The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

September 29, 2014
by Dan

Q & A with Dan Mogford

Filthy English
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you will surely have a come across the work of London-based freelance designer Dan Mogford before. His work — including covers for 419 by Will Ferguson, All Over the Map by Michael Sorkin, and Filthy English by Peter Silverton (pictured above, and now available as a poster should need the swears on your wall) — has been featured here on numerous occasions over the years. A longer feature on Dan’s work has felt overdue for some time now, and so I’m very pleased to finally have Q & A with the designer himself on the blog today. Dan and I corresponded by email…


Do you remember when you first became interested in design?
Although I was exposed to design from a young age. I was always sure I would end up in a scientific career – I was all set on becoming an oceanographer or marine biologist, then around the age of 16 I was given a black and white darkroom kit by a friend of the family and was hooked on the whole process immediately. Within a year I’d applied and been accepted onto a foundation art course despite the fact I was doing science and maths A-levels. This was also around the time that Pixies came screaming onto the indie music scene and Vaughan Oliver and Simon Larbalestier’s bonkers, twisted, dark and sexy artwork for the albums struck a chord with my tortured 18-year-old psyche…

Was anyone else in your family creative?
My father was an engraver for The Royal Mint, first in London then later in Wales where we relocated when I was 4. He designed and engraved coins and commemorative medals for a variety of countries and organisations around the world so I spent a lot of time watching him hand-lettering then intricately carving type and images into these large plaster discs, which would later be somehow magically turned into little metal stamps for coin minting.

Did you study design at school?
When I finished secondary (high) school I went off to do a one year art foundation course with a fantastic array of tutors and access to screen printing, etching and some very clunky early Macs (1991!) which eventually lured me away from the darkrooms. From there I went to Central Saint Martins to study Graphic Design after I realised that type didn’t just belong on a label underneath photographs.


Are your kids interested in design?
My wife is a textile designer so their exposure to art & design has been a constant, whether it’s books at home or trips to galleries and visits to friends who work in similar fields. I’m secretly hoping one or all of them will rebel and go into law or marine biology though.

Where did you start your career?
During the second year of my degree course I wrote to the art departments of virtually every major publishing house in London asking for a summer holiday work placement/internship – only one of them replied! I did 3 seperate placements with the Pan Macmillan design crew thanks to the lovely Art Director Fiona Carpenter. When I left college Fiona put me in touch with a design studio called The Senate where I ended up working for 4 years on predominantly book related projects for the likes of Penguin, Random House and Macmillan – among many others.


Why did you decide to go freelance?
I went freelance in January 2000, bitten by millenium fever and the realisation that I’d gone about as far as I could in the small design studio I was at. I think being freelance was for me inevitable as I’ve never been very good at being told what to do by other people! I’m lucky it worked out for me, I’ve had certain clients since I went freelance fourteen (!) years ago and have worked with a huge variety of brilliant people in that time. Also some idiots.

What advice would you give a designer thinking about going out own on their own?
If you’re considering it then you’re halfway there. Don’t overthink it, don’t fret, go for it. What’s the worse that could happen?

Sicilian Uncles

What are your favourite kinds of projects?
I seem to have worked on quite a few series designs in the last couple of years and have realised that I really enjoy the challenge and constraints that entails. I like solving the problem of branding a set of books that hang together while still letting each have their own distinct, individual voice – and it really appeals to the collector in me.


What kind of books present the greatest creative challenges?
Again a series design can be challenging but very rewarding if you crack it. I’m really not a fan of the hastily written brief with a scattering of Amazon thumbnails ‘for reference’ and a ‘do whatever’ undertone. You’d think that carte blanche was a gift to a designer but those jobs always end up rumbling on and becoming headaches as there’s been no thought about a clear direction or postioning for the book. Some constraints are a good thing to rub against and work with.

Can you describe your process for designing a book cover?
Sketching and doodling and hot shower meditation. I always draw lots of scrappy little thumbnails of ideas as they occur to me along with word lists and diagrams with arrows linking things. Lots of arrows for some reason… When I have a good feeling about an idea I’ll refine it to a more polished visual on the Mac to a point where it can go into a cover meeting by itself and face the scrutinity of the meeting without me there to defend or excuse it. Then of course comes the email requesting a few tweaks and so it goes on. Occasionally a great idea will survive the sales department waterboarding unscathed – that makes it all worthwhile.


Do you approach music packaging differently from book covers?
I think they’re actually very similar disciplines in that you’re trying to distill the essence of the thing into a visual that will connect with people in some way while respecting the content that another person has poured a good chunk of their life into creating. I think as with great book designs the conent and the package can become inextricably linked but record design can only do so much – music can be quite resistant to visual interpretation, more so than the written word I think.

A Human Being Died

You were suddenly taken ill at the end of 2012. Have you fully recovered?
For anyone who hasn’t yet been bored to tears by my health history, I had a heart infection which came out of the blue and very nearly killed me. I had open-heart surgery followed by several months of hospitalisation and recovery but can safely say I’m 99% back to the stubborn, easily distracted muppet I was before my illness. Thanks for asking.

Did your illness change your approach to work? Do have a different perspective on it than before?
Absolutely. I’m a lot less tolerant of bad clients! I sacked a few within a couple of months of getting back to work properly and am much more picky about who I work with and what on. Life actually is too short. I’ve also started a little sideline business producing art prints from my collection of printed ephemera and packaging because it makes me happy and the marketing department consists of ME.

Who are some of your design heroes?
Vaughan Oliver is the main reason I got into this graphic design lark. He let me shadow him at 4AD for a day while I was doing my design degree which only confirmed his likeability and genius.

Also: Lustig, Sagmeister, Conran, Kidd.


Who do you think is doing interesting work right now?
In terms of book design, I’m not going to stroke/stoke the egos of the UK book design Mafia anymore, they know who they are and they’re all bloody fabulous people and constanly inspiring. Same goes for that lot over the pond. Bastards. Also more generally: Dan Cassaro, Elana Schlenker, Rob Lowe, Marcus Walters, Steven Wilson, Dan Matutina

What‘s in your ‘to read’ pile?
I’m gradually working my way through a list of classics I feel I should really have read by this point in my life – I’ve just finished Jamaica Inn and made a start on Love in the Time of Cholera. I also have a few classic ghost stories lined up for the darkening autumn evenings…


Do you have system for organizing your books?
None whatsoever. I love having slippery piles of books all around my studio. They give off a barely discernible warmth and are good company now I work alone.

Do you have a favourite book?
Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series were the first books I remember my mum reading to me as a child. She carefully kept them in pristine condition and I’ve just finished reading them to my son Milo who adored them too.

What does the future hold for book cover design?
I think we’re at an interesting point in the story of books and their covers. I’m certainly being asked to consider the whole book package more frequently than I once was – things like cloth colours and foils on hardbacks as well as endpaper designs, varnishes and other little flourishes that make the physical book the covetable item an ebook can never be. Some design briefs demand that the cover works strongly as an Amazon thumbnail which is an interesting constraint akin to designing stamps or matchbox labels – a reductive process and simplification that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t think books as objects are going to vanish any time soon and whatever happens down the line – products physical or digital – will always be packaged.

Thanks Dan!

September 25, 2014
by Dan

Beasts! Reptiles and Amphibians

As a Friday follow-up to Tuesday’s post on wild beasts, here’s a look at reptiles and amphibians on book covers:


Alligator by Lisa Moore; design by Bill Douglas (House of Anansi Press / September 2005)

The Andalucian Friend by Alexander Söderberg; design by Ben Wiseman (Crown / May 2014)

Ashland Final
Ashland by Gil Adamson; design by David Gee (ECW / April 2011)

Bitter Drink by F. G. Haghenbeck; design by David Drummond (Amazon / July 2012)

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi; design by Helen Yentus (Riverhead / March 2014)

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck; design by Kathryn MacNaughton (Penguin / January 2012)

City of Snakes by Darren Shan; design by Catherine Casalino ( Grand Central / June 2011)

Cold Blood
Cold Blood by Richard Kerridge; design by James Paul Jones (Chatto & Windus / May 2014)

Crime by Irvine Welsh; design by Matt Broughton (Vintage / August 2009)

Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov; design by Nathan Burton (Alma Classics / July 2014)

The Devil’s Horn by Michael Segell; design by Henry Sene Yee (Picador / August 2006)

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue; design by Keith Hayes (Little Brown & C0. / April 2014)

The Good Angel of Death by Andrey Kurkov; illustration by Pablo Amargo (Vintage / August 2010)

The Hard Light of Day by Rod Moss; design by Sandy Cull / gogoGingko (University of Queensland Press / October 2011)

The Heaven of Animals by James Poissant; design by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich (Simon & Schuster / March 2014)

In the Valley of the Kings by Terrence Holt; design by David High (W. W. Norton / September 2009)

Buchanan-Smith LLC
Life Ascending by Nick Lane; design by Buchanan-Smith LLC (W. W. Norton / June 2009)

Mad Hope by Heather Birrell; design by Ingrid Paulson (Coach House Books  / April 2012)

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith; design by Mark Ecob (Abacus / June 2003)

No Pain Like This Body by Harold Sonny Ladoo; design by Brian Morgan; illustration Jillian Tamaki (Anansi / September 2013)

Paradise Lost by John Milton;  design by Emily Mahon; illustration by Silja Goetz (Modern Library / November 2008)

Poking a Dead Frog by Mike Sacks; design by Jim Tierney (Penguin / June 2014)

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert; design by David Mann (Bloomsbury / February 2014)

The Snake Charmer by Jamie James; design by Paul Buckley (Hyperion / July 2008)

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

Swamplandia by Karen Russell; illustration by Stacey Rozich; art direction James Paul Jones (Vintage / March 2012)

Birds and Bugs are next!

