The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

July 22, 2014
by Dan
1 Comment

Australian Book Design Awards 2014 Shortlist

Peter Long, Senior Designer at Black Inc. Books, has kindly let me know that the shortlist for the Australian Book Design Awards has been announced.

The Book Design Awards are Australia’s longest running  graphic design awards, but in 2013 the Australian Publishing Association decided to discontinue them. To keep the awards running for a 62nd consecutive year, a group of Australian designers formed the ABDA as an independent, non-profit entity in March 2014.

There is some lovely work up for this years awards, and you can download full a list of the nominees as a PDF. Here are a few of the book covers that caught my eye:

Best Designed Literary Fiction Book

Letters to the End of Love by Yvette Walker; design by Allison Colpoys (UQP July 13, 2014)

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton; design by Jenny Grigg (Granta September 2013)

Best Designed Non-Fiction Book


The End by Bianca Nogrady; design by Sandy Cull (Vintage May 2013)

Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richards; design by Allison Colpoys (Viking January 2013)

Best Designed Young Adult Book

The Messenger by Markus Zusak; design by Sandy Cull (Pan Macmillan Novemeber 2013)

Zac & Mia by A. J. Betts; design by W. H. Chong (Text Publishing July 2013)

The winners of the Australian Book Design Awards will be announced in Melbourne on August 22nd, 2014.

July 17, 2014
by Dan
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Books on Book Covers

9781594203367B (1)
It started, innocently enough, with a tweet from my friend Steven Beattie, book review editor of Canada’s Quill & Quire magazine, about the cover of The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham’s new ‘biography’ of Ulysses by James Joyce, designed by Ben Wiseman (Penguin June 2014).


That sparked a conversation with designer David Gee and Joseph Sullivan of The Book Design Review about books on book covers. Joe wrote a  a post on the subject in 2009 on the subject, and I rather naïvely thought it would be easy (EASY!) to post a few contemporary examples of the trend, completely underestimating what an undertaking such a project would become.

What follows is an attempt to showcase some of different ways designers incorporate books into their cover designs. Along side covers from the past five years, I’ve included some earlier examples from Joe’s post, and this post about ‘meta-covers’ from HTML Giant. Many of the images of the older titles are small (and some are just not very good), but where I have been able to source a larger image, I’ve included it at full (or close to full) size. I’m indebted to the Book Cover Archive, which is still an invaluable resources after all this time, Ferran Lopez‘s (also mothballed) Jacket Museum, and all the designers and book folk who sent me cover images, and helped me in numerous other ways. Thank you. This isn’t comprehensive survey but, to be honest, I had to stop somewhere…

Front and Center

Seven Hundred Penguins; design David Pearson / illustration Clare Skeats (Penguin Sept 2007)

Cover by Peter Mendelsund; design by Peter Mendelsund (powerHouse Books August 2014)

Kapitalismus und Hautkrankheiten by Jasmin Ramadan; design by Books We Made (Klett-Cotta Verlag April 2014)

The Knowledge
The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell; design by Kris Potter (Penguin April 2014)
Priceless by William Poundstone; design by Jennifer Carrow (Hill & Wang January 2010)

Publish Your Photography Book by Darius D. Himes & Mary Virginia Swanson; design by David Chickey & Masumi Shibata (Princeton Architectural Press March 2011)

The Yarn Whisperer by Clara Parkes; design by John Gall (Abrams September 2013)

Cut, Torn, Ripped or Otherwise Defaced or Damaged

The Arsonist by Sue Miller; design by Greg Heinimann (Bloomsbury June 2014)

Best New Poets 2013, guest editor Brenda Shaughnessy; design by Atomicdust (Meridian January 2014)

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black; series design by Keith Hayes (Picador January 2008)

Half World by Scott O’Connor; design by Christopher Lin (Simon & Schuster February 2014)

Heaven is Small by Emily Schultz; design by Ingrid Paulson (House of Anansi )

(And if your not Canadian, you may not know that this is a riff on Ingrid’s design for the hardcover of Heaven is Small, featured in this list.)

