A behind-the-scenes look at the artistic process behind book jacket design.
In the past two years, Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein have designed over a dozen covers for SUP under the direction of resident Art Director, Rob Ehle. Their visually stunning covers—textured, layered, and inventively rendered—have garnered an enthusiastic fan base not only within our office and among our authors—but have also been routinely lauded by outside commentators as well. The husband-wife duo met in Typography class at Rhode Island School of Design in 2004 and have been working together ever since. We caught up with them to ask about their process, their style, and the intricacies of book jacket design.
When designing a book cover, where do you begin?
We always begin with the text. Rob Ehle, Art Director at Stanford University Press, sends us a brief including a summary of the book and any loose art direction or concepts he wants us to consider. We read through the brief carefully and make two lists: first, a list of things we need to learn more about and, second, a list of key words. Then we go off and research everything on the first list until we feel like we understand the material. We keep adding to the second list during this process, and making rough sketches of anything that comes to mind. We usually spend an entire day or two doing this research. When we’re done, we have a long list of key words that we use as visual directions. These words tell us what processes and materials to start with.
We always begin with the text. The words themselves are our art direction.
For example, if perspective is an important word on our list, we might use that as a process direction and start by photographing an object or a piece of text from a bunch of different perspectives and see what happens. Often the words direct us to use certain materials, too. In our research for The Woman Who Read Too Much, the words unveiling, books, and illumination revealed themselves as being very important. These words told us to work with fabric, paper, hair, and light. Verbal content is rich with visual possibilities, and we capitalize on this by turning the key words into a pile of methods and materials that we can mix and match in our studio. The words themselves are our art direction.
We gather as many materials and tools as possible, and often go on a shopping trip to get a few new things to play with. We always start with a physical pile of stuff—we rarely start on the computer. We find that the best way to get lots of ideas is to just start making something even if it isn’t very good. The key words are a jumping off point for us to get into the visual work as soon as possible, and keep us from wasting time stressing out about the blank page. We always have more ideas than we can possibly execute. As long as we have words, we have visual ideas—the text is the beginning of everything.
Behind the Cover:The Woman Who Read Too Much
The Woman Who Read Too Much is a novel based on a figure in Persian history, a woman who was martyred for both her religious beliefs and her socially radical ideas—things like “women should be allowed to read” and “women don't need to have their faces covered.” Our research centered around two important things that happen in this novel: first, a famous incident where the woman removes her veil at court in front of a number of important men; and second, the woman learns to read and write and becomes a famous poet. Both things were completely unheard of in nineteenth-century Iran.
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Much of your work hinges around typography—what attracts you to type as an art form?
We’re attracted to limitations, and typography presents a very defined set of limitations that we love to play with. Without limitations we would be lost. The alphabet is a finite set of forms, but within that set of forms there are infinite possibilities for variation and experimentation. This is the sweet spot for us. We can embrace the beautiful shapes and rigid structure of typography, and at the same time push against these limitations by distorting the letterforms, building them out of non-digital materials, or manipulating them in various ways. Everything is an art supply, and everything can be used to make or manipulate type.
We also love the meaning embedded in typography. The symbols that make up the alphabet are attached to sounds and words, and you can’t escape these inherent associations when working with type. We love the interplay between visual and verbal communication. When we can infuse a visual texture or physical material into a word, communication is amplified in ways that just aren’t possible with non-typographic images. Joining typography and images together creates meaning that is rich, layered, and multidimensional. We find the potential in this space really exciting.
Behind the Cover:Anthropology's Politics
Anthropology’s Politics examines the political and economic pressures that shape how U.S. scholars research and teach about the Middle East. We wanted to create an all-typographic design that communicated the tension between politics and academic research in the Middle East without using any predictable images. Through our research we developed a technique of building multifaceted, chaotic paper letterforms. We began by cutting a bunch of letters out of paper.
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What would you say is the function of the book cover? What should it accomplish?
Form is our primary concern. A book cover must first catch the eye of the reader, or else the book will never be opened. We think good design must be visually seductive—that might mean beautiful, or interesting, or weird, or new—but without enticing form, there is no entry point to content.
There should also be a meaningful relationship between material and message—the image should make sense with the content in a smart and interesting way. That visual-verbal connection must be present and strong. A good book cover should also reward the reader—there should be a little bit of mystery to allow for personal interpretation, and enough depth in the image so the reader’s experience of the cover changes and grows as they make their way through the text.
We want to make work that contributes to our society’s intellectual growth—that’s part of why we love book covers so much. If a book cover encourages someone to pick up a book and read it, that adds to our culture’s collective understanding. We are interested in work that promotes thinking and ideas.
Without enticing form, there is no entry point to content.
Behind the Cover:Making Literature Now
Making Literature Now is about the contemporary lit scene, as exemplified by such indie publishers as McSweeney’s, n+1, and Electric Literature. This book examines the network of writers and would-be writers united around these kinds of publications, with McSweeney’s as the central subject. Spiraling out from this core, the author traces the effects of overlapping networks of writers, readers, and publishers that describe contemporary American publishing and that define the broader landscape of reading and literary culture.
Words including rabbit hole, spiral, network, and vortex became very important during our research. The author repeatedly uses the metaphor of the rabbit hole—in fact, the Introduction to the book is titled “Writing from the Rabbit Hole.” We explored various ways of creating a spiraling vortex of letterforms to represent the idea of reading and writing as falling down a rabbit hole.
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Do either of you have a favorite-of-all-time book cover?
There are so many amazing book covers and book cover designers out there! It’s impossible to choose just one. A few covers that we love are:
This book was published while we were in college at Rhode Island School of Design in the early 2000s. It was one of the first times we noticed a photograph of typography used in place of digital type. Looking back, this was kind of an “aha moment” for us—we realized we could print type out, mess it up physically, and photograph it. We love how the word “Dry” is so confidently and blatantly contradicted by the material it is made out of. It’s so simple (water soluble ink, printed out and then splashed with water), yet so powerful. This cover is a wonderful example of the potential for materials and process to add layers of meaning to words.
This book came out shortly after we graduated, and like the Dry cover we love it for its material quality. The title is painstakingly pin-pricked by hand through heavy card stock and then photographed to become the cover. The physical process used to create the image infuses the word “obsession” with a powerful, visceral feeling.
We love this whole series for its three-dimensional, physical, material qualities. It’s a great example of the infinite possibilities that come from working within limitations. John Gall invited a group of designers to each design a cover by filling a butterfly specimen box. They were only allowed to use paper and mounting pins. It’s incredible what amazing things can come from such simple, humble materials.
Other covers by Anne and Mitch:
In which we take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship of old school printing.
SUP’s Art Director on designing the Redwood Press mark.