Art director Than Saffel provides a look at the DNA behind our Fall 2020 seasonal catalog cover.
“I believe that there is something in you that strives for order, and within that order, there’s a certain kind of mishmoshy confusion, and you bring this mishmoshy confusion, if you succeed, into some kind of order. There’s an element of control, and there’s also an element that just happens—if you’re very lucky.”
As WVU Press’s art director and lone production designer, I stay busy cranking out covers, interiors, galleys, ads, posters, signs, catalogs, social media imagery, and more. Most of the press’s visual sensibility originates with materials I create (or, in the case of Deesha Philyaw’s cover shown here, commission).
It’s an odd job. It requires a certain ability to distance myself emotionally from my own creative output. When a cover is done, there’s no point in considering what might have been. The selected comp is immediately incorporated into our marketing and production pipeline, and moves into production shortly thereafter.
After submitting to the inherent violence of the cover design process (where “hmmmmm . . . no” is considered totally reasonable feedback), it’s kind of nice to recycle and reimagine promising approaches and design elements from some of the season’s books.
In particular, I thought some elements from Joanna Eleftheriou’s book This Way Back might have promise for this season’s catalog cover.
I liked the foliage (an 1885 public-domain illustration of Ceratonia siliqua [carob] by Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé), the type design (Francesco Canovaro’s Heading Compressed family), and the color sensibility of the design. But I needed to know how the problem would change with new content and a new mission.
When I need to hit the “reset” button, I’ll often just throw everything I have into a disorganized jumble to see what’s working.
“Perfect, let’s just go with this.” I actually love the energy radiating from this totally haphazard arrangement. I knew that “WVU PRESS NEW BOOKS” would have to be replaced by “WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY PRESS NEW BOOKS FALL 2020,” but there was something interesting there. A problem—Saul Leiter’s “mishmoshy confusion”—had become a puzzle.
My next step was to try to fit the full extent of the type onto the cover.
I liked the arrangement of the type against the white background and the brown stripes, but it had gone from something vibrant and unruly to something orderly but more than just a little bit drab.
To reintroduce an element of play, I experimented with type backgrounds that were more subdued, a little smaller, and that could be in dialogue with the illustration.
I like these two. They were orderly. They had color. They used the type. They used the illustration. They played with figure and ground. They were rejected instantly.
On the left, we had a perfect botanical conservatory gift shop catalog, apparently.
The one on the right died with the phrase “looks like tape.” If I recall correctly, the full conversation went like this:
“Looks like tape.”
“It’s supposed to look like tape.”
“Alright, let me have another go.”
Later that night, Saul Leiter’s “some kind of order” surfaced when I discovered that the carob image could withstand some competition from stronger blocks of color to help the text deliver its message, and I was able to find a way to recover some of the spirit of figure–ground play between the carob flower and the type.