How to Approach Cover Design for a Series
Coming back to Peter Mendelsund, he is a really great and I think unusually committed designer with a fascinating biography himself. He studied not graphic design but classical piano with the goal about being a concert pianist and actually is an extremely, extremely accomplished pianist. He's like really good but you know, sort of between practicing many hours a day and kind of being in a field that has not a whole lot of room for well paid classical piano players at the top of the pinnacle, he was trying to think of something else he'd like to do that he might be able to stand a better chance of making a living doing and he had made some tapes and kind of made the covers for the tapes and thought he sort of enjoyed doing that, had a knack for it and then decided to see whether or not he could put together a portfolio and get a job as a book cover designer and it was just one of those amazing things where he just turns out to be one of the best in the world at it.
He's designed I thi...
nk 1,000 books for Knopf and what you're looking at now is an interesting thing he's gonna talk about in the interview we're going to share with you in a moment which is what does a designer do when faced with the role of interpreting what we call canonical literature? So it's one this to do the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer, which may in fact become canonical. It's another thing to do Cortazar, to do Shakespeare, to do Nabokov and these things. There's a certain responsibility to history and to what's come before and to how viewers and readers interpret that. Also I think it gets at this idea of what stories are when they are presented as a series and Astrid Stavro, who we mentioned earlier, did this beautiful series of books by a variety of Latin American authors where they're all branded together by this kind of very simple graphic language that's in black and white. It's likely that the budget for these books was not great. Peter Mendelsund for his part is somebody who can speak I think very much to this idea of the series and it's something I think he excels at and I think we're ready to go to the video now to show what Peter has done with series and canonical literature and everything else in his great career. So Peter, you've been at Knopf for how long?
14 years, it'll be 15 this March.
Do you know how many books you've designed?
When the monograph came out, I tried to count them and this was about a year ago, it was a little over 1,000. So we're probably at about 1100, 1200 by now.
Oh my goodness. So clearly there was reason to do the monograph.
Yeah, I guess so.
And we have many questions to ask you but I'm gonna just jump right into this. I want you to talk a little bit about what it is in addition to the complexities and challenges of designing a book, what it is to design a series of books? And I'm looking at this Calvino series and I wondered if you could talk about it.
Well I've always loved working on what we call backlist titles, canonical classic texts more than any other kind of design project for a number of reasons. The first is that the quality of the texts is bound to be good. These are text that have lasted the test of time. The other thing is I have a tremendous amount of freedom as a designer designing the cover for a classical text because the author tends to be dead and will not involve themselves.
Nice, my favorite kind of client.
Peter, are the expectations also different? These are books that are all basically steady sellers but it's unlikely that any of them are gonna be breakthrough runaway bestsellers.
That's exactly right and because of the fact that they will not be breakout sellers, there's sort of less, there's less involvement from marketing and editorial, et cetera, et cetera. So I tend to be--
So you have more freedom.
Yeah and for me in designing a book jacket, I'm far more interested in representing the text than I am in selling the book, although that's a huge part of the job obviously but with the classical texts for the reasons you just outlined, my goal, you really get to focus on representing the text. Because designing a book cover really is a balance between those two things, between the selling of the thing and the representing of the thing and the great designers tend to do a good job at that particular balancing act.
So you wrote this book called Why We Read What We Read, How We Read What We Read, What We See When We Read, okay. I'm gonna start over. And of course it's in French, lovely that you've been translated into 4,000 languages. But this came out the same year as your monograph.
So you felt that there were two different arguments here. In other words you've done all these books, you have all these books to show but it wasn't something that was consistent with the showing of the monograph work. This was a different argument.
It wasn't so much an argument as an exploration of an idea which is that what is this mysterious process that takes place when we read? These images come to us, do images come to us? I mean perhaps the imagination is linguistic. Perhaps it is visual, I don't know but the idea was to sort of unpack that process a little bit. Most of the metaphors we use for describing the reading experience are visual and filmic in particular. We think of this little homunculus in the back of our mind watching a tiny little movie screen on the front of our mind but is that the way the imagination works? And when I started kind of interrogating my own imagination, I found that there was these very strange things going on. So that's really what that book was as opposed to the monograph which was really just more a kind of showcase for the visual kinds of candy that I'm expected to make in order to shop these things out into the world.
