Monday, June 4, 2007

Digital Destiny

I saw this book on the display table at Barnes and Noble the other day, actually. I've pretty much gotten used to seeing DVDs I designed show up in stores, but for some reason (probably because of its infrequency), seeing a book I designed in a store is still kinda exciting. That said, this design isn't a shining moment, exactly, but I figure there might be something interesting in talking about a design that didn't wind up being one of my favorites. So with all due humility...

The book in question was described to me as an examination of the way "new media" is being consolidated and corporatized. Quoth the jacket flap: "instead of the 'global information commons' that many of us dreamed of, we're facing an electronic media system increasingly used to sell rather than serve the public." So my first though was to really play up the commodification angle, and the most obvious symbol of that I could think of was the omnipresent shopping cart icon. I first had the idea to try to relate this in the simplest, "non-design design" way I could, and came up with this:

Unfortunately, I'm no good at "non-design design," and it tends to end up looking a lot more like "bad-design design." I later reworked it into something much more design-y, using a strange bit of Corbis stock art—it was never entirely clear to me in what circumstance an icon on a computer screen would be so aggressively foreshortened as that, but it's better than the first option, at least. (And if I ever get around to posting my Wages of Fear comps, you'll see that the foreshortened type was part of an ill-considered phase around that time.)

The search for shopping cart icons led me also to the below image, which really has nothing to do with digital anything, but which I liked the colors of, so I tried linking it with the images of monitors and a clumsy DOS-prompt title treatment.

Surprisingly, the publisher initially liked that one, but rightly pointed out that the monitors looked a lot more like TVs than computers. So I tinkered a bit, but could only come up with these two, which are just much too "Martha by Mail," and were thankfully rejected.

I had a half-baked idea about trying to take pure binary code (i.e. ones and zeros), which should be able to represent almost anything, and add a dollar sign to the front, to symbolize those who can't see any potential in the internet other than to make money. I still feel like there's the germ of a good idea there, but I could never really make it work. Here's the closest I got, but it's much too obscure to mean anything, and again is falling into some kind of "non-design design" trap:

The last theme I latched onto was the idea that control of these new media outlets is being consolidated into the hands of the corporate "few" rather than the democratic "many." I envisioned a series of cables, representing the various independent thinkers and websites, being ominously wrapped up into one centralized mega-cable, representing corporate media. A little obscure, maybe, but I thought it had the potential to be a nice visual. Plus, I figured the best way to represent this would be to set up a tableau and photograph it, and I always get the most excited about my arts-and-crafts ideas (with decidedly mixed results, admittedly). So I went out and bought some wire and electrical tape at a hardware store, and took a bunch of photos like these:

(And let's just pretend those are out of focus for some on-purpose design-y reason, and not because it was a new camera at the time.)

But they didn't feel quite ominous enough, so I played around with the color a bit and photoshopped in a eeeevil-looking serpent head onto the the electrical wire. (I thought this also made it more clear that it was meant to be multiple wires being collected into one cable, rather than a cable breaking into many wires, though others have told me that's still not really the case.) At any rate, I thought it was a pretty cool, sinister looking image, and I actually like the type on this one, too.

I pushed pretty hard for that one, thinking then (and now) that it was head and shoulders above the rest. And it was in the running for a while, too, (or at least Maury was kind enough to string me along for a bit), but ultimately it was probably too obscure to fly, as seems to be a not-infrequent occurrence when I try to apply my art-film-honed methods to non-fiction. Which, honestly, is the main reason I try to do non-Criterion design work when the opportunity presents itself; to make sure I don't let those other design muscles atrophy.

So finally, all of the above were rejected (along with a couple variations on the above themes I'm too embarrassed to show), and another trip to Corbis yielded this next comp:

It's a pretty cool photo—I like the blues—and the fact that it's clearly TVs and not computer monitors didn't seem to bother anyone this time, for whatever reason. And actually, I think it could have been a pretty fun jacket if I had enough of that photo to really wrap all the way around the whole thing, but unfortunately what you see is what you get with that photo. (The rest of the jacket is very plain.) As for the type... well, obviously I wasn't kidding when I said I can't pull off non-design design, though this is less egregious than some of the above, at least. All in all, a serviceable, if unremarkable, cover.


India said...

That Maury, he's too kind sometimes.

I think the third one down is the prettiest, but I agree that it doesn't have much to do with digital anything. The final cover is unbrilliant, perhaps, but it's not bad. I wouldn't be embarrassed to carry it on the subway. It doesn't look preremaindered.

I've found that the point at which I say, "Jesus! I could make better images than what I'm finding online" and take the digital camera or professional-grade sketching napkin out of my desk drawer is usually the same moment at which the project enters a hopeless nosedive. After that, the only remedy is either (a) the most banal solution possible, or (b) getting someone else to do it. So I'd say this came out very well, considering that you'd already passed that point.

Eric Skillman said...

Well, stay tuned for future blogs, in which I not only can't find a suitable photograph of an apple pie for a book cover, but I can't even find a suitable pie to photograph. Which leads to baking. Which leads to that cover being rejected anyway. Sigh. said...

You need to check out the accuracy of the May 15th Prophecy in regards to what is happening in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and the return of the Hidden Imam and what Alexander the great has to do with that.

MacGuffin said...

What do you think of Chip Kidd's work? Just curious..

Eric Skillman said...


I like Chip Kidd's work a lot--I'd probably cite him, Paul Sahre, Rodrigo Corrall, and John Gall as my favorite people doing book cover design at the moment. Why do you ask?

MacGuffin said...

Sorry, I realize my question barely pertained to your post. Well, to make this short, sometime ago, I came to admire Kidd's work(picked up his monograph, have several, several books he designed & art directed so I'm a bit familiar with it) and there's something reminiscent (not derivitive) of Kidd in your DVD design work. I can't really put my finger on it(not being a graphic artist) but it's there. Maybe it's the shared interest in comics and that comes across somehow? You're both unafraid of POP influences it seems to me,so maybe that's it. Again, sorry if that came out of left field.

Eric Skillman said...

Nothing to apologize for at all.

And hey, I'd even take "derivative" without complaining too much. I'm sure I've ripped him off plenty, and we probably do have some similar influences, though I think his comics-inspired stuff emphasizes nostalgia more than I try to. (I'm thinking of things like the "Further Adventures" cover, or that Jon Spencer Blues Explosion CD he did—both great designs, by the way!)

MacGuffin said...

Yeah, you're right about Kidd's nostalgic bent concerning comics.