Book covers and, oh yeah, what’s inside of them. (Part I)

Ever since I learned to read, libraries have been my happy place. Bookstores place a close second, but at bookstores, you have to pay money to take the books home with you. Not the case at the public library, my friend. No, those books don’t cost a thing to borrow!
As a kid this was a magical concept to me, and I would take literal stacks of books home in the summers to enable my fantastical mental vacations. Nerdy? Maybe. Awesome? Definitely.
When I go to libraries, I often go with a book or two in mind; but after I find those, I can’t help browsing. And with shelves and shelves to choose from, often it’s the spine of the book’s cover that initially piques my interest.
If, after finishing the book, I realize that the eye-catching cover design actually fits the book perfectly, it adds another layer of satisfaction. And thanks to the wonderful website The Book Cover Archive, I can look up the designer of the cover I’ve enjoyed, and even the art director and typeface(s) used! The internet is a design geek’s paradise.
For today’s post, I’ve selected five covers I love from books I’ve also loved. Stay tuned for at least two more installments of this series!

Book 1: Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames

Designer: Paul Sahre

Art director: John Fulbrook III

Photographer: Getty Images

Photographer: Stephen Swintek

Typeface: Garamond

I first encountered this cover at a Barnes & Noble while waiting for the last Harry Potter book to be released. My sisters and I, after waiting for a few hours, decided to take photos of our creatively brilliant title interpretations of various books surrounding us on the line. One of them was Wake Up, Sir!:

OK, so we may have been a little delirious at this point. I was also dressed as the Marauder’s Map... so... there’s that.

It’s honestly a shame it took me years to finally read what I found to be a laugh-out-loud hilarious book, by turns massively uncomfortable, brilliantly insightful, and comically genius. The protagonist, Alan, is a washed-up 30-something aspiring writer with a drinking problem and, thanks to a lucky accident, a good amount of disposable income. Once you get to know Alan, it’s no surprise that he uses this windfall to hire a full-time manservant named — naturally — Jeeves.

The use of Garamond for this cover is perfect at communicating Alan’s snobbery and seriousness about his own writing, as it’s such a traditional typeface, and French to boot. Extra snob points! Then there’s the butler, like every person’s mental image of a butler: holding a white towel, for something; white-gloved; crisply attired in vest, tie, and suit jacket with tails.

But this butler is out-of focus, and tilted, as is the cover, author, blurb, and even the little NYT seal of award-dom! Why so blurry and wonky? Well, precisely because this is how the world must look to our protagonist, who consumes far more wine than any healthy person should.

There you are: it’s simple, intriguing, and perfectly matched to the story inside, despite my ignorant initial interpretation.

Book 2: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Designer: William Webb

Typefaces: Distressed Type / Black Beard

For anyone who’s ever picked up this book, been intimidated by its considerable length, and put it back down, I implore you: give it a fair chance. This tale of two rival magicians in 19th-century Britain is a wonderfully imagined alternate history. It’s told in a delightfully old-fashioned way (even utilizing footnotes!) and will suck you into the world it creates.

The cover certainly communicates the historical setting of the tale, with a typeface that looks like a Caslon got into a no-holds-barred fight with the Clarendon next door (next drawer?) and emerged battered and bruised. And look at that beautiful swooping ampersand! They just don’t make them like that anymore.

For a story where the language of the telling reigns supreme, a textual solution to the cover makes perfect sense. The only graphic is the simple raven, a nod to the Raven King that is a major figure in the book. Love it!

Book 3: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Designer: Rodrigo Corral

Here’s an argument for graphics that pop: who doesn’t see this book and want to pick it up? The bright colors, the rows of circles, the sassy-looking brushlike type: it definitely doesn’t look like most other books on the shelf.

It also happens to be a brilliant abstract interpretation of the satirical world Shteyngart very convincingly creates: a near-future where humanity has entered a full-blown information age where everything is shared and consumerism reigns supreme. The circles could easily be pixels, or identical products on a shelf. And in a world where everything is Technicolor, the colors are perfect.

