The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

April 7, 2015
by Dan

Alan Kitching’s A-Z of Letterpress


I just received an advance copy of Alan Kitching’s A-Z of Letterpress from UK publisher Laurence King, and it really is a lovely little book for type and letterpress enthusiasts.1

The accordion-playing Kitching has featured on the blog before of course, but over the course of his career he has worked as a compositor, typographer, graphic designer, teacher, and poster artist. He founded the Typography Workshop in 1989 and, according to designer Derek Birdsall (renowned for his cover designs at Penguin amongst other things), Kitching single-handedly “breathed new life into the dying embers of letterpress” by teaching a new generation of designers how to compose type by hand.


A collaboration with Pentagram partner Angus Hyland, and designed in-house by Alexandre Coco, the book itself contains 39 alphabets shown letter by letter, presented from A to Z. All the founts are wood letter founts from Kitching’s collection, and every image in the book was printed by hand on a Vandercook no. 3 proof press.


It really is a thing of beauty. Printed on thick, creamy paper, the letter forms and page layouts are quirky and charming. The colours and metallic ink are vibrant and surprising. Even better, it is also a teaser of sort — Laurence King recently announced it will be publishing a monograph of Kitching’s work in 2016. Can’t wait.


April 6, 2015
by Dan

Book Covers of Note April 2015

Never mind that still feels like some crazy never-ending winter in Toronto, it’s (allegedly) April so here are a few new and recent covers that have caught my eye in the past month…

American Warlord by Johnny Dwyer; design by Oliver Munday (Knopf / April 2015)

Boring Girls by Sara Taylor; design by David A. Gee (ECW  / April 2015)

City Beasts by Mark Kurlansky; design by Rachel Willey (Riverhead / February 2015)

Dismantling by Brian DeLeeuw; design by Zoe Norvell (Plume / April 2015)

Every Living One by Nathan Haukes; design by Alban Fischer (Horse Less Press / March 2015)

The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord; design by Charles Brock (Del Rey / January 2015)

The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough; design by Nina Goffi; illustration by Christopher Silas Neal (Scholastic / April 2015)

(You know who could do an amazing Harper Lee cover? Christopher Silas Neal, that’s who!)

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum; design by Gabrielle Bordwin (Random House / March 2015)

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; design by Julia Connolly;  illustration Petra Börner (Vintage / April 2015)

How to Run a Government by Michael Barber; design by Barnbrook (Allen Lane / March 2015)

Love and Other Foreign Policy Goals by Jesse Armstrong; design by Matt Broughton (Jonathan Cape / April 2015)

The Man Who Planted Trees by Jim Robbins; design by Thomas Ng; photograph Peter Kupfer (Spiegel & Grau / March 2015)

The Musical Brain by César Aira; design by Rodrigo Corral (New Directions / March 2015)

Odd Man Out by F. L. Green; design by M. S. Corley (Valancourt Books / March 2015)

On the Way by Cyn Vargas; design by Alban Fischer (Curbside Splendor / April 2015)

(I also like Alban Fischer’s cover for Does Not Love by James Tadd Adcox, published by Curbside Splendor in 2014, a lot)

Plague and Cholera by Patrick Deville; design by Sian Wilson (Abacus / April 2015)

The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre; design by Anna Booth; photography by Jon Barkat and Gary Spector (Feiwel & Friends / April 2015)

The Road to Character by David Brooks; design by Jim Stoddart (Allen Lane / April 2015)

Seven_Madmen_FINAL_Cover_RGB (1)
The Seven Madmen
by Roberto Arlt; design by Steve Panton; series design Peter Dyer (Serpent’s Tail / February 2015)

The Splendid Things We Planned by Blake Bailey; design by Greg Mollica; cover art by Matthew Cusick (W. W. Norton / February 2015)

The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner; design by Paul Sahre (New Directions / March 2015)

Syrian Notebooks by Jonathan Littell; design by David A. Gee; photograph by Mani (Verso / March 2015)

Tout Peut Changer by Naomi Klein; design by Nouvelle Administration (Lux Éditeur / March 2015)

Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser; design by Janet Hansen (Knopf / April 2015)

(Another great 2014 cover I missed — but saw in a bookstore recently — is Janet’s design for Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah)

Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker; design by Gray318 (Atria / April 2015)

The Woman Who Read Too Much by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani; design by Anne Jordan (Stanford University Press / April 2015)

(I like this unused unused comp very much too)

Worthy by Denice Turner; design by Kimberly Glyder (University of Nevada Press / April 2015)

April 3, 2015
by Dan
1 Comment



Kim Warp for The New Yorker.

