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The Key to Scoring the “Best Job Ever?” Turn Your Obsession Into Your Profession

Do you remember the exact moment you discovered graphic design? Darren Wall does. 

A self-described obsessive media consumer, as a kid Wall pored over music, books, and video games—and then one day he encountered the futuristic racing game Wipeout on the first generation PlayStation. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. The game and its ecosystem were brilliantly put together, from the branding to the UI to the opening sequence, techno soundtrack, and innovative marketing campaign by Designers Republic. “It blew me away,” Wall recalls. “And then I kind of wanted to piece back together what just happened.” In doing so, he discovered design—and its role in world-building.

While stories abound about parents dissuading their kids from art or design school, Wall’s were none of the sort. They ran pubs and restaurants, and moved around the U.K. with their son every few years. They had one wish—that he not follow in their footsteps of endless work and elusive sleep, and that he instead do what makes him happy. So he studied design at Bath Spa University, where he won an exhibition branding competition in his third year. But instead of the usual note of congratulations, his work drew the attention of Simon & Schuster, who wanted to use Wall’s image on a book cover (Flight by Victoria Glendinning). They then offered him the chance to spend a week at the company, and Wall headed off to London, eventually securing a full-time job with the publisher that perfectly suited him.

“When you’re a book cover designer, more often than not you are given full creative control of that project because it’s just a book cover. You’re not working on rebranding a takeaway company or the next Uber; you’re not working with a team. And as this kind of obsessive only child, it was great. I could just put on my headphones and for two days bash out lots of different designs around a book. And I was like, ‘This is the best job in the world.’”

Undoing Property?, edited by Marysia Lewandowska and Laurel Ptak

When Wall began working on this book for an academic press in Istanbul, he was poring over 1980s Japanese design. “It’s funny looking back at these covers; I know what I was really into at the time,” he says. The book examines how property is at the heart of everything in the modern age. It’s a cerebral read, so Wall wanted to really strip it down to its most elemental. He had been obsessing over Takenobu Igarashi’s 3D typefaces, which make use of simple line work, and his publisher gave him the green light to pare things back and experiment with legibility. Without fluency in the Turkish language, Wall focused on the beauty of the letters, creating a stark and truly striking composition. 


Sensible Software 1986–1999, by Gary Penn, designed and edited by Darren Wall

Having spent time at Simon & Schuster and Faber & Faber, Wall loved the work he was producing, from book covers to album projects for the band Hot Chip. Still he was feeling a bit restless—he wanted to design the entirety of a piece. So he launched Sensible Software as a Kickstarter project to document the eponymous, beloved British game producer. It brought in $40,000 more than its $30,000 goal, and Wall’s cover was a catharsis. After years of balancing market concerns, legibility and other practicalities, Wall was completely free to make a cover without regard to any of it, given that readers were already signed on. His cover took the form of a mosaic of characters from the company’s most famous games. And likely to the horror of many a marketing department, it had no type. 

But that’s the key to it the cover, Wall says—if you know it, you know it. “We were convinced that everyone was doing video game books, and we had to find our own niche. So this was just us saying we’re going to go as niche as possible, and we’re not going to try and broaden out at all. We’re just going to speak only to the fan base.” The success of the project organically led to Wall’s video game publishing line, Read-Only Memory, which he continues to run today from his base in Barcelona, at the intersection of video games, publishing and literature—or, in a word, obsession.

The Children of Men, by P.D. James

“Every so often when you’re a book designer [and you get an assignment], you’ll be speculatively wondering if it’s going to be a big book or not, and you hope for the best. And then sometimes you’re given Children of Men.”

Wall was blown away by the novel, which details a post-apocalyptic world in which the human race has become infertile. He had an idea, which he fleshed out in a brief to himself: He would design the jacket as if it were the cover to a report for government ministers about the population crisis in the book. He was also interested in exploring modular design, and the shifting notes of futurism devolving from optimistic to dystopic. Lurking beneath the book’s brilliant title treatment, echoes of its typography can be found in the disintegrating chromosome patterns. 

To Wall, investing so deeply in a concept is inherent to his obsession. “I get kind of upset about anything that’s inconsistent or just feels kind of slapped on,” he says. “I think I’ve been guilty of being stupidly obsessive in the past about details like this. But I think it just comes from the fact that when you love a book, you’ll always be attached to the cover that you first read it wrapped in, if that makes sense. And I think when that coalesces with a great design, that can be so powerful.”

Infidelities, by Kirsty Gunn

The stories in Gunn’s collection tend to make use of experimental structures and themes of rebellion in relationships and domesticity. Wall saw the book cover as a sort of stage, and began exploring floor plans until he came across one for an affluent middle class townhouse. He liked the notion that it could be equally emblematic of a couple moving in, full of wonder and possibility—or a scene filled with moving boxes emblematic of a breakup. “The shell of the house sort of represents potential and tragedy,” he says. “So it was almost like a kind of a film set.” Like characters, he then began populating type from the title into rooms.

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by Ken Robinson

In his early days as a book cover designer, Wall found himself tasked with a medley of self-help books (he reflects on how Dr. Phil’s head is always cut out from its background on covers, given his lack of hair). Wall says he didn’t know what he was in for when he started, but he discovered that self-help books can actually be a wildly creative design challenge. 

Around the time that he took on The Element, Wall had been doing a fair amount of branding projects and logo work, which inevitably found its way to this cover. He began sketching out figures reminiscent of vintage Germanic designs (à la the Munich Olympics), and then started trying to boil them down. As he worked, he realized he was creating a logo as much as a book cover. In Wall’s mark, the butterfly and heart strike at the core of the book’s thesis—as Wall has described, “that our true calling is the point at which our natural talents and personal passions overlap.” 

As for his own personal passions, he notes, “The one geeky thing I like about this cover—and no one else will notice this—but the thickness of the line work on the head is the same thickness as the typography.”

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