Book 4: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Designer: Carol Devine Carson

Art director: Carol Devine Carson

Typeface: Didot (H&FJ) 

This cover is the most simple and muted of the group: fitting for Didion’s heartbreaking memoir, which tells of the period of her life immediately following the sudden loss of her husband of 40 years and the hospitalization of her daughter. The simple and elegant letterforms of Didot on a neutral background communicate the loneliness and fragile strength that come through in Didion’s telling.

But what elevates this cover from good to great? The very subtle coloring of just a few letters on the front: A “J”, an “O”, an “H”, and an “N”, to spell out the name of the author’s late husband. A lovely tribute that gives the cover more meaning after the book is read. Beautiful.

Book 5: Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Designer: Gabriele Wilson

Photographer: Erwin Von Dessauer

Perfume is far and away the creepiest book on today’s list. It tells the story of a man in 18th-century France born with the most incredible sense of smell anyone has ever known. He finds great success as a perfumer, but when he becomes obsessed with harnessing the scent of women, things take a very dark and disturbing turn.

For this reason, the black void of the cover is appropriate. Everything else drops away when our protagonist focuses on smell, and in a similar way, everything else about the cover is secondary to the man on the front, closing his eyes to take in a scent. The text is beautifully treated in a script style that wouldn’t be out of place on a perfume label from the period. Overall, the cover designer has succeeded in representing smell in a visual way; the only thing that might be harder is to represent smell in words (though this book succeeds in that, too).

That’s it for this post’s roundup! Next time you’re at the library or bookstore, take a moment to admire a cover or two. Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.

Valentine’s: Yes, for the single ones too.

Even if (or perhaps especially if) you’re a bitter hater of this particularly saccharinized holiday, it’s hard to deny that Valentine’s Day is practically right around the corner. The candy aisle at the local drugstore looks like a Lisa Frank unicorn explosion of purples and pinks, the Hallmark section looks especially lacy, and singletons everywhere are reading Pride and Prejudice for the 27th time, not that I would know from personal experience.

Yup! February is fast approaching.

One of the first Valentine’s cards I designed for Moxie Press wasn’t even meant for that holiday. It was just a nerdy idea I had for my best-friend-and-med-student’s birthday gift.

Yup, it's an anatomically correct heart.

This also happens to be my mom’s least favorite design I sell; I think it might be the way the ink can look a little bloody. This is more due to my lack of carving skill at the time, rather than an intentionally sanguine tone, but I think it’s rather fitting. And, for any med students or doctors reading, hopefully pretty accurate.

Last year I designed two more cards — these specifically intended for the day of love.

They're hands! No, wait! They're hearts!

This was partially inspired by a visit to an old fire station in Ponce, Puerto Rico, during which my sisters and I discovered the following (amazing) pipe detail:

Hey, that's me with that heart-shaped pipe!

The next design was an attempt to, in a similar way to the hand-heart card, represent the overused symbol of the heart in a less typical way.

Birds to the rescue!

I’ve always loved drawing birds; their feathers offer a wonderful exploration of texture. This allowed me to have fun with that, while, let’s face it, also making something adorable.

And finally, my latest Valentine’s offering: to bring things full circle, another design not intended for lovelorn sweethearts, but rather my deep affection for dear friends. I figured these cards would come in handy for all sorts of “Just a note to say I love you” occasions:

Hugs and kisses, when you just want to write in code.

So that’s it — the Valentine’s round-up!

Even if the idea of it makes you sneer, sob, or sigh, remember to embrace Valentine’s Day for what it should be: a celebration of every kind of love, and every source of love, in your life.

