Carleton Wilson: book typography and cover design

photo collage by C.Wilson
photo collage: C.Wilson

Carleton Wilson is a poet, editor, publisher, and freelance graphic designer, specializing in book typography and cover design.

Q: Do you have any rituals, modes of practice, for entering the world of a book of poems?  Other than reading the work!

A: Besides reading the work, I try my best to take into account the author’s ideas regarding the cover design (if they have any), even if it’s more a general feeling than specific imagery. One of the benefits to publishing with a small press is that authors have a little more influence on the kind of cover that is designed for their book. I try my best to incorporate an author’s thoughts and ideas for the cover with the ideas I’ve gleaned from reading the book, and then combine those two sources of inspiration to create a successfully effective design. And it even comes out okay sometimes.

Q: Designing typography, creating book covers, seems to be a kind of translation, or, transliteration, or even, transformation. Thoughts?

A: I guess typography could be thought of as a kind of translation of writing from the context of a manuscript to a book. But I think where language translation usually loses something from the original work, whether in terms of sense or rhythm, typography can add something to a piece of writing, namely readability. The idea behind good typography is that it is invisible; this is what you strive for as a typographer. It fades to the background and is not noticeable because good typography helps with comprehension of the text that is being read, which increases concentration on the ideas within the writing rather than the words as they appear on the page.

Q: Colour, lines and shape, font, size and space: does the design of a book cover take many drafts or do ideas come in a flash?

A: You can come to a design either way. But even when there is a flash of inspiration, that is really only a fraction of the time it takes to build the design. After that initial idea, you have to gather the elements that will realize the idea to the best extent that you can, and then there is a lot of play that you do with the elements in order to figure out the balance that works the best for the cover you are trying to create. I’ve been doing cover design for over ten years and I still learn something new every time I create a cover, whether the cover successfully realizes the original idea, or doesn’t as much as I would have liked.  Generally, I find that I am more successful with a design if I have a very strong initial idea and work with that idea for as long as it takes to create an effective cover design, something that works well for me. I have been less successful with a final design that has gone through multiple drafts and versions; but I am working at getting better at designing within this situation. There is still a lot to learn.

Q: children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections: the design acts as an “extension of the content itself” – the cover “rehearses the poem.” Any thoughts on that?

A: Well, I guess I would just hope that this is the case. I think that description would describe an effective cover design for the book. The other thing I would add is that my main goals with book design are that the author and the publisher are happy with the design, and that the design is as effective as I can make it. It’s definitely a bonus when I am also happy with the design, but that doesn’t happen all the time. Having said all of that, I am happy with the design of your book.

Q: For children of air india, we collaborated on a series of photo collages that appear in the book: I was, in fact, transfixed, by how you were able to evoke a kind of haunting. With each book cover you design, do you need to give yourself time between books?

A: Well, that’s not really a luxury that you have given how small press publishing schedules generally work, at least in my experience. So I can be working on a couple of different book designs at the same time, or a few in a row, one right after the other. It’s not too onerous though, in terms of depleting what you might call the “well of creativity” within you, at least I don’t find it so. Although it is creative, book cover design, and graphic design generally, is not an artistic pursuit. There are defined goals to accomplish with cover design and there are design principles and strategies that you can utilize to accomplish your goals. With art the only person that need be satisfied with the creation is the artist, and so there is endless potential in any project, which I personally find a more draining situation to be in. With graphic design, there are a number of stakeholders in what is being created, and so there are limitations to what can be done and when it must be done, which makes the creative element less draining than it would be for a solely artistic pursuit, or at least that’s what I feel. Of course this isn’t definitive, other designers may have a different experience.

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