The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

June 5, 2015
by Dan

All Characters Wait Here

characters wait here tom gauld

Mr. Tom Gauld

June 3, 2015
by Dan

Book Covers of Note June 2015

I don’t know where last month went, but somehow it’s June already and it’s time for another selection of recent book covers:

General Theory of Oblivion design by Julia Connolly
A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa; design by Julia Connolly (Harvill Secker / June 2015)

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester; design by Melissa Four (Simon & Schuster / January 2015)

how music got free design James Paul Jones
How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt; design by James Paul Jones (The Bodley Head / June 2015)

in the beginning illustration Robert Frank Hunter
In the Beginning was the Sea by Tomás González; cover illustration by Robert Frank Hunter (Pushkin / May 2015)

intimacy idiot design spencer kimble
Intimacy Idiot by Isaac Oliver; design by Spencer Kimble (Scribner / June 2015)

lesser beasts design by Nicole Caputo
Lesser Beasts by Mark Essig; design by Nicole Caputo (Basic Books / May 2015)

Living in the Sound of the Wind by Jason Wilson; design by Leo Nickolls (Constable / June 2015)

London Overground design by Richard Bravery
London Overground by Iain Sinclair; design by Richard Bravery (Hamish Hamilton / June 2015)

lucky alan design ben wiseman
Lucky Alan and Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem; design by Ben Wiseman (Doubleday / February 2015)

manhattan mayhem design by Timothy ODonnell
Manhattan Mayhem edited by Mary Higgins Clark; design by Timothy O’Donnell (Quirk Books / June 2015)

motorcycles ive loved design by rachel willey
Motorcycles I’ve Loved by Lily Brooks-Dalton; design by Rachel Willey (Riverhead / April 2015)

muse design by gabriele wilson
Muse by Jonathan Galassi; design by Gabriele Wilson (Knopf / June 2015)

professor in the cage design by matt dorfman
The Professor in the Cage by Jonathan Gottschall; design by Matt Dorfman (Penguin / April 2015)

Resistance is Futile by Jenny Colgan; design by Hannah Wood; illustration by Pietari Posti (Orbit / May 2015)

rise design by greg heinimann
Rise by Karen Campbell; design by Greg Heinimann (Bloomsbury / March 2015)

thank you goodnight design Kimberly Glyder
Thank You, Goodnight by Andy Abramowitz; design by Kimberly Glyder (Simon & Schuster / June 2015)

tongues of men or angels design by Jamie Keenan
The Tongues of Men or Angels by Jonathan Trigel; design by Jamie Keenan (Little Brown / May 2015)

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi; design by Oliver Munday (Knopf / May 2015)

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen; design by Kelly Blair (Knopf / February 2015)

world does not exist design david gee
Why the World Does Not Exist by Markus Gabriel; design by David Gee (Polity / June 2015)

The White Company design James Paul Jones
The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle; design by James Paul Jones (Vintage / June 2015)

wonder garden art and design thomas doyle
The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora; art and design by Thomas Doyle (Grove Press /May 2015)

Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo; design by Richard Green (Allen Lane / June 2015)

June 2, 2015
by Dan

The Retiring Type: Intelligent Life on Edward Johnson


At Intelligent Life, Catherine Nixey tells the story of Edward Johnson, creator of the London Underground’s typeface:

The Underground didn’t commission a font to look different from commercial ones simply to sell it straight back to the commercial world. But that world wanted the font nevertheless. And so Johnston’s pupil Eric Gill obliged, creating Gill Sans, which would go on to be used on everything from the classic Penguin Books design to the BBC logo (since 1997)—and, later, many a Word document.

There is some suggestion that even Gill, not a man to be easily abashed, may have felt uneasy about this. He sent Johnston a letter that manages to turn, in a moment, from humility to boastful defiance. “I hope you realise”, he wrote, “that I take every opportunity of proclaiming the fact that what the Monotype people call ‘Gill’ Sans owes all its goodness to your Underground letter. It is not altogether my fault that the exaggerated publicity value of my name makes the advertising world keen to call it by the name of Gill.”

Did Johnston mind? We don’t know exactly. “I don’t think there was bitterness,” says his grandson. Though there was no money, either. “He was so lacking in business sense, he never charged a going rate for his work and so couldn’t make ends meet.” For the Underground font, Johnston was paid 50 guineas—about £4,000 in today’s money (he handed 10% of it on to Gill). By the time he died in 1944, “the finances were in a terrible state,” Andrew Johnston adds. “There had been a fund started by calligraphers in America to help this destitute master craftsman.”

(image via Mikey Ashworth on Flickr)

May 31, 2015
by Dan

Virago Modern Classics Daphne du Maurier


This summer UK publisher Virago is publishing two sets of Daphne du Maurier’s most famous titles with new and beautifully illustrated covers.

