For almost a year now, I've owned a sealed copy of David Bowie’s final album, ★. And I haven't listened to it, not once. Somewhere between ordering it and receiving it, the unthinkable happened and the context of David Bowie's final album changed in an instant. Bowie clearly knew what was coming – he has always known what is coming – and apparently it's right there in the lyrics, the videos, the design of the album. This isn't merely a collection of new songs, it was an end, a farewell, a sealed envelope on the pillow of a hospital bed. 

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Boby Trolley

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You know when you see something so damn gorgeous, so timeless, so useful-looking (even though you're not entirely sure what you'd use it for)? It fits all of the aesthetic qualities you hold dear, the shapes and materials and versatility? And you see it in all the right places, from the permanent collections of MoMA and the Design Museum to the background of the rather fantastically-designed Oblivion? And you know, you just know, that you need it in your life?

Ladies and gentlemen, the B-Line Boby Trolley.

Designing for architects

One of the great things about being a designer – particularly a book designer – is that you’re constantly exposed to a diverse array of industries and subjects. Every job opens up windows to peculiar corners of the universe and little educations in big subjects. For example, on my desktop syllabus right now I have titles on history, film, economics, psychology, art and architecture.

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Personal project: Backrow

Here's a little something that's been lingering in my "must get around to at some point" folder for absolutely ages. Backrow. It's nothing really, just a crumb of an idea, but it's one that I keep coming back to: a simple magazine (or given that it'll be nowhere near profitable, probably more appropriate to call it a zine) with just one feature: a big conversation with somebody interesting about the films they love. Kind of like The Happy Reader … but not books. 

Right now, it's just a cover concept, an optimistic issue count and an idea. I have an actual proper BFI qualification in film journalism (yes, it's a thing) that is going to waste, so this definitely represents a professional itch needs to be scratched. 

Hopefully I'll catch up with this in 2017.

The end matters – thoughts on index design

It’s offensive o’clock in the morning, I’m sweatily clamped into my headphones, my desk a Spirograph of fresh coffee rings. I’ve been here for hours. And right now I’m very aware that I’m not doing two of my favourite things: creating and blinking. I’ve been designing a big book for the last few weeks; the sort of big book that has lots of big chapters and big pictures and big contributors with big words. After lots of to-ing and fro-ing with editors and proofreaders and publishers, we’re at that very special final stage: the index.

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Type found on Flickr

I seem to be spending an awful lot of time wading through the Flickr Commons at the moment, looking to repurpose forgotten, obscure and wonderful images on new book covers. And oh my, what a treasure trove it is! A simple one-word search can bring all sorts of wonderments to the surface, even if they have very little to do with what you're looking for (this selection here were the result of a search for "theatre").

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Peter Crawley will tear us apart

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Illustrator and jolly nice chap Peter Crawley does some amazing things with a needle and some thread, but this stitched-soundwave interpretation of Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart is particularly splendid. Unfortunately, if you want to get your hands on it, it's too late – it's been snapped up by one Mr Peter Hook.

Brillo

Okay, this was bound to happen. I'm not even ten books into my Bowie Book Club thing and I've gone and changed my mind about one of them. This is the problem with this sort of theoretical self-initiated project – there is no absolute end point. It doesn't get signed off by a client, it doesn't go to  print, it doesn't appear in book shops. So there's always the temptation to delve back in and tweak. Or in this case, completely reject.

Every time I see my original red boxy effort for Arthur C Danto's Beyond the Brillo Box, it niggles. It just doesn't have that oompf that the subject deserves. I honestly don't believe I would bother picking it up whilst prowling the art and design shelves in Waterstones (one of my favourite pastimes). It doesn't look grabbable or, even worse, sniffable.

So I'm now officially replacing it with this design, which hopefully does tick those boxes. 

Chabon

The seventh of my Bowie Book Club covers is Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. It's a great book – and a great film too – so this one was particularly enjoyable to design. To begin with, I was determined to do something with typewriters, but that seemed a bit too on-the-nose for a story about writers writing. And didn't hit the right balance between clarity and mystery. So then I tried to do something with bridges, but that was more a reference to the film (which has a running motif of symbolic bridges throughout) than the book itself. It did help me find the image for the Hart Crane cover though, so that approach wasn't a a complete waste.

And so instead we have this: Marilyn Monroe. Or more specifically, Marilyn Monroe on the day of her wedding to Joe DiMaggio. Or even more specifically, Marilyn Monroe wearing a short black satin jacket trimmed with an ermine collar on the day of her wedding to Joe DiMaggio.

And if you want to know what that's about, read the book.

