Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to break into a new facet of design: book covers. In my career going back to the late 1980s, I’ve designed packaging, brochures, electric signs, motorcycle dealerships, billboards, restaurants, props for movies, signage, entire apparel lines, theatre posters – pretty much anything that can be designed, I’ve designed it – everything except book covers. For some reason – the why has always escaped me – but book cover design has always been a tight-knit group to break into. Typically, if you design book covers, you don’t design anything else. And if you aren’t already working in book cover design, you ain’t gonna anytime soon. Forget about it.
Don’t get me wrong – I do believe that some things should be left to specialists. If you are an expert at rebuilding Chrysler transmissions you shouldn’t perform ACL reconstructive surgery. And the opposite is, of course, true. However, I come from the Bauhaus school of design philosophy, and to me that means if you call yourself designer, you should be able to to design anything. The Bauhaus was a German art and architecture school in Germany from 1919 to 1933. Pretty much all the giants of 20th century art and design taught or studied there: Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer, Marcel Bruer, Marianne Brandt, Piet Zwart, Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee… look, I know this is like throwing Rabbit Maranville, Spook Jacobs and Warren Spahn at non-baseball fans, but trust me, the Bauhaus influenced the look and function of our modern world.
“Bauhaus” is German for “house of construction” or “building house,” and the art/architecture school was given that name because their goal was to produce students who could not only design a building, but also everything that goes inside it: from the wallpaper and furniture to the tea kettle and “grand opening” announcement. Because of this grandiose concept, following the complete course at the Bauhaus took something like a decade of full time study, and not many graduated. However, anyone who studied there came away with the confidence they could take on any kind of design challenge with confidence.
I was attracted to this philosophy by chance. I had wanted to study graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in New York, but after being one of two finalists, lost out on the full scholarship due to my lousy GPA. My only other full scholarship was to the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore – a fine arts school. I majored in painting for the first years because there wasn’t much of a design course. While this was a let down for me, in the end it turned into a godsend. I studied painting, drawing, sculpture, print making and wood working. This well-rounded art education made me a better designer because I could do all of these other disciplines, not just put type on a page. Though I didn’t know it when I started, I was getting a Bauhaus-esque education by default.
Like I said, I was originally unhappy that I wasn’t studying graphic design at a design school. But after realising that all my favorite designers actually had an art education exactly like mine, I came to embrace the difference it made in how I approached a design problem – and I credit this difference in thought and philosophy to what makes my art unique.
As a complete subscriber to the Bauhaus philosophy, you can see why I have always thought the whole book cover designer exclusivity was full of it. But, like I said, I was never able to crack the secret circle – that is, until this past summer, courtesy of Summer Game Books.
Working with the owner, Walt Friedman, I designed/illustrated the cover of Summer Game Book’s reprint edition of Sol White’s Base Ball Guide, the design process of which you can see HERE. I enjoyed working with Walt and I hoped it would be the beginning of a long collaboration between us. In the meantime, that Sol White book cover proved to be my foot in the door of book cover design. Since that hit the shelves I was asked to do the cover of That Lively Railroad Town: Waverly, New York and the Making of Modern Baseball, 1899-1901 as well as the last two covers of SABR’s Baseball Research Journal. Two books and two magazine covers inside of one calendar year ain’t bad. Then I got another call from Walt at Summer Game Books to do the cover of his next big project and something neither of us had done before – a work of fiction.
Walt was very excited about publishing a fiction book since his catalogue is mostly baseball non-fiction history works. This new project was still baseball, but a based-on-historical-fact work of fiction by J.B. Manheim. Here’s the synopsis I was given to familiarize me with the novel:
“In his fact-based novel, This Never Happened, J. B. Manheim takes a look at one of the oft-told legends of early 20th century baseball—that Christy Mathewson died of TB after being exposed to poison gas in a training accident. But the details of Mathewson’s demise never quite added up. When J. B. discovered genuine army documents from WWI that placed Mathewson and other all-time greats, including Ty Cobb, Big Ed Walsh, and Honus Wagner, at a military training camp in the summer of 1918, the author’s imagination began to race. The result is a fictionalized account of what might actually have happened to Matty. Part Da Vinci Code, part historical novel, This Never Happened takes readers back to the days of The Great War, through the 1930s when newspapers were peoples’ strongest link to baseball, to the present day and a cover-up that reaches the highest level of baseball.”
As far as ideas, Walt and the author left it entirely up to me. After letting the the synopsis sink in and reading up on Christy Mathewson and baseball in World War I, I sat down to come up with a design. FYI: if you need some good reference on baseball and the Great War, look no farther than the Jim Leeke section of the library or bookstore. A tremendous baseball historian, Jim’s specialty is World War I baseball and the men who played it. A couple stand-out Jim Leeke volumes I have on my own shelf are From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball during the Great War, Ballplayers in the Great War: Newspaper Accounts of Major Leaguers in World War I Military Service, and The Best Team Over There: The Untold Story of Grover Cleveland Alexander and the Great War.
