The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

April 2, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Shape: A Short Film about Design


Shape is a lovely short film about design. Designed and directed by Johnny Kelly, and written by Scott Burnett, the film was commissioned by PIVOT Dublin to encourage young people to think about the world around them and where design fits in:


Kelly and Burnett recently talked to Creative Review about the project:

The duo looked at other recent design films, including Helvetica, Urbanized and Press Pause Play. They also found influence in films from the past, including Why Man Creates by Saul Bass, and “pretty much every educational/informational film made for IBM in the 60s and 70s”, says Burnett. In the end it was Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten that proved most useful. “Powers of Ten did offer the eventual breakthrough but conceptually rather than visually,” says Burnett. “Eventually the only thing that made sense was to zoom out and not make design the subject, but have it instead as the invisible catalyst in the story. Once we realised that then a lot of the early ideas found their way into the story which we just made nice and simple – a day in the life where the changes that are happening around us all the time are made visible.”

You can find out more about the project at SHAPEMAKECHANGE.

March 31, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Q & A with Isabel Urbina Peña


If you’ve walked into a North American bookstore recently, or you’ve been paying attention to the book reviews on this side of the Atlantic, you will have no doubt seen the stylish black cover for All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu with its distinctive chalkboard lettering. Or perhaps you remember the hand-lettered cover for the Knopf edition of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri? It was one of my favourite covers of the past year. Both are the work of Venezuelan designer Isabel Urbina Peña. Now based in New York City, Isabel is a cover designer for Random House and creator of a typographic zine called Rants from a Stranger.

Since relaunching her website earlier this year, Isabel’s cover designs have been featured on numerous blogs already (including here), but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to her earlier this month about her work and career in greater depth.

Isabel and I corresponded by email. Here is our conversation:


Do you remember when you first became interested in design?

I think because of my parents, art was in my life since I can remember. But, when I was in 7th grade there was a big boom of internet start-ups in Venezuela and I remember clearly “deciding” that I wanted to be a graphic designer then…I was 13 and the concept of what graphic design was at the time was probably wrong, but that moment definitely steered me in this direction. Also, there was a moment in my “foundation year” in college where one of my type teachers talked about how the “typographer” was present in the page, but invisible to the reader and that just flipped a switch in my brain.

Is anyone else in your family creative?

Both of my parents are architects and they really motivated my sister and me creatively while growing up.

We spent half of our childhoods going to museums, plays, as well as ceramic, poetry and creative writing classes. My dad also paints and belongs to a drawing circle. When I was little he would sit with me and walk me through art books or give me a canvas and ask me to paint from inspiration, or even from some big painting like Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Paul Klee, Gauguin and Chagall are a few of the artists that I discovered through them when I was six or seven… I have to say my mind was blown, I still cherish those moments.


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

A ton. My dad also reads a LOT… So he wanted me to be “a reader.” I would get books for Christmas, birthdays, holidays, regular days…no Nintendo growing up… believe me that was tough, haha. He really sparked a love for reading and I would find new material everywhere; at my grandma’s I would read through all my uncle’s adventure books; at garage sales I started picking up Penguin paperbacks because they looked so simple and literary. Reading felt like something my dad and I shared, but it was also mine to discover.

Did you study design in Venezuela?

Yes, I studied at a small school called ProDiseño. Until very recently the “campus” was literally a two-flight house with a tub and a living room. Classes were really small, so everyone knew each other. The school started after a group of 80 students from IDD (Instituto de Diseño Neumann) left to start their own school. Neumann was founded by a large group of European immigrants who taught them design through the Bauhaus principles. Prodiseño had a very strong inclination towards clean, conceptual design. Everything had a purpose and “a why.” The content always came first; then the form. It was a very special experience and it prepared me to do anything (design, typography, illustration, animation, motion graphics…) and most importantly taught me to learn how to “think.” It was a very complete, Renaissance-style education.


Is there a strong arts/design community in Caracas?

Definitely, though it is a rather small one compared to New York City, it is very interesting.

There are a lot of events that support the arts and design and mostly DIY culture. A lot of self-proposed shows and collectives that put on parties with great visuals and self-produced posters. Also, a lot of zines and self-published publications are popping all over town.

How is living in New York different?

Well, New York is different in every way: from the variety of people you meet to the cultural experiences that are available to you. Living here, for me, has been a rich experience loaded with references of all kinds, and motivation. If anything it makes me expect more from myself and aim higher.

How long have you lived there?

This is my 6th year in New York, but it honestly feels like I just got here. Of course, I’ve learned so much and evolved, but it feels like it never gets old.


Does what’s going on in Venezuela worry you?

YES, I am glad you asked.

