A successful book cover conveys not just a book’s basic facts but often an emotional aspect of its content. Cardon Webb makes the hard work and artistry of balancing text with imagery look easy.
Cardon loves typography. His Cardon Copy project in 2009 was an illuminating experiment about message and content. He appropriated real bulletin-board flyers — advertising an apartment for rent, cleaning lady’s services, lost cat, and so on — and redesigned them word for word, "hijacking... and overpowering their message with a new visual language."
Suddenly these familiar, everyday posters took on a whole new meaning. The project helped launch Cardon's career and led to his first book cover deal and a solo exhibition at the Type Directors Club.
Cardon lives and works in New York City. He recently completed a postgraduate degree in typeface design from the Cooper Union (aka Type@Cooper) and serves as the associate art director of Broadway Books, the trade paperback imprint at Crown Publishing Group.
I reached him while he was walking his son to the park.
Stefan Gruenwedel: What stimulated you creatively when you were young?
Cardon Webb: I was interested in alternative subcultures such as skateboarding, snowboarding, and punk rock pretty early on. Those industries are really obsessed with cool imagery and logos. I spent a lot of time picking out my skateboards based on the graphics and the brand’s look. I'd then redraw the designs and images during class. I knew most of the names of the painters and designers who created these skateboard graphics. So as a young kid I was inadvertently paying attention to graphic design, and I already had brand awareness.
I became interested in graffiti as well. This got me looking at individual letters as shapes, as opposed to a symbol that portrays a meaning. As a teenager I was thinking, “How else could I draw a K and make it still be legible?” This got me into trouble and I served some probation time for writing on walls.
Gruenwedel: Did you have any other run-ins with the law?
Webb: When I was 16 years old, my friend's dad ran this little Kinko's-like home business. I got a couple of friends together and we tried to counterfeit $20 bills — just to see what we could do with all these scanners, color printers, and stuff. We ended up passing a handful of these fake $20 bills, and then we got caught so I had all these felonies as a minor. [Laughs.]
Gruenwedel: Oh, no!
Webb: Yeah, I remember trying to figure out how to print double-sided images. We were lining things up in the most archaic way, cutting the paper to a certain size and then trying to hold the paper a precise way with our fingers [as it went through the printer].
Those are skills I still use on a daily basis. After printing out a book cover, I'll use X-Acto knives and rulers to cut and comp it down to size, in preparation for presentation.
Gruenwedel: How do you research a book cover design?
Webb: I’ll read the manuscript thoroughly and start making notes and dog-earing pages. As I’m reading, I'll think "that’s a cool scene" or "this is a cool concept" or "this character arc is important and could be featured on the cover". From there, I start thinking about what the mood or the tone should be.
I also consider the genre of the book. There's a big difference between designing a book cover for a cerebral thriller that’s meant for an independent-thinking audience versus a mass-market book that will be sold in the 7-Eleven [convenience store] or your corner gas station.
I might start by saying that this cover is a good candidate for a typographic direction because it would be hard to put an image to this topic.
Then I start by drawing a bunch of rectangles on a sheet of paper to simulate the vertical trim size of a book. I sketch in shapes and add type content pretty early on. I think about how the type is going to break, depending on the length of the book's title. Sometimes a big-name author’s name will appear larger than the title.
Gruenwedel: When you are given a new project, do you have parameters to work in or are you set loose to create whatever you want?
Webb: I’m most often repackaging a book that already came out as a hardcover. If they tell me that a particular hardcover design failed, I look at the original design and will most likely steer clear of it.
Overall I am free to do whatever I want and have fun with it. In rare instances, an editor or publisher may ask for a photographic or illustrative direction but usually nothing too specific.
Gruenwedel: I suppose the smaller paperback trim size is another factor that informs your design direction.
Webb: Paperback books are tall and narrow, so the design needs to complement and feel comfortable in that space. I have to filter all my ideas into a linear format. Next, I think about the way the type will stack, especially if the cover has a really long word. For example, if the cover contains the word informationalist and you don’t break that word into two lines, the tallest that the text can ever be is probably one inch — leaving you to now consider all the space that appears above and below the word.
