The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

August 15, 2014
by Dan

Logocentrism: Jessica Helfand on Paul Rand


Paul Rand’s classic 1947 essay Thoughts on Design is being re-published next month by Chronicle Books1, and Design Observer has just reposted a wonderful essay by Jessica Helfand on Rand, originally published in The New Republic in 1997:

Looking back on his prolific career, it is paradoxical to think that the man who gave graphic life to such technological giants as IBM, IDEO (the international technology think tank based in Northern California), and Steve Jobs’s NeXT should himself have been so averse to the computer. How could Rand, the devout modernist, be so openly resistant to the progressive changes brought about by the machine, the symbolic child of modern industry? It is as though the same geometric forms that embodied the logic of mechanical reproduction, the same formal vocabulary that inspired his mentors and defined the very spirit of modernism, were available to Rand only in theory.

Such contradictions underscored his entire career. The darling of corporate America for decades, Rand rejected the lure of city life, choosing to work alone in his home studio in Connecticut for the better part of his career. He claimed to despise academia, but he remained a devoted member of the Yale faculty for over 35 years. It is likely that the orthodoxy that characterized both his relationship to design and his relationship to God was an attempt to resolve these contradictions, to right the balances, to establish order in the studio and in the spirit. But the contradictory impulses remained: “Five is better than four, three is better than two,” he often announced to his students, claiming that the mind worked harder and received a greater sense of reward when resolving asymmetrical relationships on the page.

August 14, 2014
by Dan

Book Cover Design is a Fine Art


It used to be enough for a book to idly stand out in a bookstore. Nowadays, however, new books must jostle for attention with everything. Thousands of distractions are just a click away. Is it any wonder that book-cover design is more important than ever?

In today’s Globe and Mail, I talks about recent trends in book cover design and pick a few of my favourite covers from the year so far. If you live in Canada you can find a lovely-looking print version of the article in the Arts pages.

August 8, 2014
by Dan

Derek Birdsall on Hans ‘Zero’ Schleger

While looking for something else entirely, I recently stumbled across this video of British book designer Derek Birdsall discussing the work of influential graphic designer Hans ‘Zero’ Schleger:


Coincidently, Birdsall turned 80 early this month and Mike Dempsey reposted a link to his 2002 interview with the designer. If you’re interested in post-war British design, it’s essential reading:

Despite this astonishing attention to detail, Birdsall’s work is disarmingly simple. Like great screen actors, it is what is left out that makes the performance compelling. He is not a showy designer interested in trends. His passion lies in the details: the typeface, naturally and, with books, the feel of the paper; the quality of the binding; the cut of the font; the evenness of line endings; the perfect balance of image to space. 

These are the things that elevate his work to the ranks of typography. These and an incredibly inventive mind responsible for producing a consistently high standard of work for over 40 years: he designed the first Pirelli calendar in 1964… as well as book jackets for Penguin and Monty Python, and art-directed magazines including Town, Nova and The Independent’s colour magazine. 

Birdsall’s own view of his work is very pragmatic. ‘As designers we are here to please the client,’ he says. He doesn’t believe in forcing things down their throats. What he does do is weigh up all the possible questions and objections that a client might voice and have his answers ready.

August 6, 2014
by Dan

Kern Your Enthusiasm

Thanks to Jacob Covey for kindly pointing me in the direction Kern Your Enthusiasm, a new series of short posts at HiLobrow about typefaces.

Matthew Battles, author of Library: An Unquiet History (and co-founder of HiLobrow), kicked off the series on Friday with a fascinating post about Aldine Italic:

Aldus Manutius was a printer in sixteenth-century Venice, and he was looking to shake things up. The roman typefaces, based on manuscript letterforms the humanists thought dated back to Roman times (but which were in fact medieval in origin) had offered Italian counterpoint to the black-letter typefaces of the first German printers, but already they were old hat. When Aldus put the first version of a typeface we call italic to use in 1501, the printing press had been proliferating in Europe for half a century. In other words, it was about as old as the computer is now. It was a time of immense invention and swiftly spun variety in the printed book, and a time of new mobility and independence of thought and activity among certain classes of people as well — and the combination of new ways and new tools meant new kinds of books. Crucially, the book was getting smaller, small enough to act not only as a desktop, but as a mobile device.

There is also a rather lovely short piece by Mark Kingwell, posted today, on Gill Sans.

