Designing Greta Christina’s new book cover

Greta Christina has a new book. (Doesn’t she always?) Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God is a guide for atheists, agnostics and believers whose faith isn’t helping them deal with mortality. In place of wishful thinking it offers… well, the clue is in the name.

Since her regular collaborator Casimir Fornalski was unavailable, Greta asked me to design the cover art. I bit her hand off said I’d be delighted.

ComfortingThoughtsAboutDeathThatHaveNothingToDoWithGod

Certainly I had reservations. Fornalski and I have never interacted, but I’ve admired his work with her for two and a half years: the angry woman who looks suspiciously like Greta on the covers of her prior atheist books has become an unmistakeable part of her brand. Ending such an effective partnership is risky even when you have no choice, and I worried I’d be unable to create something as memorable or iconic.

The project became about creating something unlike Fornalski’s covers – in particular, I decided it should look illustrated more than designed, have a coloured background instead of a white one and be uncartoonish. (A further design constraint when Audible required square covers for audiobooks. So the image could be broadened just by adding a strip each side, the background had to be one flat, replicable colour.)

Greta and I discussed ideas. ‘A stylised tree with roots as well as branches, but with the roots being made of DNA double helix coils’ got vetoed: ‘As a many-times-over designer for atheists,’ I told her, ‘no more effing double helixes. They’ve been done so many times the concept’s over.’ (Movement: take note.) The tree motif I did like, so the next suggestion – ‘a person sitting or standing at a gravestone’ – became someone under its boughs.

I started doodling.

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Negative space designs are my weakness, and initially the figure beneath the tree was to be the same colour as the background, appearing as a ‘gap’ in the tree’s trunk. (I wanted a cypress tree – symbol of mourning in the classical era – but gave up on it when the shape was wrong.) Given the book’s sombre theme to differentiate it further from Greta’s other covers, pastel tones drew my eye and the soft grey-green I chose – softer than the final one – survived till late in the design process.

I won’t lie – this design intimidated me. The moment I knew how the tree should look, I knew I had to ‘paint’ it with digital sponges, creating foliage and paint blots from shapes in two different colours, green defining white – over eighty layers and over four hundred individual ‘spongeprints’ went into the end product above. For a while I was unsure I should attempt something so different from my previous work and toyed with the idea of a cover consisting solely of the title in narrowly-spaced Georgia, perhaps referencing Faber’s minimalist poetry collections.

It didn’t take – I suspect because I knew my first thought was my best and that I ought to persevere. When I did, I ended up with the following halfway house.

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Since I’m terrible at drawing representational forms – I studied graphic art, alright? – creating the sitting figure was tough. I tried suggesting someone crosslegged with the abstract shaped I’d used in that first doodle, which turned out to be easier to draw by hand than with a mouse – then at the other extreme, with jagged polygons whose proportions were tricky to get right. Neither worked harmoniously with the tree, and in the end it occurred to me the only way to make the sitting person work would be to use an actual human outline.

This terrified me. I’ve always hidden behind symbols and logo-ish abstractions, and human bodies are some of the hardest things to draw convincingly. (Nonetheless, easier than horses. Try it if you doubt me.) In the end I based the figure on a man’s outline in a stock photo, adjusting the shoulders, midsection and hair to make them appear gender-nonspecific.

It’s obvious to me the background colour to the left was wrong, but making it an apple green was Greta’s suggestion. She also mentioned the typeface – Bebas Neue, also present in my blog banner – may be too stark, asking whether a handwriting-style font could be used instead. It couldn’t, I said, because only chunky all-caps sans serif had the impact not to get lost. (Chinese Rocks was briefly a contender, but Hemant Mehta had shotgunned it with his own book.)

The actual problem, I realised, was the black. Changing the background and making it a soft grey fixed that problem, though it created more. The final alterations were the addition of Greta’s name, deciding whether or not to centre it and experimenting with text in different colour schemes.

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Since we both liked the second image from the right best, that one became the cover.

Want to buy Greta’s book? Head over to her blog for details.

Want to hire me? That also works.

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Designing Greta Christina’s new book cover
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