New Year, new inspirations

2011 was a pretty incredible year for me — a lot of brand-new dreams realized, jobs begun, and interests explored. And over that year, and over the past 6 months especially, I’ve made a conscious effort to immerse myself more and more into the world of design. Subway car ads? Yeah, I’m critiquing them. Huge posters in Times Square? Yeah, I’m trying to identify the fonts they’re using. And when I’m at home, I’m pulling up my Google Reader and feasting my eyes on dozens of incredible design blogs. Does all of this make for a bit of graphic overload? Naturally. But I’ve found myself gravitating towards certain trends over and over again — whether it’s an aesthetic I particularly enjoy, a design challenge I find especially interesting, or a novel usage of an everyday material. Below, I’ve rounded up a sort of visual journey through some of my top inspirations of 2011. Mouse over the images for credits, and click on them for more information. Enjoy!
1. Clever & simple design.
If there’s nothing else I’ve learned in my first semester of design school, it’s that less is more: the most simple design is often the most effective. When you add to that a twist of cleverness, the results can be astounding. Here’s some favorite examples of this minimal aesthetic.

This series of posters for IBM first caught my eye at JFK airport, and their plays on positive/negative space are nothing short of brilliant.

This poster series for the International Year of Chemistry blends visual references to the science in question with images of human curiosity. The same designer created an amazing series for the International Year of Astronomy.

Just one example from a list called "50 Fantastically Clever Logos" over at Design Shack. Click through for more greatness!

If you ever used an old-school Mac, you know and probably love these icons from Susan Kare, who brought clear visuals to a new high in the space of just a few pixels.

2. Ingenious use of materials.
A huge part of print design’s seductiveness is the tactile nature of it: the thickness and texture of a paper stock, the actual process of the printing (letterpress? screenprint? offset?). These examples all use the tired-out old medium of paper in imaginative and beautiful ways.

These letterpress cards use a physical press into the paper to evoke the crushed layer of snow in a snow angel.

An X-Acto knife was likely used to cut these letters out of paper, which happen to be in the shapes of X-Acto blades. Does your brain hurt yet?

The process of this cover was an obsessive one: the letters were formed by hundreds of pinpricks into a heavy cardstock. Brilliant.

Like the previous example, the way the type is formed mimics the type itself: this is indeed a fragile piece.

Signage for an exhibition, created using layers of papercuts stacked one on the other. You must click through to see the process: incredible.

3. Vintage stylings.
Some vintage design looks downright modern even today, and some of it looks hopelessly dated. By looking into the past to see what worked, you can gain all sorts of ideas for solutions today. And don’t even get me started on the wonders of vintage illustrative styles and color palettes!

Too bad trains just don't hand-letter like this anymore.

How cool are these super-simple boxes for crayons and chalk?

The lightning-typography on this motor oil can certainly does pack a punch.

Love the color scheme of this vintage trade card: the type is pretty fabulous too.

The IBM electric may look dated, but the ad itself has a clarity and simplicity that are still resonant.

One great example of the aesthetic of mid-century line art, taken from the blog of Angela Voulangas (a great source of beautiful ephemera and visual musings).

4. Book covers.
As an avid reader, I am always checking out the covers of the books I’m currently reading, not to mention the ones I’m constantly browsing. I always do judge a book by its cover, and these covers all pass the test with flying colors.

Intriguing, textural, and not too literal. Love it!

Love the color and the meaningful use of type to obscure the cover portrait.

An incredible interpretation of a famous story: layers of paper imitating the layers making up the earth.

Of course you incorporate pop-ups into a cover for a book on viral culture. Of course you do!

Reading the title with this design gives the viewer the feeling of traveling through doors themselves. Brilliant.

Last but not least, Coralie Bickford-Smith's many series for Penguin Classics are stunning in their creativity and simplicity.

5. Beautiful packaging.
Great packaging is both gorgeous and functional, and it’s the marriage of both that I find fascinating. The examples below vary in style, but all work exceedingly well.

Simple and effective: minimal color and a clear communication of the type of fish inside.

The square screams Polaroid, and what better packaging to sell a color film? The colors are bright and the design looks modern even today.

Love the unusual shape of this box, a luxurious and practical container for tiny jewels of macaron.

Who needs lots of fancy colors when you can just cut out the shape of what's inside of the can? This would definitely stick out on the shelf.

The bottle shape is based on Victorian rum bottles, and the label is all kitsch and class rolled into one. Who wouldn't want to release this Kraken?

