Category Archives: Things that happened during

Arigato Tokyo / This is War

Playwrights Canada Press is working closely together with the Banff Centre Press to co-publish three plays by three different authors. They were seeking unique designs for each book that relate visually as a matching set. I started with the first two, by Daniel MacIvor and Hannah Moscovitch, which will be released in the fall. The third, by Colleen Murphy, will follow in spring 2014. 

The first direction relied on construction paper cutouts, simple objects, and a limited colour palette of red, green, and brown, to tie the books together. For MacIvor’s cover, I was determined to render a scene from the last act, in Carl’s declaration to Yori, when he describes a marble-sized world that exists only in his head and his struggle to not fall off. For Moscovitch, I chose stools to represent the four Canadian soldiers being questioned by an unseen, unheard interviewer about an traumatizing occurrence in the Panjwaii desert.

The selected direction proposed plain black silhouettes adorned with emblems from each play. It’s a flexible system that should lend itself well if PCP & BCP decide to expand the series in the future.  

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The Ends of the Earth

A poetic guide for the apocalypse. Jacqueline Turner’s work touches on technological disasters, environmental nightmares, and broken relationships.

She sent along some photos, taken with her phone, of an earth as seen through an urban grid. (This particular globe is in the lobby of the Fairmont hotel in Vancouver.) I tried to conceptualize this using a fish eye lens, a topographical map, and some grid paper, but wasn’t happy with the result which felt really flat despite the curvature.

My next turn played up the technology theme with unravelling loops of wire. Still wasn’t thrilled at this point.

Because the collection juxtaposes urban settings with deserted islands, I set out looking for a windswept, double exposed photo for use on the cover. Here is one of the passages from the “Castaway Series” in the collection that influenced the look and feel of the cover:

“dear sailor every night the stars speak of you. the north star seems particularly infatuated with your image and whispers adagio as salty spray hits your worn back. a moment here is eternity light folds into waves and this world is rebuilt second by second, an ephemeral mirage. the tissue of our connection floats on the wind, a lost kite that may some day be returned to its flyer. i have cast out many strands, dear sailor, i have told the stars this story.”


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In Flux

Another book in NeWest’s Writer as Critic Series. In this collection of essays edited by the University of Guelph’s Smaro Kambourelli, Roy Miki investigates the shifting currents of citizenship, globalization, and cultural practices facing Asian Canadians today through the connections of place and identity that have been forged through our developing national literature.

At first, I wasn’t thrilled with the imagery provided by the author: an aerial view of the coastline with the Fraser River taken from a seaplane. But it’s the landscape that would form the conditions of early settlement for Asian Canadians, so, conceptually, it’s a strong match for Miki’s work.

I then turned to idea #3 on my “I’m totally stumped and can’t deal with this dull photo you gave me” list: turn it upside down and crop it so it’s barely recognizable.

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Open Pit

Open Pit is a political thriller dealing with two clashing cultures and the costs of doing business in the era of globalization. A group of Canadian human-rights activists visiting Central America are taken hostage by a former revolutionary fighter demanding the closure of a newly-minted open-pit gold mine.

The client asked for a cover that hints at international intrigue and adventure without looking too much like a Tom Clancy novel. Matt Taylor’s intimidatingly good illustrations for the latest John Le Carré novels were cited. Ideas tossed around included Salvadorian soldier portraits, Castro-esque figures attired in fatigues, AK-47 memorabilia, and a mock twentieth-century advertisement for South American tourism. The retro poster seemed like a good way to portray the action-packed foreign setting without showing scenes of violence or environmental devastation caused by mining. Because the publisher is located in Alberta, an ecological approach could cause the book to be incorrectly lumped in with diatribes against the oilsands.

I mocked-up a sunny Cuban travel brochure trying to attract visitors (or, in this case, readers) oblivious to the unrest of the region. The image started out at Post-it sketch. Most covers are inaugurated on 3 x 5″ sticky notes, which then end up attached to various pieces of office furniture and sometimes socks. (The plane morphed into a more plot-relevant helicopter and the dynamite just didn’t make the cut.)


