Thursday, December 17, 2009

When the title becomes the design

Richard Hendel's design for the cover of the newest edition of What's That Pig Outdoors?

Yesterday the new and updated edition of my first book, What's That Pig Outdoors?: A Memoir of Deafness, took another stride down the road to its August 1 publication date at the University of Illinois Press. Just last week the text editing was finished.

Cope Cumpston, the press's art director, sent me a copy of the art for the cover for the new edition.

The design is spare and elegant, with the unusual title set in an equally unusual font (Geogrotesque Stencil) that almost fades out of a light gray block background. The subtitle -- which reveals the subject of the book -- is set in eye-catching red underneath.

I like it. I think it's perfect for the new edition's most important target audience, academics and students, yet has commercial bookstore appeal as well.

Commercial books -- that is, those sold in bookstores (and online) for the mass market -- need bold and brassy covers to compete with all the others that jostle for space on the tables. They especially must catch the eyes of casual browsers, those who aren't sure what they're looking for, and push them into impulse purchases.

Many commercial bookstores don't carry university-press titles, except for the rare crossover title that attracts both scholarly and ordinary readers. The audience for university press books is different. Much of it consists of solitary professors perusing catalogs and complimentary copies of books in their bailiwicks, searching for fresh viewpoints to expose to their students as well as new data for their own research.

Here the task of the cover is not so much to grab the eye as it is to engage the mind. Subtlety counts. Still, the covers need to be strong enough to attract students browsing in university bookstores, searching out supplementary reading for their courses.

This new edition of Pig is the third. It was first published in 1990 as a hardcover (above, right) by the Hill & Wang imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, then as a Penguin paperback (below, left) in 1991.

The cover designers for the first two editions had a difficult problem: How to illustrate the idea of deafness. Unlike other disabilities (or different abilities, as some folks would argue), deafness is not visible. You can't spot it just by looking at a deaf person. Only when the subject speaks, either in voice or in sign language, can you discern it.

The designers made several stabs at illustrating that difficult visual concept before they settled on the solution: Make the odd title of the book the major illustration. The result in both earlier editions was fine, in my opinion, but I think freelancer Richard Hendel's design for the U. of I. Press edition is the best of the three.

Hendel is a veteran in the business -- he is the award-winning author of On Book Design. He told Cumpston that what he was trying to do is illustrate "the idea of barely heard by making the title not quite seen."

The challenge for a designer, Hendel writes in his book, "isn't to create something different or pretty or clever but to discover how best to serve the author's words."

I think he's done that with his Pig cover. I'm pleased.

The next step in the production of the new book will be to design its interior, then place the text on pages and proof them. I'll see those pages in February.


  1. Very nice. I like how the font of the current cover is muted around the edges -- just like how sounds (to varying degrees) are to deaf people.

    I think it will catch the eye of the "casual browser" -- they will take a glance, and think, "what was that?" and look again. :-)

  2. Yes, that's the idea.

    The title, by the way, was chosen by the original editor of the book, Paul Golob at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

    He was taken by my story about lying on the couch suffering a horrible bout of intestinal flu and farting prodigiously.

    My elder son, then 3 or 4, came into the living room just after I loosed a window-rattling one and said, "What's that big loud noise?"

    Being an imperfect lipreader, I replied, "What pig outdoors?" and got up to peer out the window, looking for a passing porker.

    Go ahead, say "What's that big loud noise?" and "What's that pig outdoors?" into a mirror, and you'll detect no difference in the lip movements.

    I don't remember the original title I had conceived. Paul's was so good I've forgotten.

  3. Just ran across this. Have the old HC of Pig (& Zephyr, which I rode in 11/04, Gin Fizz, etc.) But I wonder when then publishing world will quit using Times New Roman (or a variation)? - not only for those of us who are legally blind (I became high partial a few years ago), but simply because Arial, etc., is easier to read!
    Netagene -