I am extremely worried by what’s going on in Venezuela and I think not enough people know about our situation. Protests started almost two months ago and people are being murdered and attacked on the streets daily and there doesn’t seem to be any change in the attitude of the current government. The truth is the people have the right to protest for the many problems that Venezuelan people are dealing with right now (the extreme insecurity they live in, the rapidly increasing inflation rates, the scarcity of many basic necessities and the extreme corruption, just to name a few) and the way that the government is handling this protests is, just, criminal. There are human right violations occurring left and right and even though there is proof (video and photos) for a lot of these events, the government is turning a blind eye and not doing anything to impart justice. Instead they focus their efforts in bullying opposition leaders and undermining the people’s rights. It is very, very sad and scary for all Venezuelan people and unfortunately change won’t come easily… but Venezuelans are still fighting hard, hopefully with a brighter future awaiting for all.

Can you describe your process for designing a book cover?

I start by reading the book and the TI (Title Info) sheet, getting familiar with the author and his backlist, if there is one. I take a bunch of notes and list ideas while and after I’m reading. I try to list everything—you never know when the “silliest” idea will spark something good. I’ll do a mood board and sketch a selection of these ideas in small (2 x 3 inches or so) detailed thumbnails with pencil and paper. Depending on the book, developing these ideas might be on or off the computer. I do a lot of paperback-size pencil sketches to define a lot of the lettering shapes and details.

Sometimes I will ink and do minimal clean up in the computer and sometimes I digitize the lettering in a font editing software and make the comps. Once I do that, I usually present a range of “developed” ideas and looks to my art director. We discuss if we need to adjust or tighten anything and then show the editors.


What are your favourite kinds of projects to work on?

Honestly, I am quite new at this, and I try to get the most out of any project. Figuring out what best represents the book I’m working on is one of the things I enjoy the most. That said, I really love doing all the cover art from scratch, and creating a “unique” design with custom lettering and illustrations.

Can you tell me about your zine “Rants from a Stranger”?

Rants from a Stranger is a self-published “booklet” inspired by zines, graphic novels, comics and the DIY culture. I like to call it a “typographic novel,” though it doesn’t really qualify as a graphic novel because of its length, and it is more on the zine realm. I love type and lettering and this was the perfect excuse to hand-letter more and produce a periodical self-published piece where I had full control of the creative direction.

I thought it would be fun and different to develop a series of “comics” without illustrations and solely use lettering as the “characters” of the story. So far there are two black and white issues and the third issue (special edition, in color) is coming out in late April as a collaboration with a very talented musician and artist from Venezuela, Mariana Martin Capriles, aka Mpeach. I’m really excited about this issue because of our collaboration, and also because it comes with a paper record player and a flexi EP record of her new song, “Boogaloo Mutante.”

Who are some of your design heroes?

Gerd Leufert, Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt) and Nedo Mión Ferraro were very important figures in my formation as a designer and I still look through their books every time I have a chance. Their students, now well known graphic designers, and former teachers of mine, like Álvaro Sotillo, Gabriela Fontanillas and Carlos Rodríguez have always inspired me through their impeccable work and dedication.

Doyald Young’s lettering work take my breath away, and old school type designers like W.A. Dwiggins and Frederic Goudy are daily inspirations.

Who do you think is doing interesting work right now?

So many brilliant folks out there! Freddy Arenas, my super talented other half, does amazing motion graphics and illustration.

In the cover design world, my co-workers are doing great stuff, all the time. Linda Huang, Joan Wong, Pablo Delcán, Kelly Blair, Megan Wilson, Peter Mendelsund, Carol Carson, Stephanie Ross… From the type, design, art and illustration world Jesse Ragan, Village, Kris Sowersby, OCD, Steve Powers (ESPO), Sergio Barrios, Wayne WhiteCraig Ward, Alex Trochut, Elizabeth Carey Smith, Gustavo Dao, Suzi Sadler, Ryan Bernis, Priyanka Batra, Sasha Prood, Ping Zhu, Victo Ngai, Elana Schenkler, Geoff McFetridge, Nobrow Press, quite a mix…

I could keep going…

What advice would you give a designer starting their career?

Try harder. I think it’s really important to be critical of your own work and be able to accept its faults. Always, strive for more and be hungry. At the same time, embrace your mistakes, learn from them and move on to the next project. I am a big fan of tweaking and fixing til the end of days… but sometimes you just have to learn to let go of projects and keep going. Erik van Blokland said to our Cooper Type class (regarding typeface design), “Release early and release often; recognize what you did wrong in the project and try again.” I remind myself to do that everyday.

I think you should always try to work in what you love and feel passionate about. Even if it means reinventing yourself and making up your own projects in your spare time. This is where the good work will be. Don’t be afraid to make changes and try different things if you need to.


What’s in your ‘to read’ pile?

I’m currently reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Inter Views by James Hillman. I really want to read Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt from this past season.

Someday, I’d love to re-read Cortazar’s Hopscotch (Rayuela) and all of Jorge Luis Borges.