The Keep by Jennifer Egan; design by John Gall (Knopf August 2006)

The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P. D. Viner; design by Oliver Munday (Crown October 2013)

Mess; series art and design by Keri Smith (Penguin September 2010)

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson; design by Matt Dorfman (Riverhead December 2011)

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton; design by Matt Dorfman (Pantheon June 2012)

(This is what the cover looks like under the jacket if you’re curious)

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno; design by Christopher Lin (Simon & Schuster September 2013)

What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton; design by Jamie Stafford-Hill (Tor January 2014)

Three-Quarters, or a Bit on the Side

 The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde; cover art by Thomas Allen, series design by Jaya Miceli (Penguin 2011)

And those of you with a good memory will remember Chip Kidd used also art by Thomas Allen for a series of James Ellroy titles publisher by Vintage in the US:

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; design by Matt Owen (Simon & Schuster January 2012)

Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst; design by Alex Merto (Riverhead September 2011)

The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham; adapted from the US cover with additional design by Jessie Price (Head of Zeus June 2014)

Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time by Patrick Alexander; design by Jamie Keenan (Vintage March 2010)

ECW-Real Made Up 2007
The Real Made Up by Stephen Brockwell; design by David A. Gee (ECW October 2007)

Stoner (paperback) Stoner by John Williams; design by Julia Connolly (Vintage July 2012)

9780802122148 An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine; design by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich (Grove April 2014)

And while it’s not an actual book, let’s give Tom Davie of studiotwentysix2 a round of applause for his famous novel redesign print (which you can buy here).

Open Books and Page Turners

Book Was There by Andrew Piper; design by Andrea Guinn (University of Chicago Press November 2012)

Erotic Poems by E. E. Cummings; design by Gabriele Wilson (Liveright February 2010)

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti; design by Rebecca Seltzer (Henry Holt & Co. June 2012)

A Journey with Two Maps by Eavan Boland; design by Chin-Yee Lai (W. W. Norton October 2011)

John Dies at the End by David Wong; design by Rob Grom (Thomas Dunne October 2009)

A Life in Books by Warren Lehrer; cover art by Warren Lehrer in collaboration with Jonathan Rosen (Goff Books October 2013)

The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore; design by Yes Studio (Penguin September 2008)

A Most Dangerous Book by Christopher B. Krebs; design by Mark Melnick (W. W. Norton June 2011)

The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt; design by Graciela Galup (Belknap Press April 2014)

Philology by James Turner; design by Kara Davison / Faceout Studio (Princeton University Press, May 2014)

The Pox and the Covenant by Tony Wilson; design by Jason Gabbert (Sourcebooks April 2010)


What to Look For in Winter 
by Candia McWilliam; design by Richard Ljoenes (Harper March 2012)

Where I'm Reading From (1)
Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks; design by James Paul Jones (Harvill Secker November 2014)

The World by Bill Gaston; design by Kathleen Lynch / Black Kat Design (Penguin August 2013)

Writers Between the Covers by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon; design by Lucy Kim (Plume October 2013)

Shelves, Sides, Spines, and Stacks

Penguin by Design by Phil Baines; design by David Pearson (Penguin May 2005)

Wormholes by John Fowles; design by Carin Goldberg (Little, Brown & Co. 1997)

Bad Teeth by Dustin Long; design by Rex Bonomelli (New Harvest May 2014)

The Broadview Introduction to Literature; series design by Michel Vrana (Broadview August 2013)


First Novel - Nicholas Royle
First Novel by Nicholas Royle; design by Suzanne Dean (Jonathan Cape February 2014)

How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis; designed by James Paul Jones (Chatto & Windus January 2014)

How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton; design uncredited1 (Yale University Press Jun 2013)

The Junior Officers’ Reading Club by Patrick Hennessey; design by David Wardle (Penguin June 2009)

Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan; design by Irene Pineda (Atlantic Books June 2014)

The Rise & Fall of the Great Powers by Tom Rachman; design by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich (Dial June 2014)

Stoner (hardback)
Stoner by John Williams; design by Julia Connolly (Vintage November 2013)

Vagina by Emma L. E. Rees; design by Alice Marwick (Bloomsbury August 2013)

Why I Read by Wendy Lesser; design by Rodrigo Corral (Farrar, Straus & Giroux (January 2014)

The Year of Henry James by David Lodge; design by Nathan Burton (Vintage May 2014)

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller; design by Jo Walker (Fourth Estate May 2014)

And then there’s this…


You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier; design by Olly Moss (Penguin January 2010)

July 15, 2014
by Dan

Book Posters by Gunter Rambow


If you follow me at all on Twitter, you’ll know that I’m working on a post about meta-covers, or book covers with books on them. It’s proving to be a much more difficult task than I first imagined, and it’s taking a very long time to pull it all together. It is, finally, almost done, and I hope it will be on the blog in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, however, I came across these remarkable book posters by German designer Gunter Rambow for S. Fischer Verlag from the 1970s while compiling images for the post, and I thought I would share them now while you wait.



1979_02_2_SF2 1976_08

There is also a book, Gunter Rambow: Plakate / Posters, that collects Rambow’s posters from 1962 to 2007 when the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt mounted a major exhibition to his work.

