What I remember most about my twenties is having so much energy I could barely get any sleep. Now in my thirties, I have managed to get it up to 6 hours a night. But back then four hours was an excellent accomplishment. And it wasn't just any kind of energy; it was a very specific manic creativity. My idea generator was stuck on full speed. I had new ideas constantly, and they were all variations and solutions for work. For example, 5 different ways to layout type would simultaneously build themselves in my brain. I’d sketch them to remember them all, because they'd disappear if I didn't focus on them. From there I could pick the best ones then render and refine them. It was fun, frenetic, and useful.
But these constantly evolving models had their downside. I couldn’t control how and when they’d come up to steal my focus. So I’d infamously leave places without my purse or keys, walk into furniture, even walk into people. I also have a hard time remembering names of new people. I'm so busy imagining all the possibilities of who the new person is and forget to note what they are called.
So when I was young not only was I absent minded, wearing mismatched socks, and forgetting people. All the comical stuff was manageable. The problem was that all the creative energy had me by the throat. My work is obviously important to me and to my collaborators. And generating so many ideas was very exciting and satisfying. We’d have a solution and then move onto the next problem. But eventually I’d collapse on a weekend and sleep for 10 hours straight. I’d wake up slightly calmer and avoid thinking for five or six hours and then the cycle would begin again.
But now in my thirties, I have learned that even if this is profitable and useful, when my mind works this hard ceaselessly it’s not actually a healthy state. It’s the “sugar high” of creativity and I will regret it later when the consequences are exhaustion, irritability, migraines, and even . . . subpar designs. And maybe most astounding is that it turns out my very best ideas now come when I walk my dog in the park, visit a museum, take a long bath, sit next to people I love, or read for pleasure.
My brain for years fooled me into thinking I could will great ideas to appear. But in reality, it’s when I slow down and behave like a healthy being, instead of an obsessive designer, that the clouds part and rays of insight can finally warm the top of my head. This year I had a lot of highs and some lows like everyone else, but I am determined to grow the “unproductive” side of my life, since it’s from where all the best stuff comes from.
For this post I want to feature some book jackets and covers that take a self-care view on passion, drive, creativity, and accomplishment. But when I started researching books about self-care, I found a lot of books titles that were frankly unappealing. There were a lot that had a lot of quick fix promise titles, so that even if I liked the designs, I felt they weren't in the spirit of what I was writing about. Hurry up and be Happy was not the message.
The message was the title of this book, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down. This book is a gifty paper over board trim, with a simple and colorful cover. The author Haemin Sunim is a Korean Zen Monk. His tone is less dogma and more casual quiet good advice. I actually bought this book. Aside from the happy and non religious imagery, what attracted me most to this design was the spine, which shows designer Roseanne Serra's grasp of the message of the book. The stacked title, makes you slow down to read it one word at a time. A brilliant and subtle design decision that made me smile as I paid my money at the register.
This book is also a gift trim and you have to see it in person to appreciate Danielle Deschenes's design. I used to work with Danielle, she's a dedicated designer with an eye for details. So it's not surprising that what impressed me about this minimal design was her attention to detail. What you can't see here is that the dark letters are dark foil. So sometimes when you shift the book in your hand, the only word that's stands out is the word in white. It's like a code that says what's important is to center, not how.
This one, I am adding because knowing how to evolve is at the center of both taking care of yourself and continuing to grow creatively. Some of us use faith and philosophy to deal with the bad, tough, and material hurdles life puts in our way. Because some of us have harder roads to finding balance than others, we have to be open to hearing advice on wisdom from many sources. How do you take the hard learned life of a Wu Tang's The RZA and make a respectful yet recognizable jacket that shows how much he overcame? Andrea Ho did it by making a simple shape and respectful type. It's extremely tasteful, yet as bold as the Wiu Tang Clan.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the election. Yes I’m a liberal. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I was displeased with the outcome. And yes, I voted for Hillary.
