Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Making a book cover sing

Blechta once again.

Okay, I haven't worked enough places to know if it's a really common term, but we often talk in the design studio where I work about design "singing". What that means is that it's really working the way it's supposed to. Now, understand that this is a relative term. Graphic designers are very much like musicians or editors in one crucial way: everybody has an opinion -- and quite often they can conflict. One designer's singing is another's "vomit on paper". (Another highly amusing term I've heard along the way.)

Here's something else I've learned: good typography is invisible. If typography is calling attention to itself so that you feel like saying, "Oh my, isn't that clever," then the designer hasn't done the job.

Now this doesn't mean that you shouldn't notice what the type says. That's the whole point, isn't it? So how does one accomplish this feat of typographical legerdemain?

I don't know. It's a mystery. How do you design something that draws attention to itself without drawing attention to itself?

This is where really knowing what the book you're designing the cover for becomes invaluable. I'll use an example from the cover design for one of my novels. (You can see what I'm talking about by visiting my website. Just click on the link below my ugly kisser over to the right.)

For Cemetery of the Nameless, it was decided pretty early on that the title needed to be formal and timeless. This is where we ran into trouble. We couldn't find just the right fit for these two things. A little research into typefaces popular in Vienna over time didn't lead us to anything that sang.

Then a friend said the phrase that caused us to cry out, "Eureka!" He's an avid reader who is also artistic, and after viewing our current top 5 at that time, said, "You know the title and photo are all about a cemetery, why not use a headstone?" With a bit of Photoshop work, we came up with the carved stone look using a very formal setting of Copperplate Gothic, a typeface designed for just what its name suggests: engraving on copper.

My name not being the big selling point, we wanted something more toned down that looked like old somewhat calligraphic penmanship. You know, the sort of thing you'd see on the title page of a Beethoven manuscript. A great deal of research led me to American Scribe which is a digitization of the hand of the man who did the Declaration of Independence you're probably all familiar with.

Both typefaces are very distinctive and provide something striking to look at, easy to read (that's why the stone engraved title is on black and my name is in stark white) and most of all, can be read at a distance. I call this "a 20-foot cover", meaning it scans well at 20 feet. But more importantly, both typefaces used added a great deal to the feel we were trying to create for the whole cover. We were selling the sizzle, not the steak. It matched the story, subliminally giving book browsers a rough idea what the book might be about. In short, the design sang.

As this entry is getting a bit long, I won't discuss the digital manipulation of the four images used on the cover and how the effects were achieved. We broke nearly every rule for book cover images, but since we knew them well, we can break them with more impunity than those who don't. The whole cover proved very effective and successful. (By the way, that photo really is Vienna's Cemetery of the Nameless).

How do I know we were successful? Well, lots of people told me how much they liked it. But more importantly, because nearly every store that I visited had the book faced on their shelves or out on a table, not spine out, buried anonymously in some far book case. It gave me more than a fighting chance to make that sale.

4 comments:

Vicki Delany said...

In the computer biz we used to say that a programme was 'singing'.

Rick Blechta said...

Most of mine sing -- in the key of B fart demolished...

Rick Blechta said...

Vicki sent me an email this morning about some book covers she has looked at recently and admired. I think they demonstrate admirably how a book cover acts as a poster. They're bold, arresting and the design is sophisticated and arresting. See if you don't agree:

www.timmaleeny.com/

Stealing the Dragon is especially strong, IMHO.

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