Monday, April 30, 2007

Alexander the Great

When I started this blog I said it would be my opportunity to prove all those editors and art directors who ever rejected a comp of mine wrong--but here's a case where writing the blog made me come to terms with the fact that they were probably right in the first place.

This one’s a might-have-been. None of my designs got used—they wound up going with a photo from Oliver Stone’s Alexander, which was going to be coming out around the same time. But I guess somebody at the publisher didn’t like them, because I haven’t done another book for them since. And looking back, I can kind of see why—they’re a little too high concept for what I understand is basically a fairly straightforward history book, and they don’t exactly scream violence and conquest in any sort of saleable way.

So. First, I tried one using Alexander’s crest, the sun from the flag of ancient Macedonia. It’s pretty simple and straightforward, and nothing to write home about.

Bringing in the helmet from a sculpture didn’t do much to help matters.

And then there’s this one:

That last one I’m still fond of, mostly because I think it’s a fun take on one of my favorite (probably apocryful) historical stories. If you don’t get the reference (and admittedly, I don’t think anyone I’ve ever showed this to has gotten the reference immediately, which is how I know this cover is much too clever for its own good), it’s the story of the Gordian knot, the short version of which is this: there was a particular knot in the city of Gordium that was supposedly impossible to untie, and it was prophesied that whoever could untie this knot would go on to become King of all Asia. Others had tried and failed, but Alexander, upon encountering the problem, whips out his sword and slices the knot in half—voila. Good old fashioned lateral thinking.

Anyway, that’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Alexander, so I gave it a shot. I also quite liked the way the type sat on there, calling out the “A” and “X,” which somehow seems appropriate though I couldn’t quite tell you why. But like I say, it was rejected, and probably with good reason. Still, I’ve always thought it would be a great cover for a novel called Alexander the Great—particularly if that novel wasn’t about the historical Alexander, but just used that as a central metaphor somehow. Anyone want to write that book for me?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

More tinkering...

Been playing around with the look of the site some more... and I think I've made it worse, actually, but I'm tired now so I'm giving up for tonight.

It occurs to me I'm having trouble with this because I can't really decide on a "brief" for the site design, so I'm just taking shots in the dark hoping to come up with something pretty. Which, if you've been reading this site, you'll know, is not my usual process. (Also I can't seem to make the Blogger do anything I want it to, so I'm stuck with rectangles and boxes until I can remember all the stuff I've forgotten about HTML.) Not sure what to do about that right now, but like I say, I'll play with it some more later in the week. For a "design process blog" this is all becoming very meta...

Designs I Love: Hub-Tones

Since it's rapidly becoming apparent to me that I'm going to run out of my own designs to talk about pretty quickly at this rate (or at least, I'm going to run out of designs worth talking about), here's the first in a new series of design appreciations. Basically, it's an excuse to post pretty pictures and feel like I'm updating the site more often.

I'll start with an undisputed classic, my favorite album cover ever: Freddie Hubbard's Hub-Tones, designed by Reid Miles.

Nobody needs me to tell them Reid Miles is great--I know I personally steal from him all the damn time. But this cover is just plain perfect; even if I didn't know anything about jazz, (which, relatively speaking, I don't), I'd be convinced Freddie Hubbard was a great trumpet player on the strength of this cover alone. (Also, the album's pretty good.)

And just so this whole "designs I love" series doesn't turn into all Reid Miles all the time, here's some more of my favorite Blue Note designs:

Friday, April 20, 2007

Scenes from a Marriage

Welcome, everyone! I say that because that last post seems to have exponentially increased the readership of this blog. Because sometimes the world is fair, and "Xaime Hernandez" is still a more googled search term than "people who think their jobs are interesting enough to blog about." (That the world is more often unfair is evidenced by the fact that "Paris Hilton crotch" is probably more googled than any of the above.)

It's unlikely I'll be able to capture the mass appeal of that post any time soon. So why try? Here, instead, is a blast from the past. I was looking around my hard drive for old projects and found these, which hadn’t been opened since 2003, and I think the project may have even been before that. (Which probably means I ought to clean up and back up my drives a lot more often that I do, but that’s another story.) So if my memory’s a little shaky on these, forgive me.

As I recall, Scenes from a Marriage was a pretty straightforward assignment, whose high standing in my memory is primarily due to what I thought was a really nice color palate on the final packaging. Very 70s-tastic.

