Behind the Book: American Afterlife by Kate Sweeney

by Kaelin Broaddus

SWEENEY_AmericanAfterlife_cvr_fnl.inddThe University of Georgia Press will exhibit the Association of American University Presses 2014 Book, Jacket, and Journal Show April 8-10 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. in the press’s offices on the third floor of UGA’s main library. This year the University of Georgia Press was fortunate enough to have won three design awards from the AAUP (for more info on the design show see the blog archive). To celebrate we’re posting the following piece on the design process behind the jacket for American Afterlife by Kate Sweeney, which was originally published in our newsletter, Inside UGA Press. Sweeney’s book has won an award for 2015 and will be included in next year’s AAUP design show.  

I began the cover design for Kate Sweeney’s American Afterlife by perusing the photos Kate had submitted with her manuscript: eight historical images for the book’s interior and an ethereal, soft-focus image of a tree for the cover. My immediate response was that the tree image was not a strong cover visual. I was really drawn to an interior image of a memento mori ring, but the acquiring and art editors informed me the interior images were chapter specific and not necessarily indicative of the book as a whole.

So I read the manuscript. When I was done, I knew exactly why Kate had picked the ethereal tree image for the cover: it was safe and ambiguous. Still, I knew the tree image was not right.

Art editor Rebecca Norton told me that she had been in touch with Kate concerning the cover and that Kate was wedded to the tree image. She might be resistant to something else. After a conversation with acquiring editor Sydney DuPre, Kate trusted us to find something appropriate, but cautioned that the image should not “go too terribly far in the direction of quirk. I’d like to toe that line with care, since there are real stories of people’s grief in here, and I would never want anything about the book to come off as flippant.”

So much for my idea of a visual pun/ metaphor for death: pushing up the daisies, six feet under, buying the farm.

And then I had a eureka moment. I remembered a website I had discovered a year or so earlier. It belonged to photographer Kimberly Witham, who took odd but elegant still-life photographs using animal carcasses she found on the roadside.

Kimberly had a photograph of a nuthatch nestled in a milk-glass candy dish, itself nestled within a pink Pyrex dish. It was lovely. It said “unique but nonetheless respectful memorial” in a simple, striking, and somewhat abstract way.

At a cover meeting with editorial and marketing, I described my thought process as I presented my sample covers (images of daisies, memorial tattoos, etc.) until I came to the nuthatch cover, which I’d saved for last. To my surprise, the collective response was positive! After internal Press approval, I sent the sample to Kate. She loved it.

After I had designed the cover, I turned to the interior.

I rarely design a book’s interior to reflect its cover, but I liked American Afterlife’s cover typography and decided to use it inside. I began by noodling around with the titlepage design, using oversized ornamental brackets as a motif to mimic the candy dish on the cover. It didn’t work.

Then I decided to be a smart aleck and use a Spencerian Script bird ornament between the title and subtitle. Upside down. Voilá! As a bonus, the grouping of the typographic elements created the shape of a coffin (the diamond shaped burial box, as opposed to the rectangular casket, thank you for teaching me the difference, Kate Sweeney).

Next up was the task of carrying this theme through the rest of the book design. Using that ornament over and over on the eight chapter openers would be monotonous, and its cleverness would wear off in a hurry. I also had to design a chapter opener for five “Dismal Trade” sections, short chapters about people who have found a unique niche in the world of death and memorialization. These needed to be set apart from the numbered chapters.

I found a different Spencerian Script bird ornament, this one in flight, and arranged it with its mirror opposite on either side of a script banner. On chapter openers the banner bears the chapter number and creates a bowl shape in which rests the “Revealed:” copy. On the “Dismal Trade” openers, the banner and birds are upside down, and the banner bears the “Dismal Trade” title. Its umbrella shape accommodates the name of the person portrayed in the section. Voilá, deux.

Sometimes, being a smart aleck pays off.

Kaelin Broaddus is the Senior Designer and Production Manager at the University of Georgia Press.

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