(via This Isn’t Happiness)

April 2, 2015
by Dan

Olivia Laing on the Future of Loneliness


Olivia Laing whose new book The Lonely City is out in 2016, has a personal essay on loneliness and technology in The Guardian that, like her books To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring, weaves a lot of surprisingly disparate threads together into fascinating meditation on art, literature and place:

At the end of last winter, a gigantic billboard advertising Android, Google’s operating system, appeared over Times Square in New York. In a lower-case sans serif font – corporate code for friendly – it declared: “be together. not the same.” This erratically punctuated mantra sums up the web’s most magical proposition – its existence as a space in which no one need ever suffer the pang of loneliness, in which friendship, sex and love are never more than a click away, and difference is a source of glamour, not of shame.

As with the city itself, the promise of the internet is contact. It seems to offer an antidote to loneliness, trumping even the most utopian urban environment by enabling strangers to develop relationships along shared lines of interest, no matter how shy or isolated they might be in their own physical lives.

But proximity, as city dwellers know, does not necessarily mean intimacy. Access to other people is not by itself enough to dispel the gloom of internal isolation. Loneliness can be most acute in a crowd.

Coincidentally, Laing’s piece is illustrated with photographs from Gail Albert Halaban‘s series Out My Window — one of which was used on the cover of My Salinger Year by Joanna Rackoff, designed by Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday.

March 31, 2015
by Dan

The Great Discontent: Michael Bierut


The Great Discontent has a really interesting (and long) interview with Michael Bierut about his career in graphic design:

The reason I love graphic design is because it’s a way to get paid to learn new things. For example, let’s say someone asks if you’d like to design a book. It’s not about being interested in pagination, covers, binding, typography, or paper. Those are all important, but what really makes designing a book fun is being interested in whatever the book is about. Sometimes it’s a great and exciting book that you’re really into: that’s like someone asking, “Would you like to sit and eat ice cream with me?” But sometimes it’s a book whose subject you don’t know about at all, so you get to talk to people who may be the world’s foremost experts on that subject. Even better!

When I brief interns about a project, I don’t say, “It’s this big and it has x amount of words and pictures.” I say, “These people are trying to do this, they’re trying to get this message across, and their big challenge is that.” Those pieces of information put the project into a larger context. That’s how I learned when I was starting out. I was a pretty good designer in college, and I’m not sure I’m a better craftsperson as I was then. However, I’m a much better designer now because I made people pay me to go from dumb to smart over and over and over again.

March 31, 2015
by Dan

Comma Queen: Possessed

In the second episode of The New Yorker‘s Comma Queen video series, copy editor Mary Norris tackles using an apostrophe to form the possessive:


I am one of those people who annoy Norris by dropping the ‘s’ after the apostrophe when a name ends in ‘s’. I’m sure she is right — I’m certainly not going to argue with her! — but the exceptions seem completely infuriatingly arbitrary to me!

UPDATE: Mary Norris, whose memoir Between You & Me is out next week, is profiled in today’s New York Times:

Ms. Norris says she tries not to bring her work home with her. But she often has to restrain herself. Bad punctuation leaps out at her. Sloppy diction and grammatical errors in conversation register as minor assaults on her ear, as if her headphones had suddenly erupted into high-pitched feedback.

Her pet peeves include poorly punctuated signs; people who call the serial comma the Oxford comma; the wrong sort of pencil; the misuse of “who” and “whom” and other crimes against the accusative; book introductions by writers other than the author; incorrectly deployed apostrophes; people she meets on vacation who harass her about The New Yorker’s style; and grammatical errors in popular songs. She is particularly irked, she said, by the line “Till the stars fall from the sky for you and I” from “Touch Me” by the Doors.

Me, I’m just irked by The Doors.


March 30, 2015
by Dan

Studio Visit with Milton Glaser


The New York Times T Magazine visits designer Milton Glaser, co-founder of New York magazine and Push Pin Studios, in his studio:

March 30, 2015
by Dan

Alice’s Allergy List


Tom Gauld

(Is this Tom’s first Alice in Wonderland cartoon? It can’t be, can it?)

March 27, 2015
by Dan

Go Set A Watchman

This post was updated April 4, 2015 with additional illustrations and commentary.

Earlier this week, the US and UK covers for the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, were revealed online to great excitement and — because design criticism is a spectator sport — no small amount of derision.