Hope you enjoyed this little jaunt through inspiration-land! Feel free to share your own examples in the comments.

In which my printing press turns two!

It’s official… it’s holiday season here in NYC. No matter how much I want to believe it’s still October, we’ve already had snow, the Macy’s windows are out in full force, and I’m having spontaneous cravings for mulled wine.

Holiday cards were the first thing I printed when I finished building my printing press in November of 2009, and I sent a bunch of linocut postcards out to family and friends. Looking at those designs now, I feel just like I do when I see pictures of a certain ill-advised haircut I had for a few months in high school (let’s just say it was more than a little reminiscent of Jonathan Taylor Thomas)—a little embarrassed to say the least. But my embarrassment flies out the window when I realize that I’ve been printing on my press for two whole years, and in that time have learned an immense amount about printing techniques, design, and self-marketing.

Last year, I created two holiday designs for my Etsy store, which you can see below:

Design 1: Reindeer.

Design 2: Snowflake.

I thought the simple imagery of these worked really well, but I wanted to do something a little different this year. My limitations were:

  • 4 by 6 inch cards with envelopes (happened to have a lot of these envelopes on-hand already)
  • The design had to fit on a 4 by 5 inch lino block (I had two of these on-hand)
  • One typographic card (we’ve been focusing on typography in my design course, so I wanted to try my hand at some custom type.)
  • One card similar to last year, with a simple image evoking the holidays (but not a repeat: so snowflakes and reindeer were out!)

Let’s peek into the sketchbook!

Hmm, let's see here: ornaments, stars, fancy ribbon, mistletoe, and jingle bells.

On the right, stockings. On the left, a fire-breathing mutant human. (Supposed to be frost on a windowpane... I think.)


Some typography ideas: skating trails creating words, and wreaths forming "merry."

Winning design #1: Mistletoe. Simple, beautiful, holiday-ey.

Winning design #2: Ribbons spelling out "happy holidays" -- jingle bells are a bonus.

Having settled on these two designs, it was time to carve. I put on some loud music and thanked my lucky stars that my fingers now have linocut-friendly calluses (instead of blisters!). First came the mistletoe:

Step one: draw.

Step 2: Carve!

Step 3: Print.

Has anyone actually had a romantic mistletoe incident? I remember being terrified when I was a kid that I’d be caught underneath a sprig with someone totally undeserving of a kiss, but it never happened. Now I kind of hope I’ll be caught under one in a real-life Romantic Comedy Moment in which the unassuming plant introduces me to my soulmate… but I digress. Really thrilled with how this card turned out.

Next came “happy holidays”:

Step 1: Draw (in reverse, no less!)

Step 2: Carve.

Step 3: Print!

Typography and linocut are a tough marriage, people. In my design course, I’ve found a real appreciation for the precision and elegance of the digital fonts we use (put the word “bizarre” into Garamond italic and you’ll see what I mean—that z!). Carving words by hand is a much more inexact business, so I had to abandon my dreams of precise curves. But the handmade aesthetic gives it a different kind of charm, I think.

There you have it: two new holiday cards! You can find both designs on my Etsy site. 

On this anniversary of Moxie Press, I’d like to thank every single person who has supported me in this venture! It’s been such fun to develop new skills and have my own little card factory at home… and I plan on continuing for the next couple years at least. 🙂

Happy holidays!

My Journey Continues, With Cookies Along for the Ride

Apologies for a long silence, which encompassed travels to multiple weddings, the start of a new job, and the beginning of a year-long design course (woohoo!). But enough of that. On to our latest installment.

If you’ve ever spoken to me in person for more than 20 minutes, or read any blog I’ve ever kept, you’re aware that I am obsessed with food. Almost any kind will do, as long as it is delicious, but I have a particular weakness for sweets. In London it was the melty burnt-sugar crush of Crunchie bars; in Argentina, the cloying dulce-de-leche sweetness and crumbly cookies of alfajores. In Miami, it was the beautiful vibrant pink of cheese-and-guava pastries, and in Mississippi, the soft, syrupy warmth of spiced bread pudding.