While reading the synopsis I kept picturing a dusty old government file that remained hidden for decades in a carefully guarded file room somewhere deep in the bowels of the Pentagon. I did some research about what the type of office file folders would have looked like in 1918 and the style of typography that was used for official U.S. Army documents in the Great War. As you can see, it is pretty basic, but distinctive:
Since a plain file folder and non-distinctive government typography ain’t going to sell books, I knew something was needed to jazz it up. What would be better than baseball cards, right? Since the book deals with real ballplayers, namely Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb and Branch Rickey, I wanted to use some of their existing classic cards from the 1910-1915 era. Those old tobacco and Cracker Jack cards are so beautiful they would be just the splash of color and style needed to compliment the drab GI issue paperwork.
From there I drew up a sketch showing the basic layout with call outs pointing to the colors and details. I sent it off to Walt who then shared it with the author.
In a day or two I received the go-ahead from Walt, and I began turning my sketch into a reality.
THE PRODUCTION FILE
I scoured the internet looking for old office file folders to use as the base of my design. You may be surprised to know that there are people who actually collect old office equipment and post their collections online. From such collections, I came up with my own style of folder that fit the concept I had in mind. I designed a “label” that would go on the front of the file using the style of typography found on the WWI-era Army training manuals I researched. To give it some texture and make it look like a “working document” I added typewriter copy and official war department rubber stamps. To make the title stand out from the rest I made it into a harsh red-inked rubber stamp, so as if to give the final government designation “THIS NEVER HAPPENED.”
The tricky part was the baseball cards. I knew the three players I needed to represent were Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb and Branch Rickey. Mathewson and Cobb were superstars, so there were a multitude of good-looking cards to choose from. Branch Rickey was a mediocre catcher with few cards, so I started with him, selecting a classic Cracker Jack card. For a balanced design, I thought the Mathewson and Cobb should be the narrower tobacco style cards, and after looking through several. selected a T-206 for Matty and a T-205 for Cobb. Since these cards in their original form are worth a fortune, I contacted Ken Goldin at Goldin Auctions, one of the biggest and most successful sports card and memorabilia auction houses in the world. I have written and researched memorabilia descriptions for Ken since he started Goldin Auctions, and I knew they had featured all three of those cards I needed in many of their auctions. After I explained what I needed them for, Ken gave me permission to go through their photo archive and use their high-resolution images for the cover art. (For anyone interested in the inside workings and drama of a major auction house that deals in super high-end collectibles, Goldin Auctions will be the star of a new reality-TV show).
To reinforce the look of a working file folder full of evidence, I wanted to have the baseball cards secured to the cover with paperclips. Not being a vintage office supply expert, I wanted to be sure the style of paperclip was appropriate to the era. I have seen some odd looking paperclips in antique stores so I thought there would be some cool, oddball clip style in use in 1918, however, there wasn’t. The standard paperclip we all know is actually called the “Gem paperclip,” had been around since the 1870s, and the industry standard since the 1890s. So, no unusual-style clips for this cover.
Because I was following my original sketch closely, the initial sketch design fell into place quickly, and I set it off to Walt to review:
Walt came back with some constructive thoughts, namely moving the cards to the top instead of the side and changing the hand-written subtitle to something more easily readable at a distance. One thing I hadn’t thought of was the whole Amazon and Kindle format, meaning this thing also had to work on a very small scale. Once I made these adjustments, I realized the title needed to be more prominent and set about creating a more “severe” rubber stamp design for it. I also changed the Mathewson card to another, similar one from the same T-206 set. It’s subtle but if you look closely you can see the difference.
At once I could see the changes were for the better and created a tighter design:
After the front cover was complete, I worked up the title on the spine and the back cover blurb, both using design elements from the cover. The final production art, which is the file sent to the printer, looked like this (minus the white lines I put on there to show you where the spine is).
THE FINAL BOOK
The period after releasing my art to a printer is the worst for me. As soon as I press the send button, I lose any control I once had over my artwork. Now it is up to the printer to make it into reality, while I wait nervously to see how it turns out. One small mistake on my part and an entire design could be ruined in the printing process. I’m color blind, so I am always wary of hues and colors. Years ago I memorized the Pantone Matching System, called “PMS” for short, which assigns a specific number to thousands of colors so that there is an industry standard to select and proof colors. Because of this, I rarely make color mistakes, but color blindness almost got me kicked out of art school, so it’s always front and center in my mind when I release art to the printer.
So anyway, a few months after completing the final art, a package arrived from Summer Game Books:
Inside were a couple copies of This Never Happened. After a careful once-over I deemed the printing a success and added it to the growing spot in my bookcase reserved for Gary C.-designed books…
You can buy the book at all the online retail outlets or go directly to the source and pick up a copy RIGHT HERE from Summer Game Books.