Ahab Editora is a small independent publishing company based in Porto that we started working with in 2009. Their literary mission is to publish notable foreign language literature never before translated into Portuguese. In addition to designing the company's graphic identity, we created an editorial project for all the books – format, typographic treatment and layout, production specifications, and not least of all the cover designs. From the outset I wanted to establish a guiding principle for these rather than a fixed graphic system.
There are many interesting and legitimate ways to approach cover design and although there are no formulas there are commonly found solutions. One of the most common is the creation of 2 fields of reading – a background image, texture or pattern, and a second field which contains the text elements, either in a contained box or strap superimposed or fitted within an appropriate/available space.
Although this approach is not in itself a lazy solution and is capable of producing notable results (there are many examples), it is also often used by designers who are feeling lazy because it is the most obvious solution. It's probably also the sort of solution most often expected or requested by publishers. I myself have used it many times. But this time, for the Ahab covers my ambition was to aim for a single field of reading – by no means unique as an approach – but one which attempts to fuse text and image/background. The major concern here is constantly exploring the rendering of the text – the title and author, which are the central elements of any literary cover – in an attempt to create individual narrative designs for each title in which these elements form the basis of an illustration. The text in other words becomes the image rather than being a separate element.
Looking for ideas
Every new Ahab cover is an adventure. Each one starts by reading the book in hand, looking for iconic moments and attempting to gain a general aesthetic perception that we can use as inspiration for the design. It also involves looking at what has been done before in other previous editions (in this case the covers shown above). For the cover design of Filho de Jesus (Jesus' Son) by Denis Johnson, the visual research and preparation started in a scrap yard in Maia.
The book is a series of short stories narrated by an unnamed central character. They are tales that follow characters who are seemingly marginalized beyond hope, drifting through a narcotic haze of ennui, failed relationships, and petty crime. Theirs is a world on the edge in every sense including the bars and other locations which they inhabit. It was the decay of both the physical locations and the lifestyle that prompted the idea of 'rust' as a visual reference, which later modified to form the final design.
We found a recycling company via a web search and arranged to visit them one morning in search of suitable pieces of rusty metal. Despite the preceding phone call explaining our needs and purposes, the pained expression that greeted us clearly reflected the foreman's difficulty in making sense of what we wanted and who (what) we were. Nevertheless he allowed us to roam the property – a huge open site covered in mountains of scrap metal. As we started to sift through material, we noticed Pina's apprehension and reluctance to touch anything around him – an apprehension, we later learned, that arose from a warning about the dangers of potential tetanus infection he had received from an alarmed friend shortly before arriving. Needless to say, Pina's barely concealed tip-toeing-anxiety became the tease of the day. Having advised the yard foreman that we had completed our search, a fork-lift truck was dispatched to collect our findings. Clearly they were expecting a heavy load – after all, who goes to a scrap yard to collect a mere 1 kilo of pointless rusty bits and pieces? Having paid the 2 euros (more raised eyebrows) to take our goodies away, we left under the sort of gaze that you might expect from your grandmother watching a group of Goths stroll into the local shop.
Back in the studio, and after I'd done a few drawings we started to sort through our findings, and began cutting and bending the rusty metal pieces into letterforms. The possibilities began to form on the table in front of us. Photos were taken and the work progressed to the digital stage.
Although the wire lettering we experimented with appeared to have possibilities, it was not included in the final design. We'll save it for something else!
Even the dust from the metal was used in the design as texture.
Allthough the results were pleasing, once the images were treated and we had begun to work them onto the cover, we decided that the rusty metal letters weren't after all reflecting the real feel of the book. At this point we decided to add another visual element and the design turned towards the drug-induced state of the main character, sometimes referred to by his friends as 'fuckhead' (which gives a clue to the design of the finished cover). This meant manipulating the colour of the letters and the cover in general to produce the final result which can be seen in the portfolio section. Look for 'AHAB covers'.
Like all design projects, much initial research and many visual tests get left behind, never to see the light of day. But sometimes unused ideas are reworked and find their way into new projects. This is the case here. We took the opportunity during the work to create an alphabet using the metal we collected. It's now being treated and will emerge shortly as self initiated project entitled 'RUST'. Watch this space.