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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

INTERVIEW: Matt Roeser

I'm not sure which came first, my adoration for Matt Roeser's New Cover project or my love for his LOST re-watch site. But since this is a book blog, I'll just be covering the first in this post.

New Cover is based on a pretty simple idea: Matt creates a new cover for each book he reads. He has yet to have a book cover published, but after positive feedback from people in the industry, he hopes to have his first published cover soon. New Cover has really inspired me to continue working on my own personal projects and to always keep creating, so I was really excited when Matt agreed to do an interview with me about his own design process and his views on book cover design.

ALAINA: So how did New Cover get started?

MATT: Since I was a child, I've always enjoyed reading and in high school and college, I fell in love with graphic design. In the back of my mind, designing covers for books has always been a sort of dream job for me as it melds these two passions. After graduating college, I went to work for Atomicdust, a graphic design agency in St. Louis. For the past five years, I’ve been making creative matter with them, and a few months ago, I decided that if i'm going to pursue my dream of cover design, I would need to actually focus on creating some covers.

So, I started taking some of my favorite books and giving them the covers I thought they deserved. As a lover of these books, nothing would bum me out more than someone walking past one of these titles in a bookstore because it happened to get stuck in a poorly designed cover. Thus, New Cover was born and my mantra was simple: I read books and then design new covers for them.

My interview with Matt is a little bit long, but he has some great advice and some great insight on the design industry. So if you have any interest in books or design or humans I encourage you to click through the jump to read more (if you don't like any of those you're probably lying).

Also be sure to check out New Cover for yourself.

A: One of my favorite covers you’ve done is for “Twenty-One Balloons”. I always loved that story but I remember the cover for mine being pretty bland. I enjoy how colorful yours was. Do you have a favorite New Cover you’ve done?

M: That’s pretty tough, as I’ve put time and effort into all of them, so it’s hard for me to play favorites, but some have come out more as I envisioned them over others. If I had to choose, I always lean more towards the covers that have a strong idea behind them that  ties into the book and lingers with you after you put it down. An idea that, upon first looking at the cover, you may not fully understand what it has to do with the story, but after finishing the book, you see it in a new light. I think two of my covers that succeed at that are Shades of Grey and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. 
Shades of Grey takes place in a future version of our  world where social class is determined by one’s ability to perceive a particular color. It follows the main character of Eddie Russett, a Red, as he beginnings to discover the truth behind the world he lives in. In the book, when a person turns 20, they take the Ishihara to determine what color and how high of a percentage of it they can see (the more you can see, the higher your rank will be). 
Because the Ishihara is an actual test created to determine color-blindness, I used that as the basis for my design, having the title appear in red as Eddie would see it, among a sea of grey. 
So, while someone who hasn’t read the book can still get the idea of a color-based theme to the story, those that have completed the book more fully understand how it ties into the tale.
Likewise, with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an amazing novel that deals with two feuding magicians in 19th century England, I wanted to play with the idea of these two strong personalities. Because they’re always trying to one-up the other, I decided I would make dual covers, each showcasing one of the magicians, with the other being just out of the frame (and their name considerably smaller) allowing the reader to decide which character they prefer. 
A: People often ask me what my favorite book cover is and I always have the hardest time choosing. Do you have a favorite book cover or cover designer?

M: The industry is certainly full of super-talented people and it’s always a treat to go into a bookstore and see some of the latest covers that have been created. While most people instantly read the text inside the book jacket upon picking up a book, I usually look to see who designed the cover.
Obviously, there are the greats that everyone knows of (Chip Kidd, Paul Buckley, Coralie Bickford-Smith, Peter Mendelsund, John Gall, to name just a few) but I have several favorites that consistently delight me with their work, including Jim Tierney, (I hope one day his Jules Verne thesis project gets printed - come on publishers!) Jen Wang (who does amazing things with handwritten type) and Tal Goretsky (his paperback of Manual of Detection is one of my absolute favorite covers and have you seen his design for Moonwalking with Einstein?) And Michael Gillette is the reason I shelled out quite a few dollars buying the complete UK hardcover collection of James Bond novels. They are works of art. 