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The Lays of Marie de France

The author introduced this collection with the following words:

Marie’s subjects are the charms and difficulties of love of various kinds and the way goodness and wickedness are rewarded and punished in a complicated world. But it would be a disservice to her and to the poems to try to extract a philosophical or political “position” from pieces that are, I think, written as entertainments and deliberately mixed in approach and attitude. One might think of these poems as toys for adults, for they are decorous variations on themes from fairy tales and Märchen.

And then he sent along a fantastical picture of a werewolf for use on the cover.

Using futuristic folklore imagery on the cover seemed incongruous with the lyrical translations of twelfth-century french lais inside. I wanted to describe a creature of fable in a style that doesn’t contradict the era quite so loudly. So I roughed out a tail with some ink, leaving the face of the beast to the imagination, and paired it with the most geriatric typeface I could find (though it’s still a few hundred years younger than the High Middle Ages) Bruce Rogers’s calligraphic Centaur.


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Geographies of a Lover

Finally, an occasion to work with erotic prose poetry.

This cover was taken out of my hands somewhat when I was supplied with a photo commissioned by the author. The client felt that the skin textures in Briar Craig’s photography evoked landscape. While in fact this is the cover we went with, I still think it communicates a different message. There is the visceral that conveys sensuality, deep emotion, and animal instincts (i.e., sex) and then there is visceral in terms of things looking like internal body organs. The image speaks to the latter for me.

I wanted to find a means to link wayfinding and sexuality without showing skin. I fought for this concept (below), pinpointing erogenous areas on a hand-drawn body, sketched like a map. But ultimately it was deemed too cold and flat.

The text-dominant back cover combines promotional blurbs with poetry from the interior and the contents page upholds the navigational theme with latitude and longitude references.


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Animal Husbandry Today

I recently traveled to Toronto to network heckle Chip Kidd and frequent the Umbra store. Somewhere between this and this, I convinced ECW Press to give me a shot at a book cover.

Next thing I know, a brief arrives in my inbox and the author, Jamie Sharpe, is listing Julie Morstad as inspiration for imagery. Her aesthetic oozes the same anachronistic yet slightly sinister feel as the book. I quickly realize the bar is set high and start to panic.

The following Saturday night, after a few inadequate mockups involving aprons (“husbandry”) and antlers (“animal”) have materialized, I’m out socializing drinking scotch on a pal’s living room floor and I realize there’s a framed print hanging on her wall that seems to have been crafted specifically for one of the poems in the collection. So I deciphered a few initials in the illegible signature and set out to stalk the recent ACAD grad who made it.

Just short of Facebooking a total stranger and/or going to the mall to surprise him at his part-time retail job, I found Reagan Cole McLean.

Here is the aforementioned stanza, from the poem entitled The Dundreary-Arts:

“What is the parable of the whale?  He floats wall-less,
Without history, secure in his girth like a slumbering god.
Awake: for we have a silver dollar with your name.”

The second runner-up uses artwork from the interior. I was drawn to the graphic nature of the piece and the obscure assortment of imagery: a dead bird, a hammer, a timepiece, a torso, and a screaming mouth. Good mix.

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Controlling Knowledge


We’ve all heard of it, we’ve all be affected by it, yet no one actually knows what it is. So, AU Press and Lorna Stefanick bring you a layperson’s guide.

This was one of those titles that completely confounded me for about three weeks, until I thought of this concept the night before the deadline and woke at 4AM to shoot the image. I don’t recommend photoshop work before breakfast. This project also spawned the realization that the lock on my sublet door is faulty.

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Business As Usual

The “Nick and Nora Charles” of academia.

Two amateur detectives are pulled into a web of deceit and violence involving corrupt politicians and the illegal cross-border dumping of toxic waste. There’s some Mafia talk too.

The author suggested using barrels somehow, and instead of going photographic, I turned to a simple graphic.

I always find it interesting how titles come to be. Here is the passage that explains the phrase and how it applies to the plot: When you see something you don’t want to see, just pretend you didn’t see it. It was part of some kind of law. David called it the Law of Ontological Inertia. Lives in motion along certain paths tend to stay in motion along precisely those paths. Unless some terrific force intervenes. Also known, he said, as business as usual.

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The World in Your Lunch Box

A few firsts:

the first kid’s book I’ve worked on, my first collaboration with Annick Press, and the first time I’ve attempted to use condiments as a design element.

