The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Jacob Covey, Art Director Fantagraphics Books

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I get excited just about every time I post an interview on The Casual Optimist (I am officially a cheap date), but it is a special thrill to post a Q & A with Jacob Covey, designer and Art Director at Fantagraphics.

Partly this is because I’m grateful that in defiance of all reason, publishing wisdom, cold, hard financial facts, bitter law suits, common sense and ‘good taste’, pioneering Seattle-based comics publisher Fantagraphics even exists.

Partly it’s an excuse (not that I really need one) to post Love + Rockets cover art.

And partly it’s because I thought there was a very real chance the interview wouldn’t happen.

But mostly it is because there is something about Jacob’s work — which combines the Chantry-esque DIY design aesthetic of skate art, gig posters, record sleeves, underground comix, zines and punk, with a Ware-like preoccupation with detail and precision — that resonates with me and fits so perfectly with Fantagraphics.

Needless to say, Jacob’s award-winning work has been featured in Print, Communication Arts and How.

We caught up over email…

How did you get into book design?

The germ of the thing started with working at the public library where I was a conspicuously slow page. I would look at every cover I was shelving, setting aside certain ones to check out and carry a few blocks away to a color photocopier. I liked having the inspiration around and I couldn’t afford to buy design books. This was around 1999, when I was beginning to study graphic design and at night was staying out late shooting photos of bands for record labels, local monthlies, and things like that. As for getting into book design professionally, in late 2003 I had just moved back to the Northwest after leaving a job in Los Angeles at a skate company. I was interviewing for a job to churn out ads at the local alternative weekly, The Stranger, and the Art Director, Joe Newton, kindly suggested that I instead talk to Gary Groth at Fantagraphics. They were looking for a new designer but apparently they were in no hurry to actually hire someone as I basically called relentlessly for six months. I think I was just the last man standing at the other end of the phone line so they hired me.

 Briefly, could you tell me about working at Fantagraphics?

If the publishing industry is a zoo, then Fantagraphics is the monkey house. It’s not a conventional workplace and you could get tetanus from walking barefoot but it’s a place where everyone is laboring out of love and there’s a lot of receptivity to trying new things and having your ideas heard. Much more so than I think is possible at most publishers. I have immense respect for the history of the company as an archivist of great work and I have the opportunity to deal with our publishing decisions on a regular basis. It’s satisfying in that way– but the office itself is a neglected three story house with 30 years of dusty artwork, ancient paste-ups, and discarded razor blades strewn about. So it’s not for everyone.

As for the work, Fantagraphics publishes the great cartoonists from Charles Schulz to R. Crumb, but as often as not I’m designing a book of paintings or a collection of pop culture artifacts or even the occasional prose novel.

You’re also a freelance designer. How is that different from your role as art director at Fanta

For one thing I’ve established myself with Fantagraphics enough that I know the material well and have to explain my decisions less. They’re very supportive and because of that I am mostly pushing myself to do better work. With my freelance clients there’s a lot more to learn from their needs and the process involves more time spent on researching and exploring ideas. The freelance work is also much more varied subject matter. For example, as I type this I’m working on the branding for a 2011 museum exhibition focusing on the band Nirvana, a non-fiction book cover for HarperCollins, a band t-shirt design, an AIGA event poster, and a book layout for a start-up imprint in the UK. There are a lot of other publishers I’d like to work with but I’m a pretty shoddy self-promoter.

 

Could you describe your design process?

In the case of Fantagraphics, I hate to say that most of the time there are so many projects on my plate that I’m just cranking the books out, trying to trust my instincts and learning from any mistakes. We have a list of about 50 books a year with only me and one other designer, Adam Grano, along with our works-through-the-night production guy, Paul Baresh, scanning and laying out everything from the books to the ads and supplying media requests — if we get behind schedule we rarely hire out for another designer, the book simply gets published late. So there’s a lot of pressure to just keep moving. The job requires a lot of discipline to approach books with an eye on getting them approved by the editor/artist without delays and yet still make them interesting. There is process but it’s very accelerated and it’s not unusual that I have to go with my first impulse for a book design and wish I had time to do a dozen more comps.

 

Is designing for reprint collections different than designing for new material?

Notably, the job description of a cartoonist and a graphic designer are similar in that they both work with text and images but the truth is very few cartoonists have a very developed design sense (just as my cartooning skills are sub par). Working with individual artists on original material can be a really rewarding collaboration or a Sisyphean attempt to improve an idea that the artist is married to. So, in truth, the deader the artist, the easier my job — reprint collections have a more dispassionate approval process.

What are your favourite books to work on?

I’m not sure that there’s any type of book that’s my favorite to work on but I’ve become very comfortable with the process that goes into art books in general. I just finished working on a very collaborative book of VHS box art with the collector/editor Jacques Boyreau and I enjoyed that. The subject matter itself isn’t necessarily what’s interesting to me but there was a long process of sitting with Jacques early on and determining the best way to showcase the work, which ended up being very austere, spotlighting the actual physical history of the boxes and conjuring the experience of seeing them in their element by retaining the old, beaten up boxes, plastered in rental stickers. Some of these boxes we had to prop back together from having been chopped up for those large plastic cases that were used in videostores. In the end, there was more of an anthropological story to looking at the boxes themselves rather than just the art that was on them.