The US cover was designed by Jarrod Taylor for HarperCollins. An apparent homage to the classic post-war American book covers designed by the likes of W. A. Dwiggins, George Salter, and Ismar David, there was some suggestion, on Twitter at least, that it bore an uncanny resemblance to the dust jacket of the first edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (published in 1957), designed by Salter himself.

Certainly, the covers do compliment each other — a testament to how well Taylor has captured the tone of the period — but the minor similarities grind to a halt at yellow train lines and the design of a headlamp. The composition, colour, and lettering are all quite different. More importantly in my opinion, the mood of the covers is in stark contrast. Go Set A Watchmen, with its (faux) hand-brushed letters, golden leaves, old-fashioned locomotive, and evening blue hue is wistful and nostalgic. The ruler-straight horizon and railway sleepers give it steadiness and calm. It evokes both the passing of time and the desire, perhaps, to return to the past.

Atlas Shrugged, on the other hand, is simply a period piece. The design itself, with its hot purple sky, rugged mountains, ominous dark tunnel, tilted railway sleepers, and — let’s face it — bloody enormous red warning light, is far from nostalgic. It’s all fear, urgency and speeding danger — the stencilled letters telling you (in case you hadn’t quite figured it out yet) that this book means serious business… Armchair psychoanalysts have at it.

In fact, the cover of Go Set A Watchman is an update of the original dust jacket of To Kill A Mockingbird (published in 1960) designed by Shirley Smith — the autumnal leaves making a nice allusion to both the author and her previous book, as well as an indication of where the new novel might take us.

But, for all the vintage styling, there is a kind of efficiency to new design that is, I think, unmistakably modern. The illustration, the colour palette, and even the brush-stroke typography, all have the feel of contemporary commercial fiction. It will not look out of place either online, or along side other bestsellers in Barnes and Noble.


UK cover is, in the British fashion, being credited to the in-house design team at William Heinemann rather than to an individual designer1.

Also looking to evoke the past, it appears to draw inspiration from the typography of vintage film.

It’s a nod, perhaps, to the Academy Award-winning (and much beloved) film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck (1962), but the burning orange background, red shadows and dark silhouettes suggest — unintentionally perhaps — an earlier literary film adaptation, Gone with the Wind (1939).2

The Art Deco-inspired typography is also perplexing. While To Kill A Mockingbird is set in early 1930s, Go Catch A Watchmen is apparently set 20 years later — well after the heyday of Art Deco (but firmly in the post-war period that inspired the US cover).

Stylistically too, there is something about the combination of illustration and type that feels rather inauthentic and, as a consequence, the cover has a sort of unsatisfying post-modernism gloss. It is much less successful at evoking the period than Ben Wiseman’s noir-inspired design for The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy (published in 2010) for example.

Even so, there’s no getting away from the fact that it is vibrant and bluntly effective. Less book jacket than a glaring burnt orange advertisement, it is meant to be read at small sizes online (pre-orders, pre-orders, pre-orders….), or piled up at a distance.  If you miss the author’s name and the silhouette of a mockingbird at the top of the cover, the words To Kill A Mockingbird loom large at the bottom.

This bold placement of the old title between the lines of the new triggered a slew of obvious jokes on Twitter, but it is actually rather ingenious — the designer neatly accommodates a remarkably large font size and, at the same time, slides in a wry allusion to the long shadow of To Kill A Mockingbird — a far wittier, nuanced joke than the repeated ‘Go Set A To Kill A Watchman Mockingbird’ gags online. For all its brash intent, it’s a cleverer cover than it first appears.

Ultimately, neither the UK cover or its American counterpart are going to win design awards. But neither are they terrible, and given the expectations for this book (and the controversy surrounding it), we should be grateful for that. Certainly we should not blame the designers who have produced surprisingly effective covers given the limitations they were surely working under. Covers for high-profile (and expensive!) books always involve compromises of one sort or another, and already risk-averse publishers become even more timid when so much is riding on a single title. As we saw in 2012 with The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling, big books often get blandly familiar, easily recognisable (and readable) covers rather than conceptual, original designs. The book industry is behind readers on this who — after years of exposure to Apple products — are more sophisticated about design than ever before, but Go Set A Watchman was never going to be the book that brought publishers up to date.

UPDATE: If you’re curious about what designers think of the Go Set A Watchman covers, Peter Cocking, Brian Morgan, Ingrid Paulson, and Michel Vrana share their thoughts with the Globe & Mail, while at The Guardian, Stuart Bache gives his considered opinion.