Here in New York, lately, it has been the delicate, multi-hued beauty of French macarons.

Assorted macarons (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

For the uninitiated, macarons are cookies (of a sort) made with egg white, sugar, and almond flour, sandwiching a center of flavored buttercream or jam. They are like gorgeous little jewels to look at, and can be equally magical to taste – light, slightly chewy, tiny capsules of sweetness and flavor. They are apparently tricky little buggers to make, and have a short shelf life, so they carry a price tag far above what you’d expect based on size alone.

My first taste was at Bouchon Bakery: a raspberry and yogurt confection that — mmmmmmm. The friend who introduced me to this French wonder probably didn’t realize the monster she’d created…that is, until I convinced her we should go on a tasting tour of macaron-vending locations around the city.

This is where the design came in: I love travel planning. Even though our traveling was only spanning a few hours on the same tiny urban island, I knew I wanted to make some sort of visual guide to macaron enlightenment. A map? A list? A paint by number? I fired up my laptop to get started.

First came the research. There are literally dozens of places to buy these delicacies in the city. Based on reviews, lists on various blogs, and geographical limits, I winnowed the list down to seven. Then I created a Google Map to visualize them all.

Every little flag means deliciousness!

My design rules for this project were as follows:
1. It should fit on a single 8.5 by 11 sheet (or smaller)… foldable into a purse or pocket.
2. It should contain enough information about each location to ensure we arrived when it was open, and had enough money to pay. So: location, cost, and hours.
3. It should be printable in black and white: for macaron-hunters on a budget.
Those were the basics. I also toyed with the idea of including recommended flavors (too hard to determine), space for notes, a rating system, etc.

My first concept was a map. I traced the edges of the Google map and overlayed it with a little macaron icon I made in Illustrator.

My first attempt, complete with notes-to-self.

Unfortunately, the black and white felt really limited and kind of clip-art ish. And the text felt a little cramped. The typeface was getting there (Didot – French of course!) but was too hard to read at small sizes.

Why not retain more of the street details of the original map, I thought? Then I thought about the time involved in tracing all of those transit paths. There had to be a better way.

I tried scrapping the map entirely. Running out of time and inspiration as the macaron-tour-date approached, I cobbled together the following typographic solution (with Garamond, another French typeface):

The stopgap measure.

It was too busy, and too boring. But it had all of the information we needed, so it would have to do.

On a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, we spent several hours eating cookies. At Ladureé, I chose one salted caramel, and one orange blossom. These were the best of the tour: the caramel was a perfect balance of sweet and salt, with a decadently chewy interior, and the orange blossom tasted like a perfect day in the backyard of my childhood home. At Macaron Café, I had a slightly tangy apricot macaron, and at Bouchon Bakery, an amazing cranberry-and-orange concoction that left me wanting Thanksgiving to come early. After a stop for ramen, we rounded out our trip with a visit to La Maison du Macaron and a taste of passionfruit (one of my favorite flavors of all time). The other three on the list would have to wait for another day.

Macarons are definitely a luxury product; we paid anywhere from $2.25 to $3.25 per indulgence. The shops where we bought them sold them as “luxuries” with varying degrees of success, based on the interior of the shop and all of the packaging. Inspired by the over-the-top beauty of Ladureé’s shop and gilded napkins, I decided my final design for a macaron guide would not include pictures of the macarons (which pretty much look the same place to place), but instead, photos of the shop branding. In the end, here’s what the guide looks like:

Finally, the macaron guide you'd all been waiting for.

Downloadable as a PDF here.

I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. More importantly, I hope it proves useful to any fellow macaron-addicts out there. Feel free to print out your own and share your adventures in the comments!

Picturing My Dad

My dad and I are so alike sometimes, it’s scary. I inherited his gleefully corny sense of humor, and the shoulder-shaking laugh to go with it. I also got his pale complexion and dark hair, and his propensity to dance regardless of talent (which I love).

