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Behind the Cover: Questions for Designer Peter Mendelsund

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As we collected the names of cover designers for the 60 books we had chosen for our Best Book Covers of 2009 vote, a few names came up more than once (Rodrigo Corral, Scott Magoon, Jaya Miceli, the photographer Phillipe Halsman, who took both the Liz Taylor and Louis Armstrong portraits used on the covers of their biographies, and of course Dave Eggers, who is credited with designing one of the nominated books he wrote and most likely had some say in the other two on the list he wrote or edited). But one name, a designer at Knopf, came up three times. No, not the one celebrity in the book design business, the fabled Chip Kidd. It was Peter Mendelsund, whose name you also start to see quite a bit if you start to follow book design discussions.

The three 2009 covers of his that made our ballot were each distinctive and true to their subjects, with no apparent connection between them: Lark and Termite, Robert Altman, and The Girl Who Played with Fire. (We could just as easily have chosen a number of his other '09 works, such as Laurie Sheck's A Monster's Notes, Tim Gautreaux's The Missing, or Peter Maass's Crude World.) Among his earlier work, he's also known for the geometric shapes of his series of Dostoyevsky reprints (e.g. The Idiot and The Double and The Gambler), the terrifying wonder box of Martin Amis's House of Meetings, and the deliriously layered covers of Ozamu Tezuka's manga series Dororo, for Vertical, the manga publisher where he is art director (along with being a senior designer at Knopf).

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We wanted to get a glimpse inside the process of designing a book cover, and we had also heard that Mendelsund had not taken a traditional path to that craft, so we were happy for the chance to ask him a few questions below. (You can also find an excellent interview of Mendelsund by fellow designer Christopher Tobias--who himself designed The Age of Wonder this year, among others--and a gallery of Mendelsund's covers at the Book Cover Archive, as well as a gallery of his spines on his own, under-construction site.) --Tom

Amazon.com: Forgive me for asking, since you've told this story in every interview or profile I've read of you, but could you say a little about your unlikely path to the profession of book design? You were trained and worked as a musician, a concert pianist, but within a year of taking up graphic design you were a staff designer at perhaps the most prestigious house in publishing, Knopf.

Mendelsund: It honestly never occurred to me that the transition from musician to jacket designer was all that strange, though the more I more I’m asked this specific question in interviews, and the more I’m told how unorthodox my path was by my fellow designers, the more I’m inclined to believe that maybe there is something notably odd about my particular story.

Mendelsund_Peter_300 Here’s how it happened (and if you’ve heard this all before, feel free to skip ahead!): about seven years ago, I had just finished my graduate work at conservatory. I was getting competition programs together, and playing concerts in New York. But practicing in the house was proving difficult with a young child around (my first daughter, Ruby), and, frankly, my wife and I needed more money as well as health insurance. It seemed clear that I needed a “real” job. So I thought about things I enjoyed doing other than playing music (reading, art), and design emerged at some point as a possibility. I bought some books on graphic design, taught myself the requisite software, and then offered my services to a record label where I had previously recorded as a pianist. The label generously let me do some cd design work (though I think they were pretty baffled by the entire endeavor) and, after about six months or so, I had a portfolio of completed work. Almost immediately after that, I got a call from a friend of the family, who was friends with Chip (Kidd) at Random House; I was given an interview with John Gall, showed him my portfolio, and a week after that I was designing book covers at Vintage. Eight months after that, I was at Knopf.

Though the transition took place over the span of only a year or so, I remember (naively) not feeling overly daunted by any of it. Back then, as I was preparing to leave music after more than twenty-five years of study, every other field just seemed both less compelling, and undemanding by comparison. There was music, and then there was everything else. I remember thinking that I might as well have been washing dishes, or selling vacuum cleaners. In some ways, my next career could have been just about anything. I suppose what I’m driving at is that no matter what I ended up doing, that job would have felt 1) like a non sequitur, and 2) easier then playing solo recitals.

As time passes, and I’ve come to appreciate design as an art in its own right, and I’ve bumped up against some of its particular complexities, I’ve come to realize how incredibly fortunate I am to be doing what I do, and working where I do. Knopf is where designers (and editors, readers) go, if they’ve been good, when they die.

(But when things get tough at the office, I like to remind myself that things could be worse: I could be playing for a competition jury. This is a mantra I find calming.)

Amazon.com: It's my impression that your background as a reader was at least as appealing to those who hired you as your design skills. Is that so? Is that typical, or rare, among book designers?

Mendelsund:
Well, I remember in my interview with John (Gall) and Carol (Carson), I spent a lot of the time talking with them about the books on their shelves. I was so stunned to see all these titles I had just read, or was intending to read, just sitting around in cubicles and hallways and on floors, spilling out of half-opened boxes, in unheard-of abundance. I think it all made me kind of giddy. My guess is that my enthusiasm was apparent to the people here, and probably worked in my favor.

