Nothing

I have nothing on my mind. Not nothing-nothing, you understand, but nothing. This was the subject of a book I worked on recently: the concept of nothing, the value of nothing, the significance and interpretation of an absence of … thing. Weird and fascinating texts written by intimidatingly clever people cross my desk all the time, but this one was a bit special. I’ll let you in on a little publishing industry secret: most books are, by and large, about something. Something is the designer’s friend. You know where you are with something. Nothing, now that’s a rare visitor. What does it want? Where do you put it? What does it look like?

There is, of course, one very obvious answer. Not that it was obviously obvious to me at the time. After an awful lot of staring at a blank page, I got there eventually: nothing looks like nothing. This was the beginning of a half-formed, sort-of idea. And then I came across Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read blog, documenting in generous detail the creative process behind his work on Italo Calvino’s backlist. Apparently he’s had nothing on his mind too, highlighting this pertinent quote from Calvino’s The Arrow in the Mind:

Is the blank also a colour? The blank is the colour of the mind. The mind has a colour that we never see because some other colour always passes through our minds and superimposes itself on our gaze.

The colour of the mind. Who could resist having a stab at that? Subscribing to the Adamantian philosophy that under no circumstances should you fear ridicule, one of the cover concepts that I pitched to my client was blank. No title, no author, no fake stickers. Simply nothing (see above).

It was swiftly, politely, justifiably rejected. This wasn’t a massive surprise – it was always going to be a bit of a long shot. Somewhere between apt and unmarketable, it was one of those ideas that would either hit the brief squarely on the head or hit a wall. To the wall it went. But it’s still on my mind, and now I’m questioning all of my assumptions about nothingness in book design and what a cover should or shouldn’t be. As with any physical format awkwardly adjusting to the digital world, it’s impossible to pin down quite how books are supposed to behave from one day to the next – into this void of uncertainty, devilish advocacy spills from my mind …

Such as:

Why not nothing? Does a book’s cover really need to have anything on it? Displayed for sale online, all of the pertinent details are typically displayed next to it. It’s nice to have the title and author and all that word-jazz on there, but it’s no longer essential. The cover can be relieved of its duties, free to become a blank canvas for a more expressionist interpretation of the text.

And:

Here in the real world, on the shelf of a library or shop, isn’t the spine more important than the cover anyway? Why do we never talk about spines? Do spines not deserve our love?

Also:

Designers are breaking and remaking the visual language of books all the time. Text is removed, reshaped, redacted. At what point does the unconventional become the conventional? (After a lot of confusion, apparently. There are reports of readers who scratched away the overprinted blackness of David Pearson’s fantastic Nineteen Eighty-Four cover to get to the title, the deliberate obfuscation interpreted as a challenge to emancipate the norm. Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity! had the opposite problem: too much text. The story starts right there on the front and continues on the endpaper, denying the reader that usual initial breathing space. Whole shipments were returned as faulty.)

Of course, the music industry answered all of these questions long ago, going through its own revolution of design abstraction. Record sleeves constantly disrupt conventions and expectations. One example springs to mind, a sleeve that shares very subtle design nuances with my own book cover: The Beatles’ White Album. Nothing but a square of nothing. It is the apotheosis of blankness …

Except that it isn’t blank any more. Artist Rutherford Chang recently collected hundreds of copies for his We Buy White Albums project, and not a single one is immaculate. Each is marked with unique discolourations, stains, rips, stickers and vandalisms. Seen together, they display the incredible diversity that identical nothings can attain over five decades. Time reveals the colour of the mind. Nothing is merely a vacuum, to eventually be occupied by a million somethings.

Originally written for Creative Review.

Alien, etc.

Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant is almost upon us. My response to Prometheus was tepid to say the least, but the presence of the A-word in the title offers a glimmer of hope for this prequel-sequel. And this got me thinking: the titles in this series don't make a whole lick of sense any more. Alien and Aliens worked when it was just those two films, but the series has grown forwards and backwards and now it's a bit all over the place.

Prometheus and Alien: Covenant suggest a new pattern though: both take their names from the ships in the films. Why not apply that logic to the whole series? So:

Alien: Prometheus
Alien: Covenant
Alien: Nostromo
Alien: Sulaco
Alien: Fury
Alien: Auriga

Renaming the films themselves may be considered sacrilege (a possible title for the next film/ship?), but what about the books? So I took it upon myself to retitle and redesign the films' novelisations. They're all great one-word titles, so I had a bit of fun with the type and steered the design away from the usual "let's just squeeze the poster on there somehow" approach. Books based on films rarely get published with any great fanfare or acclaim (not sure why – adapt in the other direction and you end up being showered with Oscars); I thought it'd be interesting to present these as respectable works of literature in their own right. 

Just to clarify, these aren't official covers for the books (published by Titan), simply a little personal project. Oh, and a note for the pedants: as is its nature, Alien³ proved to be problematic, given that it doesn't actually feature a ship. Still, Fury – the nickname of prison planet Fiorina 161 – was too good a title to pass up though, so that's what I went with.

Anyway, here they are. 

UPDATE: I've seen Covenant now – a few thoughts here.

Tales of Beatnik Glory

As part of the launch campaign for Monotype's Masqualero, I produced a number of book jackets to demonstrate the typeface in use. Mostly these were titles/authors I conjured up myself, but Ed Sanders' Tales of Beatnik Glory actually exists, and just so happens to be on David Bowie's list of 100 favourite books – a list that I've taken it upon myself to design covers for. This would be number eight (have a look at the others here). I'm particularly happy with this one – especially how the fluidity of the marbling and the curves of the letterforms seems to melt into each other. 

The art of Douglas Coupland

I've just noticed that Douglas Coupland has a new website. It might be new. It certainly looks new, and I don't remember it being there before, so … let's assume it's new. I'm a big fan of Coupland's writing – my faded pink edition of Generation X is never too far away – but I've only recently explored his art. It treads that big murky line between art and design; a blend of Mark Farrow, Peter Saville, Bill Drummond and Anthony Burrill. In summary: rather tasty.

Impressions of the Wilderness Children

So this happened. It came about because lovely copywriter chap Jon Ryder noticed some weird wording on a sign, and then equally lovely copywriter chap Jonny Cullen suggested it would make a good title for a horror movie (starring Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins), and then original lovely copywriter chap Jon Ryder threw down the gauntlet for me to turn it into a cover (see twitter for the whole chain of events). I don't normally do covers on request like this, but this immediately struck me as a damn fine excuse to play with the Marber grid and pay homage to one of my all-time favourite Penguin covers, Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater. Making up old-style paperback covers is a pretty futile exercise in nostalgism (I resisted artificially ageing it with the usual dog-ears and rips) but it's also rather fun.

Masqualero

This week Monotype launch Masqualero, the new typeface designed by Jim Ford. He can explain the design a lot better than I can, but in summary, it exists at the stonecutting/jazz intersection that you never knew existed. Art directing the launch, I've been able to play with Masqualero and its various weights/styles well before anyone else gets their grubby mitts on it, and I can attest that it is quite, quite wonderful (especially for concocting identities, covers, sleeves and stationery for entirely imaginary clients, it turns out). I'm excited to see where and how it turns up in the next few months, now that it's out there for everyone else to enjoy.