Would you say those cinematic things, reference points that you're talking about are more easily explored in a series because it's a thing of multiples?
That's a very interesting question, I think, you know in a way a series isn't that different from a one-off. It's just an extrapolation from that one-off. So the truth is if I had found something that worked for the first say Calvino title, it really should be able to work for the rest of them, given the fact that it's a single author. I'm trying to represent him, his mind, his preoccupations, his proclivities. So it's not actually that different in a way. It's not more challenging, it's simply more fun because once you've set that template, then you get to instantiate it in all these different ways which is really a joy I think.
So let's come back to this idea of the one-off. Does the Tom Vanderbilt book, which has a series of covers--
It has just two covers.
It has two covers. Did you want to do two?
Yeah, there are only two. It'd be great if we could've done more. Tom Vanderbilt's book is a book about why we like what we like. It is an exploration of sort of the neurological, biological, sociological reasons behind our various forms of taste and so the idea here was to give the shopper a concrete example of their own proclivities when in a bookstore. They would be confronted with a choice and they would make that choice and then they'd have to interrogate that choice. This is the only time in my life I'd be able to do two different jackets for one single book. But it was interesting and actually in a nice kind of circularity, the author then worked the jackets into the introduction of the book.
That's very nice.
Do you think that people pick the flavor they like because each book has an ice cream cone, one is chocolate, one's vanilla, do people think I like chocolate, then they buy the chocolate one or do they think I like the way the vanilla one looks better?
Or do they think I like blue, I like red?
It's funny in a way that the emblem, the sort of signifier of an ice cream cone is kind of cute but I think really doesn't have a big effect on how people choose one book or the other. In this case I think color is really the signifier that's doing the most work and the author has gotten back to me and had very interesting conversations about how people chose and what they chose.
And what did he say?
Also I should add that we did make a third just for the sake of presentation--
The sorbet cover?
It actually was the brown that I gather is the color that people like the least. It's the color of the AMC Pacer, Pacer brown.
The least loved color, yeah.
We made one of those as well which actually very weirdly I just love so much. Yeah, the least popular color in the country is the one that I'm the most entranced by. But yeah, it seemed to be a pretty even split so far. Kinda 50-50 blue-red, so.
Can I ask you a question?
Go back to series for a second, bigger series. When you kind of like determine with a series like Calvino or Sebald or Kafka or any of the other ones you done, I know you're also a musician and it really is like theme and variations, isn't it?
That's a great analogy.
So you have to determine somehow--
What is constant and what is variable.
What's constant, what varies and you also have to set a balance so that everything looks alike enough that they read as a series but not so much alike that you can't tell them apart.
And so can you talk about what that process is, making those choices and how you make those?
What comes first?
Well when I do a series, I very rarely do one cover in isolation and then do the rest. I tend to really mock up two or three at first to just make sure that the idea will carry. Because like you said in music, some themes are rich enough to be able to propagate a series of variations and some aren't. It really depends on the DNA of that original. So when I did the Calvinos with Oliver by the way, who you talked to as well, we tried to do several at once to just make sure and then like I said, it's actually very easy in design I think to find something to carry across and it could be typographical or an image or both or stylistic or, it's really not that hard once you've established a decent template to just--
So this series has a particularly illustrative kind of visual language. I guess this one does too but very different. Could you talk about this one? I'm really intrigued with this.
With Calvino the idea was to represent really the whimsy of the thing more than anything. So with Calvino, the idea was twofold. One was to first of all make everything by hand, to have no set typography, to paint everything by hand, to do all the handwriting by hand. Also to have the images be witty, they're double-entendres, almost all of them of one kind or another and thereby to represent both Calvino's interest in sort of the levels, metatextual levels in his writing but also his incredible sense of humor and lightness.
And it has a very relaxed sort of quality.
Yeah, that's right.
These books are deep but you don't kind of think wow, that looks like a lot of heavy lifting involved with that. It looks very inviting and like you said, light.
Yeah, I think of the postmodern, the great postmodern international novelists, Calvino is the one I think I would like the most as a human being. His warmth comes through in his works and that needed so somehow come across in the covers. Sebald is a totally different, a totally different case. His works are extremely serious. They're very moody, Saturnalian. They tend to be these sort of memoiristic travel logs. They have in-text photos. They contend with war and the aftermath of war, with refugees and they're sort of more sorrowful affairs. However they're also collaged together from various historical sources even though they're fiction. So the idea was to use collage, a visual collage was just a very natural thing to do.