Jacob himself has contributed a post, scheduled to appear at the end of the series, about Gotham. Can’t wait.

August 6, 2014
by Dan

Peter Mendelsund, Your New Favourite Designer

Peter Mendelsund / photograph by George Baier IV

photograph by George Baier IV

On the blog of designer and art director Henry Sene Yee there is a fake poll question: “Who is your favourite book cover designer?” Three of poll’s four possible answers are “Chip Kidd.” The fourth is “none of the above.” The joke is, of course, that Kidd is the only book cover designer most people can name (if they can name one at all).

After this week, however, Henry might have to add a second designer to his list — Chip Kidd’s colleague at Knopf, Peter Mendelsund.

Already a well-known figure in book design circles, the publication of Peter’s two new books this week—Cover and What We See When Read—has apparently made everyone else sit up and take notice. Already interviewed by Alexandra Alter for the New York Times last week, Peter is suddenly everywhere.

At the New Republic, he discusses his work with Amy Weiss-Meyer:

I think the most import thing about being a cover designer is being a decent reader. If you haven’t read a book well, [and] you just throw an image on it, chances are you’re going to fail at representing it. On the other hand, if you do use imagery that’s broad enough, then you want something that’ll serve as a universal emblem to the book rather than one particular reading of it.

At the Los Angeles Times, he is interviewed by writer and Stop Smiling founder J.C. Gabel:

The truth is when you go to school to learn something, you’re on a dedicated trajectory. So that puts a certain kind of burden on you to succeed in that particular trajectory. One of the wonderful things about having sidestepped into design is that there was never any pressure for me to succeed. … It’s not something I spent money to learn how to do. So I still kind of feel like I’m dabbling, and I think what’s great about that is you can maintain a certain kind of beginner’s mind when you’re working, which obviously, I think, makes for better work. You’re just fresher because you don’t have the anxiety of influence. There’s nothing really at stake.

And at The New Yorker, Peter talks to his friend Peter Terzian about his work and the genesis of What We See When We Read:

Reading with a mind to designing a jacket is very different from just reading. When I’m reading for work, I’m looking for something described in the book that will be reproducible visually and that will serve as an emblem for the entire book—a character, or an object, or a scene, or a setting. That’s not the way one reads when one is simply immersed in a book.

Let’s say I’m reading something and I come across a scene that I think is particularly pregnant with significance and that could really work as that emblematic something to go on the jacket. It’s not like I picture it completely and then render it on the screen. I have the idea that this scene and its structural components could work well as a jacket, and then I start making things. And when something is made, I compare it back to the reading experience and ask, Is this dissonant with the way I’m reading this, or consonant with it? Does it in fact represent the author’s project? But it’s not like I’m rendering something that I saw. When I start to make it, that’s when I start to look at it for the first time—that’s when it develops visual coherence. That moment is very satisfying, professionally, but also disappointing as a reader.

Dwight Garner reviewed What We See When We Read for the New York Times. While at the Washington Post, visual editor David Griffin reviews both Peter’s new books (one less favourably than the other).

And if that weren’t enough, Pablo Delcán and Brian Rea have also made this trailer, apparently the first in a series, for What We See When We Read:


And this is surely just the beginning. Congratulations Peter, it’s well-deserved.

August 5, 2014
by Dan

Book Covers of Note August 2014

Here is this month’s selection of recently noted covers:

2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino; design by Christopher Brand (Crown August 2014)

The Bend of the World by Jacob Bacharach; design by Jamie Keenan (W. W. Norton May 2014)

Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor; design by Richard Ljoenes (Harper July 2014)

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir; design by Nathan Burton (Pushkin Press June 2014)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami; design by Suzanne Dean (Harvill Secker August 2014)

(See the U.S. Cover here)

The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe; design by Abby Weintraub (Knopf July 2014)

H Is For Hawk
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald; cover art by Christopher Wormell (Jonathan Cape July 2014)

Happy are the Happy by Yesmina Reza; design by Suzanne Dean (Harvill Secker July 2014)

The Liar’s Wife by Mary Gordon; design by Linda Huang (Pantheon August 2014)

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth; design by David Mann (Bloomsbury August 2014)

Preparing the Ghost by Gavin Frank; design by Ben Wiseman (W. W. Norton August 2014)