July 10, 2014
by Dan

Hello, I Am Erik

Next month, the fine folks at Gestalten are publishing Hello, I Am Erik,  a ‘visual biography’ of typographer and designer Erik Spiekermann. In this new interview with GestaltenTV, Spiekermann talks about his 30 year career, and how working with blocks of movable type is different from designing on a screen:


July 9, 2014
by Dan

Book Covers of Note July 2014

As well posting great cover designs for books released in July, I’ve taken this month’s round-up as an opportunity to catch up on a few I missed earlier this year. Enjoy!

Adam by Ariel Schrag; design by Christopher Moisan (Mariner June 2014)

American Blonde by Jennifer Niven; design by Sara Wood (Plume July 2014)

The Arsonist by Sue Miller; design by Gabriele Wilson (Knopf June 2014)

California by Edan Lepucki; design Julianna Lee (Little Brown & Co. July 2014)

Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois; design Eileen Carey / photograph by Kniel Synnatzschke (Random House May 2014)

Cubed by Nikil Saval; design by Oliver Munday (Doubleday April 2014)

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson; design by Allison Saltzman, cover art Bryan Nash Gill (Ecco June 2014)

Friendship by Emily Gould; design by Jennifer Carrow (FSG July 2014)

Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia by Mariusz Szczygiel; design by Christopher King (Melville House May 2014)

How To Be Danish by Patrick Kingsley; design by Andrew Smith (Atria February 2014)

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain by Adrianne Harun; design by Kristen Haff (Penguin February 2014)

The Martian by Andy Weir; design by Eric White (Crown February 2014)

Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey; design by Charlotte Strick; illustration by Patrick Leger (FSG Originals, July 2014)

No Country by Kalyan Ray; design by Christopher Lin (Simon & Schuster June 2014)

My Fellow Skin

My Fellow Skin / Shutterspeed / Marcel by Erwin Mortier; design by David Pearson (Pushkin Press July 2014)

night film
Night Film by Marisha Pessl; design by Shasti O’Leary Soudant (Random House July 2014)

Out of Time by Lynne Segal; design by David A. Gee (Verso July 2014)

Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya; design by Helen YentusPhotograph by Emine Ziyatdinova (Riverhead July 2014)


The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones; design by Keith Hayes (Mulholland Books July 2014)

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean; design by Will Staehle (Little, Brown & Co. May 2014)

June 24, 2014
by Dan
1 Comment

Simon Schama on Illustrator Quentin Blake


Simon Schama profiles artist and illustrator Quentin Blake for the FT Weekend Magazine:

Blake comes straight out of this 18th-century tradition of rococo mischief, the arabesque ride through the storyline. I ask him if he ever thought of painting full-time? He tells me that he didn’t think he could make a living as a painter and then, more importantly, that his instinct was always for the marriage of words and image, the connections that propel a tale forwards. Though everyone who loves his work will have their own laugh-out-loud moments… Blake doesn’t think of himself as a humorist.

“The humour is a by-product [of the story]. You draw the scene, what people are doing, their reaction to it, and if it’s funny, it comes out. There are certain books where you play it for laughs but it’s always more interesting in a dramatic situation.”

‘Inside Story’, an exhibition of Blake’s work, opens at the House of Illustration in London July 2, 2014.

June 24, 2014
by Dan

Authors’ Cocktails


I didn’t see this weekend’s Guardian, but I assume Tom‘s cartoon is in reference to Olivia Laing’s article about 20th century female writers who drank, a follow-up to her excellent book The Trip to Echo Spring, which examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the lives F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver:

Female writers haven’t been immune to the lure of the bottle, nor to getting into the kinds of trouble – the fights and arrests, the humiliating escapades, the slow poisoning of friendships and familial relations – that have dogged their male colleagues. Jean Rhys was briefly in Holloway prison for assault; Elizabeth Bishop more than once drank eau de cologne, having exhausted the possibilities of the liquor cabinet. But are their reasons for drinking different? And how about society’s responses, particularly in the lubricated, tipsy 20th century; the golden age, if one can call it that, of alcohol and the writer?

June 23, 2014
by Dan

Q & A with Matt Roeser, Candlewick Press

If you follow book design on social media at all, chances are you’ve come already across Matt Roeser‘s  funny, if somewhat dinosaur-fixated, Twitter feed. But over the past couple of years as senior designer at independent children’s publisher Candlewick Press in Massachusetts, Matt has been quietly producing some bright, brilliant, and original covers for their line of young adult titles.

