’s a way to get paid to learn new things. For example, let’s say someone asks if you’d like to design a book. It’s not about being interested in pagination, covers, binding, typography, or paper. Those are all important, but what really makes designing a book fun is being interested in whatever the book is about. Sometimes it’s a great and exciting book that you’re really into: that’s like someone asking, “Would you like to sit and eat ice cream with me?” But sometimes it’s a book whose subject you don’t know about at all, so you get to talk to people who may be the world’s foremost experts on that subject. Even better!

When I brief interns about a project, I don’t say, “It’s this big and it has x amount of words and pictures.” I say, “These people are trying to do this, they’re trying to get this message across, and their big challenge is that.” Those pieces of information put the project into a larger context. That’s how I learned when I was starting out. I was a pretty good designer in college, and I’m not sure I’m a better craftsperson as I was then. However, I’m a much better designer now because I made people pay me to go from dumb to smart over and over and over again.

March 31, 2015
by Dan

Comma Queen: Possessed

In the second episode of The New Yorker‘s Comma Queen video series, copy editor Mary Norris tackles using an apostrophe to form the possessive:


I am one of those people who annoy Norris by dropping the ‘s’ after the apostrophe when a name ends in ‘s’. I’m sure she is right — I’m certainly not going to argue with her! — but the exceptions seem completely infuriatingly arbitrary to me!

UPDATE: Mary Norris, whose memoir Between You & Me is out next week, is profiled in today’s New York Times:

Ms. Norris says she tries not to bring her work home with her. But she often has to restrain herself. Bad punctuation leaps out at her. Sloppy diction and grammatical errors in conversation register as minor assaults on her ear, as if her headphones had suddenly erupted into high-pitched feedback.

Her pet peeves include poorly punctuated signs; people who call the serial comma the Oxford comma; the wrong sort of pencil; the misuse of “who” and “whom” and other crimes against the accusative; book introductions by writers other than the author; incorrectly deployed apostrophes; people she meets on vacation who harass her about The New Yorker’s style; and grammatical errors in popular songs. She is particularly irked, she said, by the line “Till the stars fall from the sky for you and I” from “Touch Me” by the Doors.

Me, I’m just irked by The Doors.


March 30, 2015
by Dan

Studio Visit with Milton Glaser


The New York Times T Magazine visits designer Milton Glaser, co-founder of New York magazine and Push Pin Studios, in his studio:

March 30, 2015
by Dan

Alice’s Allergy List


Tom Gauld

(Is this Tom’s first Alice in Wonderland cartoon? It can’t be, can it?)

March 27, 2015
by Dan

Go Set A Watchman

Earlier this week, the US and UK covers for the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, were revealed online to great excitement and — because design criticism is a spectator sport — no small amount of derision.


The US cover was designed by Jarrod Taylor for HarperCollins. An apparent homage to the classic post-war American book covers designed by the likes of W. A. Dwiggins, George Salter, and Ismar David, there was some suggestion, on Twitter at least, that it bore an uncanny resemblance to the dust jacket of the first edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (published in 1957), designed by Salter himself.

Certainly, the covers do compliment each other — a testament to how well Taylor has captured the tone of the period — but the minor similarities grind to a halt at yellow train lines and the design of a headlamp. The composition, colour, and lettering are all quite different. More importantly in my opinion, the mood of the covers is in stark contrast. Go Set A Watchmen, with its (faux) hand-brushed letters, golden leaves, old-fashioned locomotive, and evening blue hue is wistful and nostalgic. The ruler-straight horizon and railway sleepers give it steadiness and calm. It evokes both the passing of time and the desire, perhaps, to return to the past.

Atlas Shrugged, on the other hand, is simply a period piece. The design itself, with its hot purple sky, rugged mountains, ominous dark tunnel, tilted railway sleepers, and — let’s face it — bloody enormous red warning light, is far from nostalgic. It’s all fear, urgency and speeding danger — the stencilled letters telling you (in case you hadn’t quite figured it out yet) that this book means serious business…. Armchair psychoanalysts have at it.

In fact, the cover of Go Set A Watchman is an update of the original dust jacket of To Kill A Mockingbird (published in 1960) designed by Shirley Smith. It is rather static, but still nicely done, and the autumnal leaves are, I think, a rather subtle and clever allusion to both the author and her previous book, as well as an indication of where the new novel might take us.


UK cover is, in the British fashion, being credited to the in-house design team at William Heinemann rather than to an individual designer.

Also looking to evoke the past, it appears to draw inspiration from the lobby cards and title sequences of vintage film. It’s a nod, perhaps, to the Academy Award-winning (and much beloved) film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck (1962), but the burning orange background, red shadows and dark silhouettes suggest — unintentionally perhaps — an earlier literary film adaptation, Gone with the Wind (1939).1

The Art Deco-inspired typography is perplexing. While To Kill A Mockingbird is set in early 1930s, Go Catch A Watchmen is apparently set 20 years later — well after the heyday of Art Deco (but firmly in the post-war period that inspired the US cover).

