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Wrestling with the Question: Questions for Designer Alison Forner

As voting among the 10 finalists in our Best Book Covers of 2009 heads into its final 24 hours (balloting ends on midnight Pacific time on December 17), we checked in with the designer of one of the finalists (and one of my own favorite covers of the year) for some of the story behind this cover and others: Alison Forner, whose cover for Ecco's edition of The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell is one of two finalists to feature a giant question mark as their central design element. (The other?) In Forner's case, the question mark, you might say, wrote itself: Powell's novel is, notoriously and hilariously, composed entirely of questions.

The front cover of the book lets the punctuation speak for itself, with no mention of the author or the title, and just the figure of a man literally wrestling with the question. The full cover, including back cover, flaps, and spine, takes that motif and extends it elegantly:

InterrogativeHC_jacketmech
Forner has already told the story behind the cover to Jason Gabbert on Faceout Books, so I didn't ask her to repeat herself, but I recommend stopping over there to read her story and see a failed first attempt and the archival source material for her wrestling men. Here she explains what went wrong the first time:

I thought it might be cool to cut question marks out of printed books (sampling books with different paper shades and typefaces) and create a collage out of them. In my mind, it would have a dynamic energy, the question marks would become abstract forms the longer you looked at them, and the jacket would have a toothy, tactile feel. Once I exacto'd the questions marks, pasted them together, and finessed them in photoshop, it was clear this idea was, in a word, hideous.

The second time, though, was the charm. Here is our own exchange with her. (For more book design talk, also see our recent Q&As with designers Peter Mendelsund and Michael J. Windsor.)

Forner_Alison_250 Amazon.com: With The Interrogative Mood, you had a distinctive book that would demand an equally distinctive cover. Was it a daunting design assignment, or an ideal one?

Forner: This is actually my favorite kind of assignment—the more abstract, the better. It’s always much easier for me to design something that requires its own language, that doesn’t exactly fall into a predictable slot. At least I feel most comfortable designing those types of books. So I was thrilled and excited to work on it!

Amazon.com: You mention two versions of the cover in your Faceout Books account of its creation. Is that all you put together for this book? How often does it come together that quickly?

Forner: Often I’ll design several rounds of covers for a single title--sometimes it’s nearly impossible to get everyone to agree on a particular direction. Fortunately this was not the case with The Interrogative Mood. But I’m thankful the first round of covers was nixed—sometimes the first idea isn’t necessarily the best (in this case, it was downright awful). I’m here to say that rejection can sometimes make for a stronger, more realized design.

Amazon,com: How did you get into designing book covers? Were there some favorite books whose design you loved before you started designing them yourself?

Forner: I was initially drawn to book cover design because I've always been in love with books--both as sources of information and escape, and as physical objects. Also, the idea of reading a manuscript and giving it some sort of visual identity is really exciting to me. I'm a visual learner and thinker, so the process of making a book cover comes very naturally. I took a fairly circuitous route to this career, however—I was a poet, a professional dancer, and a print production manager before ending up here.

As a reader, I was always drawn to the Vintage paperback series art directed by Susan Mitchell [Ed.: e.g. Dispatches and Blood Meridian, from the Vintage International line in the '80s]. Those designs perfectly represented what was waiting for you inside. Plus they used a very nice, smooth cream stock—those books felt substantial in your hands.

Forner_Poem_Covers Amazon.com: You've designed the covers for a number of poetry books for Ecco. Since a collection of poems often has a less focused subject than a novel or a nonfiction book, how do you begin thinking about a poetry cover? And how do you end up with ones as different as, say, James Tate's The Ghost Soldiers and Jorie Graham's Sea Change?

Forner: I absolutely love designing covers for poetry. When I was writing my own poems, I often thought of them as small abstract paintings or collages translated into words. So the process of reading a poetry collection and responding to it visually makes complete sense to me. I don’t have any particular approach to designing poetry books—the manuscript usually lets me know how it wants to be represented. There’s often one dominant perspective, feeling, attitude, etc. that leads you down the right path.     

Amazon.com: Have you thought much about the idea of book design in an age (which we may or may not be heading into) of electronic books? Do you think design will still be a way of giving a book a distinct character?

Forner: Actually, it’s all I think about! Seriously though, I’m a print person and an avid reader who cannot part with any of my books, so I have to be honest—I’m not crazy about the idea of electronic books. I love ink, paper, and binding! I just can’t imagine the printed book would go away entirely, but if it did, I’m sure I would adapt and grow to love the screen. (And I hope it would love me back and let me design for it.)

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I have enjoyed reading this. Truly, designers and their brainstorm sessions are beyond ordinary.

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