These first couple came out of a very literal reading of the title: “scenes” represented as, essentially, polaroids. I think these are the first occurrence of my now oft-proposed (and oft-rejected) diptych comps—there’s something I like about the simple “non-design” juxtaposition of two images. (I’ve just recently gotten a series like that approved as part of Criterion’s new Eclipse line—the Late Ozu set.) I still think there’s something to that first one, the he comforts her/she comforts him sturm und drang is a pretty nice representation of the film. I have no idea what I was thinking with that horrible handwriting font on the second, though—let’s assume that’s just a placeholder, that I would have written that out in my own hand before anything printed.

Another (less successful, I think) variation on that “scenes” theme:

The type on this next is again somewhat questionable, but I quite like the image:

A couple fairly straightforward ideas. I can’t remember why I thought it was a good idea to blur that first image so much, but I’m sure I had a good (and completely over-thought) reason at the time.

And here was the final winner.

The simplest of the bunch, which is almost always the right way to go for a Bergman film. I still dig the way the title and Bergman’s name interlock, though it’s probably overstepping my purview to suggest so strongly that the film represents scenes from Bergman’s marriage. I have no idea what Bergman’s marriage is like; I hope it’s very happy and not particularly like the tumultuous relationship in this film.

(I had a couple people tell me they thought the poster for The Break-Up was stolen from this design, which was kind of flattering, to think anyone would steal from me. But that’s silly for two reasons: first, the masking tape dividing line was really the whole point of that Break-Up design and second, I’m hardly the first person to ever do “two people sitting up in bed at the bottom of a vertical frame.”)

In the end, I’m pretty happy with this project—the complete packaging maybe moreso than the cover, per se, but that’s alright, too. Since I’ve referenced it a couple of times now, here’s a couple of shots of the rest of the packaging:

Monday, April 16, 2007

Divorce, Italian Style

So my friend India recently asked on her blog, just what it is, exactly, that an art director does. So I thought I'd post about my first experience art directing an illustrator. (I'd art directed designers before this, but this was the first time I'd commissioned any illustrations.)

A running theme in Pietro Germi's Divorce, Italian Style is a series of outlandish sequences in which Marcello Mastroianni fantasizes about various ways he could kill his wife. They're definitely the most memorable part of the film for me, and I immediately thought it would be great to somehow get a selection of those on the cover. I wasn't sure how to represent them until, as has so often been the case, a bad pun unlocked the key to the design.

One of the most ridiculous fantasies is the scene in which he locks her into a rocket and shoots her off into space. I remember thinking something along the lines of "now that's what I call Love and Rockets." It's not a very good joke, but it led to a very good idea. Namely, it led me to consider the idea of contacting Xaime Hernandez, one of the geniuses behind the seminal comics series Love and Rockets, along with his brother Gilbert (who is also an amazing artist and storyteller.) Xaime's linework has a 60's-ish cool that completely fit the vibe of the film, a sense of humor, and an ability to present the fantasy murders in a light-hearted way without trivializing the film. I just had to convince everyone else that it was the way to go—hiring illustrators was almost unheard of for Criterion at that time—and hope that Xaime would be available.

Unlike when I'm doing a design myself, when hiring an illustrator I like to get everyone onboard with the basic concept before sketching even begins. I got the idea approved on the Criterion side by mocking it up using some sketches by Xaime that I found online. I don't have that file any more, sadly, but it was basically the shapes from the final cover with drawings of Maggie and Hopey instead of the characters from the film. I forget exactly how the type was set up on that first version, but I know the word "Divorce" was basically as it appeared on the final cover, since I adapted that from the original Italian posters and ad campaigns (This is the best example of it that I can find online right now):

With the concept approved, I sent an email to Xaime. Like I said, this was my first time working with an illustrator, and I certainly wasn't starting small: there are few artists working in any medium that I admire more than Xaime Hernandez, so I was incredibly nervous about contacting him. Luckily, he was available and interested in the project, and he agreed to do it. I put together a package for him with the mock-up I'd made, some sample Criterion DVDs to give him a sense of how all the elements would fit together, and the following note (edited here for space):

I've attached a jpg of the rough sketch I did last week in order to get this concept approved by the higher-ups here. (I hope you don't mind that I swiped some drawings of yours off the internet for the occasion.) As you can see, it boils down to 10 little 1.5" x 1.5" drawings. The typography and colors, etc, aren't at all final, (although I do like the "Divorce" letters), but this is the basic idea I have in mind--the images in the squares would be the husband's murder fantasies, and the image in the "O" would be of Marcello Mastroianni (the husband), wearing the deadpan-cool but ready-to-explode expression he wears for most of the film.