Stylistically too, there is something about the combination of illustration and type that feels rather inauthentic and, as a consequence, the cover has a sort of unsatisfying post-modernism gloss. It is much less successful at evoking the period than Ben Wiseman’s noir-inspired design for The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy (published in 2010) for example.

Even so, there’s no getting away from the fact that it is vibrant and bluntly effective. Less book jacket than a glaring burnt orange advertisement, it is meant to be read at small sizes online (pre-orders, pre-orders, pre-orders….), or piled up at a distance.  If you miss the author’s name and the silhouette of a mockingbird at the top of the cover, the words To Kill A Mockingbird loom large at the bottom.

This bold placement of the old title between the lines of the new triggered a slew of obvious jokes on Twitter, but it is actually rather ingenious — the designer neatly accommodates a remarkably large font size and, at the same time, slides in a wry allusion to the long shadow of To Kill A Mockingbird — a far wittier, nuanced joke than the repeated ‘Go Set A To Kill A Watchman Mockingbird’ gags online. For all its brash intent, it’s a cleverer cover than it first appears.

Ultimately, neither the UK cover or its American counterpart are going to win design awards. But neither are they terrible, and given the expectations for this book (and the controversy surrounding it), we should be grateful for that. Certainly we should not blame the designers who have produced surprisingly effective covers given the limitations they were surely working under. Covers for high-profile (and expensive!) books always involve compromises of one sort or another, and already risk-averse publishers become even more timid when so much is riding on a single title. As we saw in 2012 with The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling, big books often get blandly familiar, easily recognisable (and readable) covers rather than conceptual, original designs. The book industry is behind readers on this who — after years of exposure to Apple products — are more sophisticated about design than ever before, but Go Set A Watchman was never going to be the book that brought publishers up to date.

UPDATE: If you’re curious about what designers think of the Go Set A Watchman covers, Peter Cocking, Brian Morgan, Ingrid Paulson, and Michel Vrana share their thoughts with the Globe & Mail, while at The Guardian, Stuart Bache gives his considered opinion.

March 26, 2015
by Dan

Mad Men: The Shock of the Pretty


Another overdue link from my ‘longreads’ bookmarks, The Hollywood Reporter talks to the cast and crew of Mad Men about the early days of the show now that it is about to come an end:

Christina Wayne (former senior vp scripted programming, AMC) Years earlier, I’d wanted to option Revolutionary Road [Richard Yates’ novel about suburbia in the 1960s]. But I was a nobody screenwriter, and [Yates’ estate] held out for bigger fish, which they got with Sam Mendes. So when I read [the Mad Men script], it resonated with me. This was a way to do Revolutionary Road, week in, week out. When we had lunch with Matt for the first time, I gave him the book. He called me after and said, “Thank God I’d never read this because I never would have written Mad Men.”

Perhaps more interesting, however, is James Meek’s lengthy article for the London Review of Books on the show’s superficiality, and its curious relationship with advertising:

Sterling Cooper, the fictional advertising agency around which Mad Men is built, is a caricature of the commercial TV system that produced the series: a pool of creative people in bitter thrall to the accountants and deal-makers they rely on for money. Although we learn in parenthesis that the agency gets most of its income from commission on the ads it places, for dramatic purposes the agency is divided into two departments: Creative, which comes up with campaign slogans, artwork and copy for ads, and Accounts, which persuades, charms, fawns, bribes and pimps its way to getting and keeping corporate clients. Mad Men is a show about writers dependent on advertising, written by writers dependent on advertising, the difference being that the fictional writers of Creative write the ads on which they depend.

March 26, 2015
by Dan

Annie Atkins and the Secret World of Film Graphics


Designer Annie Atkins talks to Design Week (registration required) about her work on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and “the often ‘invisible’ role of graphic design on screen”:

“Most of the skills I employ today are things I’ve learnt on set,” Atkins says. “Before starting this job, I hadn’t really hand-crafted anything since being a child. Things like taking up a quill; getting my paints and pencils out; hand-binding books – I never would have done that in the advertising agency I was working in.”

Of course, 11 hours isn’t solely devoted to creating art. While a lot of the day is spent in a “production line” of stitching, gluing, folding, ripping things up, sticking them back together again, tea staining and pouring fake blood over things, there are less glamorous elements to the job too.

“A lot of the day is paperwork,” Atkins says. “Organising, planning, scheduling, ordering materials – that’s the boring bit. Then some of the day is liaising with art directors and the production designer to figure out the style and directions things will go in. Then it’s bums on seats, making stuff.”

It’s that “making” part that is so important. “It’s tempting to sit at a computer and make everything that way,” she says. “But if you’re working in a period in the past, you really have to understand the methods that were employed to make those graphics at the time, then imitate – or even better, use – them to give that authenticity.”