September 23, 2014
by Dan


Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my! I’m kicking off a new series today on animal book covers. The first post is on ‘beasts’ — mostly ‘wild’ beasts, but one or two more domesticated (and dead) animals may have nosed their way in. Other posts series will look at birds, bugs, reptiles and amphibians, and quite possibly sea creatures and farm animals (unless someone pays me a large amount of money to stop before that). Thanks to all the designers, ADs, publicists and others who have been helping me with images and credits. If you notice that some information about a cover is missing, please let me know.

American Spirit by Dan Kennedy; design by Gabrielle Bordwin (New Harvest / May 2013)

Animals of My Own Kind by Harry Thurston; design by David Drummond (Vehicule Press / April 2010)

Annabel by Kathleen Winter; design by Bill Douglas (Anansi / June 2010)

Beasts! by Jacob Covey; design by Jacob Covey / Unflown (Fantagraphics / February 2007)

The Bedside Book of Beasts by Graeme Gibson; design by Scott Richardson (Doubleday Canada / October 2009)

Brothers & Beasts edited Kate Bernheimer; design by Isaac Tobin; illustration by Lauren Nassef (Wayne State University Press / January 2008)

Caribou by Charles Wright; design by Jeff Clark / Quemadura (FSG / March 2014)

Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn; design by Sharon King-Chai (Electric Monkey / June 2013)

chronic city
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem; design by Miriam Rosenbloom (Faber & Faber / December 2009)

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland; design by gray318 (Penguin / January 2008)

Doppler by Erlend Loe; design by Nicolas Cheetham (Anansi / October 2012)

Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin; design by Kelly Blair (Melville House / April 2007)

The Extinction Club by Jeffrey Moore; design by Michel Vrana (Hamish Hamilton Canada / April 2010)

Feral by George Monbiot; design by Jim Stoddart (Penguin / May 2013)

The Good Suicides by Antonio Hill; design by Christopher Brand (Crown / June 2014)

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

Goya’s Dog by Damian Tarnopolsky; design by David Gee (Penguin Canada / August 2007)

Hope A Tragedy
Hope A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander; design by John Gall (Riverhead Books / January 2012)

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle; design by Emily Mahon; illustration by SHOUT (Modern Library / October 2002)

Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle; design by Coralie Bickford-Smith; illustration by Despotica (Penguin / March 2008)

How I Came to Haunt My Parents by Natalee Caple; design by David Gee (ECW / May 2011)

Hunger by Lincoln Townley; design by Matt Johnson (Simon & Schuster / May 2014)

Jaguars and Electric Eels by Alexander Von Humboldt; design by David Pearson; illustration by Victoria Sawdon (Penguin / February 2007)

Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis
Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis by Robin Richardson; design by Natalie Olsen / Kisscut Design (ECW / September 2013)

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch; design by gray318 (Canongate / March 2011)

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling; design by Alice Stevenson (Penguin India / 2014)

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa; illustration by Hans Tillman (Vintage / September 2007)

Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith; design by Mark Ecob (Abacus / August 2003)

Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches; design by Keith Hayes (Little Brown & Co / December 2012)

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi design by Helen Yentus with Jason Booher (Riverhead / September 2011)

Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood; design by Kelly Hill (McClelland & Stewart / September 2009)

Natural Acts by David Quammen; design by John Fulbrook III (W. W. Norton / May 2009)

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane; design by Charlotte Strick (Faber & Faber / October 2013)

Layout 1
Off Course by Michelle Huneven; design by Rodrigo Corral; photograph by Gregori Maiofis (FSG / March 2014)

The Orphan Masters Son by Adam Johnson; design by Lynn Buckley (Random House / January 2012)

Panther by David Owen; design by gray318 (Constable and Robinson / May 2015)

Pastoralia by George Saunders; design by Rodrigo Corral (Riverhead / June 2001)

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

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow; design by Susan Dean; illustration Natasha Michaels (William Heinemann / August 2007)

A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright; design by Bill Douglas (Anansi / October 2004)

Station Eleven by Emily  St. John Mandel; design by Nathan Burton (Picador / September 2014)

Stories II by T. C. Boyle; design by Greg Heinimann (Bloomsbury / October 2013)

The Tattooed Soldier by Hector Tobar; design by Jim Tierney (Picador / October 2014)

