The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

March 17, 2015
by Dan

Recovering a Lost Typeface

In this short video for the BBC, designer Robert Green talks about his reconstruction of the lost Doves Press typeface:

March 12, 2015
by Dan
1 Comment

Five Designers, One Illustrator, Two Letterers and More Than a Hundred Versions of a Jacket


If you’ve ever wondered quite how many iterations a cover can go through before the final one is chosen, this video cycles through a multitude of design ideas for the US edition of Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum published by Random House this month:

“I worked with five designers, one illustrator and two letterers on more than a hundred versions of the jacket,” Robbin Schiff, executive art director at Random House, told Mashable. “The final design, with its stark Swiss typography against the moody and lush floral grouping, conveys a sensual but claustrophobic atmosphere”.1

And, if you’re interested, you also read about the cover of the UK edition created by Maricor/Maricar (pictured below) on the Picador Blog. The whole process sounds a little less… fraught.


UPDATE: Thank you to the folks at Random House for letting me know that the final cover for the US edition was designed by the talented Gabrielle Bordwin. The video was created by Caroline Teagle.

March 11, 2015
by Dan

Comma Queen

The New Yorker has launched a new video series “devoted to language in all its facets” called Comma Queen. In the first episode, copy editor Mary Norris talks about commas, the “little squiggle” with “a history rich in controversy”:


On a related note, Julia Holmes reviews Mary Norris’ book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, for the New Republic:

copy-editing can also be a soul-crushing enterprise. Not the work itself, which is perfectly pleasant and definitely necessary, but the surprising and strictly enforced class system that almost always accompanies it. Magazines are rigidly hierarchical places, no matter how outwardly easygoing and free-spirited and ad hoc they may endeavor to look on a visit to the office. A funny thing about publishing is that it’s populated almost exclusively by frustrated writers. It’s a kind of slow-burn Stanford Prison Experiment, in which former English majors are randomly assigned the roles of language guard and word prisoner, affirming once more how quickly and insanely people will adapt to new, relative states of power and powerlessness.

Mary Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, illuminates this shadow world at last. It’s part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at The New Yorker (where Norris has worked as a copy editor since 1978). “One of the things I like about my job,” she writes, “is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey.”

Norris exemplifies what David Foster Wallace observed in “Authority and American Usage”: “We tend to like and trust experts whose expertise is born of a real love for their specialty instead of just a desire to be expert at something.”

March 10, 2015
by Dan

The Book Thieves of London

At The Dabbler, gentleman bookseller Steerforth recalls his run-ins with book thieves over the years:

After a while I became quite good at spotting the biblioklepts. Sometimes they gave themselves away through their body language, other times it was their appearance. One thief was dressed as a respectable businessman but his shoes were shabby and when I scrutinised him further I could see that he was wearing a charity shop suit. Our eyes met and he realised that he’d been rumbled. Later I mentioned this incident to someone in another bookshop and they said ‘Ah yes, the Businessman.’ He was well-known.

The most successful thieves were, of course, the ones we never saw. Someone used to steal entire shelves of books during Thursday lunchtimes – one week it was Nabokov, another Terry Pratchett – presumably in order to furnish another bookshop. Although we became obsessive about checking everyone who entered the shop, we never caught them.

We had regular thieves at both bookshops I worked in too. I don’t think any of them were quite as colourful as ‘the Businessman’ sadly.

March 9, 2015
by Dan

Ladybird: Designed for Small, Tiny Hands


As previously mentioned, Ladybird By Design is an exhibition of over 200 of original book illustrations from the late 1950s to early 1970s currently on display at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea.

In this short film, Lawrence Zeegen, curator of the exhibition and author of the accompanying book, and Jenny Pearce, daughter of former Ladybird editorial director Douglas Keen, talk about the history of Ladybird and what made the books so special:

March 8, 2015
by Dan

William Gibson on Authenticity


I’d be the first to admit that I didn’t really get on with William Gibson’s latest novel The Peripheral, but I really enjoyed his ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy — Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History.

Interestingly, the (fictional) Buzz Rickson MA-1 flight jacket worn by Cayce Pollard, the protagonist in Pattern Recognition, led to the Japanese clothing company working with Gibson to manufacture a line of clothes (including the aforementioned black MA-1) inspired by the author. In this fascinating interview with Rawr Denim, the author discusses Buzz Rickson, Japanese pop culture, workwear, authenticity and more:

“Authenticity” doesn’t mean much to me. I just want “good”, in the sense of well-designed, well-constructed, long-lasting garments. My interest in military clothing stems from that. It’s not about macho, playing soldiers, anything militaristic. It’s the functionality, the design-solutions, the durability. Likewise workwear.

