The Worst Years of Your Life early cover comp.

As designers, we’re not often given carte blanche to express ourselves and make a personal statement while working for a client. Yet today’s example from the AIGA Design Archives proves that sometimes dreams do come true.

In 2007 Simon & Schuster art director Michael Accordino assigned then in-house designer Catherine Casalino the cover of a collection of coming-of-age short stories called The Worst Years of Your Life. For me, social awkwardness comes to mind when I think back to that period, but for Casalino it conjured disturbing memories from science class:

“For me, the two worst things about those middle school and high school years were science class and science tests, so I set up the cover as if it were some terrible test involving dissection (with a fill-in-the-blank/label-the diagram). I drew the frog myself. I think the last time I drew anything was in middle school, so my amateurish drawing was pretty much exactly what I would’ve done had I been asked to sketch a frog back then. One of the stories in the collection takes place during a frog dissection, so that was the jumping off point. Most of my concepts come straight out of the text. My goal was to encompass all of the stories in a single graphic and handle the long list of contributors in an elegant way.”

Casalino tried a few versions with other images besides the frog (including scanned pages from her mother’s middle school yearbook), but eventually the frog won out. The author, agent, publisher, et al were on board with the design, so unlike many book covers, there weren’t any significant revisions. When Simon & Schuster art director John Fulbrook saw the near final design, he took out a pencil and added an arrow pointing to the frog’s crotch, which remained on the final cover.

The Worst Years of Your Life cover.
The Worst Years of Your Life cover.

For the typeface, Casalino explored using a computer “typewriter” font, but was unhappy with the results. In a case of serendipity, a friend had recently sent her a letter typed on an Underwood Standard typewriter from the 1940s. The heft of letters were exactly what she had been searching for. In addition, the entire back ad and spine are done in graphite pencil on notebook paper. Her final touch was to replicate ditto machine purple. The only thing not done by hand on the entire cover is the ISBN number.

According to Casalino, “I was fortunate to be able to extend the concept to include the whole cover and not just the front. Also, because I created all the art myself, we didn’t spend any money, which is always a plus.”

Early version of the cover.
An early version of the cover.