According to editorial director Donna Coonan, du Maurier’s reputation has flourished in recent years. She is also an author with cross-generational appeal. “The heroines of her best-known novels are young women at a turning point in their lives,” says Coonan. “These are beautifully written books that are exciting, suspenseful and brilliantly atmospheric. There is passion, danger, romance . . . and pirates!”

For over a decade Virago published du Maurier’s backlist with a uniform style. “They sat nicely together in a set, but were starting to look a little dated and lacked individuality,” says art director Nico Taylor. “I had never read du Maurier before, but once I got stuck in I realised just how diverse her writing is which led me to the idea that presenting each novel with a distinctive, individual look would be the best way to ensure du Maurier’s work continues to look fresh.”


For the first three titles in series (there are a staggering 17 or so more to come!), Taylor worked with illustrators Neil Gower (Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek) and Jordan Metcalf (Rebecca). “It became clear that it would be hard to avoid some of the obvious reference points from each title, but I was keen that they were used in an integrated or suggestive way… all credit has to go to the illustrators for imagining their respective covers in such distinctive ways.”



Alongside this refreshed backlist, Virago is also planning to introduce these same three classics — French Man’s Creek, Jamaica Inn, and Rebecca, — to young adults with new covers by Iacopo Bruno. “This was a great opportunity to show that du Maurier is a big contribution to the gothic novels popular with this age group of readers,” says art director Sophie Burdess. “I wanted to create a set of covers primarily composed of evocative gothic typography that gave du Maurier the authority and appeal she deserves as well as giving a feel for the individual themes of each novel,” she continues. “[Iacopo] is a rare and exceptionally beautiful illustrator and hand lettering artist who knows just how to pitch the work for a younger audience… the task of creating a set of beautiful compositions of elegant hand lettering and vignette illustrations was very safe in his hands.”

May 28, 2015
by Dan

Who Writes Novels?


Tom Gauld for The New Yorker.

May 26, 2015
by Dan

Today in Micro-Trends: Rotate 90°

downtown owl design paul sahre

design by Paul Sahre (2008)

Turning the picture sideways is not exactly new (the brilliant John Gall and Paul Sahre1 were experimenting with it years ago), but there has been a spate of commercial covers making use of images rotated through ninety degrees in the past couple of years. It seems like a such peculiar thing to have caught on, and yet here we are:

California by Edan Lepucki; design Julianna Lee (Little Brown & Co. July 2014)

The Empty Chair by Bruce Wagner; design by Gregg Kulick (Blue Rider Press / December 2013)

girl in the moonlight design by mumtaz mustafa painting horacio g garcia
The Girl in the Moonlight by Charles Dubow; design by Mumtaz Mustafa; painting by Horacio G. Garcia (William Morrow / May 2015)

green on blue
Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman; design by Oliver Munday & Jaya Miceli (Scribner / February 2015)

I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers; design by Emily Mahon; photograph by Mike Lambert (Nan A. Talese / June 2015)

Sugar design by M S Corley
Sugar by Deirdre Riordan Hall; design by M. S. Corley (Skyscape / June 2015)

waiting for the apocalypse design kimberly glyder
Waiting for the Apocalypse by Veronica Chater; design by Kimberly Glyder (W. W. Norton / February 2009)

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas; design by Christopher Lin (Simon & Schuster / August 2014)

May 25, 2015
by Dan

The Story of ILM

Somewhat related to that Keith Phipps essay Why Star Wars? (mentioned here a couple of days ago), Wired has an oral history of Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects shop founded by George Lucas to work on the movie:

Industrial Light & Magic was born in a sweltering warehouse behind the Van Nuys airport in the summer of 1975. Its first employees were recent college graduates (and dropouts) with rich imaginations and nimble fingers. They were tasked with building Star Wars’ creatures, spaceships, circuit boards, and cameras. It didn’t go smoothly or even on schedule, but the masterful work of ILM’s fledgling artists, technicians, and engineers transported audiences into galaxies far, far away.

As it turns 40 this year, ILM can claim to have played a defining role making effects for 317 movies. But that’s only part of the story: Pixar began, essentially, as an ILM internal investigation. Photoshop was invented, in part, by an ILM employee tinkering with programming in his time away from work. Billions of lines of code have been formulated there. Along the way ILM has put tentacles into pirate beards, turned a man into mercury, and dominated box office charts with computer-generated dinosaurs and superheroes.

And if you were wondering where it all went wrong, it was probably the precise moment George Lucas had this revelation:

I never thought I’d do the Star Wars prequels, because there was no real way I could get Yoda to fight. There was no way I could go over Coruscant, this giant city-planet. But once you had digital, there was no end to what you could do.

May 25, 2015
by Dan

Errors Commonly Made by Inexperienced Murder-Mystery Novelists


Tom Gauld.