Military clothing is built to strict contract, but with the manufacturer cutting ever corner they can without violating the specifications. The finishing on a Rickson reproduction is exponentially superior to the finishing on most of the originals, and I’d much rather have a brand-new exact copy that’s more carefully assembled…

…[In] 1947 a lot of American workingmen wore shirts that were better made than most people’s shirts are today. Union-made, in the United States. Better fabric, better stitching. There were work shirts that retailed for fifty cents that were closer to today’s Prada than to today’s J.Crew. Fifty cents was an actual amount of money, though. We live in an age of seriously crap mass clothing. They’ve made a science of it.

March 7, 2015
by Dan

Giving Up


Tom Gauld for the New York Times.

March 7, 2015
by Dan

Jason Booher: “being a book cover designer is possibly the best job in the world.”


At the AIGA’s Eye on Design blog, Margaret Rhodes talks to Jason Booher, art director of Penguin imprint Blue Rider Press, about book cover design:

The key to creating stellar covers, according to Booher, is to first throw out the tired adage about not judging books by them. “Graphic design is really about selling things,” he says. Lest that sound soulless, the good news here is that Booher is selling other people’s creative ideas. And while every book is unique, Booher says he starts by reading the six or so manuscripts he gets per season, and then mentally digests them all. “You read it, you try and find the soul of the book, something that makes it special, and make it come alive,” he says.

March 6, 2015
by Dan

ABCD Award Winners 2015

Congratulations to all the winners at last night’s Academy of British Cover Design Awards!


Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton; design by Chris Haughton (Walker Books / March 2014)

Young Adult

Spiders by Tom Hoyle; design by Rachel Vale; illustration by Sam Hadley (PanMacmillan / November 2014)

Sci-Fi / Fantasy

Wolves by Simon Ings; design by Nick May; illustration by Jeffery Alan Love (Gollancz / January 2014)

Mass Market

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway; design Glenn O’Neill (William Heinemann / May 2014 )

Literary Fiction

Badmouth  by Alan Wall; design by Jamie Keenan (Harbour Books / January 2014)

Crime / Thriller

The Black-Eyed Blonde
The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black; design by Jonathan Pelham (Mantle / February 2014)


Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi; design by by Caz Hildebrand and Sakiko Kobayashi / Here Design (Ebury Press / September 2014)

Series Design

Gollancz Simon Ings; design by Nick May; illustration by Jeffery Alan Love

(Above: City of Iron Fish. Gollancz / April 2014 )


Classics / Reissue

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka; design by Jamie Keenan (W. W. Norton / February 2014)

Women’s Fiction (Joint Winners)

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews; design by Helen Crawford-White / Studio Helen (Faber & Faber / June 2014)

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent; design by James Annal ( Picador / March 2014 )

Well done Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan for organizing the awards. All the shortlisted covers — selected by judges Mark Ecob, Yeti Lambregts, David Mann, Richard Ogle, Donna Payne, Rafi Romaya, Henry Steadman, Jim Stoddart, Rachel Vale,  and Claire Ward  —  can be found on the ABCD website.

You can see the 2014 winners here.

March 5, 2015
by Dan

Vintage Feminism


Earlier this month Vintage UK published new editions of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecroft.

As CMYK, the Vintage design blog, revealed, these new editions were designed in-house by the talented Mr. Matthew Broughton, and feature black and white photography by Anton Stankowski on The Beauty Myth and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Joy Gregory on my personal favourite, The Second Sex.

Interestingly, Vintage have also published  smaller format ‘short editions’ of the same three books — The Second Sex, The Beauty Myth, and  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman — featuring key extracts from the main texts.

In contrast to the sharp photographic covers above, the short editions feature illustrated covers designed by Gray318 with something of retro, E. McKnight Kauffer or Alvin Lustig, feel:



March 4, 2015
by Dan

Aldus Manutius and the Roots of the Paperback


The New York Times visits ‘Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting Than Bronze‘, an exhibition of nearly 150 books from the press Aldus founded in Venice in 1494:

Gutenberg may have invented the movable-type printing press, used to create his monumental Bibles. But anyone who has ever sat in a cafe, or in the bath, with a paperback owes a debt to Aldus and the small, cleanly designed editions of the secular classics he called libelli portatiles, or portable little books.

