Friday, December 20, 2013

From the Back of the Bookshop: The Strength of Bone Start to Finish

Way back in March, when the snow likely leaked through my boots and road salt tracked its way through the bookshop just as it is doing now, I started what I had the best intentions of making a series about the cover design process at Biblioasis. Since my initial post, which ran through the many varied concepts on the way to producing the final cover for Nancy Jo Cullen's short story collection Canary (Biblioasis, Spring 2013), I've designed many a cover, but the blog "series" on cover design has not moved beyond its first installment.

Today, I present the second part of what I still have the best intentions of making a series: "From the back of the bookshop."

This time, I'm featuring a book from our fall 2013 list, The Strength of Bone by Lucie Wilk. Her debut novel, The Strength of Bone follows the interwoven stories of a Canadian doctor in Malawi, a Malawian nurse, and a young Malawian boy whose mother is receiving treatment at the hospital. What struck me most about Wilk's writing is the way she balances clarity and medical precision with some truly beautiful imagery, making cells on slides as stunning as her landscapes, all while avoiding lapsing into cliche.

Despite my great enjoyment of the novel, a fitting cover design evaded me for a long while. I tend to gravitate towards designs that are minimal, clean, and sometimes quite stark. All of these qualities seemed to be precisely the wrong direction for this cover, so I knew it would be a challenge from the start.

My first thought was to grab one of the images that stood out the strongest to me in the novel, the yellow walls of the hospital. While I rarely use photos in my cover designs, this book seemed to demand a photographic treatment, so I went searching for something that would fit the content and mood of the book. I found a photo of a hospital gurney in a run-down hospital, in front of bright ochre walls.
Great colours. Not so great decor.
Unfortunately, while there were a couple things I liked about the design, such as the type treatment and that fantastic colour, the overwhelming reaction was that the gurney gave more the impression of a torture chamber than a hospital. Since we weren't promoting the latest Saw flick, this idea was not going to work.

Next attempt: photos of people.
Another issue with the first cover concept was that it didn't represent the human interactions that are necessary to the novel. The broken gurney was definitely too bleak and, while I wouldn't call it sterile, it lacked warmth. My next move was to try to incorporate people, and as Iris, a Malawian nurse, features heavily in the book, I tried a concept based around a photo of a Malawian nurse tending to a patient. However, this cover put a bit too much focus on one character, and since the novel splices together the lives of three main figures, there was a problem with balance. I tried a similar type treatment on the photo and played with the focus, but while it was a striking photo, it wasn't right to represent the whole book. Next.

And we're back to cold and clinical again.
 In my continued search for inspiration, I came across this photo of nurses training in Africa. I thought the image had a great visual impact, but I still wanted to incorporate the yellow wall Wilk describes in the novel. I made a couple attempts at overlaying some yellow graphics, but as the image was too stark and cold again I didn't end up working with this one even long enough to do much with the type. Onto something else. 

That typeface keeps coming back.
With this concept, I was still clinging to the typeface from the first cover, which I thought was fitting in that it's nice and clean but also round enough to avoid being too harsh. I also liked the idea of the text appearing almost in negative with the photo showing through. The photo was again intended to emphasize a more human element, with a nurse treating her patients. However, the photo didn't seem to stand out enough for a cover image and the eye had too many places to look all at once. I was sent back to my photo search once more.

Different character. Same issue. Not representative of the whole book.
As with the photo of the single nurse treating her patient, this shot was deemed too specific to one character. Again, since the photo wasn't working, I didn't do much with the typeface, and quickly changed gears.

I walked away from my design attempts for this cover for a couple days and went back to the book. What could I try that I hadn't yet to reflect something broader about the story. This is when I started looking into photos of Mount Mulanje, which plays a prominent role in the novel, to the point where it almost becomes a character itself.

A couple nights' sleep means a drastic shift in concept.
I found this wonderful photo of the mountain, with the lush greenery in the foreground and mists rising above. While it wasn't a hospital, or even a person, there was something about that image that seemed to speak to the novel and give the right impression of its tone. I thought the way the text interacted with the image was also quite organic, for example the overlay of the word "bone" onto the mountain face. This was working better than anything I'd tried to date, but it was not quite right yet. It was time, at last, to re-visit the type treatment.

And we have a winner!
The final cover (above) used the same image of Mount Mulanje but played up the contrast between the greenery, the mountain and the mists to a greater extent. I drew on the way "bone" played against the mountain to do something similar with "strength," darkening it to give it a more dramatic appearance against the mist. One of my favourite aspects of the type treatment is the way "of" appears out of the mists. Add a blurb at the bottom, and the cover is good to go.

From too harsh hospitals, to human interaction, to more harsh hospitals, this was a long haul of a cover design. In the end, the mountain that looms over the story looms also on the cover. And I think it works.

Keep an eye on this spot for more book covers as they progress start to finish. Hopefully in fewer than nine month intervals this time. I have the best intentions.


1 comment:

Lauren said...

I loved your post about Canary, and this one as well. It's fascinating to see the earlier concepts and read about the process.

I didn't realize that the mountain on Lucie's cover was THE mountain but that's so fitting.

I hope you write more in this series.