Right but this particular kind of collage, this kind of art-like quality where things don't touch and we get these kind of vestiges of narrative and then you play it out again on the back in these interesting ways. And the spines are really interesting.
They actually should spell Sebald.
They don't. Oh my God, you're a lunatic. Wow, that's so great.
Well the idea there was really negative space had to be a principal player because his books, really their themes emerge out of the unsaid. He very rarely mentions say the Second World War even though many of his novels are contending with that material. You just sort of have to extrapolate from what isn't made explicit in the text. In this case, the idea of a very strong ground that would come forward was crucial to representing that particular--
How many books are you working on at one time?
I tend to work on anywhere between 10 and 20, depending on sort of, yeah.
What kind of time. And the gestation of them is different, it's based on what's coming out when? Do you have the same amount of time to work on each thing?
It varies wildly. There are some covers that are done in a day. For instance that Simone de Beauvoir was done in a day and there's some covers that due mostly to the approval process might take months.
And why do you think this was done in a day? What was it about this? You just came up with the idea right away?
There was no oversight, so I was free to do what I wanted. This was a book that was sort of languishing on the backlist, it sold under 100 copies a year and no one was--
Nice little nod to Paul Rand there. Do you sign your books?
I don't. I occasionally do now. It's not really a vanity move as much as it is like sort of a callback to a kind of old school.
Yeah, that's right. I love the sort of, the way, it doesn't even have to be my initials but I love the way they reframe--
You can use mine next time, okay?
It reframes the cover in a very, very interesting way. Just it re-contextualizes it. By putting any name on it, all of a sudden you look--
It looks like art.
Yeah, that's right. It makes it arty.
Do you think, are you, here's a funny word. Do you feel you're like branding or rebranding an author when you do something like this? Because I have some of these Calvino books in previous Trade Paperback editions.
And they actually, these books, the same book feels very different to me with this cover on it and one is that there's a danger of disorienting the fanbase on one hand. Secondly--
Now trending on Twitter, Calvino.
People are outraged, a Facebook petition.
How could he?
Yeah, how could he?
And he signed it too.
I don't worry about disorienting as you put it, a fanbase that's already read a book with a preexisting cover.
You're looking at that fanbase and we're good with it.
Right, actually and I am the same fanbase because I read these, I think it was probably Louise Fili. Didn't she do them for, I want to say for Harcourt maybe back in the day? They were the ones, yeah. Because I think it's a great experience to come back to a writer with a slightly different frame of reference and hopefully a great writer is great because their work is sort of commodious enough to be able to accommodate all of these different forms of reading.
You've done a lot of this. You've done a lot of this canonical re-contextualization.
It's my favorite thing in the world. I wish it's all I did.
Really, so interesting. So it doesn't feel onerous or scary or you know, what would Shakespeare say if he was here looking over my shoulder? It's like game on.
It doesn't usually. I mean I did a cover for Ulysses which was mildly terrifying because that's to me, it's a text I'm so close to and is so important to me and it felt very, very important to get it right and I don't have it here to show but mostly the way I contended with that kind of fear was to try to use as deft a touch as possible and keep it as sort of classically all-type as possible. Really I think the cardinal sin when it comes to imposing a designer's vision upon a reader's imagination is when you start incorporating settings and characters and you know, very specific kinds of visual imagery that will then supplant that reader's imagination and those are the kinds of things I always try to steer clear of and it's especially important when it's a text that I think is important.
And I think, you know you mentioned, you've mentioned sort of the world of marketing and you know, implied that you sort of, it's not the first thing in your mind, marketing concerns when you're doing one of these things. On the other hand I think you're very, very sympathetic to an imagined reader out there.
I would agree with that, I think it's a very good point.
And obviously they're very related. The reader is in theory the book buyer. So can you talk about sort of your empathy towards the person buying the book and living with it and what would attract them to it? What you're imagining that reader out there is.