Sometimes I work with someone who does the art research, looking for photos from a specific era depicted in the story or memoir, for example. I’m often looking for a photo that’s going to work within the aforementioned linear space as well as with type overlaid on top. It's always a task to find the right balance between allowing enough space for the photo to be read comfortably, while at the same time placing a bunch of type and copy over the top of it.
Gruenwedel: You first sketch with pencil and paper?
Webb: That's correct. Sometimes even after I’ve started working on a design on the computer, I will continue to sketch on paper. I find it’s faster. This way I can quickly see what is or isn’t going to look right or fit, and what will throw off other elements in the overall design.
Gruenwedel: What tools do you use when you’re doing this kind of design work on the computer?
Webb: While I was in school, I was using [Adobe] Illustrator about 90 percent of the time. Once I graduated, I got into using [Adobe] Photoshop more and more. Now I spend the majority of my time in [Adobe] InDesign. I do all my design comps in InDesign. I'll create an InDesign file with the book title's name. That file might include up to 40 pages of ideas or different versions of cover art for that book.
Gruenwedel: How long does it take to complete a cover from beginning to end?
Webb: There are times when I’ve designed a single cover with no other directions and just presented the one and had it approved. In these cases I completed the cover design within two or three days.
Usually the approval process takes much longer because designs are refined through a number of cover meetings where they are passed through many different hands. I've had to work on cover projects that lasted more than six months!
Gruenwedel: After the approval process is complete, you still have to produce the final output, right?
Webb: Yes. A couple of months later, the cover is ready for production. This involves designing the spine and the back and setting up the files for print.
Gruenwedel: Book spines often seem like an afterthought. How do you think of it?
Webb: The spine is an extension of the cover. Eventually the person who is going to be looking for this book on a shelf will see it spine-out. Only then will they pick it up, turn it over, and see the cover. The spine is a really awkward but kind of amazing format. The spine area is sometimes smaller than half an inch wide and eight inches tall. It's a challenge to work within that space, especially if you have a bunch of copy — title, subtitle, authors’ names, and logo.
Gruenwedel: Let's talk about some designs that made you famous. How did you develop the Ralph Ellison series?
Webb: As I became more familiar with Ralph Ellison, and read two or three of his books while working on this series, I learned that he played music and hung around with jazz musicians. I also discovered that he wrote many letters, and I read a couple of them. The subjects were purely about jazz: the state of jazz and where jazz is going. So I thought that referencing jazz on the book covers was a cool idea. Not only because jazz is referenced in the topic but also because even his prose has the feeling of improv in its style.
Additionally, the publisher wanted fresh, new covers to remind people of this important classic American author, and maybe even appeal to a younger crowd. I started with the lettering. I researched lettering from the '50s and looked at old album art. Back then it was done by hand or you would hire a letterer or a typographer to lay out or create the type for you. The Ralph Ellison project let me get back to this kind of craft — to create type from a time when it existed only if someone hand-drew it.
Gruenwedel: You did all the lettering by hand?
Gruenwedel: The Oliver Sacks series is really fun. The covers can all be lined up to form a complete picture. How did that happen?
Webb: I had seen an old pharmaceutical broadside [poster] that displayed the silhouette of a head with text overlaid on top of it. The copy was specific to the section of the head it covered. For example, the throat displayed some medical terminology based on the throat.
I liked the idea of showing a larger picture broken up into specific sections of information, but instead of displaying medical terminology, I could use the book's title and author's name. For example, over the brain became the title, Awakenings.
Gruenwedel: What challenges are there in creating such a puzzle-piece design?
Webb: It's a tricky thing to accomplish. You have to design each book cover to stand on its own because a customer may purchase only one of the six books. You can’t rely on the design working only in the context of the other five books in the series.
Gruenwedel: Who inspires you?