A: Can you tell me about your creative process with covers? Do you wait to start working on a cover until you’ve finished reading the book or are you planning things out as you read? How much time do you put into designing a cover?

M: It depends on the book, but for most of my designs, I’ve completed reading the book (or read it in the past) before I start designing. I know in the industry, that’s not a luxury that comes with every book, but in a perfect world, I would love it to be that way. There’s just something you get from having all of the knowledge of what happens in between the front and back cover that can result in an idea you’d never come up with if you were just handed a brief. However, with books like the Game of Thrones series, I’m currently in the middle of reading book two and had an idea that didn’t really depend on plot specifics. 
With regards to how much time I put into each cover, it varies. Sometimes I come up with a big idea instantly and all I have to do is actually create it, where other times I just start playing around with various imagery I find online, start sketching, or head to my inspiration folder that I keep of photos, designs, etc. on my computer to see if it sparks anything. And like most designers, I could keep tinkering away on a design forever, but I like to give myself deadlines so that new covers actually end up appearing on New Cover.
A: Was “The Game of Thrones” series the first series you designed? How was working on a series different than an individual work?

M: Game of Thrones is the first series I’ve designed so far and I did approach it a bit differently. Some of my favorite cover designs released throughout the years are series (as mentioned above, the James Bond collection by Michael Gillette, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series regular release and special edition designs by Peter Mendelsund, The Ripley Collection by Chin-Yee Lai) because there’s just something about how a great series looks sitting on a bookshelf that makes me happy inside. 
Whereas you’re not just working with a standalone title, a good series design has to have elements that connect the various titles together so it looks like a cohesive whole. I don’t know about anyone else, but when you’ve got 3 books of a series in one look and feel and size and then they change it up for the 4th book, it always bothers me (like in movies when they switch actresses for the same role, I staunchly watch the screen with a “you’re not fooling me!” vibe) mostly because I then end up wanting to buy the entire re-released set.

A: Do you think there is a difference in designing for fiction versus non-fiction?

M: Not really. I think it’s all about tone. I think as children, we start off experiencing the school library in a way that fiction is fun and can take us anywhere and non-fiction is the boring stuff we need to look up for school projects. And for a lot of people, it pretty much stays that way. But there are so many great non-fiction writers out there that take what could be seen as a very dry subject and breathe such fun life into it (Mary Roach and Bill Bryson immediately come to mind). So, regardless of fiction or non-fiction, the goal of the design is to make it appear engrossing enough to warrant someone’s interest. From there, they’ll decide whether it’s worth pursuing further, but that initial goal is the same for any design, in almost any industry. For us, it’s why out of hundreds of thousands of little rectangles in this bookstore should I stop and read about your little rectangle?

A:I know you work at Atomicdust. How is the design work you do there different than designing for book covers? Essentially, how do you think cover design varies from other design work?

M: At Atomicdust, we work for a wide array of clients in a variety of mediums. One day I might be crafting a unique selling proposition for an architecture firm, the next trying to make the daunting world of retirement savings look easy-to-understand in a 3-minute video. The day after that; reviving 80’s pop culture sensation Voltron for DVD release and in the afternoon, showing nurses how a suite of products can help them take better care of their patients.
There are usually so many components to the campaigns we do, all centered around the idea. A postcard leads you to a website where you watch a video and then sign up for a live demo. There are so many touch points to voice that idea, whereas with a book cover, you really get one shot. Recently, I’ve seen many book trailers as publishers try and entice more of a non-reading audience, but when it comes down to it, what goes on the cover is what stays with the reader as they consume the story.

A: Any last words?

M: I think regardless of what focus you want to pursue in design, it all comes down to what you’re passionate about. It’s universally true that when someone is passionate about what they do, it shines through in their work. I started New Cover because it was a creative outlet to pursue my passion. So whatever that is for you, do it. 


Matt Roeser said...

Thanks for the interview Alaina. I really appreciate it! Hope I didn't ramble on too much :)

Anonymous said...

Very good interview.

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