But what surprised me most was seeing liberal friends unable to control their emotional reactions to the outcome. For them watching someone who lacks empathy be elected president, opened up a flood of emotion that was hard to stop. There were tears for a week, even from some of the cool tempered people I know. The day after the election I teared up listening to Hillary's concession speech.
But for me after 2 days, my emotions dried up, replaced by a hard expression of familiar disappointment. People would bring it up and I would feel my jaw tighten and my lips disappear into a tight flat line. I wanted to share the sadness and frustration of my peers as they continued to get misty, I wanted to cry with them, feel outrage with them, and feel shocked with them. But that’s not possible for me.
As a person who was born during wartime in Central America, I learned early that peace and civility are actually an exception and not a rule in the world. That people have to choose empathy, and that they can also choose to turn away from it in times of fear. The knowledge that people can turn off empathy is something I have spent my life trying not to focus on. After all, I grew up in a better place, here in the states.
So now I wonder, where did the country's empathy go? Did I imagine it? Did we all? Is it still here? Can we bring it back? All these questions reminded me that sometimes it's the job of book designers to ask these questions visually. We often have to expose empathy or the lack thereof on book covers. And soon I was pulling together this post, a post on how designers show empathy or its absence. Do we yell it, whisper it, suppress it, fight for it, or assume it?
My favorite option (because that’s my family’s story) is how we flee to find empathy. I’ll start there, with The Bone Sparrow. I designed this book jacket and I also love and identify with the novel. It’s the story of Subhi, a hopeful and naïve refugee born in an Australian detention camp. In the camp the refugees are mistreated, starved, and made to live in terrible conditions. His family fled war, but now find themselves in a camp that is no better than a prison. Subhi dreams of his missing father coming to him in a night sea, that only he can see. The design I created focuses on the dream of freedom, instead of the sadness of the camp. The sea on the jacket represents Subhi’s dream of escape to a place where he can find real empathy and peace.
Can you yell for empathy? Can you demand it? In bold type? This book cover tries. With it’s big red and black type, and no art. It’s a protest sign, not just a cover. It screams for your attention and empathy. I read Against Our Will in high school. And it is NOT light reading. It is disturbing and eye-opening nonfiction text and something I think more women should be interested in reading. It’s a feminist classic. Georgia Morrissey designed this paperback edition. The book is about how women and men see rape. It explores the misconceptions that exist and contains interviews with men on the subject of rape. It’s eye opening and includes case studies from men’s POVs on rape. It is one of the first books that stressed that sexual assault is a crime of dominance, not lust. Rape is a crime that requires the loss of empathy for the victim.
Let's lighten the mood, here is a funny book cover that asks how do we empathize with an autistic boy who is unintentionally funny? The answer is quite clear for The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime. Designer Michael Ian Kaye did it by taking the sadness out of the tragedy. He made death, the saddest thing you can think of, a fact instead.
The book’s narrator is an autistic 15-year-old, who when falsely accused of killing the neighbor's dog, must investigate the crime to clear himself. In an elegant and hilarious flip of an illustration, the designer takes a live dog, and makes him a dead dog instead. He shows us a funny and literal take of the plot. One that Christopher, the autistic narrator would approve of even though he would miss the humor.
The book and cover help you empathize with a boy who sees the world so differently people think he has no feelings. But you soon find that you can empathize with and root for this boy, even if he experiences the world from a strictly literal POV.
I'd like to start this post, a tough post to write, with a quote by Malcolm Gladwell that makes me hopeful.
"The fact of being an underdog changes people in ways that we often fail to appreciate. It opens doors and creates opportunities and enlightens and permits things that might otherwise have seemed unthinkable."
My first job in book publishing in 2004 was at a liberal indie publisher in NYC. I was hired to design book interiors. I quickly asked if I could try designing covers, but was told I could design covers “for fun” but that they wouldn’t be published. Lacking opportunity there, I just assumed I would find it in a different place. Almost everyone in my office was white. All the decision makers were nice white liberals. And even though I'm a Latina, I thought nothing of it.