Virginia Woolf on the cultivation of taste

I have to admit that so far, my life has been absent of Virginia Woolf – unless you include that film with Nicole Kidman's nose – but this passage from the London Library's On Reading, Writing and Living with Books really grabbed my attention:  

It would be foolish … to pretend that the second part of reading, to judge, to compare, is as simple as the first — to open the mind wide to the fast flocking of innumerable impressions. To continue reading without the book before you, to hold one shadow-shape against another, to have read widely enough and with enough understanding to make such comparisons alive and illuminating — that is difficult; it is still more difficult to press further and to say, ‘Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails; here it succeeds; this is bad; that is good.’ To carry out this part of a reader’s duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive any one mind sufficiently endowed; impossible for the most self-confident to find more than the seeds of such powers in himself.

Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics, the gowned and furred authorities of the library, to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible! We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our won identity as we read. But we know that we cannot sympathize wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, ‘I hate, I love,’ and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable. And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.

But as time goes on perhaps we can train our taste; perhaps we can make it submit to some control. When it has fed greedily and lavishly upon books of all sorts — poetry, fiction, history, biography — and has stopped reading and looked for long spaces upon the variety, the incongruity of the living world, we shall find that it is changing a little; it is not so greedy, it is more reflective.

It may have been written 90-odd years ago, but this still seems remarkably pertinent. Everyone is a published critic these days, everyone is screaming their taste at everyone else. 

O'Hara

Here we are, my latest attempt to cover 100 of David Bowie’s favourite books: Selected Poems by Frank O’Hara. It’s only the sixth one, but I’ve also managed to stockpile quite a few of the others that I'm almost sort-of happy with. Working without a client or a deadline is surprisingly frustrating – it’s impossible to let go, to accept a final design. 

But this one, I'm definitely sort of happy with. Mostly because I love that 1965 photograph of O’Hara by Mario Schifano, like he would pose for the cover, but he really has to take this call and besides he’s just too damn busy being poetic and destroying literature, as per his manifesto for Personism:

Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody knows about … was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. While I have certain regrets, I am still glad I got there before Alain Robbe-Grillet did. Poetry being quicker and surer than prose, it is only just that poetry finish literature off.

For more of this sort of thing, check out Jason Kottkes post on O'Hara.

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Brutal London

Our obsession with all things brutal shows no signs of abating. Of course, this means that apartments in places like the the Barbican Estate or Balfron Tower are now pretty much unattainable for us regular humans. There is one very small way you can get onto the brutal property ladder though: Zupagrafika's Brutal London. With words by John Grindrod and pictures by Peter Chadwick, it comes with nine kits for you to build your own little concrete/cardboard wonders and a bit of history of each building. It's a bit silly and all really rather wonderful. 

Barbican Centre by Andrew Murray

I found this print of a 1983 Andrew Murray painting on eBay ages ago. It's been sat in a drawer waiting for a decent patch of wall and a frame, but in the meantime I thought I'd share it on here. The caption reads "Barbican Centre, City of London. An interior view looking towards the the Sculpture for Light (by Michael J. Santry) and the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre". It's wonderful – so much life and colour within that familiar vast space, like an illustration from Miroslav Sasek's This Is Brutality (oh if only that was a real thing). I'm not really familiar with Murray's work, but I did find another 1980s Barbican painting by him the other day, which is equally lovely – I wonder if there are more there … ?

Words we don’t say

I found this fascinating list on the Made Shop's lovely tumblr, originally posted by Hugo Lindgren at the New York Times.

Lindgren explains:

In 1997, when I was first hired at New York magazine, Kurt Andersen, now a best-selling novelist and radio-show host, had just been fired as editor. Everybody was grieving about this, though not me, since I wouldn’t have had a job there otherwise. And though it wasn’t until years later that I even met Kurt, he unwittingly left me a gift: tacked to the bulletin board in the office I took over was a single page titled “Words We Don’t Say.” It contained, as you might surmise, words and phrases that Kurt found annoying and didn’t want used in his magazine. Just yesterday, I rescued it from a bunch of old office stuff that I was throwing out, and I have to say, 14 years later, it’s still a pretty useful list of phony-baloney vocabulary that editors are well-advised to excise from stories.

I think I need one of these. There are many, many words I use far too often in my writing (I type "splendid" at least a dozen times a day), and tired, tabloidy phrases that get repeated over and over. There's a fine line between having a distinctive voice and having a hackneyed one. It's important to constantly exercise one's vocabulary muscle.

