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When the Struggle is Part of the Process

Book cover designer Helen Yentus calls confidence her enemy and procrastination her best friend

Considering the versatility and precision in Helen Yentus’ book covers, one might see a master in absolute control. Yentus, art director at Riverhead Books, chuckles at the thought.

“I’m only laughing because my process is a disaster,” she says. “There is no science, just total chaos.”

Every time she begins a new cover, she feels doubt—can she pull it off? Away from her regular duties as an AD, can she still design? She has a thousand jackets behind her to prove that, yes, she certainly can, but when she starts a new project, she’s still skeptical.

She starts, naturally, by reading the book, and emerges not with a definitive concept, but rather, with a feeling.

Then she procrastinates gets lost in research before sitting down to hammer out an idea banging around in her head—and it doesn’t work. But it shifts. And it’s that unexpected twist or turn in direction that ends up being the solution, as she moves things around, discards them, picks them back up, starts, and restarts.

Yentus seems to thrive on this uncertainty. And her output is a testament to the power of her methodology, or lack thereof.

“I have never reached a point where there is a way to get to the end without going through the struggle first,” she says. “The struggle is the design process.”

Design runs deep in Yentus. The daughter of an exhibition designer, she arrived in Brooklyn with her family via the Soviet Union, and was raised on a diet of books about the Constructivists (which Yentus jokingly acknowledges may seem clichéd, given her background) and the Bauhaus. Growing up, she pored over type specimen books, tracing letters until the books were ruined.

“I think having been influenced so much by graphic design, I don’t know that I had a chance of being anything else, to be honest.”

Here, Yentus discusses four cover projects born of her unique brand of chaos as well as one that she art directed, revealing a different insight into some of her well known book cover work.

The Albert Camus Collection
By the time Yentus began working at Vintage , she had already built a bit of a reputation. Still, with the likes of John Gall, Carol Devine Carson, Chip Kidd, and Peter Mendelsund as office mates, Yentus recalls making covert runs to proof her work, “because god forbid one of those people were at the printer when I printed out my failed attempts at a jacket.” Up until that point, her work was sculptural in nature, such as her famous pasta and petal work on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. In reaction, she decided to make a 180 for a redesign of Albert Camus’ catalog.

But the direction didn’t come easily. At first she was simply daunted by the thought of taking on the high-minded Frenchman. She needed parameters to focus the project and tie the covers together, and she found those in geometric shapes and a monochromatic palette. A slew of late nights followed as she fought to get things right. She believed photographic elements could be key to the project retaining a modern air—until her art director suggested she try stripping them away. She did, and was left to refine the stark brilliance that would define the covers, from the spore-like dots of The Plague, to the ratcheting repetition of The Myth of Sisyphus, to the all-encompassing sun of The Stranger on which Meursault blames the murder that defines the book.

“You are tasked with packaging art, and so how do you rise to that occasion?” Yentus asks. “That’s where the pressure comes from: you have to make art to package art, and how do you make something that’s worthy? That part is exciting. It’s still exciting.”

 

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Samedi the Deafness, by Jesse Ball

The challenge in creating a cover for Samedi the Deafness was that author Jesse Ball plays with form in unique, Constructivist ways—and, he’s one of Yentus’ favorite writers.

“He’s a very different, very special, strange person who writes beautiful, unusual books. I think that’s what those covers really needed to communicate. I wanted to solve that in a clean, smart way.”

The book’s narrative involves an institution dubbed the verisylum, a labyrinthian asylum for chronic liars where the floor plan changes and shifts, trapping the protagonist as he attempts to navigate it. Yentus arrived at visuals of classic architectural blueprints—mixed with jarring elements such as the incongruous stairs on the cover. Futura tied everything together into a graceful package—one that took on an extra layer of meaning when a spot gloss was applied with an entirely different set of floor plans overlaid on the original.

“It’s a balance of coming to the table with a couple of things in mind and then just letting something happen,” says Yentus. “It’s the letting go that usually allows for something interesting.”

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The Way Through Doors, by Jesse Ball

Yentus describes Samedi the Deafness as a strange book, but she concedes that The Way Through Doors goes even further down the rabbit hole, delivering to the reader a story within a story within a story within a story. Mirroring Ball’s simple and elegant prose while making a complex concept visible, Yentus got to work slicing windows into cream paper stocks.

Yentus jokes that a friend once summed up her process by saying, “It looks like you’re doing everything you can to avoid using Photoshop.” She concurs. “I’m sure you can make this effect very easily in Photoshop—but it loses something to me,” she says, adding that chance and accident prove advantageous when designing with physical elements. “You can’t control everything about photography. Something might come through that you weren’t expecting, even if it’s a little bit of see-through, or a little bit of fuzziness somewhere. You don’t have that crisp, clean edge. I’m looking at The Way Through Doors now and one of the outer edges, the paper comes up and down so the shadow gets thicker and thinner.”

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On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee

Chang-Rae Lee’s books tend to analyze notions of identity, and On Such a Full Sea, which is set in a dystopian future, focuses on a central character with a distinct bob haircut. Its shape becomes a sign of graffitied resistance in the book, and thus became a natural image for the cover.

While working on the title, Yentus and her husband, fellow jacket designer Jason Booher, had taken a sign-painting workshop that ultimately gave life to the cover.

A limited-edition version also followed, enclosed in a 3D-printed slipcase in partnership with MakerBot. Owing to her days studying Suprematism, Yentus dreamt of massive jutting angles to push the design to the max. The problem was, she didn’t know how to render imagery in 3D. So she turned to her father, and asked him to build her concept with the AutoCAD drafting software often used by architects and engineers.

The iteration phase proved to be immensely time-consuming. It would take up to 15 hours to print each concept; MakerBot would send it to Yentus; she would note changes and then wait for the next proof. With time running out, the team eventually realized that the printer bed could not produce the full slip case in a single piece. And then Yentus had a light-bulb moment: they could create the slip case as a three-quarter jacket that showcased a portion of the novel within, accommodating the limitations of the printer while arriving at an innovative solution that bridged the two objects.

“You’re actually interacting with the book inside it, whereas before it wasn’t. That’s where the magic happened,” she says.

On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee; design by Helen Yentus

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Your Face in Mine, by Jess Row; design by Oliver Munday, art direction by Helen Yentus

With the dual perspective of having worked on book covers as both designer and art director, Yentus believes the key to being an AD is to leave the designer as much space as possible and hope for something unexpected. So while she maintains a hands-off approach when assigning covers, sometimes multiple rounds are required. But the serendipitous also occurs, as it did with Oliver Munday’s cover design for Your Face in Mine. The novel, about identity and a “racial reassignment surgery” procedure, is a complex read—and Yentus sought Munday for his ability to distill the wildly complicated down to a brilliant image while avoiding anything cliche or obvious.

Given the subject matter, Yentus says she was buckled in for the long haul. But then Munday sent in his first round. “I don’t even think we made changes,which was shocking… This was a difficult book and interesting book, but definitely not an easy book to package, and he just nailed it.”

Utilizing a palette of skin tones, Yentus says the cover alludes to piecing together a composition, without becoming grotesque. “It builds a human shape in some way, but in a very unusual way that you can barely even put your finger on. It feels somehow human while giving you all these ideas of cutting and reconstructing. It’s both abstract but it communicates the complexities.”

On the whole, Yentus readily admits that art direction comes much easier to her than design. Still, even if she struggles to arrive at her own final designs, our bookshelves are better off for it.

“I think the worst thing that could probably happen is me feeling pretty confident,” she says. “I think that’s how you remain hungry—you have to prove something to yourself in order to keep going.”

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