The list goes on…

Do you have system for organizing your books?

Ha, no. I used to be very organized and had them alphabetically, color code them, etc… Those days are over… Nowadays, I move them around pretty often and they stay wherever they land.

Do you have a favourite book?

Not really a favourite single book, but I do have an influential shortlist: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, L’Étranger by Albert Camus, Cuentos de Amor, Locura y Muerte by Horacio Quiroga, Piedra de Mar by Francisco Massiani, Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges, Oscar Wilde’s Collection by Siruela (Biblioteca de Babel).

Thanks Isabel!

March 28, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Hold or fold


At the TLS, Leah Price reviews On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History by Nicholas A. Basbanes:

You may be reading this across a fold of paper, or you may be squinting at an electronic screen. Two centuries ago, the former would have seemed almost as futuristic as the latter. Wood-based paper wasn’t successfully patented until 1845, after inventors had cooked straw, boiled banana peels, crushed walnut shells and dried seaweed. The coinage “pulp fiction” followed once it became clear that the new technology produced pages more brittle than those manufactured from costlier linen rags. By the dawn of the digital age, W. J. T. Mitchell could dismiss books as “tree flakes encased in dead cow”.

Unlike those cows, however, paper remains in robust health. One reason is that it combines apparently irreconcilable properties – durability (it outlasts papyrus and floppy disks alike), portability (a precondition of modern postal systems) and foldability (one of Nicholas A. Basbanes’s most engrossing chapters concerns origami). That trio allowed it to displace other writing surfaces that were fragile, unwieldy or both: clay, stone, papyrus, parchment, metal, bark, bones and even seashells.

And inscription is just the beginning. Basbanes points out that during the Second World War, the same long paper-making tradition that allowed Japan to devise bomb-bearing paper balloons rendered its cities uniquely vulnerable to incendiary bombs: more civilians died in the blazes spread by paper windows and screens than from either of the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meanwhile, generals were deciding how much toilet paper to issue to soldiers: the British got three sheets a day, American GIs twenty-two.

March 27, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Mourning Local Bookstores

Writing for the New York Times, Julie Bosman recently looked at how surging rents are forcing bookstores from Manhattan:

The closings have alarmed preservationists, publishers and authors, who said the fading away of bookstores amounted to a crisis that called for intervention from the newly minted mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who has vowed to offer greater support to small businesses.

[Author Robert] Caro said in an interview that he is heartbroken by the loss of bookstores from Manhattan, calling it “a profoundly significant and depressing indication of where our culture is.”

“How can Manhattan be a cultural or literary center of the world when the number of bookstores has become so insignificant?” he asked. “You really say, has nobody in city government ever considered this and what can be done about it?”

There has, of course, been a similar trend in Toronto with the Cookbook store, the Annex location of Book City, and the Bloor West Village Chapters all closing (or about to) in recent months.

On a happier note though, Bosman notes that some stores are thriving by locating to other, more affordable neighbourhoods in New York (and beyond):

just as many writers have fled to Brooklyn or Queens in search of more affordable housing, some bookstore owners have followed. Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene opened in 2009 to robust business and year-over-year increases in sales.

In December, Christine Onorati, the co-owner of Word bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, opened a second store in Jersey City. Ms. Onorati said she never looked seriously at Manhattan because the rents were so unaffordable…

…After spending years scouring Manhattan for a second location, Ms. McNally of McNally Jackson abandoned her search. At the urging of a former employee, she began looking in Brooklyn and settled on Williamsburg, where she found a “magnificent,” loftlike space with a 20-foot ceiling.

I hope this will be true of Toronto too even though it is much smaller than New York (New York has more than twice the population of Toronto). But here, despite some well-defined neighbourhoods, bookstores seem to have been slow to follow their customers (and their families) to more affordable areas of the city. My neighbourhood, where I’ve lived for 8 years, is filling up with young families and yet many store fronts remain stubbornly empty. And while I consider myself lucky to still have a bookstore, Book City’s Danforth location, only four subway stops away, it feel like a very different neighbourhood. I would love to be able to walk to a bookstore with my kids, or stop in to browse on my way home.

Perhaps the bookstores further afield, in communities like Burlington and Hamilton, are doing better? I hope so.

Still, I will leave the final word to Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch, who has written a sharp response to the New York Times article for  The New Yorker:

Those of us who cherish our local bookstores do so not simply because they are convenient—how great to be able to run out for milk and also pick up the new Karl Ove Knausgaard!—but also because we feel a duty to support them, because we believe in their mission. When books can be bought so cheaply online, or at one of the dwindling number of discount retailers, paying more to shop at a local bookstore feels virtuous, like buying locally sourced organic vegetables, or checking to see if a T-shirt is made in the U.S.A. It can be gratifying to the point of smugness to feel that one is being pluralistic, liberal, and humane; shopping at an independent bookstore may be one of the diminishing opportunities to experience that feeling in first-class New York City. Still, when I consider the vanished bookstores of Manhattan, I mourn not just their passing but the loss of a certain kind of book-buying innocence—a time when where one bought a book did not constitute a political statement, and reading it did not feel like participating in a requiem.

