At the end of last year (December 17) Gonçalo Mira put together a 3 page article in Público's weekly supplement Ípsilon about book cover design in Portugal. Featured in the piece were Vitor Silva Tavares, Vera Tavares, Pedro Martins and the studio. When Gonçalo first contacted me he sent me a list of questions as part of his research. The final article uses only a few extracts from the answers I gave so I thought I'd take the opportunity here to publish a more complete record.
Although you don't work exclusively in book design, you do quite a lot of work in this area. What is it that most appeals to you about book design? It's the fact that they are objects that I find appealing – objects with a complexity of content. I'm referring to books in general here whether they are books of Photography, Art & Design, Architecture, Literature or Academic/Educational text books. They all involve, to differing degrees, creating a narrative and deciding how to juxtapose and relate different elements of information through the manipulation of typography and images. It is this ordering, sequencing and juxtaposing that is the real creative task, that in parallel, involves a fusion with the physicality of the book through choices concerning size and format, paper stock, printing techniques, and finishing. In this design process the conceptual and the material combine to create an object which needs to satisfy both our intellectual and our tactile sensibilities. These characteristics make book design one of the most complete graphic design tasks I do, equalled only perhaps by exhibition design.
How do you attempt to link the cover with what's inside? Is it important that the reader, on looking at the book, understands what sort of book it is? I devised and curated an exhibition 2 years ago about book cover design for the Serralves Foundation which I entitled 'Gateways' because that's what a cover is. It's a gateway into a particular world and it's important that they give the reader a taste of what's inside. But this doesn't have to be done in a literal or documental way. Ambiguity and lyricism are powerful tools. When it comes to fiction in particular, books can't be 'summarized' in a single graphic moment. Instead they need to be able to create an aesthetic which reflects the spirit of the story. That's why every new cover design begins with reading the book in hand, looking for iconic moments and attempting to gain a general aesthetic perception that we can use as inspiration for the design. The approach modifies according to the genre of book and perhaps also to whether it is part of a series or not.
In designing covers do you follow certain rules or do you try and break them? Is there a specific order within the proses (typeface coice, illustration, spatial compositor) or does it vary from work to work? Like I say, each one starts by reading the book in hand – although to be honest not necessarily all of it – and looking for those iconic moments. It also involves looking at what has been done before in other previous editions by other publishers. For the Ahab covers there is no separation of image and text – the idea is to fuse the two together – so discussing ideas and visual metaphors is always the first task. Then it's a question of testing those ideas because what sounds good when described doesn't always work visually. Testing has to be visual, and that in turn, leads to more visual ideas.
Does design – of books or in general – interest you in that you pay attention to what others are doing here and abroad? Definitely. This sort of interest comes with the territory. Visual language, like the spoken or written forms, is in constant flux. It modifies and transforms according to the sorts of things we need to express and it's as important to be familiar with the changes in visual representation as it is to understand new vocabulary.
And the past? Are you interested in revisiting what's been done before in the field of cover design? I always like to keep my eye on what's been done before – and there is so much. From where we stand as designers today with the technological possibilities at out disposal it's often refreshing to look at designs made in eras when the visual solutions matched a more simple and perhaps more immediate set of technological parameters. Design, like most creative fields of work, is affected by waves of visual interest, in constant search of either new ways of saying old things or old ways of saying new things. 'Revivalism' is always around the corner as new generations discover the work of their predecessors. In recent years 'letterpress' typography – an old favourite for many graphic designers – has made it's mark again, especially through the work of designers like David Pearson for Penguin. 'Hand-rendered' solutions (ultimately digitalized) have also become a strong visual current in pursuit of more individualized or personalized solutions – a reaction against the perceived 'visual homonogising' of digital technology and mass marketing strategies.
Do you have referendes, influences, designers or publishers whose work you particularly admire? There are many. David Pearson and Jon Gray for example, also the Australian designer Jenny Grigg, the German designer Ariane Spanier, and Coralie Bickford-Smith, another Penguin designer.
What's it been like working with Ahab? Ahab is a new publishing project that expressed an enthusiasm and a willingness to engage and invest strategically in the element of design. That was immediately appealing to me and was in itself refreshing enough to overcome the limited finical incentive. The result is a successful partnership that has included intense discussions about a number of the covers. We have not always agreed but there is no real advantage in any case of having a collaborative relationship in which one partner is silent.
Implicit however within the professional design relationship is that designers and their clients, whilst sharing common goals, also have alternative objectives. Tiago and Joana (the owners of Ahab) have made, and continue to make a financial investment that they are understandably concerned to protect and profit from. This does not overpower their strong editorial integrity but it has the potential, in design terms, to push them towards what they believe is safe territory.
Notwithstanding, I would argue that potential problems and differences of opinion do not centre on competing notions of what constitutes success – beautiful books that sell is an objective we share. Instead, it is the fear of failure that is different. For Tiago and Joana failure is a book they believe in that doesn't sell. The problem I would suggest, considering the number of variables involved, is knowing to what extent, if any, the cover design plays in any such outcome. For me the fear is a design solution that deliberately underachieves, knowingly downgrading creative ambitions in favor of safe, well-trodden ground – a design that ultimately does everything in its power to accommodate accepted notions of normality.
Considering the number of books that arrive in bookshops every day, is it important that the covers are easily able to stand out? The most self evident response is yes but it's a highly qualified yes bearing in mind that they can't all stand out. So much is said about what 'the public' want, about what readers respond to, about what sells and what doesn't, about what you must and must not do. Over and above the most elementary observations most of it is complete rubbish. The truth is that many of the people involved in sales and marketing (and some editors) have no idea at all what people want or are capable of accepting, even though they think they do. They just have to keep trying to persuade clients that they know otherwise they'd be out of a job. But that's what happens when people try and make a job out of predicting what is and what isn't acceptable. They reach for formulas and rules only to be completely confounded when someone achieves success by breaking them all. The reality is that 'the public' is far more versatile and dynamic in it's ability to navigate visual narratives and information than they could ever imagine. And it is here, at the juncture between tradition and accepted 'knowledge' on the one side, and the audacity to imagine and question on the other, that the most bitter battles are fought, in book design as in everything.
Do you think that the book buying public is more demanding about the book as an object? Do you think there exists more sensibility in this respect over and above interest in the content of the book? Well I'm still waiting for someone to conduct a serious and scientific study on this. Their is no shortage of opinion. Personally, I don't believe it's possible to talk about readers in such a generic way. Is it right to assume that someone who buys pulp fiction to read on holiday has a lower visual sensibility as someone who buys avant-garde literature? Or vice-versa? Peoples priorities are different and ultimately I believe it's pointless to go in pursuit of some notion of a common denominator. Those of us who make the books might as well make them to suit standards we believe in. It's the only benchmark that we can assess with confidence and integrity. Personally, I do it in the belief that well crafted design, from the cover to the choice and specification of the typography, the page margins and paper, and of course the cover, has at the very least a subliminal value and effect for whatever reader and whatever book. If I didn't believe this I might as well give up being a designer.
How do you evaluate book design in Portugal? Are we doing well or is there still a long way to go? There are well designed books in Portugal produced by good designers. The percentage of good covers in the overall market is no greater and probably no less than in other parts of Europe. Go to any large bookstore in the UK and count the outstanding book covers on display.