The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

July 25, 2016
by Dan
1 Comment

Innovations for the Modern Novelist

innovations for the modern novelist Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld for The Guardian. Who needs people?

July 25, 2016
by Dan
1 Comment

Jennifer Heuer on Gendered Covers and Being a Woman Designer

Love Love design Jennifer Heuer

At The Literary Hub, the talented Jennifer Heuer on gendered book covers and being a woman designer:

I love what I do and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of amazing art directors on a lot of great projects. I’m always grateful for the work I get. But I’ve talked to a lot of women in the industry over the years, and there is a clear pattern we’ve all experienced. One day a few months ago, I was commissioned to work on the backlist of a prolific women’s lit author. Minutes later, an art director called about a memoir in which the author was “always the bridesmaid.” Later that day: a novel about a wife dealing with her husband’s indifference while balancing her new career and motherhood. Three projects from three different art directors. All aimed directly at women readers.

I doubt that many of my male colleagues have had the same experience. And that day wasn’t an anomaly.

The talented art director and cover designer Catherine Casalino has told me, “When you’re on the receiving end of a project, it’s hard to say no, and even harder to explain why you don’t want to work exclusively on women’s fiction,” and continued with, “I think if we mixed things up a little more—hired women to design sports books and hired men to design cookbooks—we’d get some fresh and unexpected designs. And that would benefit all of us in the industry.” Another female designer has written to me saying, “It’s no surprise that women are assigned these topics—being women, it’s natural to assume we are interested in these things—but sometimes the associations are so tenuous that you start wondering if the gender bias is actually a form of laziness.”

July 15, 2016
by Dan

The Fourth Horsemen


Stephen Collins for The Guardian:

Stephen Collins Brexit

July 15, 2016
by Dan

The Mesmerizing Movies of Robert Frank


Nicholas Dawidoff on the films of Robert Frank for The New Yorker:

Critics, including Manohla Dargis, of the Times, and younger filmmakers, such as Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch, consider Frank the godfather of independent American personal cinema. They revere his contempt for standard approaches, his willingness to try anything, his willingness to fail. But I am a pretty conventional moviegoer. I found his shaggy-dog day-in-the-life film of his Beat-poet friends, “Pull My Daisy,” from 1959, and his long meditation on mental illness, love, family, and conventions of behavior, “Me and My Brother,” from ten years later, beautiful and arresting. But much of the work was mystifying to me. Frank had laid out and sequenced “The Americans” meticulously. Some of the films, by contrast, seem like near-random collages. Was he trying to say something about spontaneity? Was there a method at all?

One day, I confessed my confusion to Frank. He said abruptly that he was displeased with his films: “It was bigger than me. I failed.” Showing his longer films to small audiences got so “boring,” he said, that one day he cut a couple of them up, stitched together sections of one with chunks of another, and then showed an audience what amounted to two fresh movies. By this point, I knew Frank to be notoriously sly and puckish, and ambivalent about everything. I still had the feeling that I was missing something, that he had groped toward a significant vanishing point, and that, in the films, deeper forces were at play than even he was admitting.

July 12, 2016
by Dan

Book Covers of Note July 2016

I swear that these posts are taking me longer and longer to compile, but rest assured there are some wonderful covers this month:

All the Time in the World design Lucy Kim
All the Time in the World by Caroline Angell; design by Lucy Kim (Henry Holt / July 2016)

American Girls design Philip Pascuzzo
American Girls by Alison Umminger; design by Philip Pascuzzo (Flat Iron / June 2016)

Beast design Mark Ecob
Beast by Paul Kingsnorth; design Mark Ecob; illustration Alan Rogerson (Faber & Faber / July 2016)

Boy Erased design Rachel Willey
Boy Erased by Garrard Conley; design Rachel Willey (Riverhead / May 2016)

cops eyes design Peter Mendelsund
A Cop’s Eyes by Gaku Yakumaru; design by Peter Mendelsund (Vertical / May 2016)

