Designing Modern Classics

3/13/2018

It is said that you can't judge a book by its cover. As a designer of book covers I hope that is not entirely true. Just as a screenwriter must condense a novel into a two hour movie, my job is to turn a book into a single cover. Early in my career I worked as a Special Projects Designer at Random House, creating book jackets for Adult Trade books. 


In 1985, when I started Odgis + Company, we landed one of our first projects: to redesign a series of modern classic book covers, including Ralph Ellison's masterpiece Invisible Man. The publisher, Vintage, was re-releasing multiple books simultaneously with a new set of covers. 


What does Nietzsche have in common with Confucius? 

These books had to attract the inquisitive reader to discover—or rediscover—the magic that made them a permanent piece of literary gold. These books were not new and our job was to make them fresh and exciting while maintaining their integrity.
 

The Design Challenge

Read > Digest > Think > Express > Design
Reading these books, thinking about their essential message, and finding a visual expression is a fascinating process. My goal was to find the common threads that would make each of these books work in the context of being presented together in a bookstore and enticing prospective readers to pick them up. The challenge was to create a visual language—a visual voice—that can accomplish this goal. 
 

Minimalism Made Meaningful

Because the customer might only look at the cover for an instant, the designer must convey the message clearly. With that in mind, I decided to take a minimalist approach to designing the covers. I deconstructed the stories to see what was absolutely necessary to express the deepest meaning. Across the spectrum of books, I incorporated cut paper, typography as image and abstract visual shapes to give a sense of each book's core themes. One of my inspirations, the late, great designer Ivan Chermayeff, used this approach to express his ideas when he worked on many of his iconic posters. 
 

The Book as a Brand

The thought process behind this project of designing an unrelated group of classic books into a family was similar to taking a group of individuals in a corporation and aligning them under a common brand. Uniting divergent elements while preserving their individuality is at the core of all branding work. To this day, I go through the same sort of process when branding companies.

I just reread Invisible Man and I continue to be amazed by the brilliant writing of Ralph Ellison and the powerful, timeless story. I am honored to have had the opportunity to match that with a cover design to represent the story.
 

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