Get inside the mind of Peter Mendelsund, the pianist who went from Tchaikovsky to Tolstoy and became one of the best book cover designers working today, with editor Zac Petit’s interview in Print‘s 75th Anniversary Issue.
Brilliant book-jacket design autodidact Peter Mendelsund recently released two new titles of his own: Cover, a hefty monograph and look inside his Knopf work (from powerHouse Books), and What We See When We Read (Vintage), “a gorgeously unique, fully illustrated exploration into the phenomenology of reading.” (Chris Ware summed it up as “amazing.”)
In this exclusive excerpt from Cover, Mendelsund gives readers a look into his design process and philosophy—and how, exactly, one can get their “crackpot” designs greenlit and out the door.
All images courtesy of powerHouse.
“How did you get that approved?”
by Peter Mendelsund
This is the question I’m most frequently asked by other designers, and I find it vaguely insulting.
The implication, here, is that there must be some special dispensation given to my work as it is notably bizarre. One further assumes: 1. There must be an institutional laxity on the approval process on the part of the publishing house endorsing my jackets or 2. I must possess some kind of Svengali-like persuasiveness in the selling of my outlandish comps. Either way, a loophole is necessary to justify agreement to, and approval of, my ideas. (Strangely, now that I look back over the work, I don’t see any covers that seem particularly outré or overly daring. Perhaps some of these comps were somewhat adventurous at the time they were pitched, but they all now seem rather tame to me. It’s not like there are any particularly strange production techniques, morally or politically deviant imagery, radically unnerving or novel concepts… It makes me wonder why I am asked this question so often.)
In any case, as an exercise—assuming the question is, more often than not, posed in earnest—let’s posit some generalized responses…
How to get your crackpot design schemes approved:
– Do good work—as often as possible.
– Make jackets which are appropriate for the books they wrap. No jacket seems too crazy if it is pertinent to the text it enacts.
– Tune-in and perform well on the last round. If your twentieth round is your best work, your best work will get made. (This is not easy to do. Frustration sets in—this is human nature. Still.)
– Have access to the client (by which I mean: demand access to the client). Disintermediate the middlemen. Insinuate yourself. Find out who makes the big decisions, seek them out, and earn their respect. Also: demand respect. Book publishing may be one of the last businesses where the design department is not considered one of the most important constituencies in the room. This is super weird, and, frankly, wrong. Remedy this.
– Work in volume. The law of averages suggests that eventually you will produce some work you will be proud of. The more work you do, the better chance you have of producing this “good” work. This is to say, most of the work I make is just awful. My better work is propped up by an invisible pile of crappy, lazy, trite, dreck.
– Generate your own projects. This makes you the sole approver.
– Be a diligent and hard worker. Exceed your mandate.
– Be a close reader.
– Enhance your reputation, whenever possible, in the world outside of book publishing. These things redound.
– Know your shit. Be smart.
– Be eloquent.
– Be willing to participate. Provide evidence for your beliefs.
– Speak truth to power (respectfully).
– Question conventional wisdom.
– Debunk myths. Point out fallacies. (For instance, a common fallacy you might encounter is the fallacy of false association: book X succeeded/failed and had Y kind of cover, therefore, a cover like Y is intrinsically good/bad.)
– Remember that all marketing knowledge is retrospective—it tells us what has worked in the past, but not what will work today or in the future. Design should concern itself with manufacturing desire. There is no science to this. But if you study the culture (readers/viewers/consumers) you will glean some of its wants and needs (again, not what the culture’s wants and needs were, but, rather, what they are and will be).
– An editor or author may know more about a book and its audience than you do, but also: they may not.
– “Why?” is always a valuable question to ask.
– Know the product. Know those who purchase the product. Know those who sell the product. We now have more access to book buyers, sales reps, clerks, readers, than ever before. Take advantage of these relationships and the data that comes with them.
– Realize that not every hill is a hill to die on. Decide where to plant your flag. Triage your jobs and manage your time accordingly.
– Minimize the institutionally calcified practice of “uglification.” Uglification is a process in which designers—by request or demand—make their work uglier, one detail at a time (Can you change the font?; I don’t like red; Can you use a different picture…? etc., ad nauseam, ad absurdum.) Uglification is what happens when final decisions about how something looks are made by people not qualified to make aesthetic judgments.
– As an addendum to this last: examine, publicly, the question, “Who gets a vote, and why should they?”
– Don’t lose hope. Remember that it’s bad out there for all of us. Some publishing houses treat their designers a tad better than others, but at almost all publishing houses, designers are still considered a lower caste. This is not OK—nevertheless, as Beaumarchais reminds us, the servant class (the downstairs staff) always has more fun, and are, generally speaking, shrewder and savvier than the aristocracy they serve.
– Be a citizen of the world, and at least attempt to know a little something about life outside of your own InDesign files. Be aware that, in the end, when all is said and done, this thing we do, design, is a kind of joyous little game, and we are lucky to be paid to play it. Meanwhile, others watch stock tickers or change bedpans for a living. Have some perspective and be grateful. Engage in something that matters to you more than your latest project. Some perspective and a modicum of circumspection will improve your mood, expand your horizons, and improve your design work.
—Zachary Petit is the senior managing editor of Print.
Learn how to create a great cover in HOW Design University’s course taught by E Genevieve Williams, former art director of The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Time.