I had on what I now call “rose colored blinders”. That’s when you imagine things are great the way they are, because you think if you just work hard, success will come find you. You think that talent and hard work can earn you success, even if you lack connections and mentors. Kids of color often lack these two very important rungs in the ladder of success. Soon I got a job at a larger publisher. My manager hired diversely, but I was oblivious to how rare that was in publishing. Again, I thought nothing of my singular status, maybe because even in college my design courses were 90% white students. It seemed normal.
Publishing is very polite and I had few conversations about race on the job. I didn't want to bring attention to my "too niche" identity because I figured that was unprofessional, so I never brought it up. Thankfully the Obama presidency and all the racial debate that surrounded it helped change that. Since then race is discussed a bit more openly than before, something my younger self never would have imagined.
Early in my career, I was STARVED for diverse role models and diverse mentorship, and sometimes I still am. I thought I was alone. I believed that publishing would always underserve diverse audiences. Then I moved into Young Adult and Middle Grade books and got on twitter (YA lives on Twitter) and discovered I had been REALLY wrong. I wasn’t alone. There was a whole new generation of readers who were deeply dissatisfied with their lack of representation in books. And these folks were OPENLY saying so, in reviews and on blogs.
The diversity discussion online now is passionate and can be intimidating. And while the conversations are difficult, I feel deeply fortunate to have stuck it out in publishing to witness them. There is new interest in diverse voices that are squarely hyphenated and American. While there will always be popcorn bestsellers that cast minorities as exotic and foreign, we are also seeing different books. Books that include diverse Americans as three-dimensional nuanced protagonists.
I’m really excited to see what this new era of publishing will look like. Maybe it will look like three of my favorite covers that happen to be inclusive and attractive.
The first is This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz. This is designed by the talented Rodrigo Corral (yes I know Rodrigo is not a woman, but I'm making an exception because I couldn't write this post without including Junot Díaz). Rodrigo is known for his stripped down, but high impact, designs. My admiration for this book jacket is primarily because it avoids the exotic “spicy” Latino trope. In this book in particular, which is about love, I think it could have been easy to slip into that stereotypical portrayal of a Latino protagonist. So restraint wins, and so does this great cover that shows the disintegration of bright bricks that represent love.
The second is Re Jane by Patricia Park. This jacket is designed by Elena Giavaldi. It’s also pretty simple. I just finished Re Jane and it’s now a personal favorite. Full disclosure the author and I worked together briefly at that indie publisher. The book is an incredibly nuanced portrait of Jane, a half Korean Girl from Queens around the early 2000's. It deals with the complexity of racial identity in the more diverse recent past in Brooklyn and Queens. It’s the only book I’ve ever read that captured the scarcely gentrified Brooklyn of my youth. It’s hard to imagine now but New York was a different place, where many immigrant groups completely dominated the two boroughs, and where making it meant you lived in Manhattan. Which is why this design is so smart. It doesn’t put undue emphasis on the protagonist ethnicity, but rather it does what the novel does, it focuses on Jane’s evolution, that only comes to the character by moving out of her neighborhood into the greater world, symbolized by the train.
This brings me to another book that I desperately want to read. That's Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson. She is an author who has made great strides for diversity in Children's books. This is Woodson’s first adult novel in twenty years. My hope is that the adult market is ready for her. Robin Bilardello designed the jacket, which I think is great. It’s fun, spontaneous, and captures that “let’s open the hydrant” moment that city kids love so well. I can’t wait to read it and see what summer or the hydrant has to do with the book. Which is what you want from a book cover, something that leads you into a great read.
PS. This post was inspired by The Revisionist History Podcast Episode Carlos Doesn't Remember, which is about and the role of an advocate-mentor and connections in achievement.
