Get Some on Ya. More Usually Does the Trick

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I STOLE THAT. FROM MYSELF. it’s a line of dialog from my main character, Dolly, and it reflects her idea toward life. In turn, the “get some on you” notion comes from local Cincinnati celebrity, WEBN leader and Jelly Pudding personality Bo Wood, who used the phrase describing his diving into the crowd at Woodstock. He was hesitant, because it plainly was a muddy mess, but he reckoned it was an historic occasion and he should get some of it on him as long as he was there.

I think the notion of getting some on you is illustrative of people who live life to the fullest. Dive right in, heedless of the mud, or the wet paint, or whatever might get you “dirty” and require a bath later, and — to quote another celebrity sage — git ‘er done.

I added the “more usually does the trick” in Dolly’s case because she’s a person who believes that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. As Billy Idol put it, “Oi! Too much is never enough!”

I tell you that, to tell you this: When you’re designing your covers, don’t be a pussy, as the so-aptly pseudo-named FAIL, a commenter at Sarah’s blog t’other day advised, when he said, essentially, “Don’t try anything fancy.” when it comes to type design. No-no-no. He’s wrong. Dead wrong. So wrong he’ll never see right. Dive in. Swim in it. Get some on you.

I’ve been doing design work — to get to the broadest category, I’m a commercial artist — for 30 years. Well, (counts backwards on his fingers, which takes a few moments), actually, 34 years, now, plus odd jobs before I got my current one, and school, and playing around with art and type and design and photography. I mean, I was drawing naked ladies in Latin class in the eighth grade. Yeah. I’m a lifelong confirmed art nerd.

The 34 years part is all one job. Designing in-house for a specialist printer — Otto Printing and Entertainment Graphics, the original and still leading provider of pass-access security systems and related service print to the touring musical industry. My personal client brag list includes The Charlie Daniels Band, Martina McBride, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Moody Blues, U2, Rush, Bob Dylan, Sting, The Police, Michael Jackson, and myriad others.

Perhaps more significantly, I have worked with the art of and collaborated to some degree with Aubrey “Po” Powell, Storm Thorgerson, Hugh Syme, A West, Roger Dean, and Spencer Drate. Which means I’ve learned from the top designers in the music industry. And, here’s the kicker: the book cover business as well. Spencer Drate having designed covers for DAW, including some recent installments in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series. I knew him when he was doing album covers for John Denver.

Apologies for the links, rather than actual images. I encourage you to follow them. One more brag point. If you google or bing images on “backstage passes” with or without the name, you’ll find most of them are ours — Otto. The little oval bug is our trademark. You can see it a lot of places. Since most of what Otto has produced over the years has been of my direct design, or art direction, or by artists whom I have taught how to make backstage passes, such a search is likely to show you my bona fides. The curated images on my Pinterest or on Otto’s site (which, it appears, is munged behind a man-in-the-middle attack the site is still recovering from) are clean, at least, and illustrate the concepts discussed below.

What I’m getting toward is the design and functional similarity between book covers and backstage passes. There are differences, without doubt. The substrates are utterly different, for one, which affects design choices more that you can known. But both have the feature of size — they are small. Designers can get to feeling cramped and limited by the size. I call it postage stamp design. You have a very, very small canvas, which allows you to convey one simple idea and requires that you arrange your design elements for maximum impact. (Although when you’d make any art for low impact, I have no clue.) This limited area demands that you keep your choice of elements spare. An image of a person is better cropped tight, detail kept large, and possibly allowed to bleed off the edge. Decorative elements should be kept subtle. Large, fancy scrollwork should be considered most carefully before being used and I would advise it be abjured. There is a fashion currently for semi-transparent and translucent floral overlays, which can be most attractive. OVerlays are your friend. They let you add detail that would otherwise be squeezed out of frame.

If you click around my Pinterest boards, you’ll discover links to boards by my colleague, Caroline Heekin, who is more enthusiastic than I about playing with this stuff. She also runs our Facebook Page, which reflects her enthusiasm.

I’m not kidding. She is enthusiasm personified.

When she came on board, the rest of us had at least ten years in, and more were closer to twenty. And then there was me. The old gray man, who’d been there forever, done it all, seen it all, telling war stories in the dusty afternoons while we waited for quitting time. (Not really, but the hyperbole is attractive.) She went around the place, dug into the racks of shelves of boxes of samples of old work, bringing stuff to light not seen in, sometimes, decades. She went, “Are you kidding! This stuff is GREAT!” and pushed all of us to do more.

So should you. You should be enthusiastic in what you do. Do it for joy, because it’s fun, because you love it, because it’s sexy and it turns you on. After all, if it doesn’t turn YOU on, how is it going to appeal to a potential reader, probably bored out of her mind, scrolling down the endless listings of fantasy ebooks on Amazon looking for her next read. Yours has to jump off the screen and bonk her on the forehead like in the V8 commercials. “Hey! YOU! Buy me! NOW!”

And you’re no going to do that with images and designs you don’t love, that you won’t fight for, that are flat and timid and eschew fancy type effects. That you held back on because you might fall flat on your face. Because some guy on the Internet told you so?

OK. So I’m just some guy on the Internet. But. In Real Life, I’m this almost-famous guy who designs what the rockin’ world wears on their jeans. And has for over three decades.

And I’m telling you. Joy will transmit itself far better than restraint. Restraint has to hit EXACTLY the right note. Like (I think.) the pass I did for Petty a couple years back. Gold and red on black. Elegant, simple, clean. Only a touch of white might have added to it. The 3D bubble of the heart logo… so cool.

By all means — and I do mean ALL means — test for legibility. Print it out. Pin it on your wall. Stare at it until it talks to you. Make sure it’s absolutely magic. Reduce it until it’s literally the size of a postage stamp. Can you read it? If not, go again. If it doesn’t work, turf it. Be ruthless. You are seeking satori. Absolute truth. The Way to the Light. The ultimate orgasm. Sky-rockets in flight. But there’s no reason for you to avoid pretty and sexy effects, so long at they don’t interfere with legibility. But that’s ALWAYS been the rule in design. Although I seem to recall some album covers in the ’60s that didn’t always meet the test. Might have been that they were designed for a different light environment. OR… that the designers weren’t afraid to fail.

A short while ago, somebody posted a video on Facebook of fireworks shot from a drone that was flown THROUGH the fireworks. It seemed to me as though it was raining during the shoot, because the images were blurry, but whatever: it was magical. And the commenters right away started snarking that, “Yeah, he must be able to afford it throwing the drone and the camera away if it was in the middle of one of those explosions.” Which I reminded all present, is errant silliness. All great art is made with tools and materials that cost … something. And sometimes a lot. The presses used to print my designs sometimes ran as much as a half-million dollars. Of course, nothing I ever did broke one of them, but the cost of the tools is immaterial. You have to be willing to fail. Because, believe me, the viewer can sense your hesitation like a dog can smell fear. You have to go all out. As the saying goes, balls to the wall. Put everything you’ve got on the canvas. And, yes, get some on you in your enthusiasm.

3 thoughts on “Get Some on Ya. More Usually Does the Trick

  1. Everything you just said about art applies to writing. Every word.

    You have to be committed. You have to try, fail, and try again. And if you don’t feel every word in your bones, your readers won’t either.

  2. You know, getting — and KEEPING — the feelings is the hardest part. Especially in a novel. You get a sequence — Pete’s Father, frex — that makes you tear up when you write it in draft, and maybe for the first two or three times you read it over. But then, it starts to feel stale. And you start to have doubts. And you start to mess with it…

    M