Judge a book by its cover

They’re simple: facts that we are meant to read, take in, think about. Books published in 2006: 180,000. Books that have really nice covers (according to the American Institute of Graphic Arts): 50. Books covered in human flesh in the Harvard Library: two. Jumping off that fact, he begins, “So, I design book covers.”

Brought to campus this past Thursday as part of the Design Lecture Series, Gall is the vice president and art director for Vintage/Anchor Books, an imprint (a brand name under a publishing company) of Alfred A. Knopf. Alfred A. Knopf is a publishing group within Random House Inc., a company owned by Bertelsmann Corporation. Gall’s imprint publishes approximately 200 books per year.

He moves through slide after slide quickly, providing a constant flow of imagery from classics to modern masters. He is able to describe the work he does as allowing him to create covers with unicorns, with Mountain Man Dance Moves (part of the McSweeney’s series), and even covers that practically design themselves, like the classic picture of suburbia on the cover of Allan Gurganus’s White People.

But throughout, he fills in the details of what makes him successful: Have a clear concept — say what it is, and possibly contribute to the editorial content — and aim to attract attention. He tells us that he reads nearly every book he designs, and we trust him. The audience loves listening to him; he is quiet and somewhat quirky. You can tell that he would be much more comfortable with a stack of books in his office than here in front of this room.

But regardless of his reservations, he walks the audience through several of the possible designs for *The Verificationist *(Donald Antrim), including large graphic pancakes, a crying baby, two men who ... may or may not be wrestling, and a compromise between the aforementioned giant pancakes and the Bruegel painting that graced the original hardcover. He then showed the final design for the paperback: a pictogram man with a floating, dismembered head. According to Gall, if you read the book, these will each make sense.

Another story he tells begins with the idea of reprinting each of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels for the 50th anniversary of Lolita. Three years after the original proposal — and after Gall had designed the entire set, each disguised as a specimen box (alluding to Nabokov’s collections of butterflies), the entire idea was thrown out; the publisher would only be reprinting Lolita.

Following this setback, he then “retrenched” and came up with a Lolita cover that he calls one of his favorite designs of all time: all the text classically boxed in the lower third of the cover, and the rest taken up by perfect, porcelain lips, rotated 90° counterclockwise. But he says, “After a day or so everyone started to get a little queasy looking at it, myself included.”

So they took out the twist, and put the face on straight — a cover that was later described by the New York Post as Lolita’s “raciest cover yet.”

We can see that the reworking process is constant. Gall says he is convinced that secret meetings are held among higher-ups, which further add to the complications of accepting a cover’s design, on top of the already laborious approval process. Gall sends his designs to the editor, to the editor-in-chief, to the associate publisher, to the publisher, to the author and the author’s agent and the author’s spouse, and really anyone else who might have something to say about the proposed cover — each viewer gets to voice an opinion.

Gall keeps a mental archive of all the feedback he has been given and the reasons that covers fail, from: “Can that platypus look more human?” to “The author’s psychic likes the image but thinks it should be more blue.” Sometimes, however, authors actually do love the designs; a quote from one of his clients: “I love it, it made me pee!”

Gall has two methods for designing covers. The first exemplifies what we think of as art; it is purely conceptual, a mode that allows him to stare out the window all day and have people assume he is thinking really deep thoughts. The other, for when the windows of his office fail to inspire him, is to sift through the treasures of things he’s collected over the years.

A perfect example of the latter is Gall’s cover for Thomas Lewis’s A General Theory of Love, designed around a photograph of chairs, one leaning against the other in just that loving nudge that allows two stark wooden chairs to give you the same warm fuzzies as pictures of puppies. According to Gall, he has a file of these photographs that are just waiting for the right book to be written. Of the 5000 he claims to have, this is the first that has paid off.

But even with rejections behind him, Gall says all is great because he is “a very well-known designer in Korea.” He jokes, “[I’m] so popular now that people will call me and ask me to do work for free!”

Speaking of his own work, Gall recently published his book, Sayonara Home Run!: The Art of the Japanese Baseball Card, which he wrote with Gary Engel. Gall also designed the cover, offering a collection of his collages, all re-appropriated from covers of other books, while also touching on a few other projects he has worked on: a banner for AIGA’s Urban Forest campaign as well as a collection of skateboards, which he describes as “skateboards that kids will never buy” (they are a variation of his collage work, and look a little too much like book covers).