I’m learning some interesting food facts along the way. (You don’t necessarily have to be between the ages of 8 and 12 to enjoy them.) According to an 18th-century travel writer, the illustrious sandwich was named after the fourth Earl of Sandwich, a man with a serious gambling problem.

The talented illustrator is Sa Boothroyd and I’m using a typeface that would make Bringhurst shudder. (Stovetop by Font Diner.) The handwritten font was created based off Sa’s printing.

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Hold Me Now

I’ve managed to hijack another striking piece of art for a small Canadian literary press.

Julia Skopnik‘s photo titled “my body questions you and your answers are in me” will grace the cover of an upcoming Freehand Books release by Stephen Gauer. Hold Me Now portrays a father’s grief after his son is beaten to death in Stanley Park,Vancouver, and the overt role that homophobia played in the incident.

Now I just have to figure out how to put type on it.

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An Accidental Advocate

Kathryn Burke is a health care administrator turned education advocate who wrote a compelling and honest roadmap for parents of children with exceptional needs. (Her son Colin has learning disabilities and ADHD.) See for more information about the book and other testimonies concerning LD. I scanned Collin’s dysgraphic handwriting and used it throughout the design.


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Essays that illuminate the lives of late-eighteenth-century to mid-twentieth-century Aboriginal women.

Cover image: Frances Nickawa during her early performance years. Sweet Heart (1924), Young Family Fonds, 94.094P/1. Courtesy of The United Church Archives, Toronto.

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Gut Instinct

The Doctor.

I recently helped the Allard Foundation self-publish a 412-page biography on the late Dr. Charles Allard. The text was researched and written by Allard’s associate Hans J. Dys, of Filmbratz Productions. This “Edmontonian of the Century” led a remarkable life.

By request of the family, I worked with a portrait painted by Danielle Richard on the cover.

The title was de-bossed and stamped with a bronze foil on the grey hardcover. It was a much appreciated opportunity to break from the usual matte lamination and glue. The book was set in Adrian Frutiger’s Apollo MT and his sanserif face, Frutiger. It was printed with two colours (black and metallic PMS 8582) on 60-lb Cougar Natural Text by McCallum Printing Group. The monotone images and bronze screens turned out well. The dust jacket is the textured 80-lb Gilbert Oxford, in Path, from the Holly Hunt Collection.


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Light From Ancient Campfires

13,000 years worth of projectile points: Light from Ancient Campfires is a comprehensive archaeological record of the Northern Plains First Nations. Beginning with the earliest material traces of a human presence in Alberta, author Trevor Peck embarks on a detailed study of the physical evidence left behind by the area’s original inhabitants.

With 528 pages at 7 by 10.5 and weighing in at 3lbs, this book was dubbed “a weapon” by those who persevered with the production of such a lengthly and complex book.

The jacket was printed with 2 PMS colours on a 65lb parchment-style stock called Wausau Paper Astroparche, Ancient Gold. (Complete with french flaps.)

The arrowheads on the jacket are from the interior b+w plates and are in chronological order, grouped according to prehistoric period.

The text face is LTC Kaatskill, designed by Frederic Goudy and Jim Rimmer. The sanserif face is FF Seria, by Martin Majoor.

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Through Feminist Eyes

A major coup for both feminists and book designers.

The author is a fairly cautious person and was concerned about the risqué nature of this image. We let it sit for a few weeks and then decided that it successfully deviates from the aesthetic of other Feminist works and will definitely garner attention. I can’t take credit for the illustration: it was originally on a poster created by R. Salvadori for the Italian Feminist Reunion of the Socialist League.

About the collection: “Approaching her subject matter from an array of interpretive frameworks that engage questions of gender, class, colonialism, politics, and labour, Sangster explores the lived experience of women in a variety of specific historical settings. In so doing, she sheds new light on issues that have sparked much debate among feminist historians and offers a thoughtful overview of the evolution of women’s history in Canada.”

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I am running out of interesting ways to put paintings on book covers.

I usually try to talk the publisher out of it. The original artwork is produced at a specific scale and isn’t meant to be experienced as a thumbnail. There are usually strict rules set in place by the museum or artist that prohibit cropping, bleeding, or adding type, which severely dampens creative freedom. The proportions rarely fill a 6 x 9 cover, so the designer is forced to set it against a bland flood of colour. The texture of the paint, brushstrokes, and canvas is lost. Modern digital printing technology can’t replicate the colour properly. (Just to name a few reasons…)

My first time tackling an art cover demanded several mock-ups until I found a way to use the prominent art piece in a dynamic but still respectful way.