May 25, 2015
by Dan

Gray318 TYPO Talk Berlin

everything is illuminated gray318

“I’m not a designer, not an illustrator, and certainly not a type designer – I’m a misfit…Publishing – that’s where people who don’t quite fit in end up.”

The TYPO Talks blog recaps Jon Gray‘s recent talk at TYPO Berlin:

Gray looked around for inspiration and got interested in old hand written signs often posted at churches. Written by sign writing dilettantes who need to communicate something to their fellow churchgoers, to Gray these signs tell a story, they speak of dedication, personality, of love. The signs reference a specific time and place, an idiosyncratic personality and character. Gray took the loose and spontaneous quality of the handwriting on these signs and used it for the cover of “Everything is Illuminated”.

What he got gave him one of these rare moments where “You make something and you know it works, it’s something new – I made it and it was completely me. I liked it, Penguin loved it, the author was all over it.” Published in 2002, the rough all-over hand-lettering on the cover contrasted strongly with the clean lines and vector graphics that had been dominating graphic design for a while then. It was the avant-garde of what Steven Heller called “The Decade of Dirty” when handmade aesthetics became fashionable again. And it marked the very beginning of the still ongoing revival of hand-lettered typography.

May 24, 2015
by Dan
1 Comment

Why Star Wars?

In the most recent installment of the Laser Age, the Dissolve’s fascinating history of science fiction films from the 1960s to the 1980s, Keith Phipps turns his attention to Superman, Star Trek, and Flash Gordon — three movies released in the immediate wake of Star Wars. It’s a great read if you are at all interested in this stuff,  but it’s also a perfect excuse to revisit Phipps’s earlier — but oh, so timely — essay, ‘Why Star Wars?’:

Why? Of all the science-fiction films released in the long wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet Of The Apes, why did Star Wars take hold in a way no film before it had? None of the many answers are entirely satisfying. But combining a few of them lets us make some sense of the question.

May 24, 2015
by Dan

Tim Parks on Where I’m Reading From

Where I'm Reading From (1)

At BOMB Magazine, writer Tim Park discusses his new book Where I’m Reading From, a collection of his essays from the NYRB Blog, with Scott Esposito (co-author of The End of Oulipo):

In a way, this book is an autobiography of someone brought up with a very particular relation to books, in a religious family, in an English literary tradition, who on becoming an adult, for private personal reasons, set himself literary goals that were gradually revealed as spurious. Also, it’s about a person from the literary center—English, London— who has spent more than thirty years in another country, Italy, that is out of the literary mainstream. And a writer who also, by chance, became a translator and went on to teach translation. My life has been a long process of awakening to the reality, the changing reality, of the contemporary book world, which is a million miles from the naïve vision I had when I started writing books at twenty-two. Since it is in the publishers’ interests, and indeed the University’s, to sustain a false picture of what the book world is like and what the contemporary experience of books amounts to, my articles were a response to this, and an attempt to get my own head straight about what I’m really doing and the environment I move in. One is seeking at last to be unblinkered about it all.

And, if you missed it, Park reviewed What We See When Read by designer Peter Mendelsund on the NYRB Blog earlier this month:

One of the pleasures of his book is his honesty and perplexity at the discovery that every account he offers of the process of visualization very quickly falls apart under pressure. We do not really “see” characters such as Anna Karenina or Captain Ahab, he concludes, or indeed the places described in novels, and insofar as we do perhaps see or glimpse them, what we are seeing is something we have imagined, not what the author saw. Even when there are illustrations, as in many nineteenth-century novels, they only impose their view of the characters very briefly. A couple of pages later they have become as fluid and vague as so much of visual memory. At one point Mendelsund posits the idea that perhaps we read in order not to be oppressed by the visual, in order not to see.

(Pictured above is the cover of the UK edition, published by Harvill Secker in December last year, of Where I’m Reading From designed by James Paul Jones. The US edition, which has a more utilitarian cover, was just published by New York Review of Books)

May 22, 2015
by Dan

Australian Book Design Awards Winners 2015

Congratulations to all the 2015 Australian Book Design Awards Winners!

caro was here design gayna murphy

Caro Was Here by Elizabeth Farrelly; design by Gayna Murphy

consumer-behaviour-in-action design regine abos

Consumer Behaviour in Action by Peter Ling, Steven d’Alessandro, Hume Winzar; design Regine Abos

A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson; design by Allison Colpoys

A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson; design by Allison Colpoys

fictional woman design tara moss and matt stanton

The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss; design Tara Moss & Matt Stanton

Movida Solera by Frank Comorra & Richard Cornish;  design by Daniel New

Movida Solera by Frank Comorra & Richard Cornish; design by Daniel New

What Came Before by Anna George; design by Laura Thomas

What Came Before by Anna George; design by Laura Thomas

You can find all the winning designs on the Australian Book Designers Association website.

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