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Here’s an Idea—Only Take on Freelance Work You’d Want to Do at 1 a.m.

New York Times art director Matt Dorfman on books covers as a creative outlet

If you talk to Matt Dorfman, there’s a solid chance music might come up—from his solo design practice, Metalmother, named after a Guided by Voices song, to his love of Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, to what might be the roots of his talent in the realm of visual culture: the LP covers laying around his house that he pored over as a kid. There was The Concert for Bangladesh and its elaborate packaging. A Rascals album, the cover of which “looks like a museum exploded.” Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, with its illustrated brilliance.

There was also a book that made an impact: I Seem to Be a Verb, by R. Buckminster Fuller, Quention Fiore, and Jerome Angel, which a young Dorfman stole from his father. The innovative cult classic plays with design and structure in ways that few books had before it. Dorfman was drawn to its beauty—and coming from a traditional reading background consisting of what he was assigned in school, “This was really, really oxygenating because at the time that I saw it, I wasn’t aware that books could really do that,” he says.

He loved that he didn’t understand it all the way. “It was the kind of thing that I wanted to sit and make sense of. That’s one of those books that I can go back to and freely admit that I still don’t feel like I’ve mastered it,” he explains. “It’s kind of what keeps me personally interested in doing a lot of this stuff. I guess, ironically … that is precisely the kind of thing that gets me into trouble as a designer.”

Long the kid who loved drawing, Dorfman went to Syracuse University and majored in illustration. After working a data entry gig at TV Guide, he landed a production job at Universal/Motown records in New York City and planned to eventually transition to the creative team. Yet over the years, he found himself as the person who came in after all the creative work had been done, tasked with, say, adapting a CD cover design… to a cassette package. (And he did it all in the least creatively romantic of places: “I would go to work in a skyscraper, but I would go into the basement.)”

As a poultice, Metalmother was born by night, and Dorfman freelanced for an array of brilliant clients. In 2011, he landed a job as art director of The New York Times Op-Ed page. (“It was wild,” he says. “You hear Thin Lizzy blaring in your head when you realize, ‘I can finally quit this job and go someplace else.’”)

Today he’s art director of The New York Times Book Review, and Metalmother plays on. (“When somebody offers me something to work on,” he says, “The question that I always ask myself is, ‘Do I think I can remain marginally interested in this at 1 a.m.”)

As for his significant work for publishers, to Dorfman, the book cover has in many ways occupied the pictorial play space that LPs once did. His designs harmonize with the melody of a book’s prose, riffing, complementing, adapting—and on the whole, merit a deeper look, which is a rare, if not critical thing in today’s cultural landscape.

Mind Fixers: Psychiatry's Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness, by Anne Harrington

Given that Harrington’s complex book is centered on psychiatry, Dorfman was concerned about tropes—he didn’t want to feature brains and other cliche imagery. Luckily, his art director at W.W. Norton was on the same wavelength. “She gave me a mercy killing of that up front. She was like, ‘no pills’—that might’ve been one of the things that got me excited about doing the cover. I will totally not give you any.”

Dorfman built a grid in illustrator and went to work warping the corner, bringing life to the book’s theme. He then took a closer look at the composition as he sought to establish hierarchy between the title, subtitle, and byline. “When I was figuring that out, I realized it seems a little disingenuous to have these rules be straight. We’re talking about a broken process and broken people.” The publisher kept the jagged dividing lines, and Dorfman was thrilled.

Against Creativity, by Oli Mould

Mould’s nonfiction exploration frames how creativity has been appropriated in business, politics, and so many other realms, and seeks to redefine creativity for the collective good beyond the confines of capitalism. In other words: This was not an easy book cover to design—philosophically, given design’s commercial role in society, and practically, given the task of creating a cover with invention, but not too much.

Dorfman found a quick solution in a prism—a visual device used as a stand-in for so many things to the point that it has lost all meaning. He then bent it to visualize stress being put on it, and made it fight the type. But then he got hung up on another concept. 

“I was obsessed with this idea of putting a headless unicorn on the cover because the unicorn has become such a proforma expression in Silicon Valley speak. Every company is competing to make some kind of totally special, unduplicatable thing. I thought, ‘Oh, OK, great, great, great, we’ll just take the unicorn and cut his head off.’ Which is actually really, really hard to do if the title for your book is Against Creativity because you have to walk a very, very fine line. You have to do it in a way that will look like you’re not having too much fun. It has to be a little bloodless.” The culturally ubiquitous beast ultimately lost out to the prism, but it can still be found marauding around venture capital conversations to this day.

Hollow, by Owen Egerton

Hollow follows a grief-stricken father whose life has fallen apart—and who latches onto a theory that the Earth is hollow and begins a pilgrimage to the alternate world that is said to exist there. Dorfman sat down and began cutting up his own veritable journey to the center of the Earth from paper, and quickly finished the cover. He then spent a great deal of time working on other comps that were much sparser in nature, bundled everything up, and tossed his first one in as well. Naturally, the publisher loved it the most. Dorfman finessed everything digitally, and emerged with a cover that echoed the complex heart of the book—a tale of real-life tragedy blended with a surreal fantastical element. Which also happens to be the type of stuff that Dorfman loves to read recreationally. “That was something that was very easy to care about at 1 a.m.,” he says.

Stay and Fight, by Madeline ffitch

Ffitch’s novel is set in Appalachian Ohio and documents a trio of spirited DIY homesteaders—and because of that fact, Dorfman felt out of his depth and questioned if he was the wrong person to be designing the jacket. Stuck, he realized that all of his comps looked a bit too much like his own personal work, and he needed to get away from it for a moment. So he turned to other art—and there, he found a kindred spirit to the book’s attitude in Corita Kent

“It’s tough to ever go wrong when you’re just spending a few hours looking through Corita Kent posters,” he says. “I remember thinking to myself, She’s got the right attitude for this. If Corita Kent were still around and I was art directing this, I totally would’ve given this to Corita. The question then became, ‘How do I get this loud in her spirit without becoming a total referendum on Corita Kent?

Ultimately, a second read of the manuscript showed Dorfman that it wasn’t as foreign to him as he initially believed. “It’s about remaining essentially true to whatever you think defines your own personal measure of happiness.”

Knockout, by John Jodzio

This cover was a sheer accident. In the title story of Jodzio’s short fiction collection, two drug addicts attempt to steal a tiger—so Dorfman got to work sketching tigers, of which he estimates he produced 20–30. After he scanned them in, he was rotating between a dozen or so, trying to figure out which looked best. While distracted, he snagged the layer of one tiger and brought it over to the master file he was working on, merging the two. “The trick is not to pay attention, apparently,” he says. The result is a cover that brilliantly embodies the raw nature of the story and Jodzio’s prose at large—and continues on the back of the jacket, which Dorfman “masochistically” entirely hand lettered on his own accord, without knowing if it would even wind up in print. 

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