My next attempt was for Dreamwork, Jonathan Locke Hart’s latest book of poetry. To make things even more challenging, the watercolour on the table was painted by the author’s mother. (No talking anybody out of that one.) Fortunately Hart values graphic design and art equally, so I proposed some alternative ways to display the piece. 

But how many times have you seen a picture frame or a page turn on a book cover?

So I took an abstract approach instead by magnifying an area of the landscape with great light, and printed the jacket on a textured paper that mimicks the surface of canvas and augments the stippled brush work. The full painting was revealed following the last poem in the book.

(American artist Titus Kaphar might be heading in the right direction by obscuring and shredding the paintings…)

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Don’t ask how, but I convinced the amazing Dan Estabrook to let me use one of his pieces on the cover of Myrna Dey’s first novel. Dan is based out of Brooklyn and exhibits in real cities like New York, Chicago and… Atlanta. He uses nineteenth-century photographic techniques to make contemporary art, working with hand-altered calotypes and salt prints. The piece I’ve absconded with is a mounted toned silver print called “Untitled Twins, 1992”.

Extensions tells the story of a woman who is uncovering information about her ancestors, and the impact that these bits of lost history have on her life. She makes the chance discovery of a sepia photograph of her grandmother and twin sister, in the hands of a stranger. So she decides to find out how a picture taken in 1914 in the mining town of Extension, BC ended up at a garage sale in small-town Saskatchewan almost 100 years later.

This artwork resonates perfectly with Myrna’s words, from the scissors right down to the teardrop stains on the green matte board.

I continued the scissor motif from Dan’s image throughout the book on the chapter title pages, losing count after about chapter 30:

I was originally hoping to employ an image by local photographer Eleanor Lazare, from her series My Aunt Molly’s Shoes. She projected old photos of her mother and grandmother on the wall, and then took a photo of herself standing in front of the screen. The construction of the series compliments the concept of the book perfectly by showing three generations of women and — quite literally — a reflection of the past onto the present:

Both artists are using historic photos in a contemporary way. Unfortunately, Eleanor’s images don’t accurately represent the genre. They suggest memoir or non-fiction by fixing the people in photos as characters in the book. The author requested that readers be free to invent their own visions of the characters. (I’m hoping to find a better literary fit for Eleanor’s work because I’m just in love with the series.)

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Bitter Medicine

I decided to post this as a response to the many skeptical looks I’ve received after stating that I design books for a living.


This is what a book looks like pre-design. Basically, a massive pile of paper containing:
– Multiple versions of the manuscript typed up by the author in Microsoft word
– An editorial “road map” designating what might go where
– Lists with spelling, grammar, and stylistic corrections that need to be inserted from 3 or 4 rounds of editing
– Loose drawings torn from sketchbooks
– A reference guide labeling illustrations (in this case, 240 of them)
– Handwritten notes from all involved on $30 worth of post-its


This is what it looks like post-design and printing.

I designed a 6 x 10″ horizontal landscape format with 5″ wide jacket flaps that hold the author portrait drawings and bios. Olivier Martini is on the front flap and Clem Martini on the back.

The interior layout follows a 3-column grid system, running the illustrations on the verso pages and the text on the recto pages. I broke this rule occasionally to strengthen the dialogue between Clem and Olivier, when one brother’s story needed to take the spotlight.

Over the years, the various treatments Olivier experimented with affected his composure and the steadiness of his hands. So his mark-making changes throughout the book, reflecting side effects of medication like Stelazine.

On the back of the jacket:
“In 1976, Ben Martini was diagnosed with schizophrenia. A decade later, his brother Olivier was told he had the same disease. For the past thirty years the Martini family has struggled to comprehend and cope with a devastating illness, frustrated by a health care system lacking in resources and empathy, the imperfect science of medication, and the strain of mental illness on familial relationships.

Throughout it all, Olivier, an accomplished visual artist, drew. His sketches, comic strips, and portraits document his experience with, and capture the essence of, this all too frequently misunderstood disease. In Bitter Medicine, Olivier’s poignant graphic narrative runs alongside and communicates with a written account of the past three decades by his younger brother, award-winning author and playwright Clem Martini. The result is a layered family memoir that faces head-on the stigma attached to mental illness.