And I am not alone in this--all the Knopf Group designers are passionate book-lovers and serious readers. Almost all of us have liberal arts backgrounds of one type or another (I myself was a philosophy major at Columbia as an undergraduate). I truly believe that our group’s ability to read deeply greatly improves our ability to design well, and, equally if not more importantly, increases the odds that our designs get approved at the end of the day. I can’t really speak to whether other book design departments are similar or not--but I would hope that the reason one designs books (rather than any other product) is that one feels a special affinity towards them.

Amazon.com:
What was your reading life like before you went pro in the book business? Are there covers you remember well (or still hold onto), that helped define the experience of a book for you? Were there books you bought just for their covers?

Mendelsund_Bergson Mendelsund:
I am, and always have been, a voracious reader, but, strangely, I hardly noticed covers at all before I was a cover designer. Until I was hired here, I was completely unaware that such a thing as a cover design, or designer, existed. It never occurred to me that somebody had actually thought about, and constructed these things. I just kind of looked through the jacket to the book beneath (and from time to time, still do).

The memorable exception would be my first encounter with the Zone books in the late eighties. I remember walking into the old Columbia University Bookforum and seeing those jackets, and some deep, limbic, animal part of me just going berserk. I bought the Zone Henri Bergson on the spot. And I still haven’t read it.

Amazon.com: I don't think anyone would immediately spot a trademark connecting the three covers of yours--Lark and Termite, Robert Altman, and The Girl Who Played with Fire--that are among our Best Covers of 2009 nominees (although it is true that none of them features the back of a woman's head). Are there elements or approaches that you think define your style? Could you give us the story behind how each of those three covers came about?

Mendelsund: I think, rather than a set style, I have certain favored modes I like to employ. For instance, the first thing I noticed when I started working as a book designer was that the majority of new book jackets employed photographs. I am drawn to abstract illustrated jackets (as most dust jackets were, up until the eighties) because, generally speaking, these covers leave more to the reader’s imagination than one using a photograph will (and, incidentally, the authors who I’ve informally polled on this issue agree with me). As a result I’ve tended to work with illustration more than photography, though I would say that I am trending back the other direction now that jackets are beginning to be predominantly illustrative again. (Contrarian streak? Yes.) So two of the three covers you mentioned use illustrations. The third, the Altman, just had to be a photo (and this one in particular: it is just so iconic, and Altman looks so wonderfully formidable in it.)

Mendelsund_GirlWith What all three jackets truly have in common is that they were all extremely difficult to arrive at. (Sometimes the cover concept comes to me immediately, and sometimes, sadly, not so immediately...) For instance, the first Larsson in the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as it appears now, is perhaps the fiftieth version of this cover I made. Actually, both Larssons, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well as The Girl Who Played with Fire, were tricky in their own ways...

With the first volume (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) I found myself up against two major psychological impediments:

  1. The dragon tattoo itself plays no discernable role whatsoever in the plot of the first book (and so I was dead set on not showing a dragon tattoo on the front), and
  2. The book takes place on a far-flung Swedish island, a milieu which is so crucial to the story that it is almost a character in its own right. As Swedish islands tend to be, this one is snow-swept, desolate, almost totally devoid of color; so naturally I pitched white covers. White-on-white even. Imagine how excited the sales and marketing folks were when I showed them that first, blind-debossed, white jacket... Not very. And who can blame them? What I didn’t quite get, was that the best solution to this particular design problem was the obvious one. A dragon tattoo. Who woulda thunk it. In any case, the fun part here was the formal challenge of having the type interact with the image in an interesting and novel way.

GirlWhoPlayed-Original With the second Larsson in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire, I got off to a good start, but hit some snags along the way. The concept of using the main character, Lisbeth Salander’s hair (a blond wig she wears as a disguise) as a metaphor for the fire of the title came to me right away. My younger daughter Violet was visiting the office, and her hair was just insane looking that day. So I snapped a photo and put in the type, all the while thinking that this comp would be merely the basis for an illustration. We hired someone to draw the hair, and it looked gorgeous. But in the interim, everyone here had fallen in love with the original photo. So we went back to it. Except the original background was black and I was told the cover needed more color. (Truth be told, I really prefer the original dark version). It took a long while and a ton of effort to get this cover to be the red it is today. But people seem to like it, so who am I to argue? For me, the real reward is that people are constantly telling me “I really love the cover you did for 'The Girl Whose Hair Was On Fire.'” They seem to think this is the actual title.

Amazon.com:
There must be many cooks putting their spoons in the broth when a book cover is being designed. I imagine it's the one thing that everybody feels they have an opinion about, especially now, when yet another opinion is just a forwarded .jpg away. How do you navigate through all those visions to keep your own? What's the ideal role for an author to play in the process (aside from being dead)?

Mendelsund:
I understand how hard it must be for an author to yield control of their book- They’ve spent an intense period of time alone with their work, having exercised absolute ownership over every little aspect of its content, only to have to cede authority to someone in a design department (of all places) in order to present it to the world. It must feel like a violation of some kind. Like having a stranger dress you before you leave your house. I would imagine that they just cross their fingers and pray that we have good taste and have done our homework. It must be a real trial.

