The following is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in Spine Magazine Issue 3. All images are courtesy of Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein.
Anne Jordan is a designer and RISD graduate based in Rochester, New York. She was listed in Print Magazine’s 2015 New Visual Artists: 15 Under 30. Not only that, along with husband Mitch Goldstein, she designed the cover for the issue. In this interview she details their process, along with other topics related to cover design.
What inspired you to become a cover designer?
I love reading and have always appreciated book covers, even before I got into graphic design. For my senior project at RISD, I designed a series of book covers for Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. I think of book covers as the jewels of American graphic design culture. We don’t have a poster culture like Switzerland for example, and in a way book covers take the place of that. They demonstrate the highest levels of design, are accessible to everyone, and are part of everyday life.
I love everything about the format. The challenge of communicating thousands of words in a singular, compact, two-dimensional image. The opportunity to be very expressive and abstract. The chance to fuse type and image. The intellectually demanding content that invites me to learn about all sorts of interesting topics and ideas. The short but intense timelines – it doesn’t take a year to finish a book cover, just two or three weeks, so I never get bored.
I collaborate with my husband Mitch Goldstein on almost everything. We both love working with materials and exploring analog-digital techniques. Book covers are the perfect vehicle to explore this kind of image making. Since graduating from RISD, we have worked together on countless types of projects ranging from websites to annual reports to clothing to catalogs, but I keep coming back to the book cover as my dream job. I have more fun designing book covers than anything else, the format and the process seem to suit my personality well.
In preparation for work, how do you familiarize yourself with the source material?
The art director sends a pretty detailed brief including a summary of the book and any direction or concepts they want me to explore. I read through the brief carefully and make two lists: (1) a list of things I need to learn more about and (2) a list of key words. Then I’ll go off to the library or online and research everything on list #1 until I feel like I understand the material. I keep adding to list #2 during this process, and making rough sketches of anything that comes to mind. I usually spend an entire day or two doing this research. When I’m done, I have a long list of key words that I use as visual directions. These words tell me what processes and materials to start with.
For example, if perspective is an important word on my list, I might use that as a process direction and start by photographing an object or a piece of text from a bunch of different perspectives and see what happens. Often the words direct me to certain materials, too. In my research for The Woman Who Read Too Much, the words unveiling, books, and illumination revealed themselves as being very important. These words told me to work with fabric, paper, hair, and light. Verbal content is rich with visual possibilities, and I capitalize on this by turning the key words into a pile of methods and materials that I can mix and match in my studio.
Mitch and I have meetings throughout this research phase to prioritize and organize our ideas, using a big wall in our studio as a pin up space. We always start with a physical pile of stuff – we hardly ever start on the computer. I find that the best way to get lots of ideas is to just start making something even if it isn’t very good. The key words are a jumping off point for me to get into the visual work as soon as possible, and keep me from wasting time stressing out about the blank page. I always have more ideas than I can possibly execute. As long as I have words, I have visual ideas.
What unique challenges have you discovered in designing book covers?
I think the challenges in making book covers for us has more to do with our process than the specific format of a book cover. The way we work takes a long time, there’s a lot of trial and error, and we can’t predict which ideas are going to work. This means we can’t turn something around in three days, we really need a solid two or three weeks to focus on one cover. Often we will make hundreds or thousands of images for one project, so editing is a challenge. In order to make one great image, we have to sift through tons of failures and have the patience to keep trying. We have to narrow down many gigabytes of options to just a few to show to the art director. Mitch is essential in this editing process – he isn’t afraid to kill things, and I rely on him quite a bit in this area. Another challenge is anticipating revisions. Sometimes making changes is difficult because of the way our images are constructed – often the entire design is a single photograph of a physical setup, so to change a word could mean starting over from scratch. It’s not usually an easy tweak in Illustrator.
What is the conceptual rationale behind the cover of Capitalism in the Web of Life?
The book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital argues that the sources of today’s global turbulence have a common cause: capitalism as a way of organizing nature, including human nature. To create this image, we photographed swarms of small glass beads accumulating around letterforms. We spent some time exploring the intricacies of how the beads behave and eventually arrived at a way to integrate them with typography in a physical setup.
The beads are abstract enough that they can represent many ideas – capitalism, human population, turbulence, nature. There’s an organic quality to them reminiscent of fish eggs, bubbles, clouds, or outer space. But at the same time, there is a sense of organization, a mass, a swarm that is traveling in a particular direction. The beads behave almost like a school of fish, they want to move together and pile up, accumulating around the type.
We were intrigued by the mysterious nature of the image – it’s not immediately recognizable as beads, a viewer might even think the image was created digitally. In fact, the cover is a photograph of a completely physical setup, there is very little digital retouching.
How do you gauge the merit of your work?
A project has merit for me if it was personally rewarding. I consider a project to be a success if I got something out of it beyond just a paycheck. My goals for every project are to learn something new, experiment with materials and methods that I am curious about, discover a technique or two that I haven’t used before, make something that I am proud of, and enjoy the entire process. If these things happen, the work has merit. I design book covers because it is personally satisfying, not for external reasons. I don’t think about quantifiable metrics such as how many copies of a book is sold.