When I was a kid my oldest sister seemed to consume books (up to three a day). She was always head of her class, and I idolized her. To me, she was the smartest person alive. She talked about things I’d never heard of, continents I never knew existed, and politics that I still have trouble with as an adult. I was just her baby sister who lacked focus. Clever at best, I was clownish, distracted, a real daydreamer.
Soon my sister figured out that I’d do anything she asked (that’s the job of a goofy side-kick). She decided to improve me, in her nerdy way, and gave me assigned-reading. She assigned, we read, and we discussed. These weren’t normal conversations, they were no-holds barred debates. She debated easily and decided I could too. She wanted me to wield ideas, just as she did. But big sis was smarter, six years older, with a razor-sharp mind that easily recollects names and dates. She was Goliath and I was a timid David.
My saving grace was that I WAS good at one thing, connecting dots. In books authors string together events and dialogue that lead to their conclusions. If you can follow these dots you can solve the book's meaning. The fact that I could follow the dots easily meant I could argue with my brilliant big sis. I'm not saying I convinced her . . . but I held my own and THAT is how I became a book nerd.
Last year I was asked to design a book about a hyper-nerdy, super smart, and competitive girl. She was immediately familiar. I eagerly created a nerdy cover, and to my surprise people loved the nerdy cover. The nerdy cover was picked and printed and this was all really validating to my pro-nerd world view.
Yes, girls (and women) can be nerdy, and we can have covers that show us that way. How cool is that?!
All that nerd celebrating made me ask myself, do other women in book design have favorite nerdy books or book covers? So I asked two of my favorite book cover designers . . . Do you have a favorite nerdy book cover? A cover you love that is nerdy either in design or content?
Jen Wang is a designer who works in print and digital, creating work that ranges from creating book covers to shaping user experiences.
Jen’s pick: A People's History of the United States
“Definitely A People's History. Nothing more nerdy than history and Zinn is gold. Really formative in molding my perspective as a designer and human. Though it [the design] is unassuming, I appreciate the authoritative tone of the cover. It really lends the book the gravitas of historical scholarship it deserves. The official nature of the design is a fine tribute to all those underrepresented and outright erased by historical "winners". I also love how the seemingly stolid design belies the passionate and fiery prose Zinn employs in communicating his perspective on historical facts and relaying the under-told stories of every day people."
Emily Mahon is an art director at Doubleday, her work has been honored with awards from AIGA, The Type Director's Club, The Art Director’s Club and The New York Book Show. She has been published in 50 Books/50 Covers, TDC Annuals, Communication Arts, Graphis and Print, among others.
Emily’s pick: Angelmaker
“I think that Angelmaker, designed by Jason Booher, could be described as a nerdy book cover. I'll never forget working with Jason and him describing to me the very intricate code system that he had developed for the cover design of this book. Not only did it encapsulate a message, but it also was just so visually interesting. I couldn't believe that he took the time to create this entire system, knowing that most people who picked up this book would never even realize there was en encrypted message.”
My pick: The Social Animal : The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
“The Social Animal is huge fat book about personality and social theory. It might bore anybody who wasn't into psychology or sociology, but I geek out reading it. I especially like the cover because of its childlike simplicity, which makes it very inclusive, inviting, and clear. The paperback edition is bright and fun, the book takes complex ideas and uses just two characters throughout to simplify big ideas into short narratives. People are always surprised that it’s one of my favorite books because it's not "light reading", but I like a good challenge.”
P.S. The nerdy-girl book that inspired this post is called ENTER TITLE HERE. I designed the jacket to show the main character’s journey of “self-editing” in a type-nerd design. It was recently featured by Spine Magazine.
PPS. I was also inspired by ON GENDERED BOOK COVERS AND BEING A WOMAN DESIGNER written by JENNIFER HEUER. In it she discusses getting assignments based on her gender, rather then her body of work.