Webb: Michael Sherman is a Dutch designer doing really beautiful typographic posters, more like fine art than design. He creates 12-color silkscreen posters that are really beautiful. Tauba Auerbach creates design-based fine art, more recently in beautiful book projects. One to mention is a massive book where the pages create a gradient effect of the RGB color profile, shifting from front cover to back cover.
I also like Yomar Augusto, who does really beautiful calligraphy. A project he is doing now involves digitizing his letters and laser-cutting them into old maps. He then layers the maps on top of one another, creating an interesting multidimensional effect of type and printed matter.
Gruenwedel: Does the city around you inspire you as well?
Webb: I try my very best to be hyper-aware of my surroundings and the messages around me. I have always had a natural passion for perceiving my environment, and using my observations to draw, build, and create. I constantly reference New York City's ever-evolving environments, patters, colors, and people, learning to capture these influences and channel them into the personality and function of my art and design.
Gruenwedel: Who in your field inspires you?
Webb: I had the opportunity to sit next to Peter Mendelsund for three years while I worked at Vintage [Books]. He is a fantastic designer who consistently creates work that stands out from the crowd. Aside from his inspiring work, he is just a great guy.
Also, my former art director, John Gall. He works often with cut paper and collage. I find his tactile, irregular, but natural way of seeing things inspiring.
Gruenwedel: What do you do when you’re not designing book covers?
Webb: My wife and I seek out and go to estate sales, sometimes traveling more than an hour to get to one. I love rummaging through people’s stuff, looking for anything from old printed ephemera, furniture, toys, and clothing to art and artist prints. We have quite the collection of oddities. The beautiful thing is that each piece has a story behind where we acquired it. I have dreams of refinishing some of the furniture we have found.
Gruenwedel: Do you enjoy working with your hands more than your mouse?
Webb: I don’t want to discount working on a computer; it’s an amazing tool. But I really love working with my hands. I would say that most of my creativity is rooted from that more tactile aspect, compared to working digitally.
Gruenwedel: What’s so rewarding about designing book covers?
Webb: Probably the large audience. You can design a book cover and it will be seen on an immense scale by a lot of people – whether it’s in an independent bookstore in small-town Minnesota or the Strand in New York City. Books are laid out on the table for people to peruse, to look at, to consider buying.
I love the object-ness of a book. It’s something you can give away, something you can hold and handle — like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. That’s a book people buy to have on their bookshelf because they want it around them. So a book and its cover art become a physical presence in their lives. You can visit a website or sense a brand but it doesn’t really physically exist or get dusty or anything like that. A website can't be wrapped as a present.
Gruenwedel: Do digital books spell the end of book covers?
Webb: I’m not afraid of the move to digital, the way many people are. I can see it developing into something very interesting and interactive — for example, an e-book cover featuring an image of the ocean where the water is shimmering. An e-book is a fully digital experience. Maybe when you touch the screen the water ripples or makes a noise. Things like this could be kind of exciting.
With the movement toward e-books, publishers are open to spending more money on printed books. Some projects use special foils and die cuts, or higher quality paper. Publishers are spending more time on production, instead of printing something as cheaply as possible. Looking to produce something people will want to own, hold, and keep.
When I designed the cover for the book Taipei by Tao Lin, I was able to use a holographic foil. I always wanted to use this effect in a bold way. The outcome is beautiful, shimmery, glittery, and bold. That’s an example of a project where publishers allowed an outrageous printing effect and spent a little more money to create something alluring.
Gruenwedel: Do you ever tire of designing book covers?
Webb: Not really; every project is so different though the format is the same. One day I'll be working on a young 20-something's first novel; the next day I might be designing a Civil War book. The day after that, I might be working on someone's family memoir.
Gruenwedel: Can you judge a book by its cover?
Webb: I do it all the time! I’m really good at it [laughs]. When you’re in a bookstore, you pick up a book because it stands out for whatever reason. I pick up books all the time because the covers look good, but I don’t necessarily buy them.
Stefan Gruenwedel is the managing editor of Adobe Inspire Magazine. He occasionally finds time to make short-form documentaries.