When the stars align and the universe is kind, an author’s voice aligns perfectly with a designer’s vision. Such is the story of Emily Mahon’s cover for What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky. Mahon’s simple, no-nonsense, pearlized cover illuminates the humor, emotion, and topical scope Havrilesky brings to the page. And that, dear book lovers, is how all-time favorites are made.
As is typically the case with author-designer matches made in heaven, Mahon is a huge fan of Havrilesky: “I adore the writing of Heather Havrilesky. It's so completely fresh and witty and insightful. She has me simultaneously laughing and crying and rethinking my views. She offers fresh ideas on a multitude of topics. Little wonder that she has so many devoted followers who read her Ask Polly column and eagerly await her next offering. So, needless to say, everyone should read this book.”
Mahon, who currently serves as Art Director for Doubleday, drew upon Havrilesky’s insistence on hope as she began to design the cover for What If This Were Enough?, a collection of essays that refuse reductivity: “The overall feeling you initially get reading these essays is that this world is really a f-d up place and we’re in dire straits,” Mahon said. “But the more you read on, you find a glimmer of hope around every corner, and see that life is about seeking the beautiful moments of surprise and joy and clarity.”
So, how does the search for joy and clarity translate into a visual design? For Mahon, the idea had to undergo several iterations before it became a solid, relatable motif: “I thought a lot about the right way to package this book. I wanted it to have an understated feel and tried out some full bleed images that came to mind from the essays: balloons stuck in a tree, a dandelion amidst a field of grass, an image of the forest from the ground looking up (from one essay in particular where Heather is back at her rustic childhood home in North Carolina, she takes a moment to look up and listen to the sounds of nature and appreciate the beauty of the trees and opening to the sky).” These ideas, however, only touched upon certain essays and not the entire theme of the book.
So Mahon went back to the drawing board, and she is glad she did. “I realized that I needed to pair it down to a singular iconic image, rather than try to tell a story. So I started looking for images that felt symbolic and true to the writing, and I came up with an array of options: a piece of driftwood, a rubber band ball, an empty bird’s nest, a paper boat, a clover,” Mahon said. After sitting with these ideas for a while, Mahon decided upon the dandelion. “I finally chose the dandelion– such a simple weed, but of complex beauty. After looking at many iterations, I realized that the intricacies of the seeds are quite stunning. I decided the type should read in Helvetica: plain and simple, flush left, no nonsense.”
The real piece de resistance of this cover, however, is the pearlized stock on which it is printed, a subtle flourish that makes the book’s glimmers of hope just barely visible to passing potential readers. “When sending this to the printer, I decided, rather than a matte finish, that I'd like to see if I could use a pearlized stock, to give it that extra shimmer. At first glance the shine isn’t obvious, but with the book in hand there's a nice subtle glimmer of light,” Mahon said.
When an author and a designer can work together as neatly as Helvetica and flush-left, we book lovers have every right to get a little giddy. Get your hands on this book, an essay collection with just the right amount of shine.
Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.