Redefining How We Read: 5 Incredible Book Projects From Headcase Design
PRINT on Print is a column focused on all things … print.
Everyone should own at least one book that Paul Kepple has worked on.
Because regardless of whether Kepple plays it straight or innovates in his design work, he tends to push the boundaries of what a book is—and what a book can be—exploding and exploring the medium in new ways.
Kepple runs Headcase Design in Philadelphia, where he works in tandem with a single designer, by design (“I’ve always intentionally kept it small, just so I can be more the art person and less the business person,” he says). After graduating from the Tyler School of Art and Architecture in 1993—and figuring he’d work in music packaging—he got a job at Running Press, and loved publishing. He went solo with Headcase in 1998 and today works alongside Alex Bruce, with an alumni roster that includes Jessica Hische and others.
When taking on a project, Kepple tends to first think big. How far can we push this? he wonders.
“That’s just sort of where my mind normally goes,” he says. “Sometimes maybe I’m overdoing it, but …”
The budgets and timelines don’t always synch, and the idea isn’t always exactly right at first. But it’s seemingly that place of possibility, of seeking to elevate a book, that drives his work.
“[What] I love about book design is just the use of materials, and the narrative aspect of it. The pacing, and how you can create a world or a story within the book through the visuals. So that’s sort of how I approach it. I mean, every project is different depending on what type of book you’re doing. … Even if we’re not doing something very narrative, or super over the top, I love getting into the nitty gritty of the typography, and grids, and just the overall craftsmanship that goes into making a book. I find that part really appealing. And I also feel like no matter what kind of project you’re doing, it’s always an opportunity to explore a little or hone your craft.”
Some of Kepple’s most striking projects directly play with the tactility of the print book—creating experiences that often seem nigh impossible to replicate on a Kindle.
And in fact—
“I think the e-book has been really, in a roundabout way, good for the print book, in that it sort of forced the hand to try and make print books as good as they can be, and pushed you to do as much as you can do with them,” he says.
Long after the e-book was dubbed the death of the print book, it has proven to fall short. Print books continue to outsell e-books, and sales of print books in fact rose 8.2% in 2020, a decidedly digital year in quarantine.
“I think the benefit of the print book, one of the benefits, is its permanence,” Kepple says. “Somebody 100 years from now can grab it and interact with it the same way we do today. It becomes a time capsule for what it was like in different eras. And who doesn’t like looking at old pieces of ephemera or old books from the past?”
As for some examples of that permanence, not to mention that ephemera—and how Kepple has moved the needle on the notion of what, exactly, a book is—here are five projects.
S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams
For a quintessential look at what Kepple is capable of, open a copy of S. Or, rather, break the physical seal of the book’s slipcase, and pull out the vintage-looking tome called Ship of Theseus (complete with Dewey Decimal call number).
S. features the story of Ship of Theseus, presented as a full book in its own right—but then it immediately branches off into a story within a story with handwritten notes in the margins by two people, forming an enigmatic whole. It’s all complemented by physical pieces of ephemera tucked into the book at various strategic points: postcards. A napkin. A decoder wheel. And on and on.
Kepple has worked with book packager Melcher Media for years, and they reached out to him for the design. Given the scope and depth of the project, Kepple admits it was at first a bit challenging to wrap one’s head around.
He dubs the handwriting the trickiest part of the endeavor. The whole Ship of Theseus novel had to be designed and typeset first. And then, two Melcher editors did the handwriting of the characters for the margins, which Kepple scanned in and placed in the correct positions. But as anyone who has done any editorial design knows, edits reflow text—and thus could easily throw the margin notes out of sync. Which is no small feat when there’s an entire novel’s worth of annotated margin notes corresponding directly to the core text. Kepple says a major boon to the project was having Melcher’s team do the handwriting, because they were able to make sure everything was correct and proof as they worked.
As for the ephemera tucked throughout the book’s pages, sometimes the briefs were specific—create a postcard from a certain locale—and sometimes it was more nebulous, such as the authors requesting a small clipping from a Spanish newspaper, and Kepple had to figure out some way for a translation to appear. (The solution in that case: a greeting card that one character sends to another, with the clipping tucked into it, and the translation in the card.)
All in all, it’s a concept that strove for Abrams’ famous “mystery box” approach, and brilliantly achieved it. And it came at exactly the right time.
“I sort of feel like it’s a book that may not have been done if there wasn’t that nudge in the industry from the e-book, kind of giving it competition,” Kepple says. “It was a way for print to show off all it could do.”
Hamilton: The Revolution (Deluxe Edition) by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Another Melcher collaboration, the first edition of Hamilton: The Revolution was produced relatively early in the show’s run. Kepple had not seen the show until he got the job, and loved it.
For Barnes & Noble’s exclusive edition of the book, Kepple and co. went all out. There’s a slipcase. A letter from Hamilton to his wife, Eliza. A double-sided poster featuring the lyrics to “My Shot” in a sealed envelope. A CD of Miranda reading annotations to the libretto. And three daguerreotype-style cast photos by Josh Lehrer.
But that all wasn’t the most challenging part of the endeavor. Rather, it was setting the entire libretto to the show inside the book.
“The nature of all the rap lyrics were really hard to set in a libretto because there’s a lot of characters rapping simultaneously,” Kepple says. “So there’s a lot of lyrics that are long, being rattled off by numerous characters together. Getting all of that to align the way it needs to in a libretto was a real challenge. When you have multiple columns going on, it was pretty intense. Definitely the most difficult one we’ve ever done.”
