Peter Mendelsund’s Cover is a compendium of his last eleven years of work as a book jacket designer. In addition to showing jackets that have made it to bookshelves, the process behind each cover is revealed. There are sketches, self-censored versions of covers that were never shown, rejected covers, and notes about the ideas and how they were developed. Peter Mendelsund is the Associate Art Director of Alfred A. Knopf Books, and a freelance book designer. He stumbled upon becoming a designer after spending years as a classical pianist. A chance introduction to Chip Kidd, and a year of learning design was all it took for Peter to make it to the upper echelons of the book design world.
After reading the interview with Peter (below), you’ll realize that not owning Cover is a disservice to yourself and to books in general.
First off, thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. We’re major admirers of your work, and are thrilled that you will grace the pages of BBIC after granting interviews to such publications as the New York Times, New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and PBS News Hour. Since you’ve already fielded so many questions about your new book, Cover, I will try to steer clear of charted territory.
From my experience with the book cover industry, I’ve gathered that book designers have to deal with an inordinate amount of rejection. Do you face this yourself, and if so, are there any coping strategies you would recommend?
Oh yes. Much of what I make gets rejected; sometimes justifiably, and sometimes not. Rejection is very much an everyday part of the job. And you learn to roll with it- develop a thick skin. Every now and then I’ll have a concept rejected that just seemed perfect for a particular book and it will sting for a while—though, over the years, I’ve learned one important lesson about handling rejection: namely, that new ideas, good new ideas, will always present themselves, so don’t get too depressed about the ones that don’t make it. It’s this faith that I’ve found to be most helpful.
There are so many bestsellers with hideous covers, and so many bestsellers with beautiful covers. Do you think there is a reason why certain books sell and others don’t, and whether this has anything to do with the covers?
I think the cover has the power to help the sales of a title a bit, but just a bit. Ultimately, what makes a book work or not work in the marketplace has to do with so many factors. I think all of us in publishing—in order to feel like we have some control over a book’s fate—greatly overstate the jacket’s importance. A bad jacket can harm a little bit, a good jacket can help a little bit. Ultimately it is up to the book to fail or succeed on its own merits!
I am always impressed with how the tactile, printed version of a book is so much more successful then an online thumbnail. I know you can’t predict the future, but can you describe a book 100 years from now, and the role the cover plays. Do you foresee a tactile digital future?
If you asked me this question even two years ago I would’ve said that the physical book is doomed. But I’m feeling much more sanguine about the future of the book these days. They show no signs of going away. God only knows what an ebook will look like one hundred years from now, but I’m hopeful that a physical book will look exactly as it does now.
Do you think its possible to judge a book by its cover?
Do you look at older/foreign editions of book covers you’re redesigning? Or do you try to avoid them?
I do look at other editions, just to see what has already been done, in an effort to avoid re-treading old paths. With books that I’m redesigning, books that are classics of the backlist, I always look at the design history as well. This history tells me something about the interpretational history of a text, and about the audience’s expectations; it tells me what the traditional signifiers that have been used for a particular text are, which in turn, helps me subvert them if I want to. On the other hand, it’s never seemed particularly worthwhile looking at foreign editions, for other marketplaces, as those audiences are so different from our own in the US.
What is a book you’ve always wanted to design a cover for, but haven’t been able to (yet)?
Anything by Virginia Woolf would be fun to work on. Any canonical work of philosophy also. I never get to work on philosophy books. Descartes, Spinoza, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche…there are way too many!
Since you’re a self-taught designer, how do you feel about design education? Would you ever want to open up Peter Mendelsund’s Design School for Struggling Pianists? Or at least teach a course?
I don’t know how I feel about design education — I honestly don’t know very much about it. The one thing I do know though, is that kids matriculating through undergraduate design programs need to be better prepared intellectually. Not nearly enough attention has been brought to the question of the basic literacy of our young designers. It is vital, especially if a designer wants to work in publishing, but also vital in general, that students be taught the fundamentals of reading and writing. Not to mention that designers should be able to express themselves verbally. If I were in charge of an undergraduate design program, there would be literature classes, science classes, logic and rhetoric classes…it would be a much less fun school to attend, granted.
Have you ever wanted to design a book interior?
I have designed interiors on occasion, and, frankly, its not really something I found to be particularly enjoyable. I feel strongly that the design of the inside of a book should mesh with the design of the outside of the book, but sadly I am not the person to do both. It’s meticulous, time-consuming work—work for minds more OCD than mine.
I love your work because you don’t have a particular “style.” Do you purposefully avoid having a signature “Mendelsund” look? Is it hard not to repeat things that have worked in the past? How do you push yourself to experiment?
Thank you! Not repeating oneself is the hardest aspect of aging as a designer. At every turn I think of shortcuts that could help me finish a job faster. It is very difficult not to just use a cookie-cutter approach. But if I did that I’d just feel lousy all the time about myself as a designer. There is so much to learn still, and so many ways I can grow visually. Every new jacket is a new opportunity to do just that. Also, every text is unique, so why should every jacket be unique?
It seems like a lot of your moments of inspiration come when riding the subway. Can you talk about why that no-man’s-land of time is important? Are there any other moments/places that are conducive for coming up with ideas?
That is so true. Many of my ideas come in small interstitial moments in my day. I think this is partly due to the fact that I have so little time in general—I work a regular job, I write, I have two kids, I play the piano… there isn’t much time left over to just fugue out and think. So subway rides, or waits in the grocery store line, become pure thinking time; mediation space. The shower is also excellent in that regard. Also car trips.
If you couldn’t design your own cover for Cover, who would you entrust to do it? What direction would you give them?
I would give that job to, in no particular order: Leanne Shapton; Paul Sahre; Carin Goldberg; Oliver Munday; David Pearson; the studio of Rodrigo Corrall; Jamie Keenan; Jon Gray; there are too many to name. (maybe you want to give it a shot? I’d love to see that cover.) There would be no instructions. It’s better that way. Read the book. Design the cover.
Where do you see yourself in eleven years? Should we be looking forward to Cover 2: Back With a Vengeance?
Oh no. no more books. Just shoot me in the face if I ever write another book.
I’m hoping in eleven years I’ll be, just generally speaking, living off the fat of the land on someone else’s dime. An aristocrat of some kind. A social gadfly, patron of the arts; a gentleman farmer perhaps. I will have a jetpack and a full head of hair.