As far as what would specifically be going on in the drawings, there are a couple of particularly memorable murder fantasies that we should probably try to include among the squares--drowning her in quicksand, shooting her off in a rocket, pushing her into a boiling cauldron--but there's room to improvise a bit, too.

Getting recognizable likenesses of the characters will be important, but I think they should both be easily caricature-able: he's got this raised-eyebrows/slicked-back hair/cigarette drooping out of his mouth thing going on, and she's got a hint of a mustache and these really intense eyebrows that are very recognizable. i've included a bunch of images of them, and a VHS copy of the film. Give me a call once you've had a chance to watch it and we can talk further.

Xaime got the concept immediately, and because the actual content of the drawings was left pretty much up to him, I think he got to have some fun with it. A little while later, he faxed over his first sketches, and I don't think I've ever been so excited to see a fax come in. There were pencil versions of all the drawings that made it into the final cover, plus a couple more.

Unsurprisingly, he knocked them out of the park on the first try. (Which worked out well, because I certainly wouldn't have had the stones to try to tell Xaime Hernandez how to draw!) We picked our favorites and asked Xaime to ink them up. Then I fit the drawings into the template, and we had a final cover:

Since that project I've been honing my "art-directing style"—I'm less likely to have a completed idea in hand before contacting an illustrator and more likely to try to work things through at the sketching stage. But for a first time out, this couldn't have gone more smoothly. This is probably still my favorite cover of all those I've ever been involved with.

Thanks again, Xaime, for making me look so good.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


As you might have noticed, I've been playing with the look of the blog. I think I've got it to a place where I think I like it okay... it's super-simple, (I am no web designer, really) but at least it's not the generic Blogger template anymore--there was something vaguely embarrassing talking about design on a generically designed blog. I might play with it a bit more over the next couple days...

P.S. Since the Blogger web interface isn't quite as customizable as I'd like, I've been editing the HTML directly, which probably means it's causing all sorts of weird glitches on various browsers. (Again, not a web design guy.) If anyone out there is using anything other than Firefox or Safari (Mac OS X) to read this thing, let me know how it looks in your browser, in the comments section. Or just tell me what you think of the new look. Or just say hi--I'm still new enough to this whole blogging thing that any comments are exciting!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam

This was a tough one for me—not because there weren’t plenty of points of entry, design-wise, but because it was obviously a touchy subject for a lot of people, and I wanted to be respectful of that. I didn’t want the design to feel preachy or over-confident, and certainly not glib or tricky.

The folks at the publisher liked the idea of a photo that seemed to be in both times at once—one side black and white, one side color, that sort of thing. I was never really able to make it work, but these are the closest I got, neither of which really get the idea across:

Thinking of the most potent symbols of the two wars, I couldn’t help but think of the Vietnam Memorial. What more powerful symbol of the connection between the two wars could there be than continuing that list of those who died in Vietnam with the new list of those who are dying now in Iraq. Print the book with an insanely high-gloss finish so it shines like the black marble of the memorial, and let it serve as a memorial of its own. It might look something like this:

(You might need to click for a larger version to really get the idea.)

(In the end, I think I’m glad we didn’t use this idea—it’s powerful, but I worried it was too crass to use the real names of the troops who had died in Iraq, especially since a large percentage of their families would certainly not approve of the thesis of the book. On the the other hand, using anything other than the real names of those who had died seemed equally disrespectful.)

I found a lot of great imagery of protests of the Iraq war. (Protest obviously being a huge part of the memory of Vietnam as well, the connection seemed strong enough.) I remembered a couple protests in particular as being particularly intense, and Corbis led me to some imagery of those. There was one group that did a series of protests where they set up one pair of boots for every American soldier killed in Iraq to date in public places. It certainly gave me pause when they filled Union Square. (These photos are from Washington, DC.)

There was a similar event in DC that used full coffins instead of boots, which even more intense. I tried using photos from that:

So I sent that lot over to the publisher, and we did a little back and forth, but at the end of the day the only thing they were really sold on was the type (which I quite liked too, obviously). So I went back to the image search sites, and through a conflagration of previous search terms (“boots’ and “Vietnam”) managed to find an image of boots and guns marking the site of a battle in Vietnam. (In an unpleasant bit of syncronicity, according to the caption on the photo, this commemorates a battle (“Operation: Wheeler,” near Chu Lai) that apparently began on September 11, 1967) I overlayed some desert sand texture in a (somewhat clumsy) attempt to connect the two time periods and dropped the approved type treatment overtop, and I had an approved cover.