Marx

Thoroughly wonderful publishing collective Zed has just launched its new website, and I'm awfully proud to see my cover for Ronaldo Munck's Marx 2020 on there. It's one of those treatments that involved a surprising amount of work to arrive at an incredibly stark design – when you've got so few elements on a page, you don't really have anywhere to hide, it all has to be spot on.

Tschichold's ten common mistakes in the production of books

I recently found Jan Tschichold's The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Book Design on Scribd (proper real-word editions are still available on Amazon, as long as you're willing to smash the studio piggy bank). The book collects various things that he wrote on design and typography throughout his career, but there's one bit that I keep returning to (possibly because it's a nicely-digestible list): ten common mistakes in the production of books. It was written in 1975, but it all remains pertinent today.

Everything in the book is worth your time, but I thought it'd be handy (for myself at least) to extract the list for future reference:

  1. Deviant formats: Book that are needlessly large, needlessly wide and needlessly heavy. Books have to be handy. Books wider than the ratio 3:4 (quarto), especially square ones, are ugly and impractical; the most important good proportions for books were and are 2:3, Golden Section and 3:4. The hybrid format A5 is particularly bad, while the hybrid format A4 is at times not entirely unsuitable. The inner book, or book block, of books that are too wide – square books in particular – will drop at the face. It is not easy to shelve or otherwise store books that are wider than 25cm; 97/8 in.
     
  2. Inarticulate and shapeless typesetting as a consequence of suppressing indents. Unfortunately, this bad habit is encouraged by business schools, who teach, quite erroneously, that writing letters without indents is < modern >. One should not believe that this is merely < a matter of taste >. Here readers and nonreaders separate.
     
  3. Opening pages without any initial, pages that begin bluntly in the upper left-hand corner and look like any other random page of text. One thinks he is seeing something other than the beginning. The opening chapter must be marked by a wide blank space above the initial line, by an initial letter or by something distinctive.
     
  4. Lack of form, a consequence of the stillness if using only one size of type. It is difficult for any reader to find his way around in a book where chapter openings are not accentuated and where title and imprint have been set in lowercase only in the size of the basic font.
     
  5. White, and even stark white, paper. Highly unpleasant for the eyes and an offence against the health of the population. Slight toning (ivory and darker, but never crème), never obtrusive, is usually best.
     
  6. White book covers. Equally confounding. They’re about as delicate as a white suit.
     
  7. Flat spines on bound books. the spines of bound books must be gently rounded; if they’re not, the book with be cockeyed after reading, and the middle signatures will protrude.
     
  8. Gigantic vertical lettering on spines that are wide enough to carry a horizontal inscription. Titles on the spine need not be legible from far away.
     
  9. No lettering on the spine at all. Inexcusable for books more than 3 mm thick. How does one relocate such a booklet? The author’s name must not be missing. It often determines the position of a book on the shelf.
     
  10. Ignorance of or disregard for the correct use of small caps, cursive and quotation marks.

Darkness

I've written a few words about Mike Mignola and Paul Buckley's Heart of Darkness cover for Grafik. I'm a little bit obsessed with the blackness of Mignola's black – it's just so very  … black. Perfectly suited for Conrad's story, which incidentally starts where I was born:

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

That's probably pertinent in some way.

Bridge

Here's the fifth of my Bowie Book Club covers: Hart Crane's The Bridge, an epic poem inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge. 

This one owes a bit to fortuitous happenstance (definitely in my top three varieties of happenstance) – I was looking for images of bridges for another title on the list (Wonder Boys), when I stumbled upon a scan of the 1883 book, The New York and Brooklyn Bridge – Illustrated in the British Library collection. Published to celebrate the opening of the bridge, it is justifiably boastful: 

The Great Bridge, after thirteen years weary waiting and anxious watching, is at last finished, and of the thousands who will cross this broad pathway which connects the two cities, we venture to assert not one will disagree with us in the statement that it is “well done;” and when generation after generation shall have passed to “that bourne from whence no traveler e'er returns,” our Great Bridge will still stand, enduring as the Pyramids, and as a monument of the greatest engineering work the world has ever seen.

Hard to argue with that! The book is full of interesting facts, figures and diagrams – and some rather beautiful pictures, ripe for the picking by any wandering designer. It's a fascinating read; well worth a look if you're at all interested in the history of New York. 

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Street Furniture Design

Jolly nice to find the cover of Eleanor Herring's Street Furniture Design featured in the Casual Optimist's monthly Book Covers of Note round up. This one went through a lot of iterations – we tried all sorts of combinations of benches and lampposts and phone boxes and bus stops and bins and bollards. Basically everything from David Mellor's Street Scene. In the end though, it was Kenneth Grange's iconic 1958 parking meter that came out tops.