Adventures among Art Designers


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When I decided to release Ultrasociety myself as independent publisher, I knew it would involve a lot of extra work. And it has. But what I didn’t realize that much of it is actually quite a lot of fun. Let me describe, as an example, the process we went through while selecting artwork for the book’s cover. In the following, I will use the plural pronoun “we”, because I was consulting with a group of supporters during all phases of the process. This group included several young North Americans, because, given my background, I am a “weird” person, and I wanted to go not for a cover that would appeal to me, but one that would appeal to my potential readers. So this “we” is not a “royal we” – the decision was taken in a truly collective way.

We first approached a well-established artist, who specializes in illustrations for articles published in both mainstream magazines and online publications. We were impressed by the artist’s ability to come up with visually striking ways to represent abstract ideas. I sent him the book description, and he wrote back that he would like to work with us, assuming we can agree on the terms.

In the end, however, we did not go with him, because of two problems.

The first one is that his agent wanted a lot of money, and imposed quite ridiculous restrictions on our ability to use the art. For example, the agent was willing to give us a license to use the artwork for three years, and then we were supposed to negotiate an extension. Well, this approach may work for magazines, but not for a book that I hope people will continue to read for many more years than three (or 5, or 10 – my first book, published in 1998 still sells a couple copies a week).

The second and, in many ways, decisive problem was that the artist works in the futuristic Art Deco style. Two people in the team pointed out that his style is very similar to the Art Deco style of Ayn Rand covers, for example:


In fact, Ayn Rand is one of my principal dialectical opponents in Ultrasociety, so clearly we do not want to evoke her on the cover of my book. So we looked elsewhere.

The second artist we approached was also interested. However, he is booked all the way into May 2016. Again, we needed to look elsewhere (and a note for the future: start the process months in advance of the publication date).

Next, we advertised on Elance. The advantage of Elance is that you filter out all potential contractors who cannot work on the project right away, or are unsuitable for other reasons. We got about 30 bids, of which 3-4 were from quite decent artists, with good track records designing book covers (although most of them worked with fiction writers).

I wasn’t sure which one of them would be able to do the best job, so I hired three to design for us initial concepts. After this round, it was very clear that one was head and shoulders above the other two, and so we hired her to complete the job.

In the first round I simply sent her the book description and first chapter, and asked her to come up with a visually striking way to represent one of the major ideas in the book. (It was basically the same challenge as in my previous post). She came up with three design ideas, one of which we liked a lot. It was an image of the tug-of-war, similar to this one:


(Only there were more hands at each end)

We liked this metaphor, but still felt it was not quite right.

We played with other ideas, such as putting an image of Göbekli Tepe on the cover:


(illustration by Fernando Baptista for National Geographic)

Or the International Space Station; or both, with people holding spears looking up to the ISS…

But as we were discussing these ideas, several people spoke up for going with a minimalist design. Just white background, the title in large font, and a single image evocative of the central idea in the book. In fact, the artist’s design that used the tug-of-war image came pretty close to that.

Indeed, there has clearly been a shift in the last decade or so to very minimalist covers of popular science trade books. You can see it in the original cover of Robert Wright’s NONZERO, which was used in the early 2000s:


and the current one, on webpage:


In fact the current cover lacks any images, except the symbol for zero with a slash through it.

Of course, Malcolm Gladwell is best known for minimalist covers of his books, like this one:



There is a actually a cottage industry of spoofing his covers:



In any case, we collectively decided that we want a minimalist cover, with just a single image on it.

And then one member of the group had an idea. He sent everybody an image of a fraying rope:


However, that also was not quite right, because we wanted an image of “weaving together” rather than “coming apart” that fraying rope implies. So we played with it, and I think we have finally arrived at some decent cover, which may not be perfect, but is good.

What is it? I am afraid you will have to wait until the next week, when I will be launching the book (apologies for the blatant building up of suspense!).

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