America (The Book) A book that topped the nonfiction best-seller lists and was banned from Wal-Mart might seem an unusual candidate for a design award, but the jurors quickly agreed that highest honors should go to America (The Book). A project in which designers commingled with writers and spawned a parody that tapped into the zeitgeist and sold in sack-loads, this topical tome was described by Lupton as “one of the great books of its time.”
Designed by Pentagram in collaboration with writers of the irreverent late-night comedy newscast The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, America parodies the kind of civics textbook found in classrooms of the 1970s. The durable hardcover binding, paper, color scheme, typography, stock photos, illustrations, and charts ape the format with deadpan accuracy.
The book takes aim at parochial patriotism and a national tendency to lionize the U.S. political system as flawless. Using what critic Tom Carson neatly summarized as “collegiate gallows humor,” it sends up the empty, diluted information and graphic gimmicks that have resulted from the ceaseless vetting of school textbooks for references that might be considered biased. As New York Times contributor Ann Hulbert has argued, America’s target is “the reductive, defensive spirit that pervades the whole textbook endeavor.”
Aside from such headline-grabbing spreads as the naked Supreme Court justices arrayed as paper dolls (which got the book banned), the details are exemplary. One chart simply depicts “growth in misleading charts.” A sidebar on pastel-shaded background features the compelling headline “Were You Aware?” followed by snippets of watered-down history: “The continent of America was named for Amerigo Vespucci, meaning there was a 50-50 chance we’d all be living in the United States of Vespucci.” On the sharper end, one “classroom activity” proposes: “Using felt and yarn, make a hand puppet of Clarence Thomas. Ta-da! You’re Antonin Scalia!”
Baker concluded, “It’s focused, funny as hell, and it’s collaborative, a good match-up of content and design.” Siegler added, “It’s rare for a piece of graphic design to be hugely successful. It’s of its moment.”
Design Pentagram Design (New York): Paula Scher, principal; Julia Hoffmann, designer Client The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (New York); Time Warner Books, publisher (New York) Client The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (New York); Time Warner Books, publisher (New York) Fonts Akzidenz Grotesk; Caslon; Clarendon Bold Software Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop; QuarkXPress
Q+A with Paula Scher and Julia Hoffmann Pentagram Design
How did you get this job?Warner Books recommended designers to The Daily Show, and we submitted our portfolio to the show’s producers and they liked it. Specifically, they said it looked the least trendy, and they liked the diagrams in my [Scher’s] book Make It Bigger, because it was just design, not cool typefaces.
Can you describe the design process?We worked with Ben Karlin, David Javerbaum, and Jon Stewart. Generally, Ben and David managed the back-and-forth and then Jon approved. Probably 50 percent of it was done in face-to-face meetings. The format of the book—the textbook device—was approved right away. We started to develop charts and graphics for the different sections and commissioned the artists and illustrators. We wanted the design to use the type of textbook devices that were prevalent when someone like Jon would have been in high school, in the late ’70s or early ’80s, and improve on them, use them as visual riffs.
The writers nitpicked everything we did—they wanted to make sure we weren’t stepping on the jokes. But we developed a rhythm and worked in the service of the jokes, and it was beautiful. Of course, it was all changing right up to the end. The whole process took three to six months and completely consumed the design team, but we enjoyed every minute of it.
What was the budget?Way too small, considering it spent 15 weeks at No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list. It’s the only four-color, lavishly illustrated book to ever reach No. 1.
Is the completed project close to what you envisioned when you began? Yes, better than we had hoped.
Are you planning a sequel? Yes, for fall 2006. In the meantime, we’re doing America (The Calendar).