But there are other things I got from my dad that aren’t genetically based: instead, I learned them from his example. Kindness, discipline, a strong sense of right and wrong, and a deep love for family and friends… all of these reside in my father.

With Father’s Day around the bend, I knew it was time for a new card design, and I began to brainstorm ways to distill my dad into some sort of visual. Images flooded my brain: dad rocking me to sleep when I had bad dreams, dad shaving his face before work (so mysterious to a child!), dad polishing his shoes. I began to make a list.

So. Tools… that’s a “dad” thing. But my dad isn’t the handiest of handymen. I moved on.

Ties. Yes! My dad has a tie for everything, including themed ones for each of his daughter’s colleges. Yes. Adorable.

Manliness. Not sure what that means or how to visually represent it, but OK…

And finally, “shaved face.” Although, based on my experience (especially in Brooklyn), many a dad sports a beard. So… maybe not.

I liked the idea of using ties to form words. So this happened:

But that seemed a little confusing. So then I tried with shirts:

More confusing. But I did take away from these sketches the idea of using objects that remind me of my dad as letterforms. I decided to leave “happy” and “day” alone, but to get a little creative with the “fathers” typography. Here’s the final sketch:

Woohoo! On to creation. It was around 11 pm before I started tracing this bad boy, which meant I almost (almost!) sketched and carved it all backwards! Thank goodness I caught it first. Sketched plate:
(Check out the erased backwards bits!)

Carved plate:
And finally… the resulting print.
(Also available on my Etsy site.)

I ended up very happy with this design, but wonder if others will like it as much as I do. For me, each of these letterforms tells a story about my dad. His crisply ironed shirts, his DIY painting (that Mom often took over), the dusty toolbox in the garage, his shiny black shoes lined up in the closet, his morning ritual of coffee and the crossword, and his tie — always chosen with great care. While the images may not be universal, I hope the sentiment is.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

Mother’s Day for Ducklings

My mother is a huge inspiration to me. Our house was always full of art and craft supplies; she would sew us little books for us to color and write in, show us how to watercolor paint, create collages with patterned paper. I grew up making art of all kinds, and it’s thanks to her incredible creativity.

With Mother’s Day around the corner, I decided it was time to expand my line of cards over at Moxie Press and have a special card just for this occasion. But there were so many options and images to choose from! I started sketching away.

At first I thought I might play with the idea of “Mom” tattoos. You know, ribbon around the heart with a thorny rose, and all that. What you’d find on a tight bicep.

Aesthetically, not too bad, I thought. But then I remembered my mom’s thoughts on tattoos (NEVER!) and tattooed boyfriends (DON’T BRING ONE HOME) and I thought maybe this wasn’t the answer.

What about universal mom-experiences? Pregnancy?

Pregnancy apparently means having no head, an anatomically displaced heart, and one colored-in boob. And VERY HIGH-WAISTED PANTS

Then I realized: adoption is just as valid an experience of motherhood. Without being preggers. Moving on!

This one took the idea of shifting the heart-shape to encompass a mother and child. I think I was just trying to do too much with it; the shape wasn’t really translating how I wanted it to.

The next one I actually liked, but thought it might be not be the best for the medium (linocut) that I use for my cards:


Finally, I hit on something I liked. It was cute, it was universal, and it would lend itself well to the medium. Plus, it reminded me of one of my favorite children’s books:

Ducklings! Of course!

After a few more sketches to give me ideas for patterning of feathers, etc, I sketched and outlined the design onto the lino block. It’s important to remember that the design you sketch and then carve out of the block will print in reverse, so I always use a mirror to check before I carve.

The bottom of the block was not being printed, so I’d be carving all of that out. In linocut, you carve down into the block to make a depressed surface everywhere you don’t want the ink to go. That makes it a form of relief printing; the raised relief is what prints. Here’s the block halfway carved:

And finally:

Also found on my Etsy site.

In the end I’m really happy I whittled down my sketches to choose this one. Loved doing the feather detailing.

And most importantly, I remembered to put it in the mail so that it’d get there on time… Happy Mother’s Day!