Friday, September 12, 2014

From the Back of the Bookshop: Alphabet, from point A to Z

I'm beginning to find that, in the world of book design (as in life, I suppose), the least likely prospects often end up being the most promising. I'm talking about the way that an initially "great" idea for a cover ends up looking the worst, and the concept you knock off in a hasty half an hour can end up leading to a successful book design.

With Alphabet by Kathy Page, I came into the design process for the U.S. edition of the cover (the Canadian edition is part of the Biblioasis re-print series, designed by Gord Robertson), with more tangible, physical, edgy, striking imagery than I've ever had to work with before. Simon Austen is serving life in prison for murdering his girlfriend. Importantly, from a design standpoint as well as to the plot of the novel, Simon also has the names people have called him tattooed all over his body: things like "waste of space," "bastard," "cunt," "murderer." All I could think while reading the book for design inspiration, is that it's a veritable goldmine of cover imagery. The tattoo angle alone had me moving in a variety of directions, all of which seemed promising. Or so I thought.

Gord Robertson's design for the Canadian version of Alphabet, as part of the Biblioasis re-print series
First, I was reminded of the often-genius engineering of prison tattoo guns. While venturing into the internet for some inspiration (and stumbling across some somewhat terrifying contraptions), I came across some photographs of tattoo guns assembled by artist Scott Campbell. Using this as a jumping off point for experimentation, I thought the starkness of the photograph of a cassette tape tattoo gun could make for a striking cover. I tried a few more minimal typefaces before trying something that had a bit more of a handwritten / display quality to it. While I sort of liked where this was going, there was something too precise and clean about it, despite the drippy text, so a few more experiments were in order before I decided if this was something I wanted to pursue.

This font is called "gender violence." While it's fitting considering the plot of the book, I'm still not sure how I feel about that as a font name.
My next attempt was a short-lived push towards making things more gritty. Ink splatter, some watery looking pseudo-blood stains, thicker, darker, inkier text, and a little bit of colour on the elastics on the cable all couldn't help this cover. They took it from unfinished-looking but minimal potential book cover to crappy '90s album cover in a few easy steps. It was at this point I decided to switch angles. There were plenty to work with so why not ditch the tattoo gun angle and try tattoos themselves?
grungy but in all the wrong ways
I spent a good deal of time Googling prison tattoos and what they look like. This may or may not have been a terrible and somewhat traumatizing idea, although I did learn a lot about how to spot infection in a fresh tattoo. I will save you the time searching and verify that it is not pretty.

One of the problems I had with the faux-gritty '90s album cover version of the design was that it looked too Photoshopped. It looked computer-generated and fake and cheesy. I talked to my brother, who, while he is not running a bicycle shop is also a graphic designer, and tried to work through some sort of solution to this particular hurdle. He remembered trying to make something look gritty and photocopied for a poster he was working on years ago. He was struggling to cut down on the cheese-factor when he realized he could just cut and paste what he needed by hand and actually use a photocopier. I know, it seems obvious, but when you design with a computer every day, sometimes the analog methods sort of get buried in the back of your mind.

Running with this advice, I busted out my pen and decided to give myself a prison tattoo, mimicking some of the typefaces used in tattoos I saw online. My arm, however, was not exactly the right shape for a book cover. And it was, unfortunately, not convincingly the arm of a man in his 30s. What I needed was a shoulder.
I think I need to hit the gym next time if I want to be more convincing
I phoned a friend and asked him how he felt about getting a prison tattoo. After some begging and pleading, I had convinced him to forgo his shirt and allow me to draw my design for the title and author name on the back of his shoulder in pen. 
Apparently having someone draw on you is substantially more ticklish and substantially less painful than a real tattoo. Who knew?
Obviously, this still looked like blue pen on someone's back, so some computer-aided fixes needed to be done to make this even a remotely possible direction for a cover. 

First, I made everything colder. Then I played with the texture and the crop of the photo.
Moving away from the Bic pen look, hopefully.
Getting colder...
We were back on a sort of clinical route, and Dan thought that the cover needed more texture, so I decided to incorporate more of the words Simon has tattooed in a sort of overlay. I also wanted to introduce the element of a typewriter, as he receives one in his prison cell and begins to write letters on it, forming a major part of the novel.

Might have overdone the overlay a little bit here. 
It was suggested to me that there were some issues with legibility of the text. This was a bit of a problem seeing as it wasn't something I illustrated on the computer and there was no way my friend was letting me re-write all over his back. With some careful Photoshop, I made the necessary corrections to the text, but I was beginning to think there was something just not working with this version of the cover regardless. It looked like a YA novel to me, like there could be vampires involved maybe, and that can't be a good thing.
Photoshop to the rescue
For better or for worse, this was also the point that my computer started acting up when it came to this file, and booting me when I tried to open it. Frustrated, I decided to take it back to the drawing board (although perhaps not quite so literally) one more time. 

As I mentioned, the typewriter stood out to me in Alphabet, and being a lover of typewriters (I own two vintage machines and have a tattoo of one. Yes, I'm that person), I decided to try this angle out. But typewriter aesthetic has become a little overdone in recent years and I didn't want to make this cover a giant cliche. As a different angle, I thought of playing with the carriage adjustment on one of my typewriters, and manipulating the paper in order to make large letters out of the typewriter letters. I'd seen amazing typewriter art created this way, and figured, why not? With a deadline looming, why not ended up being because that would take a really long time. Instead, I went back to the computer, which was cooperating better on this new file, and tried to mimic the process digitally.

To keep the tattoo theme running, I built the letters to look like traditional tattoo font. I added a grungy paper background, and a little bit of texture in the letters to mimic the fact that if you were hammering out letters over and over on a typewriter, you'd get different shades of black and grey. I'm pretty fond of Xing out mistakes on a typewriter, so I wanted to incorporate this as well.

The result!
The next step was to figure out how to do the headers on the back cover. Obviously, for consistency, I could stick to typewriter typefaces for the body text, but what about headers? It's not like I could scale the font up because, well, he didn't type it on his giant typewriter did he? My solution to this issue was handwriting.

And I drew the Biblioasis logo by hand as well, because, why not?
Unfortunately, I couldn't get my handwriting to fit just right. The office suggested some sort of font that suggested the header on a boring form. And for the first time since I used to tab songs for guitar, I returned to my old pal Courier. 

I also re-drew the logo so it wasn't quite so messy looking.
So from tattoo guns to typewriters, I had come to a concept that worked. A few small changes to make things look a little less symmetrical, and we had a book.

The last key to this was the production values on the book. Thankfully, I didn't have much work to do to convince Dan and Chris that we needed to go with an un-coated stock and please please please can we de-boss the front. One of the great things about typewriters is that they leave an impression in the paper, and with that much typewriting on the cover, having the texture to match would take the cover to the next level. They agreed and, when the book arrived this week from the printer, no one could stop touching it.

The photo can't do the texture justice, so you'll just have to pick one up.
For more cover design start to finish, check out my posts on The Strength of Bone and Canary and my "Cover to Cover" feature for Kathy Page's most recent short fiction collection Paradise & Elsewhere on the Quill & Quire website.

- Kate

No comments: