Maxine Hong Kingston

The first strand is the recent publication of I Love a Broad Margin to My Life which is a memoir, in verse, by Maxine Hong Kingston. She is Senior Lecturer for Creative Writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Her memoirs and fiction have won numerous awards, including the National Book Award and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Literature Award. I recommend a quick search for her podcast lectures available from BBC and itunes/Berkley/Yale.

The second strand is the arrival on the mat of an invitation to the Lifetime Achievement Award in International Publishing at the London Book fair in a few days. It has been awarded to Sonny Mehta, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Regular readers her will know that I worked with Sonny for a decade and I count him as a mentor. One day I will summon up the courage to write about the influence of this fabulous man had on me. But that is for another time.

And the third strand is the first ‘Guest Blog’ on here which is coming soon. It will be from an art director in New York who worked with us at Stanley Studios in the 80s as an intern. The eccentric Stanley Studios was our Art Department sanctuary from the steel and glass Pan head office in London. More on that later too.

These are the elements that prompt me to show two of the very first of my cover designs for Picador Books with Sonny at the helm. China Men and The Woman Warrior. She has a special voice and you know I am not going to give you a cheat-sheet on here. They are both a great read. Seek them out and see life through the eyes of a Chinese-American.

There is no perfect recipe for all book covers but some choice ingredients can be found here: Genuine original writing, crackling, inspiring publisher, a slightly bonkers studio space and an art director who reads, having the time of his life. And thrilling at the wealth of illustration talent to be discovered and enjoyed. llustrator Cathie Felstead took her maiden voyage with us. And what a debut she made!

In China Men we are taken into the world of workers migrating to America (the Gold Mountain) for work to enable them to send money home to their families. How they are seen as one amorphous group but who, by turn, see the caucasians as all looking alike. For their white-skin they call them ghosts. The Postman Ghost, the Carpenter Ghost . . .

Cathie’s beautiful artwork was the first commission where I bought the original for my home too. There are few objects, except books and music, I treasure but this sure is one. The colour is built up with layers of collage tissue. The rough edges kept for character. Background off-white as in Chinese culture white associates with death. The fish, which appeared elsewhere in Cathie’s glorious portfolio were added as a migration motif and to draw the eye to an early “First British Publication” slogan without destroying the cover with graphic devices more commonly linked to Daz.

Today there are so many references to Branding. Here the distinctive artwork is the success. It worked in a tough, competitive market-place. It’s all about character, identity and paying due attention to the very special. Human appeal counts.

Hear Maxine Hong Kingston reading from her new book here: http://bit.ly/eCH8W4 . . . and follow @RandomPR on Twitter.

Design Works Site

 

As designers it is our stock in trade to bring an experienced eye to our clients’ identities. We seek to present a clear message for them. We deploy our Visual Communication skills to show them in a confident, poised stance. Their goods, whether books, music or widgets made sparkly and their services reflecting their best qualities.

Look at me! The graphics cries. I’m shiny, appealing, loaded with character. Desirable, charming company you can enjoy doing business with. My shelves are bursting with must-have goodies. A veritable wizard’s quiver of skills and talents. Resplendent in cool, sharp livery and clearly the dog’s dangley bits in their field.

We have listened closely to ourclients’ problems and aspirations. We have compared the competition and teased out what makes them special in our minds and performed our voodoo on the Mac.

We designers bring focus and objectivity. And hopefully some fun too!

But what about our shop windows? I reflect on this as I have just re-vamped my website www.day-ellison.com. Frankly it is torture! Andrew Butler at DesignCredo calls it The Cobbler’s Shoes. Personally, I can’t see the shoes for wanting to strip out the cobblers. All your inner conflicts rush to the fore like anarchists at the barricades. Is this piece relevant? Am I being vain? Are SMEs as well represented as the celebrities? Should I make something more prominent? O, the human condition! One minute a carefree Creative Director setting out a succession of successful projects, the next taunted by the Demon Doubt, asking if you know how to re-organize the deck-chairs on the Titanic. Physician, heal thyself!

If you have dallied on my Blog before you will know that I love the English language. Marvelling at its power for clarity and delighting in its potential for whimsy and unruly playtime. But not on my website! I don’t want boastful adjectives and purple promises traipsing through with their out-sized muddy boots. I mean, I must think the better part of my work is good or I could not, in all conscience, release it to any the fab folk whose tags adorn this blog. But I certainly don’t want to lather the pages with sales-pitch. It’s just not me. But do I hamstring my own sales efforts in so doing? Arrrgghh! The Demon Doubt again. Fact is you are not there to apply the same cool-headed objectivity that is your normal daily stock in trade. You are trying to deftly negotiate that minefield of hopes and fears. Alone. With Arvo Pårt doing his level best to be a calming voice through the speakers.

So you try to be as objective as you can and ask other people’s opinions. And listen. Then act on what seems the best advice to you. I am grateful for advice from Joanne Jacobs in particular.

I have worked with a lot of great people and the site shows a good selection. And I have kept it simple. It is tailored to the iPad – that seems the way to go. I am working on a WordPress bridge between the website and this blog. That will have a database where you can search by client/author/title etc.

Could I have your help too? I would love it if you would leave comments/feedback below.

Have a look here: www.day-ellison.com

What do you think?

Dick Francis

You cannot live in a rural community, as I do, without observing what an all-encompassing interest horses are to many. Not only racing but riding, owning, grooming, breeding and showing. The equestrian fan is totally absorbed by their pastime. Quite an industry too. It’s not my specialst subject – only ridden twice, once on the Guinness Estate as a guest (good), the other in Algeria (bad). Amazing creatures though. Equine athletes. Limited expertise here. Must say I prefer Delacroix to Stubbs. But do check this stunning volume, Horses by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Jean-Louis Gouraud. The sheer beauty of the animal does not escape me. Also the fertilizer is very impressive for the garden.

And I do enjoy reading a good thriller . . .

. . . Who could not help but be gripped by the extraordinary events at Newbury Race Course last weekend? In the viewers’ enclosure several of the race horses suddenly became extremely distressed. And two died instantly. Ghastly, even on the radio. Possible cause is suspected to be an electric shock from an under-turf source. Not only was it an attention-grabbing news item but I was struck by how many reporters said the event was ‘like a Dick Francis novel’.

A select few authors become synonymous with a sport. Norman Mailer on boxing leaps to mind, but more often than not it is sport as a major strand of popular culture that inspires the novelist, rather than sport per se. Short story writers, however, do favour the activity. But I digress. So you see why I value great writers so highly – for their skill and craft eludes me.

Dick Francis was a serious achiever in British National Hunt racing before he started writing about that world. He won over 350 races, becoming champion jockey  just as British National Hunt racing, in the 1956 Grand Nationalwhen the horse inexplicably fell when close to winning the race. Wikipedia just told me that bit. ’56 is the year I acquired a hyphen.

At Pan Books Dick Francis sales were cantering along nicely. But the feeling was that he should be read beyond his devoted fans in the horse-racing fraternity. “Whether you followed the gee-gees or not they are a good read” they said. And we need covers for his books that stretch his appeal to include them. I was skeptical (the description of jockeys as dwarves dressed as clowns always tickled me) but gave it a shot. I read a few. They were right. He writes at quite a clip. Fast paced, accessible, one sitting reads. All made credible by his wealth of insider knowledge. So the challenge was to package his novels without overt equine imagery to keep the thriller appeal wide as possible. OK marketing peeps.

 

The design shown is about nefarious deeds with counterfeit vintage wine against a racing backdrop. I designed two dozen or so with photographer Colin Thomas. A few are shown above.

A graphic design snippet for you: See the bubbles on the meniscus? When photographing drinks you need to be able to control the bubbles. Especially with wine. Too many will appear oxidized. Too few looks flat. And, whilst there is some settled wisdom, opinions differ on the ideal size and number with the wine producer. An air-filled syringe is a time consuming option and as bubbles burst they splash colour on the perfect glass. Solution: you can buy plastic bubbles in unlimited configurations to drop into liquids. They pick up the colour by reflection. Life before PhotoShop.

Thrillers are often referred to as ‘electric’. Maybe that was the cause of the Newbury tragedy? Time, and Clare Balding, will tell.

Will they ever find Proof?

Cecilia Bartoli

Italy at its very finest. Emiligia Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria in June. I have been lucky enough to be taken along as a pal and support vehicle driver by Greg Hart who is competing in the Modena Centro Ore Classic, Edizione 5a. Greg is racing a 1964 Lotus Elan and winning nearly every event until the diff is killed by an over-zealous marshall at a hill start. The particular moment I want to take you to is a break in a road race stage at an unfeasibly beautiful restaurant in the Umbrian countryside. There is languid heat and hurried linguini for lunch (the race cars tend to arrive at food stops earlier than a Mercedes Van full of equipment and tools! Outside are parked the highly-strung petrol-fed stallions. I am beside a Ferrari 275 GTB. A mechanic listens closely, like a surgeon to the tick-over of its V12 engine. That engine has 300 Horse Power before it ever sees a spanner. A low brooding rumble. Hold that thought . . .

 
London a few years earlier, working at Decca as Creative Director. Shaking up classical music packaging a bit. The Partners had laid great ground-work on the design front. In-house art director, Ann Bradbeer, in particular, is embracing our drive for more adventurous commissioning of photography and illustration. I am enjoying bringing in good creatives like David Smart who went on to spend so many successful years there. But I am having to spend much too time throwing open the windows on working practice, scaring the natives and re-organizing my departments; Art, Editorial & Production. Missing more hands-on creative work.

A challenge presents itself and I need to get away from dull desk work. Rossini Arias. I confess I am not big on Opera. Mostly too overblown for my puritan tastes. But one Opera singer moves me. A lot. She is a mezzo-soprano called Cecilia Bartoli.

You need to work around some pretty major egos in book publishing. But you gingerly hotfoot in a whole new field of coals and eggshells with the maestros in Classical Music. Prima donnas and prima uomos get their tags from that world after all. Vladimir Ashkenazy was an exception, as was Cecilia Bartoli. It frustrated me to see such characters under a blanket of convention. Subsumed beneath stiff DJs for the men and the woman decorated like some upholstered baroque confection. But, as with many conventions, stepping into new territory can be a risky business. 

We set up a morning photo-session in the Blackfriars studio of ace photographer Tony McGeeTV-AM turned up as the Press Office had tipped them off about us using a high-flyer fashion photographer. But a quick interview and I shooed them away before the session. That dealt with Tony and I talk. On the wall behind us is a print by Robert Freeman, the shot for the With The Beatles album. I still covert it. We chatted about keeping the session relaxed and seeing if we could ease away from some of the formality of an opera CD. What we didn’t want was to impose any false trendy veneer but extract something from the artist’s look when we met her. 

And our artist arrived. Wow. Having worked with a lot of models and being married to my lovely wife, Sandy Nightingale, it takes quite a bit for a woman’s looks to take breath away. Picture Cecilia in her leather jacket and a white T-Shirt. That’ll do it.

Two minutes discussion and we agreed we must shoot her in her own clothes. Thankfully she agreed. Just a beautiful young singer. Perfect serendipity. More traditional shots as insurance which were used on the CD. Marketing took fright. Maybe, at that time, it would have looked too much of a stunt to use the leather-jacket shot on Arias, but we got the leather shot and it made to the poster. And it got talked about. She was getting all the attention she deserved. 

 So what about the Ferrari? Did she arrive in one? No, a black cab. But I need to describe something very special to you. 

 As we took the costume shots I wanted to ease more vitality into the images and I asked her if you would possibly sing. Just a little for animation. And she did. So softly but the latent power was beyond words. Well beyond my words. The hairs are going up on the back of my neck as I recall it. Such a sense of limitless power, life, passion – everything. So close, just the other side of Tony’s lens. All at such low volume.

 

And the nearest I can get to describing it is my memory of standing next to that Ferrari in Umbria. Purring. Stationary. With the potent certainty that a mere breath on the throttle would unleash unlimited, almost frightening power.

 

David Baldacci

Well, after all the excitement, celebrations and hoopla over The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films I took a little breather from the Blog. Starting to gush.

So with feet firmly back on the ground I thought I would dig out something grittier and Hobbit free. David Baldacci is an internationally-acclaimed best selling thriller writer. They all say that in publishing but, with 100 million books in print no less, it is a very fair claim. And I have to say having read six of them they are actually great, fast-paced page-turners. Hailing from Virginia USA, Mr. Baldacci practiced law for nine years in Washington, D.C., as both a trial and corporate attorney. This informs the credibility of his story lines. You may recall his debut novel Absolute Power which was filmed, starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Ed Harris.

 

 
 
 
The design work I undertook for Simon & Schuster UK was a complete author make-over, comprising the new hardback, Last Man Standing and fresh covers, in the new livery, for his paperback backlist. Interestingly the commission came from S&S art director Glen Saville (now freelance). Interesting because Glen worked for me at Pan Books in a former life. So the first move was a quiet sober lunch to catch up and make sure the old roles threw up no problems in working together with Glen as ‘The Boss’. It was a wise investment of a couple of hours and roles and functions were clear. Initially I produced covers for Douglas Coupland and Seth Godin – which I can’t find for the life of me. Bald head, tight crop, bright colours.
 
The David Baldacci make-over was based on a very dramatic use of white space working off the bottom of the page. And, sorry to bang on about it, attention the spines as display areas. Glen was great in giving me space to work and championing the look through the publisher’s processes, a real ally to the project. It is worth pointing out that within a strong publishing genre, such as mainstream thrillers, you can stretch things to a certain extent but must not lose the instant recognition factor for your audience. I’d love to try it but publishers do not warm to thriller jackets/covers that reference literary fiction or cookbooks! Publishers, I dare you to let me try!

We tackled the photo-shoot in one – very long – day. As so often, my first choice behind the lens was Colin Thomas. Colin is a tall thin, sometimes bearded, odd sock wearing fellow who has quite the easiest manner you could wish to work with. His skill and adaptability are superb. We have worked on hundreds of assignments together, from Ed McBain and Dick Francis to wild PhotoShop forays where Colin is a master. He does great location, advertising and portraits and catalogue work. Damn, he’s talented. You would love working with him. Check the Digital Imaging on his website. It’s insane.

By the way, the model on A Simple Truth was a cracking fellow who appeared as an actor in a Guy Ritchie film. I think due credit is so important and I am maddened I cannot remember or find his name to check him. Maybe you can help, film buffs?

Anyway, returning to the ‘internationally-acclaimed best selling thriller’ schtick and the commercial imperative, the David Baldacci make-over exceeded the publishers’ expectations winning prime display and shelf space everywhere. His industry currency soared and the auction value of his next book went stratospheric.

What I would like to know is what thriller covers have appealed to you? Why not leave a comment and tell us why you like them?

 
 
And I’d love to hear what you think of Colin Thomas portfolio . . .

 

The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (II)

Some times you deliver a job and never hear another word. This can be disconcerting. One minute you are intensely focussed on a mission. The next you are alone watching your child cycle off, without the trainer-wheels, suddenly redundant.

Other times it is very different.



The Beatles

Just like Jacques Tati‘s car, I used to have a blog but it wasn’t  a good blog. Since I let Scott Gould verbally mug me about my lack of self-promotion I have this shiny new one that people actually read. There are several ideas distilling that I am keen to write but still bubbling. In the meantime I wanted to bring this story forward into the light.
 