I first came across Matt’s work about 4 years ago when he first started a Tumblr project called New Cover, and was working outside publishing in St. Louis. Now he is designing books full-time, it only seemed appropriate to ask him a few questions about his interests and influences, his work, and his career. We corresponded by email.


Were there a lot of books in your house growing up?

Absolutely. We lived two blocks away from our library, so my parents were always taking my brother and I there and letting me bring home as much as I could carry. That, paired with the book order forms our teachers would pass out every month (of which I had an unhealthy level of excitement for) meant there was always a constant stream of books in our house.

Did you have a favourite book as a kid?

I had three, and to this day, still can’t decide which one I like the most because they’re each fabulous in their own way: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler because the kids run away and live in a museum (I’m still hoping to do this one day!), The Westing Game, because it’s an epic murder mystery, and The Phantom Tollbooth, because it’s so imaginative and full of wordplay, which I have a soft-spot for.


Do you remember when you first became interested in design?

Yes, and it was paired with reading in a way. The movie Jurassic Park came out when I was 10 and I went with my brother to see it at least 5 or 6 times and was just completely enthralled. Then my brother bought the book with the now-classic Chip Kidd design on the front. I read it and, being my first “big-person” book that I had read, it really stuck with me. I remember thinking it was so cool that the design of the jacket was used for the logo for the park in the movie. And it was on t-shirts, lunchboxes, everything. The fact that a new Jurassic Park movie is coming out next year, and they’re still using Chip Kidd’s design just makes me so happy. So while I don’t think I completely realized it at the time, that’s the moment that I became aware and interested in design. And since I’ve never actually grown up, all of the things I loved as a child (dinosaurs, space, time travel) still excite me to this day (thus why a majority of my tweets revolve around dinosaurs). I even had a Jurassic Park themed 30th birthday party which was simultaneously my most proud and most embarrassing moment in life.

Is anyone else in your family creative?

Yeah, my immediate and extended family is full of carpenters and woodworkers, interior designers and painters and people that just generally like to create and build with their hands.

Did you study design at school?

Initially, when I started college, I dove deep into marketing. However, I quickly found out, after taking macro-economics and a plethora of other numbers-based courses, that the business side of marketing was not at all interesting to me. I then started taking a bunch of creative communication classes that included various advertising and graphic design courses, and quickly felt much more at home. Ultimately, a lot of my design education was self-taught, but at school I learned the basic process of working on creative projects that really stuck with me.

What were you doing before you joined Candlewick?

I worked with the creative team at Atomicdust, a branding and marketing agency in St. Louis, Missouri. I definitely learned the ins and outs of the creative process while there. We had a great array of clients that allowed us to flex our creative muscles in a variety of ways as we came up with messaging and then decided the best ways to get that message out. Learning how to boil down a company’s entire purpose/goals/soul into a clear message was great experience for what I do now: communicating an entire book’s essence through its jacket.


Before you were designing books professionally, you started New Cover, a self-initiated project redesigning the covers of some of your favourite books. Was your goal to get a job in publishing?

Ultimately. It was really driven from the fact that I love to read and I love design, and it had always been a secret “dream-job” ambition of mine to make of career of combining the two. Part of my job at Atomicdust was hiring designers, and as a result, I was sent tons of resumes and portfolios. Every once in a while, there would be someone who didn’t have any work to show but was still looking for a job, but you can’t really hire a designer without seeing any of their work. And then it hit me; if I wanted publishers to hire me to design book covers, they weren’t just going to do it because they saw that I could design websites and brochures. They would need to see book covers. So I picked a few of my favorite books and started creating new covers for them. The project was featured on a couple of design blogs and then spiralled from there into real work from publishers.

Can you tell me a little bit about Candlewick Press and what it’s like to work there?

Candlewick has all of the best elements of a smaller company mixed with the structure of a larger corporate company. There are about 95 employees in total and we’re all on one huge floor of a building in Davis Square, a sort of hipster-y area right outside of Boston. It’s a really open and encouraging environment that gives me the freedom to fully visualize the design ideas I have for titles. We’re the companion company to Walker Books in the UK as well as Walker Australia, so occasionally we’ll take on some of their titles and vice versa, or we’ll coordinate a global launch for a title that we will all be simultaneously publishing. It also means we have an almost never-ending source of imported chocolates and cookies coming to the office via visitors from our other branches.

How many designers work in your office?

The art department has about 15 designers, a majority of who work primarily on picture books. I mostly work on young adult and middle grade fiction and a non-fiction title every now and then.


Did you ever think you would make a career of designing kids’ books?