This doesn’t work for every project but it’s great for receptive, collaborative editors. It’s fun to step into someone else’s fixation and figure out how to present the material more evocatively, in a way that will pull other people into what the editor loves about the subject. To design in a way other than plop-plop-plop, here are the images and some nice captions. Then I finish that book and it’s my job to find out and communicate what’s exciting about the next one.

How much say do the artists involved have in the design of their books?

Assuming the artists are involved in a given project, they generally have all the say they want. Fantagraphics publishes The Best and we have to respect the artists’ wishes and peccadilloes. They’re visual people so we usually end up with a good package, if not always a great one.

How are final cover decisions made at Fanta?

On a lot of projects I get more say than is customary for the Art Director but it ultimately rests on the in-house editor of the project and the outside artist or editor whose book it is. We all hash out our opinions about what works for the material and the market but we don’t really have scheduled meetings to sit down and scrutinize. Again, it’s all pretty swift moving.

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

Honestly I can’t seem to go on the web without being intimidated by all the talent that’s out there. I couldn’t list all the people. By far, the designer who most consistently floors me is Peter Mendelsund. The man works brilliantly in every genre thrown at him. I also have to say how happy I am that the Design Works Group guys are in nearby Oregon. I don’t know any other book designers here in Seattle so it’s great to have them around, making a good name for the Northwest.

Where do you look for inspiration and who are some of your design heroes?

I’m a cliché: Inspiration is wherever it turns up.

Art Chantry has been really important throughout my development and is someone whose talent and vision I admire a great deal. I think his influence shows up the most in my work, though not necessarily in the most obvious ways. Chantry, Lester Beall and the Constructivists were my heroes when I used to proclaim design heroes. I would definitely add Mendelsund and Paul Sahre to my contemporary list.

Of course you can’t work in comic book design without acknowledging the significance of two of the world’s most important contemporary designers, Chip Kidd and Chris Ware. They made it possible for me to do a lot of what I do with Fantagraphics.

Could you tell me a little about your personal project Beasts! ?

Beasts! is a classical bestiary of mythological creatures as depicted by some of my favorite contemporary artists from the worlds of comics, skate graphics, rock posters, children’s book illustration, the fine art world, et cetera. The first book is now in its fourth printing and the second and final volume came out in early 2009. Each book has ninety artists and four writers involved. I call myself the curator of the project as it’s more like an art exhibit than a standard art book. I wrote up brief descriptions based on my research of creatures, then the artists chose the creature that was most interesting to them and the writers would pen proper text based on historical references to the creatures. It’s a lot more serious than people seem to expect. I like these stories, I like that these creatures existed to someone who told the original story, and it was great to see them given form — a lot of the beasts are very obscure and before I got art from an artist there usually wasn’t any depiction to be found for a beast. There are also interviews with respectable experts like the marine biologist, artist, and writer Richard Ellis as well as contemporary eyewitnesses to some mysterious beasts.

Did you design the Beast! books as well as edit them?

Yes, except the Chinese edition that just came out. The publisher translated and totally repackaged it for that market. It was part of my intent with Beasts! to see what could come of a close working relationship between the editor and the designer on a book project. (Obviously I took that to the extreme by performing both roles.) Books are generally fairly linear, straight-forward affairs or sometimes they’re eccentric art books that end up feeling like design masturbation. I’m interested in what can happen somewhere in between these things that will engage the reader to enjoy multiple readings or even to just feel like more of a participant in the whole experience. There are a lot of interesting details that never make it into books simply because the designer isn’t involved with the editorial side or is otherwise not involved on a collaborative level.

What does the future hold for book cover design?

Everyone’s got an opinion on that and my voice would just be din. It’s hard to say if it’s like the film world facing VCRs or the music world facing MP3s but it’s not bleak to me.

Thanks Jacob!

You can find more of Jacob’s work on his website.

UPDATE: Jacob was kind enough to send me a few more images to accompany the interview and these have now been added to the original post.

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8 Comments

  1. Thanks! what an interview. It must be a pleasure to walk into work everyday with the knowledge that you will be repackaging the work of master comic artists. And I was especially appreciative of Jacob’s mention of the particular designers today that have allowed him to do what he does with his medium. There is no question that designers like Mendelsund and Ware opened the floodgates of what can be done with comic book compendiums/repackages and just the comic book medium period.

    now, if only I could get my hands on some of these…

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  7. Jacob is one of those ‘open’ talents: intimidatingly inspiring, extremely generous with praise and his time. Definitely someone to admire.

  8. Thanks for your comment Nate. Jacob is great. He’s always been very supportive of The Casual Optimist and really generous with his time when I’ve had questions for him… Actually I can say that about a lot designers I’ve met through the blog – yourself included. It blows me away how generous and supportive you’ve all been over the last 18 months. Amazing.

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