Well that reader is actually, even if we're talking about a singular instance of that reader is really more than one reader in the sense that that reader is someone who goes to the store and encounters the book in its outward form. So that's the first putative reader and so you have to appeal to that person, the person who hasn't read the text yet and then there is the reader who is engaged in the text and then the cover has to serve a different function because they now are developing a relationship to this text and an evolving relationship to the text and then there's the reader who has that book there on their shelf for perhaps their whole life and that's a whole different reader who is that reader that may want to keep this thing around. So in a way, you really have to think of three different readers and the cover really has to have a kind of time release in that way. It has to perform all of those various functions. It has to kind of startle you awake in the bookstore and entice you and draw you closer to it and then it has to remain consonant with the read as you're reading it, whatever your vantage is as a reader. So it has to be accommodating in that way, the design that is and then it has to feel classic in a certain sense such that you would want to have it around. You might want to give it to somebody. So anyway, there are all of these readers that one has to think about when one is making these things and the truth is I do have a kind of disdain for a certain kind of marketing, not all marketing and the kind of marketing that I have a problem with is really the marketing that draws conclusions from what has worked in the past and what interests me in terms of putting designs out in the world, forget about the texts that they represent but just in terms of making visual things, what interests me is always what's new, perhaps off-putting, hasn't been done in awhile. What might even sort of play at the fringes of ugly. You know for instance, when I was working on this Robbe-Grillet backlist for Grove which is coming out in about six months, I sort of looked at the existing ecosystem of covers and realized that there was almost no surrealism. That it hasn't been done in so long and when it was done in book design, it was very much consigned to a kind of, I don't want to say ghetto but really silo science fiction. You know I'm thinking of sort of the great Penguin sci-fi covers of the 70s and 60s and since then it's just been sort of verboten. Which leads me to believe what a great time to do some surrealism on a cover.
So you're kind of acting like a historian, like a visual historian in terms of not only the canon that you're dealing with at the time or the revival of it but how it might actually pique the curiosity of the bookstore reader.
Yeah, I think rather than responding to a preexisting zeitgeist which sort of almost by definition has already passed us by by the time that you're responding to it, it's more trying to set a pace a little bit by thinking about what hasn't been done in awhile and what might be interesting.
But you're always very conscious of legibility and the reader and points of entry and accessibility and then also fidelity to the writer. So that's the other end of it.
Yeah. Those are really two different vectors and hopefully they can work in parallel towards the same end which is selling the book and then having the reading experience be the best reading experience it can for the reader.
Could you talk for a minute about your monograph?
So here's a book designer who's done 1,000 books. He finally sits down and does his own book. Was it daunting, was it a relief? Was it a pleasure, was it complicated?
It was a fever dream. I really only did it because I was asked to and then once I was engaged in it, it seemed perhaps like a worthwhile enterprise and at the moment that I wrote this book, I wasn't sure where my career was heading and I thought it was as good a time--
Clearly in the toilet, as we've seen. (laughs) Such a shame for you, Peter.
It just seemed like a decent time to take stock personally and somehow making the book allowed me to do that and really what it is is just a collection of some of the work that I've done over, well at this point it was 13 or so years as a designer with various essays by me and other people about the process of making them and how I ended up in this profession in the first place and you know what? It really was actually interesting just from a personal point of view. By the time it was done I could sort of look at my work at arms length and--
Forgive me for not knowing the answer to this but you are a cover designer, right? So you don't do the innards of the book.
No, I don't.
So was doing the innards of this book something that you were really chomping at the bit to do or was it terrifying and off-putting and?
I don't think it was either. It was really just something that had to be done and so one learns what one has to learn in order to accomplish what one has to accomplish. But it was fascinating. I had never really thought about the flow of the interior of a book and what that experience is like and you know, I would say interestingly and conversely a cover has to draw attention to itself for the reasons I outlined earlier whereas the text on the inside of a book really has the opposite job which is to approach a modicum of transparency and that is something that I never would have known had I not done it. But really it's set in Helvetica and it's set pretty much as simply as it could be and that's very much on purpose so that the design element of the text dissolves and you get to digest the content.
And finally, has the work you've done since writing that book changed? Do you think that this was any kind of catalyst in a direction that you might not have gone?
Well it was a catalyst only in the sense that I now write more than I design and I never would have seen that--
Is that true?
Yeah, it is.
You really do?
Yep. So I never would have seen that coming but you know as Michael mentioned, I came at this from music. So I never thought this was gonna be the last thing I did and so I guess it was a springboard to something new and we'll see where it takes me.
Fantastic, thank you so much for your time.