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt; Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich (Dial Press / June 2012)

This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes; design by Paul Buckley (Penguin / April 2007)

Tigers in Eden by Chris Flynn; design by W.H. Chong (Text Publishing Co. / October 2013)

The Tiger's Wife-Tea Obreht
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht; design by James Paul Jones; illustration Wuon Gean Ho (Phoenix / March 2011)

Tooth and Claw by T. C. Boyle; design by Paul Buckley (Penguin / September 2005)

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland; design by Keith Hayes (Algonquin Books / May 2014)

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma; design by Alison Forner (Penguin / March 2014)

Wolves by Simon Ings; design and Illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love (Gollancz / January 2014)

September 19, 2014
by Dan

Self Initiated: Stanley Chow


Like their first film about illustrator and typographer Daren Newman, the second short in the ‘Self Initiated’ series by the folks from Manchester-based Daylight is about a local talent.

Even if you don’t immediately recognize Stanley Chow‘s name, you will have seen his illustrations for The New Yorker, Wired, and Entertainment Weekly among other places. Most likely, you have have seen his portraits of pop culture icons online too. In the film, Chow talks about his process, inspiration, and doing the work he loves:

You can buy prints of Stanley Chow’s work from his print shop.

September 19, 2014
by Dan

50 Books / 50 Covers 2013 Winners


If you’re an American book designer you probably know already that the winners of the 2013 Fifty Books / Fifty Covers show were announced yesterday.

Organized by Design Observer in association with AIGA and Designers & Books,  50/50, which recognizes the best work in contemporary book and book cover design, dates back to 1922, and is the oldest continuously operating graphic design competition in the United States. It is what you might call a ‘big deal.’

Of course, you can always quibble with lists like this — there are a some covers from last year that I loved that aren’t winners. But it’s wonderful to see book designers get some deserved recognition, and there are some great covers on the list that I overlooked.

Here are a few of my favourite 50 Covers winners that weren’t on my own 2013 list (nor in my postscript):

9780199811809-Thomas Ng
The Aesthetic Brain by Anjan Chatterjee; design by Thomas Ng (Oxford University Press)

No One is Here Except All of Us by Romana Ausubel; design by Gray318 (Riverhead)

Personae by Sergio De La Pava; design by Isaac Tobin (University of Chicago Press)

Shady Characters by Keith Houston; design by Jason Booher ((W. W. Norton & Company)

This and Other Plays by Melissa Gibson; design by Helen Yentus and Jason Booher (Theatre Communications Group)

September 18, 2014
by Dan

Mac Barnett: Why a good book is a secret door

I’m all about the charming videos today… In this recent TED Talk, Mac Barnett, award-winning author of Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale ProblemExtra Yarn, Telephone and the forthcoming Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, talks about childhood and making stories come alive:

September 18, 2014
by Dan

Alan Kitching and Monotype


Well, this is absolutely lovely — a short film about letterpress typographer, designer, artist (and accordion player) Alan Kitching, and a set of posters he created with Monotype to celebrate the centenary of five influential designers born in 1914: Tom Eckersley, Paul Rand, FHK Henrion, Josef Müller-Brockmann and Abram Games:

(via David Pearson)

September 11, 2014
by Dan

NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual Reissue


If you’ve been on Twitter for past couple of days you’ll have no doubt noticed that the design community (or the sizeable type-obsessed segment of it) is very excited that designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth, founders of, have started a Kickstarter project to reissue the 1970 NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual by Unimark’s Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda as a full-size, limited edition book:

Every single day, millions of New Yorkers rely on the subway to get around the city, and you can’t use the subway without encountering the signage designed by Unimark. Over the years many changes have taken place (such as the switch from Standard Medium to Helvetica), but it is a testament to the quality of the work that, 44 years later, the signage holds up.

And perhaps on a deeper level, the signage has given the subway a voice. When a lot of people think of New York City, these signs pop into their head. We feel a tremendous responsibility to publish not only an important piece of design history, but an important part of New York City’s history.

Even if you can’t afford the book itself — it starts at $133USD if you live in Canada, more if you are in the EU —  you can back the project for as little as $3, and the project’s video featuring Pentagram‘s Michael Bierut on the graphic standards manual is well worth watching:

You can also see scans from a copy of the manual discovered the basement of design firm Pentagram in 2012 on

September 9, 2014
by Dan

Type Safari with James Victore

While I’m posting typography videos, this is pretty fun too — designer James Victore tours around Brooklyn and Queens (in a jeep!) passing judgement on the local signs and street typography:

And if this is your thing, The Makeshift Society is organizing a series of evening events in Brooklyn about type and type design with a host of great speakers. (I guess we all need to move to Brooklyn!).

(via SwissMiss)

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