My step-father, Ron, was Marketing Director at British Eagle airlines during my early school days. So when The Beatles flew with them I got to paint (yes, paint) “Beatles Fly” above the British Eagle logo, in matching type, on four bags. But I didn’t get taken to the airport to see them and I have lost the photo. My early introduction to the benefits of free work. See how I got over it and moved on? Anyway it was Klaus Voorman’s design for Revolver that proved to be the Damascean drawing for me. It was fab and it seemed distantly achievable even to a schoolboy with a short version of a Beatle haircut and dreams.

 The-Love-You-Make-1984-4site

Last summer saw lots of media coverage for the anniversary of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Just as their music was instantly ubiquitous, all their album graphics became iconic.  You can often gauge how much album art has been absorbed into popular culture by the number of parodies. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, The Simpsons, Booker T & the MG’s, Lego, and just about everybody else have paid homage to Abbey Road. Only spell-checker software, it seems, has not heard of The Beatles.

In 1984 Pan Books published Pete Brown’s account of his time with The Beatles. As Creative Director for Pan I wanted the cover to show the exact spot with the band now missing. The record label would not permit the re-touching of the original sleeve. So one Sunday morning it was off to St.John’s Wood with delightfully gentle photographer Peter Williams and a set of step ladders to shoot from scratch. With a very limited budget for models or props the were Hitchcock cameos by myself, Sandy Nightingale, Richard Moon, Creative Director of The British Council at the time, and his VW. We left the ‘For Sale’ sign in for Beatles’ fans to spot.

The zebra crossing itself is an international pilgrimage destination for fans of The Fab Four braving the London traffic to get that souvenir shot of themselves on location.

Visually, I am quite taken by the wit of the tank on The Beatles Bike that puts the motorbike in Abbey Road wherever it’s true location may be. A shame the airbrush artist went on to pepper (apologies) the machine with so many other references too. Smart tank idea though.

And, with all the lyrical wit of a McCartney bass-line, life threw up the location in a project this year. This time, as I rummaged through the archives for material for The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films. While using the hallowed recording studios, Director, Peter Jackson and Composer, Howard Shore stepped out to get their own snap. Then English Heritage got the studios listed. And I still love The Beatles music.

And in the end . . .

Michael Ondaatje

This week I overheard two boys, about 8 years old, at the magazines section of WHSmith. One asked the other if he read comics. “Back in the day.” was the reply.

Back in the day, this designer worked on the cover for Michael Ondaatje‘s early novel, Coming Through Slaughter. Michael is a very charming man who writes like an angel. This book is a ‘fictionalised’ account of the brief life of Buddy Bolden. Fictionalised because so little documentation remains. But – back in the day – in New Orleans, he played Jazz on the trumpet for the very first time. The Birth of Jazz. 
 slaughter
Miles Davis & Coltrane move me but Jazz is not my first musical port of call. And I am sure that is my short-coming, not the music’s.

But this story makes the hairs on the neck stand up. He was called the first great jazz trumpet player. No recorded music. How tremendous does your impact have to have been for that colossal appellation to form your legend? Now that, for me, occasions use of the over-worked word ‘awesome’.

Ondatjee relates a tale of massive, high-impact collision. The explosion of a creative talent. The implosion of drink, drugs, excess, squalor and madness. His description of Bolden’s rampant trumpet outpouring, in a public town parade, at his musical peak, and at the same moment as the fissure to his final insanity.  This is one of those very rare times a writer truely does justice to the potent alchemy of music.

Not only are there no recordings and sparse documentation of this pyrotechnic talent, there is little visual record. One fire damaged glass plate. At the time it seemed to0 obvious to use it on the cover. Beautiful, on reflection but as a grabber maybe just another bunch of sepia negroes as entertainers. Once into the text, it holds a howl of melancholy. On the shelf, another poignant, but passive moment awaiting Ken Burns‘ genius for his trade-mark, slow-motion, re-ignition of the past.

This is probably the point where I should tell design students to sit up straight and learn what you do when you want someone’s image but do not have the subject available. Nah. All I can do is tell you what I did. On that day with that problem.

I fibbed a bit about me and Jazz. I love Louis Armstrong too. In fact I once speculated about my funeral music (as you do) and chose two tunes to bookend my experience of adult life. I fancied David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust‘ at the start and Louis Armstrong’s ‘Stardust‘ at the end. Then I forgot about it. Until just then.

