The Amazing Design Experience of JJ Abrams’ “S.”

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The Amazing Design Experience of JJ Abrams' "S."

At first, the quote at the top of the press release for the book

S. might seem odd, over-the-top, a lazy misuse of celebrity:

“S. is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Frankly, I’m amazed it was even possible to do this project at all.” —J.J. Abrams

Blurbs aren’t meant to be given by a book’s own authors—especially when one of those authors is, in this case, a major Hollywood creative known more for directing and producing his series (Lost) and films (Cloverfield, Super 8, Star Trek) than his strictly writerly endeavors (say, that script for Armageddon).

It seems like a cheap trick—until you hold a copy of S. in your hands.

It really is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. And it is indeed amazing.

In S., you literally discover a book within a book—a black slipcover branded with the title houses what looks to be a linen-covered vintage tome bearing a Dewey-Decimal call number. The slipcover has a beautiful, odd, heavy seal, and it must be broken to get in.

It’s a brilliant design move: You must make a conscious physical action to enter the book. And as it turns out, that’s the point.

Abrams came up with the idea for S. when he found an abandoned novel at the airport. It had a note inside informing the finder to read the book, and then leave it for someone else. Abrams’ imagination went to work on the concept of what would become S., and he later connected with award-winning author Doug Dorst, who accepted the challenge of fleshing out the idea.

Once you break the seal of S., the magnitude of what they, design firm Headcase Design, book packager Melcher Media and Mulholland Books have accomplished immediately begins to become clear.

The slipcover contains what appears to be a battered, handsome library book titled Ship of Theseus, by an author named V.M. Straka. It resembles 1940s-era book design in both look and feel, complemented by a debossed cover, period typeface and the fact that a false texture was printed on artificial linen to give the presentation a realistic surface. (Which, as PaperSpecs revealed in a fascinating piece about the production of the book was no small feat—from aligning the printed texture with the true texture of the book to getting the color to print correctly.)

S., book within a book

Inside S., the fully integrated design work tells the story. You discover the Theseus text to be heavily annotated by two people—and soon realize you’ve become a part of it all as the third reader. Everything becomes a reading experience within a reading experience (which the slipcase packaging brilliantly embodies).

The plot might be summarized this way: The main Ship of Theseus text, purportedly written by the legendary and enigmatic Straka, is about a man shanghaied into a sea adventure. Meanwhile, the margin notes reveal a conversation between two students passing the book back and forth, attempting to decode the mystery of Theseus and its author. The result is a puzzle of complex storytelling, deftly (and appropriately) penned by a three-time Jeopardy! champion (Dorst), and designed with acute realism and attention to detail.

The book is filled with library stamps. The pages are aged and each uniquely stained. As you read, you discover a cache of inserts left by the two students poring over Theseus: a page of a campus newspaper, hastily folded. Postcards of heavy, appropriate stock. Glossy photographs. A greeting card holding an aging die-cut newspaper clipping that convincingly mimics a scissor cut. A coffeehouse napkin with a map on it. A decoder wheel.

S. even smells, deliciously, like an old library book.

And then, of course, there are the handwritten margin notes, which are exactly that—handwritten.

As PaperSpecs documented, the authors sent the manuscript over to Melcher Media as a Word file, with the Theseus text in the body of the doc and the to-be handwritten elements as Track Changes comments. Two Melcher Media employees wrote the notes on tracing paper, and Headcase Design scanned the elements into InDesign. In S., there are pencil and pen notes in a variety of colors (and even hand pressures), each denoting a comment made by one of the two fictitious readers at a different “read” within the chronology. Keeping the comments with the appropriate text required locking the Theseus text first, and numerous layer adjustments were necessary to get the colors and appearance correct.

S., interior

So how do you even go about reading S.? Do you read the text and margin notes concurrently? Do you read the entire main narrative, and then read all the notes after?

The fact that there’s no instruction manual seems to likely have been a tactical decision. It becomes personal. It becomes your book.

Which makes it all the more special.

Abrams has always seemingly leaned more toward the experience of a thing than the thing itself. (Consider Cloverfield, in which the marketing was as much a part of the experience as the film.)

In S., the design, text and packaging are all the elements that create the total experience, and, unlike some Abrams projects, they all coexist comfortably within their own ecosystem. Theseus could not stand on its own without the margin dialogue of S.; the margin dialogue could not stand on its own without the design and tactile packaging of the overall concept, which Abrams has deemed “a celebration of the analog, of the physical object. … Intentionally tangible.”

But like the beast in Cloverfield could never live up to the hype of its revelation on screen, and like the all-encompassing mystery saturating Lost made it nearly impossible for the series to ever deliver a universally satisfactory ending, the design of S. isn’t always fully supported by the story. Some detractors deride the pace of the core narrative, and others take issue with the ending of the book (which, interestingly, continues in various clues in a very non-print manner—online).

S., inserts and interior

No matters its flaws, perhaps the best part of S. is that it serves as a stunning example of the evolution of storytelling and its symbiosis with design, and a reminder that after all these years, a print book can still surprise, amaze and delight—and make you remember why you began loving the medium in the first place.

S., by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, is published by Mulholland Books. $35
Graphics, book design: Headcase Design

Printing, production, editorial: Melcher Media

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About Zachary Petit
Zachary Petit (, @ZacharyPetit) is the senior managing editor of Print and HOW, and the former managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine. Alongside the thousands of articles he has penned as a staff writer and editor, his words have appeared in National Geographic magazine, National Geographic Kids, Melissa Rossi’s What Every American Should Know book series, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and many other outlets.