As for Kepple’s favorite detail, it’s the deckle edge of the book, which provides colorful texture.
“That was something I’ve always wanted to do, and had never been able to do it before. I think I proposed it many times—I remember proposing it for Wicked and whatnot—and it always gets shot down. But that time, it got through, and I was really happy with the results.”
Stranger Things: Worlds Turned Upside Down: The Official Behind-the-Scenes Companion by Gina McIntyre
For fans of Netflix’s hit “Stranger Things,” this book delivered in spades: There’s a foreword and commentary from the show’s creators; early drafts and pitches; behind-the-scenes content; analysis of artifacts featured on the show; and even Eleven’s physical morse code disk that reveals secrets in the text.
But the book’s tactile production is what truly makes it come alive. It was a dream project for Kepple, who is a huge B-movie/horror buff, and who worked on the concept with Melcher from the ground up.
The core idea: Make it like an old Stephen King book from the ’80s, the era the TV show is set in. And when you hold a copy of Stranger Things in your hands, it feels instantly familiar to anyone who remembers the tomes of the time. First, there’s the mylar wrap, which protects the die-cut jacket, created to look battered and weathered. The mylar came at the suggestion of the production team, though Kepple is responsible for the “condition” sticker physically affixed to each book. (Condition: “fair.”)
And true to the show, as readers progress through the book, they suddenly encounter a section that requires them to physically flip the book upside down.
“That seemed like such an obvious or natural idea, that we just almost couldn’t not do it,” Kepple says. “I’m a big Jaws buff. And one thing that the movie does, it keeps the shark hidden up until the end, basically. So I wanted to keep all of the images of the demogorgon hidden, and the only place you get them is in that upside-down section.
“I think an original idea was that that was going to be a sealed signature, so that you’d have to tear the side to open it to read that signature. But it wasn’t working production-wise, and I think it’s probably better without it—what with the mylar jacket and the decoder and all of that stuff, it feels like that might just be one thing too many. It didn’t need it.”
The X-Files: The Official Archives, by Paul Terry
Terry’s book is a goldmine X-Philes. The author’s concept: grant readers access to the cult hit’s namesake X-Files themselves, the sum toll of FBI Agents Mulder and Scully’s filing cabinets.
This time around, Kepple collaged everything in Photoshop, and sought to make it all look as realistic as possible—which, given the book’s nearly 300 pages, was a bit of a Herculean task. Kepple says it was certainly more challenging to create everything from scratch digitally and achieve the desired degree of realism.
But was he tempted to go with printed extras and physical pieces?
“I wasn’t,” he says. “One, just because we’d already done that. … I think with each [book], I want to give it its own personality and look, so it doesn’t feel like we’re repeating ideas.”
Dracula: The Evidence
Headcase’s latest project is in motion. And in many ways, it seems to brilliantly build upon all of Kepple and co.’s experiments and innovations. Which makes sense, given that Beehive Press originally reached out to Kepple about the project having seen his work on S.
Dracula: The Evidence has been successfully funded on Kickstarter, and it’s what has been largely consuming Kepple’s days. The team has been working on it for the past year, “and we still have a ways to go.” It is by far the most intense and vast project Kepple has ever taken on.
The concept itself is perhaps a no-brainer for the designer, given that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is comprised of found materials. For this project, Kepple has an element of carte blanche—so he’s pulling out all the stops.
When it’s released next fall, Dracula: The Evidence will arrive in the form of a vintage suitcase. As the Kickstarter notes, “You are not a passive observer. You are a scholar exploring this supernatural archive.”
There are photos. Letters. Diaries. Newspaper clippings. Even phonograph records.
Keeping things accurate to the book is paramount. Case in point: When conceiving the project, the team forgot that protagonist Jonathan Harker’s journals are actually written in a shorthand script. So they had to find a specialist in the shorthand to decode it. As for how they’ll make it understandable for readers—
“There’s going to be this unknown narrator who has found all these artifacts that make up the book of Dracula, and didn’t know what they were at first,” Kepple says. “And he was starting to translate the shorthand. And that’s how you’ll be able to read Jonathan’s journal.”
The character Mina’s diary, meanwhile, came with challenges all its own. Her entries are on the shorter side, and wouldn’t fill an entire diary, so Kepple designed it to look as if it were torn in half. “You get the front cover and spine, and like the first 80 pages of it … and the rest of it’s missing.”
Production remains the greatest challenge of the project—namely, making the pieces truly look, and feel, old. Which manifests in having to print every square inch of something to ensure there’s no extraneous white space, selecting appropriate stocks, and beyond.
“You want to use real materials,” Kepple says. “You want to use a real leather-like material for the cover of Jonathan’s journal, but it can’t just look like leather. It’s got to look like leather from 100 years ago. It's been all roughened up.”
Ultimately, it might be the most daring “book” that Kepple has ever created—a classic unbound, conceptual to the core.
“You really couldn’t do this kind of project for the mass market because it’s expensive and whatnot,” Kepple says. “So it’s sort of a dream project.”
One wonders what he’ll dream up next.
All projects designed by the Headcase Design team
S. designed by Paul Kepple and Raphael Geroni
Hamilton designed by Paul Kepple and Max Vandenberg
Stranger Things, X-Files and Dracula designed by Paul Kepple and Alex Bruce