Surprisingly I’m a serious and cynical person. I don’t look like one. I have a dimpled round face, often bordered by pigtails and occasionally . . . I . . um . . . skip. Looking like a cherub who bounces will make people come to the semi-logical conclusion that you are well light-hearted.
But It’s not true, sorry. I’m jaded. All my jokes are sarcastic. And I often want to laugh aloud when terrible things happen, because I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. More importantly this jaded seriousness comes from experience. My life was never a Rockwell painting. I was a tough cookie early on. Nope, I was never the girl who read the uplifting books, because they just didn’t show the world I knew, which has led me to some GREAT books. And you guessed it, they’re cynical and often sad, some of the best ones are really tortured.
Today I was listening to one of the saddest songs I know. I was introduced to it by a depressed friend. It was her favorite song. I was really young and I had not discovered love yet, so it made no sense to me because it's about love, obsessive and sad love. It could have been terrible.
Even without understanding the feeling that inspired it, I knew immediately, that this song was undeniably beautiful and deep. Yet the most impressive part was it was also extremely simple. Here is an excerpt of the lyrics.
Oh my baby baby I love you more than I can tell
I don't think I can live without you
And I know that I never will
Oh my baby baby I want you so it scares me to death
I can't say anymore than "I love you"
Everything else is a waste of breath
The song is by Elvis Costello and it’s called simply “I Want You”. Costello is a master of sad simplicity. His voice is so spare and raw on this song. I think it should be mandatory that anyone who has been heartbroken should have to listen to this song one time in their life.
Fortunately, there are books like that too. They are sad and unmissable books. And yeah, sad is not for everybody, so to warn off those who want to buy the happier reads, it needs to convey the seriousness of the subject matter. The design must read simply sad and deep.
I design book covers and I’m happy if I get at least one sad book a list. Getting that assignment always puts a smile on my cherub face. I’ve got one of the saddest assignments in my career last season and it inspired this post. But I’m not gonna jinx an unprinted book by talking about it, so instead I’m going to share with you some other attractive, brilliant and simply sad covers.
I waited about a decade to buy this feminist classic. I was waiting for it to be repackaged and this cover didn’t disappoint me. A book about being a woman, having ambitions thwarted, mental illness, and even suicide, The Bell Jar is only for the toughest cookies. How to do justice to the heaviness of this book while referencing the classic feminine themes. Mary Schuck wisely shows us a young woman attempting to protect herself against a whole great big colorless city with just an adorable patterned umbrella. It’s a good metaphor, simple and clear. The broken color fields are an attractive touch, and also allude to the possibility of breaking with a black and white reality.
Salvage the Bones was given to me by a publishing friend and it’s a National Book Award Winner. I haven’t read it, even years later. I’m a little afraid of how upset it will make me. Even I have limits. I knew it was an intense read, starting with the green cover. Green is weird color, publishing people are generally so freaked out by this particular shade of green. So already, it’s a risky cover. The book is about a poor black motherless and recently pregnant teen and her family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. The cover focuses on a major metaphor of the book, dogs. At the start of the book the family dog (which one brother raised for dog-fighting) has had puppies and eventually a sick puppy must be killed. I know that’s harsh, and the storm hasn’t even yet torn their world apart. Wisely on this cover Patti Ratchford let’s a faceless dog represents many things. It represents the family, brutality, death, and birth, which all await inside this book.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a book about the friendship of two boys through a fence, the fence of a concentration camp. The boy on the outside is the lonely son of a Nazi officer who is stationed at the camp. The boys become friends and one day the boy on the outside sneaks into the camp. I’m not gonna spoil the end for you, but it’s very sad. The book has been published all over the world, mostly with this cover design. Which is smart because the design is great in its simplicity.The camp uniform stripes are a clear and simple label of difference, and the hatred of difference. It doesn’t need further explanation and it’s an elegant and respectful way to reference a tragic period, when people lost their humanity in their pursuit of sameness.