March 25, 2015
by Dan

Being Mr. K


In latest Creative Characters newsletter from MyFonts, designer Julia Sysmäläinen talks about designing FF Mister K, the typeface based on Franz Kafka’s handwriting used by Peter Mendelsund for his redesign of Schocken’s Kafka covers:

Originality, authenticity, and honesty are crucial qualities to me. I think Mr. K has all of that, just like Franz Kafka’s manuscripts do. While I was working on it, I realized that while Mister K is a font, it is also the visualization of a personality. The font is not pretty, or beautiful in the classic sense — and it doesn’t want to be.

It’s a bit like Kafka’s work. There is no beauty in it as such, but rather a confrontation with reality that goes so far as to be repellent. There are all kinds of attributes — stupidity, cunning, weakness, strength, bitterness, humor, lightness, etc. The authenticity of this confrontation is visually reflected in the manuscripts — and also in Mister K Regular, the style in the font family that is most similar to the original Kafka manuscripts.

Whoever wishes to use the typeface must be willing to embrace this ambiguity. Mister K is not particularly suitable for lending a consumer-friendly smoothness to some brand; but there are corporate identities to which it fits very well. I was pleased to see it used by the Norwegian band Flunk, for Stokke highchairs, and for wellness products by Dresdner Essenz; and, of all things, in the logo of an upmarket design hotel in Berlin, Das Stue. What I found even more astounding was its appearance at the international insurance company Watson Towers (an ironic coincidence, as Kafka himself was an employee at an insurance company). But somehow it made sense: “The organic, hand-drawn nature of the logo and graphic system creates a personal and distinctive look amidst the impersonal, corporate, language of its competitors…” — that’s how Interbrand, the design agency, described the project. In its semi-perfection the typeface simply oozes a kind of honesty. That’s its strength, and brings it closer to a lot of people.

March 25, 2015
by Dan

The Shiny Surface of Jonathan Ive

My ‘longreads’ to-read list is as bad, if not worse, than the pile of books I have to read right now, so it’s taken me until today to get to that very, very long New Yorker profile of Jonathan Ive, the senior vice-president of design at Apple.

Unfortunately, the whole thing is a bit disappointing and, I thought, even a little sad. By the end, Ive remains an enigma. What lingers is his famous friends, love of bland luxury brands, and just how remarkably wealthy he is (writer Ian Parker reminds you several times that Ive owns a private jet).

It seems Ive is either depressingly shallow or, more likely, these superficial things are all that he is willing to reveal about himself, which is depressing too in its own way. Ive is, no doubt, just politely protecting his privacy, but he comes across as peevish and sadly unlikeable, which is a shame. Or maybe I’m just not interested enough in industrial design and luxury brands, or Apple if it comes to that.

The article does, however, give me an excuse to post this blistering 15 minute video of NYU Stern marketing professor Scott Galloway talking a mile-a-minute about Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. I’m sure he’s wrong about a lot of things, but not only does he talk about Apple’s transition from tech company to luxury brand, he also offers some of the most cogent insights into the current problems facing Amazon I’ve heard in a while:


Interestingly, Ian Parker says in his New Yorker article that watch manufacturers are not worried about Apple stepping into the market. Galloway says they should be. I guess we’ll see who is right.

March 20, 2015
by Dan

Emory Liu on Design at Fantagraphics


At Sequart, designer Emory Liu talks about working at Seattle comics publisher Fantagraphics:

My first start in the design world came through designing / screen printing posters, and doing album artwork for bands. I played in a bunch of bands, and starting out, we just ended up having to do a lot of the work ourselves, art included.  I also took design classes at School of Visual Concepts, eventually graduating with an Interdisciplinary Visual Arts degree from University of Washington in 2005. I feel very fortunate to be hired by Fantagraphics, as I had no previous experience designing full books, but just came from a job that heavily depended on InDesign. I think I just had enough experience to pass, and a DIY aesthetic that fit with the other designers… [It’s] interesting, because most of the time we have a ton of creative control. Editorial is usually hands off, and we’re working from scratch, keeping in mind not to overstep the comic artist themselves. A lot of the work is old work being re-released, and just the repackaging of the product with new covers can do wonders, give the book new life. At the same time we’ll get a few titles where we get very little input. Some artists demand complete control, and I’d take the role of facilitator more than designer. As fast as I’d like to get through those, they always end up taking the longest.

March 19, 2015
by Dan

Michael Bierut : How To… Write a Book About Your Work


In a great interview with Design Indaba, designer Michael Bierut talks about a new book about his work, How to: Use graphic design to sell things, explain things, make things look better, and (every once in a while) change the world, to be published later this year by Thames and Hudson:

In the second part of the interview he talks about the loneliness of design, and (inevitably!) designing logos:

March 17, 2015
by Dan

The Characters In My New Play


Tom Gauld.

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