March 20, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Jacob Covey: Pirates in the Heartland


Designer Jacob Covey recently posted a short essay on his personal Facebook page about his cover design for Pirates in the Heartland, the first volume of Patrick Rosenkranz’s biography of underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson. I asked Jacob if I could repost it in its entirety here, but the book’s publisher Fantagraphics had beaten me to it. While you can read the whole piece on their blog, here’s a short excerpt:

In publishing, one has to approach a cover with the information of an expert and the ignorance of a browser. In biographies, a photo of the subject is generally employed for good reason: The viewer immediately knows this is a book about a person. (Hence the trend in fiction of generally cropping off the heads of models or having them looking away — this is not about THEM.) But Wilson is recognizable only by his artwork, so a photo alone isn’t enough information. Ultimately, my solution is a kind of psychedelia but a practical one: Pirate art (a favorite theme of Wilson) overlaying a mythic portrait of young Wilson. Creation and creator in color overlays that force your eye to try to unhook one from the other.

I generally consider it a failure when cover design requires a band of color upon which to set the type. In this case, it allowed for the art to be the primary feature, to be a bit uncontrolled, while the type treatment is an anchor that harkens classic album design. This kind of visual messaging is trying to align Wilson with rebels and rockstars without making false promises. The trickiest part was simply finding Wilson art that had ANY white space so his portrait could connect with the viewer. The dual function of his artwork blowing the brains out, simultaneously, of Wilson and another of Wilson’s creation was too wonderful to pass up but I’m going to leave the symbology of such things to the viewer.


March 17, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Wes Anderson’s Elegy to Stefan Zweig

Film Review The Grand Budapest Hotel

I really wasn’t going to post anything else about Wes Anderson and Stefan Zweig, but film critic Max Nelson’s review of The Grand Budapest Hotel for the LA Review of Books is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject:

Like much of Zweig’s fiction, The Grand Budapest Hotel ends on an elegiac note. But what exactly is it elegizing? Agatha is too indistinct and vaguely defined a character for the movie to work as a tribute to lost love; her closest, warmest scenes with Zero pale in comparison to, say, Sam and Susie’s beachside dance in Moonrise Kingdom, Mr. Fox’s mid-film confrontation with his wife, or Margot and Richie’s devastating brief encounter late in Tenenbaums. You could argue that Zero, in Zweigian fashion, is conflating Agatha with the whole of prewar European life: its varied perfumes, its elaborately decorated baked goods, and its general sense of romance and adventure. But unlike prewar Vienna, prewar Zubrowka never existed anywhere other than in Anderson’s imagination. It’s difficult to imagine Zweig setting, for instance, Letter from an Unknown Woman or Journey into the Past in a fantasy country; like many of the author’s stories, they speak directly to his acute awareness of having caught the tail end of a particularly vivid chapter in his own national history. “I pity those,” he wrote, “who were not young during the last years of confidence in Europe,” for “whoever experienced that epoch… knows that all since has been retrogression and gloom.” If The Grand Budapest Hotel is an elegy for the codes and manners of fin-de-siècle Europe, then Anderson is trapped in a potentially disingenuous position: that of eulogizing a world he only ever could have accessed through the nostalgia-drenched writings of its earlier elegists, and which he can only now evoke on his own, imagined terms.


March 17, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Françoise Mouly on TOON Books


At Mutha Magazine, Meg Lemke talks to Françoise Mouly, Art Editor of The New Yorker and co-founder of RAW magazine, about TOON Books, her line of comics for kids:

When I go to schools, even in very impoverished school districts, and I say that I’m here to read a book—it’s fantastic to see how kindergarteners and first graders love story time. They love being read to. I go to schools to see the actual response from the kids, not what I think they will say. Reading is a canvas that they use to construct their understanding of the world. Comics are great that way, even better than illustrated stories, because, in comics, the story is told sequentially in pictures, and you, the reader, make connections between the panels. It’s a truly interactive medium, where the story itself stays on the page but you are the one making up what happens between the panels, making it move in space and in time.

When you talk to teachers, you will hear words such as making inferences and connecting and finding the context. It’s elaborate thought but it’s congenial to kids—they do it naturally. They’re always trying to make sense of the world around them. Nobody has ever had to teach a child how to find Waldo—they intuitively get it, and they find Waldo far quicker than most literate adults. Comics take advantage of the thing that children know how to do, of what their strength is, and puts them in the driver’s seat of reading.

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