March 26, 2015
by Dan

Mad Men: The Shock of the Pretty


Another overdue link from my ‘longreads’ bookmarks, The Hollywood Reporter talks to the cast and crew of Mad Men about the early days of the show now that it is about to come an end:

Christina Wayne (former senior vp scripted programming, AMC) Years earlier, I’d wanted to option Revolutionary Road [Richard Yates’ novel about suburbia in the 1960s]. But I was a nobody screenwriter, and [Yates’ estate] held out for bigger fish, which they got with Sam Mendes. So when I read [the Mad Men script], it resonated with me. This was a way to do Revolutionary Road, week in, week out. When we had lunch with Matt for the first time, I gave him the book. He called me after and said, “Thank God I’d never read this because I never would have written Mad Men.”

Perhaps more interesting, however, is James Meek’s lengthy article for the London Review of Books on the show’s superficiality, and its curious relationship with advertising:

Sterling Cooper, the fictional advertising agency around which Mad Men is built, is a caricature of the commercial TV system that produced the series: a pool of creative people in bitter thrall to the accountants and deal-makers they rely on for money. Although we learn in parenthesis that the agency gets most of its income from commission on the ads it places, for dramatic purposes the agency is divided into two departments: Creative, which comes up with campaign slogans, artwork and copy for ads, and Accounts, which persuades, charms, fawns, bribes and pimps its way to getting and keeping corporate clients. Mad Men is a show about writers dependent on advertising, written by writers dependent on advertising, the difference being that the fictional writers of Creative write the ads on which they depend.

March 26, 2015
by Dan

Annie Atkins and the Secret World of Film Graphics


Designer Annie Atkins talks to Design Week (registration required) about her work on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and “the often ‘invisible’ role of graphic design on screen”:

“Most of the skills I employ today are things I’ve learnt on set,” Atkins says. “Before starting this job, I hadn’t really hand-crafted anything since being a child. Things like taking up a quill; getting my paints and pencils out; hand-binding books – I never would have done that in the advertising agency I was working in.”

Of course, 11 hours isn’t solely devoted to creating art. While a lot of the day is spent in a “production line” of stitching, gluing, folding, ripping things up, sticking them back together again, tea staining and pouring fake blood over things, there are less glamorous elements to the job too.

“A lot of the day is paperwork,” Atkins says. “Organising, planning, scheduling, ordering materials – that’s the boring bit. Then some of the day is liaising with art directors and the production designer to figure out the style and directions things will go in. Then it’s bums on seats, making stuff.”

It’s that “making” part that is so important. “It’s tempting to sit at a computer and make everything that way,” she says. “But if you’re working in a period in the past, you really have to understand the methods that were employed to make those graphics at the time, then imitate – or even better, use – them to give that authenticity.”


March 25, 2015
by Dan

Being Mr. K


In latest Creative Characters newsletter from MyFonts, designer Julia Sysmäläinen talks about designing FF Mister K, the typeface based on Franz Kafka’s handwriting used by Peter Mendelsund for his redesign of Schocken’s Kafka covers:

Originality, authenticity, and honesty are crucial qualities to me. I think Mr. K has all of that, just like Franz Kafka’s manuscripts do. While I was working on it, I realized that while Mister K is a font, it is also the visualization of a personality. The font is not pretty, or beautiful in the classic sense — and it doesn’t want to be.

It’s a bit like Kafka’s work. There is no beauty in it as such, but rather a confrontation with reality that goes so far as to be repellent. There are all kinds of attributes — stupidity, cunning, weakness, strength, bitterness, humor, lightness, etc. The authenticity of this confrontation is visually reflected in the manuscripts — and also in Mister K Regular, the style in the font family that is most similar to the original Kafka manuscripts.

Whoever wishes to use the typeface must be willing to embrace this ambiguity. Mister K is not particularly suitable for lending a consumer-friendly smoothness to some brand; but there are corporate identities to which it fits very well. I was pleased to see it used by the Norwegian band Flunk, for Stokke highchairs, and for wellness products by Dresdner Essenz; and, of all things, in the logo of an upmarket design hotel in Berlin, Das Stue. What I found even more astounding was its appearance at the international insurance company Watson Towers (an ironic coincidence, as Kafka himself was an employee at an insurance company). But somehow it made sense: “The organic, hand-drawn nature of the logo and graphic system creates a personal and distinctive look amidst the impersonal, corporate, language of its competitors…” — that’s how Interbrand, the design agency, described the project. In its semi-perfection the typeface simply oozes a kind of honesty. That’s its strength, and brings it closer to a lot of people.

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