What Happens When a Math Major Becomes a Book Designer
Lauren Peters-Collaer on Designing for Primo Levi
When I was 21, I became obsessed with a thought. Or, I suppose, it was really more of a feeling. I had entered my penultimate semester at Hamilton College, simultaneously enrolling myself in the math department’s infamous Philosophical Foundations of Mathematics seminar as well as Advanced Painting in the art department. My degree was in math, but I couldn’t escape my undying love of charcoal and paint. For years, I had studied math and art in tandem, shuttling across campus between the departments.
At first, I considered them entirely separate. Different subjects, different goals, different processes… different. But as the years went on and I delved deeper, I experienced a growing suspicion. Finally, immersed in that semester’s combination of courses, I looked my suspicion in the face and wondered: are math and art the same?
Not literally, of course. But I had come to notice that in both disciplines, the act of creating “a solution” felt similar. And that good math and good art made my bones tingle in the same way. It seemed, to my tiny 21-year-old mind, that although the processes differed greatly, mathematicians and artists ultimately aimed to do the same thing: we were trying to animate the inanimate. Mathematicians combine and manipulate symbols to create some greater meaning. Artists do the same thing with “symbols” of form and color.
The real difference was what qualified as animate. In the math department, the “greater meaning” we aimed for was a logical truth, so knowing when we had successfully completed the job was relatively straightforward. In the art department, however, we chased a more slippery, yet equally salient … something. Emotional truth? I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. I knew it was more nebulous, subjective, and difficult to pin down. But I also knew the feeling of ohh yes, this works that I strived for in the studio was the same feeling I got writing proofs in my math seminar.
I’ve subsequently come to understand that grasping for this sort of connection is not particularly original. But as an otherwise unworldly coed who had never heard anything like this before, the idea felt like my own personal discovery and I fell completely in love with it.
Now, though I still have a deep love of math, I am extraordinarily lucky to work in book cover design. My days are spent visually interpreting the thoughts and stories of others. Working like this means that rather than clumsily pontificate about math, art, and the nature of life, I am consumed by the reality of how to get to that ohh yes, this works feeling in the context of book covers.
I’m quite new to this world. I have tons to learn and, quite frankly, often feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. So for me, getting in the proximity of that feeling requires time spent digesting the text, followed by lots and lots of play. I have to try a million things, cut stuff out, push things together, turn pieces upside down, and try not to get completely freaked out when things aren’t working.
Early into my new life in publishing, one of my art directors, Alison Forner, generously offered me the opportunity to work on a series of covers repackaging four books by Jewish-Italian chemist and writer, Primo Levi. While Levi is most often recognized for his powerful and insightful writing about the Holocaust, his books are not limited to this, and the collection of four in question contained a mix of subjects.
This created a particularly interesting challenge because I would have to create a system that was appropriate for the disparately themed collection as a whole while also flexible in ways that would allow me to express each book individually. I didn’t know if I should impose a system on myself first, or start working with them separately and see if I could wrangle my designs into a system afterwards.
Ultimately, it was a bit of both. Coming at it strictly system-first left me with flat and unappealing covers. Looking at them gave me an ohh no, this is not working feeling. I think that in this method, my mind was too rigidly fixed on the system I had arbitrarily imposed, which didn’t allow enough leeway to play. So I switched my focus to designing one or two covers at a time while the system passively percolated in the back of my mind. If I landed on a design that felt good for one or two books, I consciously examined what was working and tried to extend it to the full series:
Alison suggested using Levi himself as the unifying element:
In the end, everyone agreed that these were the way to go:
With these, I chose a color palette and rough layout first. I had started to play around with the water/barbed wire composite on a previously abandoned iteration of The Drowned and the Saved. On second glance, and in the context of this alternate visual world, it felt closer to working than it had before. So I repurposed it. Once I had The Drowned and the Saved working reasonably well, I set forth building out the rest of the series.
All of these series involved varying degrees of talk with Alison. I think my ohh yes, this works antenna for book cover design is improving, but it’s still very much being honed (it always will be), and it doesn’t always steer me right (it won’t always). Having great art directors to guide and help realize work along the way has been invaluable and has also helped me to expand and sharpen my senses.
At the end of the day, there’s a lot more that goes into picking a book cover than how I feel about it. In fact, once a cover leaves the art department, that’s not a factor at all. But continuing to explore and exercise this sense is one way I know to keep improving and innovating in a complex landscape. The manifestation may have changed but, 7 years later, I am still obsessed by the same feeling, and I am still mining both math and art to animate the inanimate.