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Here Are 3 Tricks For Making the Hardest Parts of Your Job Easy: Constraints, Constraints, Constraints

Illustrating abstract concepts is tough stuff, but you’d never know it from looking at Thomas Colligan’s book covers

As a kid, Thomas Colligan wasn’t exactly a voracious reader—but that didn’t stop him from voraciously consuming books. Growing up in Geneva, Switzerland, his grandfather had a collection of art tomes, and Colligan recalls spending hours poring over them. Meanwhile, he loved drawing and creating his own characters, and people began to take notice and encourage him. Colligan says it was this early praise that set him on the path toward a life in the arts. That, and, he “wasn’t very good at any of the other subject matters, so, you know.”

He crossed the Atlantic to attend Pratt in 2010, and in his first year he discovered that everything he loved—album covers, skateboard decks—had a name: graphic design. He also kicked his reading up a notch. After realizing how so many of the illustrators whose work he admired were also book designers, he pursued an internship with Rodrigo Corral, and later landed design gigs at Simon & Schuster, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where he works today.

In cover design, Colligan discovered a way to balance his artistic talents with the challenge of doing justice to—and elevating—the vital text within a given book. While he’s done editorial illustration for the New York Times and others, for now he doesn’t seem much interested in expanding his output into realms like consumer packaging or ad work. “I already feel like the constraints of book covers, which are really nice, are hard to deal with,” he says. To find balance, he and three friends from Pratt founded the independent publishing initiative TXTbooks, which allows them to go wild with their zines, chapbooks, and other volumes.

But that doesn’t mean Colligan is bored by the work he does at his day job. In fact, the opposite is true; his output is characterized by bold design decisions, a refreshing sense of risk, and an overall aesthetic that bears his authorial mark while doing due diligence to an author’s words and messages.

Here are five such covers.

Alphabetical Africa, by Walter Abish

This experimental novel is… not the easiest book to wrap one’s head around. Abish’s Oulipo-esque 1974 work follows an intense structure tied to the sequential letters of the alphabet. In the first chapter, only words beginning with ‘A’ are used; in the second chapter, only words beginning with ‘A’ and ‘B’ are used; in the third chapter, the author introduces a ‘C’ alongside the ‘A’ and ‘B’; and so on. After ‘Z,’ the order of the book then reverses for 26 more chapters, subtracting a letter each chapter until the reader arrives back at ‘A.’

Which is all to say, it’s not an easy first book for a young designer at Rodrigo Corral’s studio in 2013. Enter the constraints. This book was part of an established series that involved collage and small type—as well as a tight budget. So Colligan explored the existing system and pulled a public domain image before encountering more limitations—his own—as he manipulated the photo into a mask. “I didn’t really know how to use Photoshop that well, or to fake it well enough. A lot of the stuff I was doing then, I was just printing it out and scanning it back in.”

Ultimately, Colligan agrees that the analog design elements made for some solid accents on the series. Still, “It’s funny, but it really was also because I didn’t know how to do it any other way.”

Equipment for Living, by Michael Robbins

By the time Colligan took on Equipment for Living at Simon & Schuster, his Photoshop proficiency had grown to the point that this cover, which seems to bear elements of the illustrator’s hand, was created digitally.

This book explores poetry and pop, and because it’s a bit abstract throughout, Colligan zeroed in on the title for the cover’s focus. Robbins’ prose details structures in artmaking and the art world, so Colligan riffed on that, toying with the notion of repetition and “multiples” in pop culture. He landed on the palette he dubs “pop-y” to drive the theme home even further.

Running, by Cara Hoffman

The “Rejected” folder is where some of the most interesting book covers can be found, and Colligan’s portfolio is no exception. Running is a novel focused on a trio of people in 1980s Athens, and an act of terrorism. Given the setting, Colligan seized on classic Greek forms, and invoked a balaclava to create a simple, intense, stark image. Studying it today, Colligan thinks the cover might have been rejected for being too idea-driven, and the publisher was seeking something that felt more at home with the form of a novel.

But Colligan doesn’t take it personally. In fact, “Looking back on some of [my unused covers], I do think some of them don’t necessarily make sense for the book—even if they do look cool.”

On Populist Reason, by Ernesto Laclau

Roughly five days. That’s how long Colligan had to turn around a cover for On Populist Reason, a heavy nonfiction exploration of how individuals come together to form collective identities. Given the complexity of the book, Colligan’s art director at Verso sought a simple type solution. Colligan delivered, offering a study of fragments forming a mosaic whole that is both visually captivating and wildly emblematic of the concept at the core of the book. After initially experimenting with uniform dot densities, Colligan settled on a system of varying weights, perhaps striking even further at the realities of the diverse ways in which people gather and identities take shape.

The Made-Up Man, by Joseph Scapellato

When Colligan heard the title of this book, he felt it was begging to be illustrated—“which is rare, and also doesn’t always work out,” he says. The absurdist novel documents a man trapped in a performance art piece, unraveling, and notes and outlines written in chalk are a recurring element throughout the book. Utilizing the chalk theme, Colligan illustrated a man coming undone—but the figure felt like it was floating between title and byline. So Colligan dug in and found clever ways to flow from border to character, giving the design an organic cohesion, and eventually he moved away from a black-and-white palette and incorporated the colors of the U.S. flag, as the book touches on the country a fair amount.

The resulting cover is striking on bookshelves, and it serves as a powerful blend of Colligan’s core skills. “That is an instance where the personal illustration helped a lot for the final cover,” he says. “I think that’s one of the closest covers to how I would draw in my sketchbook for myself, or do as me. So that was really, really nice—and it’s nice that it got approved, too.”

All told, this cover is one of Colligan’s most recent, and perhaps a hint that the young designer has found an ideal balance and hit a stride—brilliant news for book design aficionados at large.

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