ContestedTastes design Jason Alejandro
Contested by Michaela Desoucey; design Jason Alejandro (Princeton University Press / July 2016)

Corbyn by Richard Seymour; design by Dan Mogford (Verso / July 2016)

Creativity design Amanda Weiss
Creativity Class by Lily Chumley; design by Amanda Weiss (Princeton University Press / July 2016)

Dialogue design Catherine Casalino
Dialogue by Robert McKee; design by Catherine Casalino (Twelve Books / July 2016)

Fates and Furies design Melissa Four
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff; design by Melissa Four (Windmill Books / July 2016)

It’s interesting to compare/contrast this new cover for the UK paperback with the covers of the UK hardcover, designed by Suzanne Dean, and the US hardcover, designed by Rodrigo Corral and Adalis Martinez:

Food and Wine of France design Samantha Russo photograph Oddur Thorisson
The Food & Wine of France by Edward Behr; design by Samantha Russo; photograph Oddur Thorisson (Penguin / July 2016)

grace design elena giavaldi
Grace by Natashia Deón; design by Elena Giavaldi (Counterpoint / June 2016)

The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone; design by Chelsea McGuckin; art by David Wu (Atria Books / July 2016)

Hot Little Hands design Ben Wiseman
Hot Little Hands by Abigail Ulman; art direction by Greg Mollica; design by Ben Wiseman; photograph by RJ Shaughnessy (Spiegel & Grau / May 2016)

It’s also interesting to see US hardcover next to the purely typographic cover from Australia designed by Laura Thomas, and the racier, retro Penguin UK cover designed by Richard Bravery:

How to Start a Fire design Kelly Blair
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball; design by Kelly Blair (Pantheon / July 2016)

This struck me as something as quite a bold change of direction for the covers of Jesse Ball’s novels, which have often been quite minimal and typographic. It feel quite different to the recent paperback edition of A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball, designed by Helen Yentus and Jason Booher (Vintage / June 2016), for example:


In the Flow design Verso
In the Flow by Boris Groys; design by Everything Studio (Verso / March 2016)

InvincibleSummer design Lauren Harms
Invincible Summer by Alice Adams; design by Lauren Harms (Little, Brown & Co. / June 2016)

The UK cover of Invincible Summer, designed by Justine Anweiler, was included in last month’s post.

Listen to Me design Catherine Casalino
Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard; design by Catherine Casalino (HMH / July 2016)

Multiple Choice design by Nayon Cho
Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra; design by Nayon Cho (Penguin / July 2016)

Smoke by Dan Valeta; design by Mark Swan (Weidenfeld & Nicolson / July 2016)

storm of steel design Neil Gower
Storm and Steel by Ernst Jünger; design by Neil Gower (Penguin / May 2016)

street furniture design Daniel Gray
Street Furniture Design by Eleanor Herring; design by Daniel Benneworth-Gray (Bloomsbury / July 2016)

SuninYourEyes design mumtaz mustafa
The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro; design by Mumtaz Mustafa (HarperCollins / July 2016)

This Savage Song design Jenna Stempel
This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab; design Jenna Stempel (GreenWillow / July 2016)

Undying design Rafi Romaya Yehrin Tong
Undying by Michel Faber; design by Rafi Romaya; art by Yehrin Tong (Canongate / July 2016)

The paperback of Michel Faber’s Some Rain Must Fall is out this month too. The cover is another Rafi Romaya / Yehrin Tong collaboration: 

some rain design by Rafi Romaya Yehrin Tong

vinegar girl design by Kris Potter
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler; design by Kris Potter (Hogarth / June 2016)

As I noted on Twitter earlier this week, this combination of type and overlapping floral image — lovely as it is — is becoming a bit of a thing…

If anyone has a good name (and/or pithy description) for this trend let me know. In the meantime, designer Dan Blackman pointed me to his beautiful poster designs for DelVal College from 2011, which are early examples of this idea…