I remembered that a signature visual for Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong was the way, during performance, he would mop the sweat from his face with his handkerchief. Some rascals suggest he kept cocaine in it to revive him during a particularly vigourous set. I doubt it. In fact, I expect that would produce a Woody Allen moment. But the point is that it totally obscured his face.

And I had it. My muse moment. A portrait of a man who was not there. A hope for a pause in performance of exhaustion, intensity and pain. I wanted a close-up study and often have a mischievous desire to commission out of genre. I took the idea to Robert Golden. At that time he was the man for food photography. A serious man, he now makes documentary film, I believe.

No drug dust. Maybe just a little Stardust. Back in the day.

Italo Calvino

Victoria Glendinning

Flight is a novel about a high-flying engineer who takes one risk too far – for love. I won’t spoil it – visit a bookshop/Amazon/Library.
 
The jacket design needs little explanation. Having identified the visual metaphor I wanted, I trawled and finally licensed a great shot from Tony Stone. And got weaving in PhotoShop so that our over-ambitious aerialist fails in his high-wire act. Designing the type to give the image, author’s name and simple title space to work.  There are enough jackets and covers screaming for attention in over-crowded display spaces. The eye will rest on one or two calmer spaces, and linger a second longer.
 

 

 

 
When I started this blog I knew there was a good vein of tales of creative life to be mined. But this design set me thinking in a different direction. At it’s best Creative Direction is something of a high-wire act. Taking calculated risks. Making perfect connections. Striving for perfection often against the odds. As I searched for the proofs of this design I thought about how we try to present perfection, how we compile our portfolios and CVs, physical and virtual. We attempt to present a perfect continuum of excellence. It’s natural and reasonable. Who wants to see the turkeys? We hope to offer the promise of guaranteed commercial success to potential clients. 
 
But we all know it is not always like that. We also tend to tell ourselves the prime examples are the result of our skills having conquered all obstacles in blissful omnipotence. (Well OK, but you my drift anyway) And that the ones that slipped-up were victims of nefarious outside meddlers. 
 
In another post I will rant and rend my garments over publishers’ cover committees. But not now. What about the inter-connections on a good day’s work?
 
This job went pretty smoothly. But pause for thought to consider how many things had to work out even on a good wicket. The connections that had to be made between people for it to ever see daylight on the book.
 
Connections such as Victoria Glendinning’s relationship with publishers, Simon & Schuster. CEO, Ian Chapman’s relationship with Publishing Director, Suzanne Baboneau, and Consultant Editor, Tim Binding. S&S had developed designer, Glen Saville and appointed him Art Director. Glen kindly commissioned me to design the jacket. There were several key connections that led the job to my door.
 
Once in my studio an average number of brain-cells did their left-brain thing. Like The Numbskulls but paid. My point isn’t so much about my design per se. 
 
I want to acknowledge the contribution of others who are far less passive in the process that often given credit for. Those that crafted their jacket copy to work with my layout. The guy that gave me an accurate spine width in millimetres instead of a page extent and telling me to ‘work it out’. Those that helped sort the wheat from the chaff amongst the concepts. Those that discussed the design with me, talked about the book. That engaged with me instead of using the besieged art director as the carrier pigeon for ill-thought out messages from a meeting. Glen gave some great art direction by giving me wings and space to fly in. Somebody made sure it was proofed and printed well, promoted fully. WHSmith deliberated and a nice lady in the Shires liked it and put in the window next to Dan Brown. 
 
Freelance design life is relatively solitary activity. For me design is largely instinctive and cerebral. But as soon as it becomes visualised a lot of people affect the process. Encouraging the high-wire act or making the perfect catch. The design flies or fails. Other people are involved, whether angels or demons. 
 
 
Back to work. A job to refine and hone. There is no fee. It will be good for my portfolio. One day I will have the perfect portfolio. I’ll show it to God when I hit that deadline.