Shot through with wry humour and unapologetic in its politics, Bitter Medicine is the story of the Martini family, a polemical and poetic portrait of illness, and a vital and timely call for action.”



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Alberta’s Daycare Controversy

Controversial kids: apparently, between 1908 and 2009, daycare has been a point of contention in this province.

This is my preliminary solution for the cover of Langford’s exposé. The grainy illustration was pilfered from a child care manual circa 1986. I’m pushing for the upside down orientation, but it will take some cajoling.

The formidable Marvin Harder will be designing the interior.

(I told myself I wouldn’t indulge in white book covers anymore. They blend into the background on-screen. When the books are shipped from the plant, the plain white stock is always a disappointment. In this case, the stark contrast of the source drawing is responsible for my relapse. The black on white gives it that “low resolution output device on low grade paper” feel that suites the bureaucratic topic.)

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Drift Child

Cover proposal for an upcoming NeWest Press release that develops around a boating incident. The lifejacket alludes to water without actually showing it. (I feel like ominous coastline imagery is a little stale for aquatic-fiction.) The vest will either come to someone’s rescue or share in their demise: Dramatic + poetic at the same time.

There is friction surrounding whether this cover suites the story and author’s tone of voice. This cover design is a grand departure from Rosella’s first novel along the same theme. No question that it would jump off the shelf, but is it a misleading sell?

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From Bricks to Brains

Absolutely thrilled to be playing with LEGO in the name of literature.

(1) My challenge was finding ways to reveal LEGO as a psychological tool, not a toy. The first concept shows an inventory of pieces, leaving the final fabrication up to the imagination of the viewer.

(2) This next idea resulted from two things:
First – The LEGO robot I was attempting to build fell apart suddenly.
Second – When I’m lacking inspiration, I usually attempt to put type on something that isn’t suppose to have type on it. (also known as vandalism to some) I wrote on the blocks by hand, but it looked too unmethodical, so I covered it with a bold sans serif. (Thank you, Erik)

(3) A change in direction: Juxtapose the personal with the mechanical, I rendered the familiar building blocks as a pattern instead of a tool. However, the drawing style is a little too juvenile for graduate level psychology.

(4) Okay, I’ll put a robot on it. The final cover employs a rendering of a LEGO robot discussed in the text, cropped to abstract the form slightly.

Sometimes it’s nice to rescue a rejected cover idea by using it for the back of the jacket or interior design somehow. I placed an inventory of LEGO pieces isometric-projection-style on the back instead, creating a nice before and after relationship with the already-constructed robot on the front. We printed a spot gloss over the red lines and text.


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Windfall Apples

“little windfall apples / green cherry bombs / each with unlit fuse”

(From one of Richard Stevenson’s poems.)

I think the imagery that these lines evoke is really interesting. However the publisher felt my apple-bomb was a little enigmatic and could be mistaken for a Christmas ornament.

I possess a natural aptitude for taking out of focus photographs, which actually worked in my favor here. The lack of focus obscures the object, but the imagery is still too direct.

My first two photographic attempts were abandoned for an illustrative approach that suits Stevenson’s work better. The square format (5 x 5″) provides symmetry and generous white space around each of the five-line poems.

On the back: “The venerable tanka and her upstart cousin kyoka mingle with Kerouac’s American pop haiku in five-liner imagist poems and linked sequences. In Windfall Apples,Richard Stevenson mixes East and West with backyard barbecue and rueful reflection.”

It was a two colour job using orange and brown ink on yellow paper (mohawk via) with a linen finish. The interior includes a few colour pages. I lifted the orange/yellow hues from the original photos and then placed the colour back on top of greyscale versions, resulting in sort-of-duotones.

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How Canadians Communicate

I combined found letterforms from various media to make the jacket for the 3rd volume in the “How Canadians Communicate” series. The collection of essays focuses on Canadian pop culture and censorship and how these things ignite expression.

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just off the press: a book containing three plays by Gordon Pengilly on the theme of human tragedy, paranoia, and violence. I created a web-like illustration that embodies the concept of metastasis as it spreads across the jacket and appears several times throughout the interior.

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