What Language Do I Dream In design Gray318
What Language Do I Dream In by Elena Lappin; design by Gray318 (Virago / June 2016)

Who Will Catch Us design James Paul Jones
Who Will Catch Us As We Fall by Iman Verjee; design by James Paul Jones (Oneworld / July 2016)

Windows into the Soul design Isaac Tobin
Windows into the Soul by Gary T. Marx; design by Isaac Tobin (University of Chicago Press / July 2016)

July 4, 2016
by Dan

Let’s Not Play Frisbee With That Poet Anymore

frisbee Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins for The Guardian (and newly available as limited edition Giclee print from his shop).

July 1, 2016
by Dan

Penguin Random House Design Award Winners 2016

ailsa johnson front

Ailsa Johnson (Children’s Prize winner)

ailsa johnson full cover

I’m a little bit late to this, but Penguin Random House UK recently announced the winners of their annual Design Award. The award, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, offers art and designs students first-hand experience real book cover design briefs. The winner of each of the three categories — Adult Fiction, Adult Non-fiction and Children’s — receives a work placement at PRH, as well as a £1,000 cash prize. This year’s winners were Ailsa Johnson (Children’s), Zack Crook (Adult Fiction) and Zachary Wieland.


front Zack Crook

Zack Crook (Adult Fiction Prize winner)

Hi Res Full cover design Without Crops Zack Crook

Zachary Wieland FrontCover

Zachary Wieland (Adult Non-Fiction Prize winner)

Zachary Wieland FullCover



July 1, 2016
by Dan

Elda Rotor: The Woman Who Runs Penguin Classics

penguin classics elda rotor

Photo by JL Javier

CNN Philippines interviewsd Elda Rotor, vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics at the Penguin Random House in New York:

The main joy is bringing an audience to a work that would otherwise lead a quiet life, not having the chance to be brought into the light of a modern readership. A greater joy is hearing individual responses of how enlightening or enjoyable a book has been, and connecting that experience with the fact that the edition was a Penguin Classic. The challenges are working very hard to edit, produce, and publish a book and to see its reception to be very modest. So either you realize that the readership was small, or that for some reason we failed to reach a wider audience for a variety of factors… In the 10 years I’ve worked at Penguin Classics, it’s proven to be true that there is nothing that compares to a quality edition of a great work of literature. We are very much in the digital world, providing e-books for much of our list. But there’s something about the physical beauty of a book, finely executed inside and out, that readers find deeply satisfying. We bring much work and thought into the production of our books, from authoritative texts, interior design, to cutting-edge book design, and we have built a strong reputation for this distinction. Developing series such as the Penguin Drop Caps, Penguin Horror, Civic Classics, and soon the Penguin Orange Collection and Penguin Galaxy represents our dedication to our readers and curating special series for their interests that are beautiful objects unto themselves. Overall it reflects the deep respect we have for the reader’s experience and our focus on enriching that experience with a Penguin Classic.

June 28, 2016
by Dan

Some Advice on How to Cope in These Tough Times

advice Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld.

(I don’t think I’ve posted this before have I? It seems timely nonetheless).

June 22, 2016
by Dan

50 Books / 50 Covers Winners 2015

A Manual for Cleaning Women design Justine Anweiler

design Justine Anweiler

Congratulations to the winners of this year’s 50 Books | 50 Covers competition organized by Design Observer in association with AIGA. All fifty winning books can be found here; the winning covers here.

ball design by Kelly Winton

design Kelly Winton

oreo design Erik Carter

design Erik Carter

June 22, 2016
by Dan

RAMS: The First Feature Documentary About Dieter Rams

Gary Hustwit, the director of the documentaries Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized, is making a feature-length documentary about the life and work of designer Dieter Rams:

You can support the production on Kickstarter.


June 20, 2016
by Dan



Grant Snider has drawn a lovely series of cartoons on punctuation for The New Yorker.






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