Looking back at previous jobs, you can definitely see all of the stepping stones that got me here. In high school, I worked in the children’s room of my town’s library. Then, during college, I worked at a preschool. So I’ve always sort of been surrounded by kids’ books. That, paired with graphic design in college and at Atomicdust, and it makes sense.

Can you describe your process for designing a book cover?

First, I read the book. I like to think that the jacket idea is already there in the text somewhere and I just have to find it and bring it to fruition. Once I’ve read the manuscript, I start sketching out ideas both on paper and on my computer. Sometimes I have a really clear initial vision of what the cover should look like and the final cover ends up looking pretty similar. Other times, I won’t have as clean-cut of an initial idea, so I’ll do really broad image searches based on a few keywords I’ve written down while reading just to get the wheels turning. It’s hard to say where ideas come from. The ultimate goal is to make a finished product that would catch someone’s eye, regardless of who the specific audience is. If I can make it interesting enough for anyone to pick up, I’ve done my job.


What are your favourite kinds of projects to work on?

Anything that’s a little off. As a reader, I like stories where about 75% of what’s going on seems normal and then there’s this gray space remaining where something unexpected/bizarre/weird is happening. It’s why I like books like The Prestige, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, A Tale for the Time Being, and the TV show LOST. So story-wise, those are projects I get the most excited about. Also, anytime a book is part of Launch (the titles that the publisher is really pumped about) because that ultimately means they’re willing to try different things to set the book apart. Whether it’s a die-cut through the case for More Than This, or a ¾ jacket wrapped around a printed case, or stamping the entire design in foil, I enjoy playing with the materials in new ways.

Who are some of your design heroes?

Chip Kidd, Jonathan Gray, Peter Mendelsund. Their designs are always interesting, unique and more often than not, little works of art.


Who else do you think is doing interesting work right now?

Will Staehle and Oliver Munday. They are two people that whenever I see their name on a book jacket, I’m simultaneously super excited to see a great cover and also maddeningly jealous of their innate talent that makes it look so easy. I haven’t seen a cover of theirs that I don’t like.

Is there a particular author or a book you’d like to design (or redesign!) a cover for?

Hmm, this is tough. I feel like a lot of them I did as part of New Cover back in the day, although I should revisit some of those and the questionable design decisions I made at the time. Some of those author names are in such a tiny point size that I just laugh thinking about it now. I would love to take on a series redesign as it’s something I haven’t gotten the chance to do professionally.

What’s in your ‘to read’ pile?

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell! I’ve been anticipating this book for a while after reading and falling in love with his novel Cloud Atlas. A coworker was able to grab an ARC of the The Bone Clocks at BEA, so I’m currently immersed in it. I’m also looking forward to the new Murakami book coming out in a few months. And, after numerous people have told me that they can’t believe I haven’t read it yet, The Lost City of Z is the next book I’m reading.


Do you have a system for organizing your books?

A few years back, I saw a floating pile of books on a wall in a design store and thought it was genius. Then, like I do with most things, I went overboard and bought 15 of them to hang over my desk. (See photo) They’re perfect for displaying some of my books in a way that’s a little different than normal. I try and fill them with a good mix of books I love and books that are visually amazing, and then put the majority of my other books in these three huge old steel lockers I have. One day, I will have a room with shelves going up every wall and a rolling ladder that I can ride around on like Belle does in the beginning of Beauty and the Beast and then I will truly be happy.

What’s the one book you recommend to everyone?

Cloud Atlas. It’s one where I would pause after reading a sentence and look out the window and contemplate life and just wonder how anyone could possibly be this good at writing. If you only saw the movie and hated it, go read the book. Before that, A Confederacy of Dunces. The dialogue is hysterical and I don’t remember laughing more at a book in my entire life.


What does the future hold for book cover design?

I think regardless of how popular ebook readers become, there’s always going to be those titles that people want to buy a physical copy of. Maybe this means, as an industry, we make fewer (but more special) physical versions of books, which I don’t necessarily see as a bad thing. I’m a big believer in quality over quantity and if we want people to buy physical books, they need to be everything that they can’t get in an ebook: the materials should be exceptional, the design should be a work of art, the interior should have (gasp!) well thought out margins. It should be something they want to display. On the flip side, there’s always going to be an audience that only cares about the content. They don’t want stacks of books everywhere, don’t want to lug them around, don’t care (gasp!) about margins. I can understand all of that. But there will still be a need for associating some sort of image with the book. I can’t/don’t want to imagine a future where there’s just a long text list of titles that people choose from with no accompanying visual. When that day comes, you can find me barricaded in my own personal library, muttering to myself as I zoom around on my rolling ladder.

Thanks Matt!

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