“It’s become a cliché to call them the forerunners of the Penguin Classics,” G. Scott Clemons, the president of the Grolier Club, said during a recent tour of the installation in progress. “But the concept of personal reading is in some ways directly traceable to the innovations of Aldus’s portable library…”

…The Aldine Press, in its start-up phase, emphasized Greek and Latin lexicons and grammar manuals. In 1495, Aldus began publishing the first printed edition of Aristotle. In 1501, he released the first of his small octavo editions of the classics, books “that could be held in the hand and learned by heart (not to speak of being read) by everyone,” as he later wrote. The show includes 20 libelli portatiles, all bearing Aldus’s printer’s mark, a dolphin curled around an anchor. (The colophon is still used today by Doubleday.) Some of the books were treated as treasures, and customized with magnificent decoration that harked back to the tradition of illuminated manuscripts. Others were workaday volumes, filled with marginal scribbles….

…Aldus’s contributions to the art of printing [include the] first italic typeface, which he created with the type cutter Francesco Griffo, a shadowy fellow who broke with Aldus acrimoniously and then slugged a man to death with an iron bar before reputedly meeting his own demise at the end of a hangman’s rope. Italics, which were intended to mimic the humanist handwriting of the day, first appeared in a modest five words in a 1500 edition of the letters of St. Catherine and soon spread to other Aldines, and beyond.

And then there was the roman typeface devised for a 1496 book by the humanist scholar Pietro Bembo — the inspiration for the modern font Bembo, still treasured by book designers for its grace and readability.

“The book itself is almost frivolous,” Mr. Clemons said of the text, which recounts a trip to Mount Etna. “But it launched that very modern typeface.”

The exhibition runs until April 25, 2015.

March 3, 2015
by Dan
1 Comment

Book Covers of Note March 2015

Here is March’s selection of new and noteworthy covers. It’s a little bit of the Merto and Mendelsund show I’ll admit, but I assure you there really are some brilliant covers by other designers this month too!

The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah; design by Leo Nickolls (Doubleday / March 2015)

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson; design by Kimberly Glyder (Harper / March 2013  killed)

Discontent and its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid; design by Rachel Willey (Riverhead / February 2015)

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert; design by Patti Ratchford; illustration by Eric Nyquist (Bloomsbury / February 2015)

I also loved Eric’s ‘H is for Hawk’ illustration in the February 22nd edition of The New York Times Book Review.

The Four Books by Yan Lianke; design by Matt Broughton (Chatto & Windus / March 2015)

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link; design by Alex Merto (Random House / February 2015)

The Highway of Despair by Robyn Marasco; design by Jennifer Heuer (Columbia University Press / March 2015)

Holy Cow by David Duchovny; design by Rodrigo Corral; illustration and lettering by Natalya Balnova (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / February 2015)

I Am Sorry to Think I Raised a Timid Son by Kent Russell; design by Peter Mendelsund; hand lettering by Janet Hansen; photography by George Baier IV (Knopf / March 2015)

The Knife by Ross Ritchell; design by Alex Merto (Blue Rider Press / February 2015)

(Camouflage book covers are the New Thing!)

The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi; design by Jaya Miceli (Scribner / March 2015)

A Letter to a Future Lover by Ander Monson; design by Marian Bantjes (Graywolf / February 2015)

Layout 1
The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov; design by David Pearson (Pushkin Press / March 2015)

Making Nice by Matt Sumell; design by Gray318 (Henry Holt & Co. / February 2015)

One Day in the Life of the English Language by Frank L. Cioffi; design by Chris Ferrante (Princeton University Press / March 2015)

The Poser by Jacob Rubin; design by Will Staehle (Viking / March 2015)

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy; design by Peter Mendelsund (Knopf / February 2015)

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson; design by Matt Dorfman (Riverhead / March 2015)

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright; design by Ceara Elliot (Corsair / March 2015)

The Unloved by Deborah Levy; design by Katya Mezhibovskaya; photograph by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison (Bloomsbury / March 2015)

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma; design by Connie Gabbert (Algonquin Books / March 2015)

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach; Lucy Ruth Cummins; photographer Meredith Jenks (Simon & Schuster / March 2015)

The version of this cover which caught my eye was actually wordless — and I believe that was the designer’s original intention — so I’m a wee bit disappointed that the publisher didn’t quite have the courage to follow through on that.

Worst Person Ever by Douglas Coupland; design by Alex Merto (Plume / March 2015)

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