Eventually they changed the title of the book (I should know by now not to get too attached to title treatments on non-fiction), and wanted to add all the contributor names. I also smoothed out the sand texture and darkened it for readability, and that brought us to the final outcome:

Friday, April 6, 2007

Olivier's Shakespeare

So, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery, right?

My approach to the Olivier's Shakespeare project, which was a repackaging of several already-designed packages that didn’t relate to each other at all, was basically to pastiche as many different kinds of design as I could think of that might have anything at all with Shakespeare. Consider this my own small contribution to the conversation about plagiarism started by Jonathan Lethem recently. (Most of the imagery came from Hamlet, since, let’s face it, that’s the most “Shakespeare” of all Shakespeare, and also because Olivier’s the most recognizable in the Hamlet stills—no hunchback or anything.)

So, there was the “Penguin Classics” version:

The Pentagram/Public Theater/Shakepeare in the Park version:

The old school Criterion version:

And finally, a couple 50’s paperback-ish versions:

Somewhat to my surprise, the Public Theater comp was the favorite. I was surprised because I’d pretty much done that one for fun—the “downtown” vibe didn’t quite match up to my impression of Oliver, who’s got a rep as a much stuffier, more traditionalist interpreter of Shakespeare. But for whatever reason, that’s what resonated with everyone. So, great. But there were still a couple aesthetic problems. First, the black-white-and-red look had to go; we just do that too often at Criterion and everyone is (rightly) sick of it. Second, I wasn’t quite happy with the type—it felt kind of sloppy. So I moved some pieces around, slapped on my (now on the road to being overused) Night and the City texture over the top, and came up with this:

Meh. Okay, but pretty bland. Too much dead space around Olivier’s head, for one thing, and shunting him over to the right isn't helping matters. Also, it needed a little more dimensionality—maybe two tones? I found I was getting a nice brownish red color from successive multiplied layers of my favorite paper texture, so I incorporated that.

Better. But man, those little Yorick skulls in the circles are a lousy idea. I searched around for other “theatrical” imagery, and stumbled on the idea of curtains. Luckily, I happened to have some nice photography of curtains handy from the recent Yi Yi photo shoot. So I photoshopped those all to hell and pasted them in to frame Olivier’s face. And voila!

It didn’t really occur to me at the time, but this whole project is cobbled together from bits of past projects, isn’t it? I don't think there's a single original idea in there, but I think the end result (while still owing a lot to Pentagram) pretty much stands on its own. Or is that just wishful thinking on my part?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


Not a lot to say about this one, but it’s worth posting for two reasons: first, as an example of those times when you really can just hit a design straight out of the gate, no muss, no fuss—it’s not always a long hard slog. And second, because this project is a film directed by my girlfriend, (and as of yesterday, co-habitant), the lovely and talented Mariel P. Isaacson, and she deserves the plug. So if there’s any middle- or high-school history teachers out there looking for a great supplement to your unit on Pennsylvania steel, unions, Pittsburgh, or deindustrialization generally, then check out for more info on the film. (Okay, plug over.)

So like I said, this was an incredibly easy project. Mariel had a wide variety of great still photographs she’d taken in the course of filming, and we went through and picked out the best ones, like so:

That last shot is especially amazing, by the way—I believe that’s the side of the Carnegie library in Pittsburgh. The actual color of the building is white, which you can see at the bottom of the photo, but that grey color (which is almost black in real life) is from all the soot and ash that was just floating in the air when the steel mills were at their peak. Once all the mills closed, they cleaned off most of the building, but left this little section as a reminder.

(A tangent: that story always makes me think of the story from Rochester, where I grew up, that during the 80s the Genesee river was so polluted from the Kodak facility, that an artist (whose name the internets seem determined not to let me find) was able to develop photographs directly in the river.)

Anyway, that photo is great, but maybe requires a little too much explanation. The lone steel press, too heavy to be moved when the mill was destroyed, was also a potent image, but the smoke stacks, also left as a monument when the mill was torn down around it, was even better. Plus, I like that it's cropped tight enough to obscure its time period—maybe there’s the smoke of a working mill rising up out of the stack just above the frame? The title of the film has that slash in it, the notion of tying the title treatment to the slanting smokestack seemed obvious. I played around with the type for a bit, but it didn't take much to get to the final cover, which was simplicity itself:

Since that covered “Steeltown” we thought the inside should represent “Hometown,” and so used the residential shot on the disc label:

And that was that!