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This Duo Explains How They Design Handmade Book Covers That Look Digital

Because Photoshop is where happy accidents go to die

A few years back, as independent book cover designers Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein were discussing their work at Cranbrook Academy of Art, a grad student raised his hand and asked, “You made all of these in Cinema 4D, right?”

Jordan had never opened the program. Rather, the husband-and-wife duo developed their style—a blend of physical objects and digital type—while studying with mentors Nancy Skolos and Thomas Wedell at the Rhode Island School of  Design.

“Anything can become an image,” Jordan says. “If you use the computer for what it’s great at, and use the real world for physical phenomena that are so beautiful, they really enhance and extend each other.”

Jordan and Goldstein love the limitations of the book cover. They thrive in their passion for constraints, and the possibility of their outcomes. Often working with academic and university presses, they have a knack for taking on wildly complex topics and bringing heavy words vibrantly to life, humanizing the books’ subjects in the process.

“Why am I dedicating my life to this, beyond the fact that it’s just really fun to be creative in this format?” Jordan asks. “If we can make a beautiful book cover that somehow inspires somebody to actually read a book, we really are, in our own little way, contributing to the intellectual growth of society. It’s just our little way, but it’s still a way.”

From their home studio in Rochester, New York, Jordan and Goldstein discuss five book covers: three of their striking monochromatic covers and two that play with some new tones, perhaps a preview of what we might see from the duo in the future as they work to bring more color into their practice.


Humankind, by Timothy Morton

It seems fitting that Björk blurbed this book, which draws on a wildly complex, esoteric theme. “The book has to do with how nonhuman beings—like pencils and rocks and all the things in the world that are not human—have an energy that humans relate to,” Jordan says.

How to visualize such a concept? Goldstein and Jordan have thousands of 35mm slides they picked up for free when Jordan was teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art. They ditched the art history images in the slides and began to draw on them with sumi ink, pressing the two sides of a slide together to create random bubbles, which they then scanned at ultra high resolution. “We liked how it was really abstract—it could be the inside of a plant, it could be the inside of a human body, it could be cells, it could be outer space,” Jordan says.

Ultimately, the slides dried overnight, and when they rediscovered them the next morning, they found remarkable new textures within them, which they also scanned, generating the image that wound up as the final cover (the publisher topped it off with a spot gloss). “That was another example of the materials and the world giving us these beautiful accidents,” Jordan says.

Spectatorship: Shifting Theories of Gender, Sexuality and Media, edited by Roxanne Samer and William Whittington

Goldstein and Jordan’s studio is loaded with materials they’ve amassed over the years, anything and everything that might work for a cover. And that includes googly eyes. Spectatorship is a collection of essays from the University of Southern California’s groundbreaking film magazine of the same title. For the design team, the eyes immediately tied into the notion of a spectator consuming media, as well as the sexualized male gaze. They envisioned them as a sea of people in a dark theater, perhaps akin to a school of fish, “where it’s not just one thing or one person or one voice that creates the culture, it’s kind of this uncontrollable swarm of a lot of different things,” Jordan says. The eyes, which are themselves a kind of cultural icon, reflect the pop culture themes that weave in and out of the essays in the book.

To execute the cover, they bought a local craft store out of its eyes, and created what Goldstein dubs a veritable “taxonomy of googly eyes,” sorted by size and combination. “We had to,” Jordan says. “To change the size, you can’t just Control+Z. That’s an example of how the limitation becomes a portal into infinite options. We had so many different combinations of googly eyes that this could have gone in so many different ways.”

The Gist of Reading, by Andrew Elfenbein

For this book, which analyzes the process of reading in the brain, Jordan and Goldstein sought to visualize one of its heady key tenets: that reading, as a whole, is a combination of two distinct elements known as “automatic processes” (seeing symbols as words) and “controlled processes” (the literary side of things—knowing enough about story and narrative to anticipate what might come next in a plot).

They turned to their collection of projectors, which they love for the ability to instantly fuse type with object. As darkness fell in their studio, Goldstein projected the title onto a blank sketchbook as Jordan flipped its pages. They shot around a thousand photos (which they sorted through individually, as they prefer to avoid composite images), selected one, and then digitally overlaid the title onto it. “It’s an incredibly inefficient way to make book covers,” Goldstein says with a laugh.

The result is a cover with two versions of the title, one wild and emerging from the book’s pages, and the other “perfectly centered and controlled, representing those two processes in the brain coming together to create The Gist of Reading,” Jordan says.

Writing Not Writing, by Tom Fisher

This brief was challenging, to say the least. “The author wanted an all-white cover with no type on it—just totally blank,” Jordan says. But he had good reason, as the book details how poets and other writers stop writing, or in some cases never truly begin, because of situations like wars and natural disasters. In other words, an absence of creativity; a blank page.

After mulling different directions, Jordan and Goldstein arrived at a solution: embossing the title and author’s name onto a piece of cream BFK Rives paper, which they then lit harshly from the side to render the title legible. In the end, the author got exactly what he wanted—save for a few lines pressed into it, the cover was simply a blank piece of paper.

The Woman Who Read Too Much, by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

The Woman Who Read Too Much is a work of historical fiction about the iconic Persian poet and theologian Táhirih. Bucking societal expectations and norms, she read, wrote, and, in a defining moment, removed her veil in front of a court of men. Seeking to depict this powerful symbolic act while simultaneously referencing Táhirih’s reading and writing, Jordan and Goldstein first looked to hair—which they integrated into a cover with cut-out letters. Finished, Goldstein went back to the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he teaches full time. As she was wrapping things up in the studio, Jordan lifted a cutout and saw what looked like a page curling over—a perfect image that could represent Táhirih’s story. She snapped a photo with her phone, and when Goldstein returned home, they staged the scene, fired up a projector, shot it, and it became the final cover.

“It speaks a lot to why we like this physical/digital thing, because that would never have happened in the digital space. It was only a physical artifact that would have let that happen,” Jordan says.  

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