On the other hand, I’ve found, more often than not, that the author is not the best judge of what their book should look like. They are often too close to their text to see the larger picture. (Not to mention that descriptive, or narrative talent is no guarantee of visual acuity or good taste.)

In any case, when the issue of what a cover should look like is thrown out to a wider public (agents, friends and relatives of authors, book buyers for chain stores, etc.) and any old person can comment freely, the result is similar to our national health care debate--the crazies come out to play and the discussion quickly becomes farcical. That’s when you start to hear things like “I hate the color blue,” and “Here’s a drawing my niece made, can you work it in?” and my favorite: “There’s not enough blood.”

But we are lucky here at Knopf, in that our editors (and especially our brilliant editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta) do a great job filtering out just this type of noise. In any case, if an author is unhappy with what we’ve done, we either change it, or try to convince them of its merits. At the end of the day, we’re not going to put a jacket that an author doesn’t like on their book. But we’re not going to design by committee either.

Mendelsund_AltmanSpine Amazon.com: Do you or other designers take into account these days how your cover will appear online (often in a very tiny size)? Is that too depressing to even consider? (One element I know you pay attention to that is usually invisible on Amazon is the spine: the Altman book, for instance, has that great list of contributors running down the spine.) Do some of your covers work particularly well online?

Mendelsund:
To be honest, I’ve never paid real attention to what my jackets look like on Amazon--I assume, wrongly or rightly, that the cover has to do less heavy lifting online than it does in a bookstore. You would know more about this matter than I would, but I would assume that covers matter less in terms of driving sales in online transactions than they do at brick-and-mortar stores.

Also, no matter what decisions you make as a jacket designer, there are going to be certain aspects of a design that simply won’t translate online. For instance, the salient design feature of Jayne Anne Phillips’s jacket (Lark & Termite) is the paper it is printed on--a brown craft paper. The utilitarian simplicity of the stock implies something particular about the substance and general affect of the narrative. This just cannot be conveyed by a thumbnail image (when I post a book image on my blog, or on my portfolio site, I try to make sure that the image at least a couple of inches high--anything smaller and, to me anyway, it’s fairly useless).

But as I said above, I suspect that your prospective buyers aren’t taking their cues from the jpg, but rather from the customer reviews, sales rankings, synopses etc. My role in this case is greatly diminished. When you asked earlier if I have ever purchased a book because of the cover alone, I can say with certainty that I’ve never bought a book online due to the cover alone. I, and I think others as well, just shop differently online. Though maybe I’m wrong.

In any case, when the thumbnail becomes important in jacket design, then book jackets have gone the way of LP sleeves.

Amazon.com:
As the age of electronic books seems to have arrived, does that make you more or less conscious of the book as a physical object in itself?

Mendelsund: For the record, I am a tech junkie, and not some kind of luddite or book fetishist--but I firmly believe that a book is more than a mere repository of information (though it performs well as one). A book is also a trophy, a mnemonic device, a totem, an indicator of taste, an emblem of status, a decorating tool, an inscribe-able, meaningful gift, a cultural touchstone. It is durable, mutable, and highly personalize-able. It is an essentially democratic object--just as anyone can (and God help us, will) write a book, pretty much anyone can make a book as well. (Good luck distilling your own E Ink). We all have a general understanding of how books are produced, and conversely we are all estranged from the workings of e-readers. Why does this matter? I’m not sure--but in a very similar fashion, I feel more simpatico with my records than I do with my mp3 files, because I kinda get how the sound is produced by placing a needle on a groove. And this feeling, in some ineffable way, changes the experience of listening for me. Digitized media is fundamentally alienating on some level, though this is, obviously the way most media will be, inevitably, in the post-analog age.

That being said, I would very much like to own a Kindle and put it through its paces--and I will certainly be first in line when the Apple tablet comes out (if it ever does). And Knopf, if you are listening, it would be great not to lug stacks of manuscripts with me whenever I go on one of my (rare) vacations. In other words: there is a place for the e-reader, and that place is in my carry-on bag.

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That is one of the amazing books I have read in last 5 years. Awesome..

You have actually chosen the best covers of the books. You can really say how artistic a human mind is. Taking photos to be a cover of the book needs an advanced skill which not everybody else can have.

What a great article on a topic that's so near and dear to our hearts. Thanks for sharing the closet-love!

Peter Mendelsund's musical background may be the best graphic preparation ever: composition is composition whether the musical notation produces an aural experience or the typography/illustration produces a visual one; it's still about the reaction/emotion evoked. And he makes this happen brilliantly; making the experience be about the book by being a transparent filter and shaper without inserting himself - not making the book about his style. Being true to the book.

Re: the digital experience: the cover will always be crucial. A good many Kindle users are readers who've run out of shelf space. And we have lots of covers on our shelves. The publishers who have grasped that we want the covers have much appreciation from the readers. Receiving a work with only a title page is like receiving the manuscript -- it's not a book yet, without the cover.

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