The Reef by Iain McCalman; design by Oliver Munday (Scientific American May 2014)

The Removers by Andrew Meredith; design by Evan Gaffney (Scribner July 2014)

Spin by Clive Veroni; design by WAX (House of Anansi August 2014)

Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny; design by Greg Heinimann (Bloomsbury July 2014)

We Are Called To Rise by Laura McBride; design by Christopher Lin (Simon & Schuster June 2014)

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund; design by Peter Mendelsund (Vintage August 2014)

Your Face in Mine by Jess Row; design by Oliver Munday (Riverhead August 2014)

July 30, 2014
by Dan
1 Comment

Vintage Shorts Designed by Joan Wong


Vintage Books (US) recently announced Vintage Shorts, a series of stories, excerpts and other short pieces exclusively available as eBooks. The bold, geometric ‘covers’ were designed by the talented Joan Wong.

And, in case you were wondering, the typeface is Agenda, designed by Greg Thompson for Font Bureau. Apparently it was inspired by Edward Johnston’s typeface for the London Underground, so no wonder I like it!

Waiting for a Goal by Bill Buford

July 29, 2014
by Dan

Peter Mendelsund, Book Designer, Debuts as a Writer


Designer Peter Mendelsund, who has two new books out next week, What We See When We Read and Coveris profiled in today’s New York Times:

Mr. Mendelsund has long been regarded as one of the top book designers at work today, taking his place alongside design luminaries like Chip Kidd, Alvin Lustig and George Salter. Now, he’s making his debut as a writer, with two books coming out next week. Both explore the peculiar challenges of transforming words into images, and blend illustrations with philosophy, literary criticism and design theory.

In “What We See When We Read,” which is being published by Vintage Books next Tuesday, Mr. Mendelsund tackles the mysterious way text yields vivid mental pictures, even when the author supplies very little visual detail. Most readers, for instance, feel as if they can perfectly describe Anna Karenina, even though Tolstoy gives us little more than gray eyes, thick lashes and curly brown hair. In short, illustrated chapters, Mr. Mendelsund argues that reading is an act of co-creation, and that our impressions of characters and places owe as much to our own memory and experience as to the descriptive powers of authors.

On the same day, PowerHouse Books is releasing “Cover,” a 267-page coffee-table book with more than 300 of Mr. Mendelsund’s most arresting book jackets, and dozens of rejected drafts. The images are interspersed with notes on his process, along with essays by authors of some of the featured books, including the best-selling Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo and James Gleick, author of the nonfiction books “Chaos” and “The Information.”

If you are New York next week, there is a launch party for both books on August 5th, 7:00-9:00 pm at the PowerHouse Arena, 37 Main St, Brooklyn. Peter will be in conversation with Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club, followed by a brief Q & A.

July 28, 2014
by Dan

Church of Type

Church of Type is the new letterpress studio in Santa Monica, California, of veteran designer and printmaker Kevin Bradley. In this lovely short film, Bradley talks about relocating to Los Angeles, typography, the printing press, and making things by hand:

July 22, 2014
by Dan
1 Comment

Australian Book Design Awards 2014 Shortlist

Peter Long, Senior Designer at Black Inc. Books, has kindly let me know that the shortlist for the Australian Book Design Awards has been announced.

The Book Design Awards are Australia’s longest running  graphic design awards, but in 2013 the Australian Publishing Association decided to discontinue them. To keep the awards running for a 62nd consecutive year, a group of Australian designers formed the ABDA as an independent, non-profit entity in March 2014.

There is some lovely work up for this years awards, and you can download full a list of the nominees as a PDF. Here are a few of the book covers that caught my eye:

Best Designed Literary Fiction Book

Letters to the End of Love by Yvette Walker; design by Allison Colpoys (UQP July 13, 2014)

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton; design by Jenny Grigg (Granta September 2013)

Best Designed Non-Fiction Book


The End by Bianca Nogrady; design by Sandy Cull (Vintage May 2013)

Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richards; design by Allison Colpoys (Viking January 2013)

Best Designed Young Adult Book

The Messenger by Markus Zusak; design by Sandy Cull (Pan Macmillan Novemeber 2013)

Zac & Mia by A. J. Betts; design by W. H. Chong (Text Publishing July 2013)

The winners of the Australian Book Design Awards will be announced in Melbourne on August 22nd, 2014.

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