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A Chance Meeting with a Famous Book Designer Can Turn You Into One

“I’m interested in designing beautiful objects. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a book cover or not.”

Pablo Delcan has a memory from his early teenage years: He was visiting his father, who was working in New York City as a filmmaker in the advertising industry, and he asked him what design was. Juan Delcan looked around and began pointing at things (signs, trains, labels on cans), unveiling the brilliant Randian truth that everything is designed.

“For a long time, the definition of design wasn’t something I could put into words,” says Delcan. “It was a more broad understanding of this ubiquitous thing that’s everywhere, and if you stop and look around you, you can find all these beautiful things or details that someone’s put thought into—or no thought into.”

Meanwhile, back home in his native Spain, Delcan grew up in an armory that his mother, a fine artist, had transformed into a studio, complete with a ceramics lab for his grandmother. “I grew up with this normalcy of just having art around me all the time,” he says. “I just felt like it was what people did.”

From the age of 13 on, Delcan played in local rock bands, and, naturally, took to creating the gig posters, merch, and album covers. He attended the Escola d’Art de Menorca (Menorca is an island off the Spanish coast, closest to Barcelona) and eventually made his way to the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where his dad was teaching. While showing his portfolio around the city, he encountered designer Peter Mendelsund, who he admired—and spoke to him about a job at Pantheon. When Mendelsund asked Delcan why he wanted to design books, Delcan candidly replied that books weren’t necessarily his end-all, be-all. “I’m interested in designing beautiful objects,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter whether it’ a book cover or not.”

Though he wasn’t specifically looking for a job in publishing, he jumped at the Pantheon gig so he could work around Mendelsund and observe and absorb his process. For the next year and a half, he hammered away at scores of covers, before the rectangle began to feel like a bit of a cage, and he craved versatility. In 2014 he left to open his eponymous studio, Delcan & Company, where he works alongside two other designers on everything from animated videos, to posters and covers for magazines—and of course, for books.

Here are five covers from over the years that highlight the broad stylings of a designer with the ideal balance of fine and commercial art coursing through his blood.

“I’m interested in designing beautiful objects. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a book cover or not.”

Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne

This piece, created in Delcan’s senior year at SVA, was one of his first completed covers, and part of a Jules Verne box set he designed under the mentorship of Carin Goldberg. For the project, Delcan studied the craft of science fiction at large, and sought to visually define it while invoking Verne’s subject matter in simple terms. After focusing on rock themes for Journey to the Center of the Earth and oceanic imagery for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Delcan utilized trees, birds, and other motifs for Around the World in Eighty Days.

He seized on naturalist illustrations from Verne’s era, and then, seeking to subvert science and enter the fictive realm, he began liquifying them in Photoshop and separating the CMYK colors that compose them. He added crop marks and a color guide to further riff back on the notion of science—in this case, the science of printing.

Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne, designed by Pablo Delcan

Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, by Hisham D. Aidi

Some people first got to know Delcan via a popular video of his lettering experiments in 2012. (Every day Delcan used to look at the front pages of New York newspapers, and create a hand-lettered work on his chalkboard using two to three colors.) You can clearly see the practice pay of with this cover.

Rebel Music explores Muslim culture and its relationship to Western hip hop and other musical styles, so Delcan played with expressive lettering infusing elements of Arabic script into English. To riff on the urban angle, Delcan integrated stencil lettering into the design, and also utilized a subtle red, white, and blue palette to create a mashup that perfectly captures the heart of the book’s thesis.

The Vorrh, by Brian Catling

Sometimes the solution to a cover is found deep within a book—and that was the case with Catling’s complex tome of fantasy and myth. Eadweard Muybridge, the real-world photographic pioneer known for his panel images of horses galloping, is a character in the novel. During his research Delcan came across a Muybridge print on the stages of the moon that held a despondent beauty, and he instantly knew it would be at the core of the cover. After blowing the image up and adding texture to give it a woodblock print feel, a black foil completed the design.

“It feels like a beautiful object, and you see it on a shelf and it has a presence that I really respond to,” Delcan says. “It’s one of those things that you’re always aspiring to, and only so many times in which you’re able to feel that way about something.”

When viewed in the context of the five covers here, it also serves as a stark and powerful testament to Delcan’s range.

American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt, by John Beckman

Delcan works digitally, which allows him to experiment and iterate quickly, an essential part of his craft.

“I just try to create as many variants as I can, to the point that it becomes this process of insanity where you start in a very concrete place, and as soon as you start drifting away you know that you’re up to something. And when you start seeing that you’re going to unexpected, weird, wild territory, you kind of just hold your feet down and keep moving in that direction.

“For me, that’s the best part of design or the design process—being free enough to lose your mind through it and know that if you need to go toward safe territory, you can.”

All told, Delcan estimates that he created around 400 different covers for American Fun, which documents U.S. history via its anarchical moments. After considering everything from punk and pop styles to George Washington on a mechanical bull, he settled on the spray paint motif, which was complemented by a spot gloss.

“For me the best part of the design process is being free enough to lose your mind and know that if you need to go toward safe territory, you can.”

Autoridad, by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer’s beloved Southern Reach trilogy is one of the few commissions Delcan has received from his native Spain, and that makes this set all the more important to him. It harkens back to his roots in more ways than one: The publisher had seen his Jules Verne project, and asked if he could create something in a similarly inspired style for VanderMeer’s science fiction series.

In the enigmatic series, rabbits play a role (a role that can’t be fully described without spelunking into spoilers). After settling on the central image concept and finding some appropriate naturalist illustrations, Delcan got to work distorting and evolving.

“I was really trying to take what I had done, and give it a spin [to find] something new within that idea,” he says.

And of the five covers shown here, which is his favorite? As it happens, the original Jules Verne set that inspired this one. “I have it here at my desk in front of my computer, and it reminds me of not knowing how to solve a problem, and solving it, and also just the idea of keeping the mentality of a student alive,” he says. In other words, the experimentation and continual exploration that has defined his practice.

And though this is somewhat ironic for a discussion of the VanderMeer cover, it certainly serves as a keyhole into his overall visual philosophy: “Style for me always feels like a trap.”

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