Jon Gray on Book Cover Cuisine and the “Safran-Foer-Thing”

If you read books chances are you have already held in your hands some of Jon Gray’s work. As gray318 he designs book covers and according to Steven Heller, Gray started the revival of hand-lettering with his 2002 cover for Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel “Everything is Illuminated”. In his talk at TYPO Berlin he compares book cover design to cooking to explain the raw materials and recipes of his work.

Jon Gray, London-based book cover designer © Bettina Ausserhofer (Monotype) Jon Gray, London-based book cover designer © Bettina Ausserhofer (Monotype)

Stephen Coles introduces Jon Gray as a “quality guy” and anyone who knows Gray’s book covers readily believes him. The quality guy is quick to point out to the full house: “I’m not a designer, not an illustrator, and certainly not a type designer – I’m a misfit.” As a book cover designer based in London, he is, however, a misfit who has found his place: “Publishing – that’s where people who don’t quite fit in end up.”

Sitting in a café in Amsterdam two weeks earlier, Gray has no idea what to write for his talk. He looks down at the deliciously imperfect handmade breakfast on the plate in front of him and suddenly thinks that his job in the “colorful world of books” is actually a lot like cooking. So this is the metaphor he uses to explain what he does as a book cover designer.

Designing Book Covers is Like Cooking

Known as gray318 Jon Gray creates covers for the books of renowned authors like Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace or Jennifer Eagan. Recently, he worked with Terry Gilliam of Monty Python’s on Gilliam’s illustrated autobiography. And of course he famously designed the covers for Jonathan Safran Foer’s books. But we’ll get to “the Safran-Foer-Thing” in a minute.

“Publishing – that’s where people who don’t quite fit in end up.”

Gray thinks of book covers as “travel posters to glamorous destinations”. They are like film posters, the entry door to a story. Ideally, the books are good and the package only improves on that. But for each genre, there are visual clichés, repeated over and over again and lots of rigorous conventions. For example, you can hardly ever show characters on a cover, only body parts: “Can you add a human element? But don’t make it look exactly like the woman in the book!” In this setting it is difficult to propose something new. At the same time publishers strive to come up with the next big thing in book cover design, which of course will then be copied by all the other publishers.

According to Jon Gray’s book-cover-design-is-like-cooking analogy mainstream book covers are like the food you get in chain restaurants. Bland, predictable, the same no matter which branch you go to. Now as a good chef at a nice restaurant you are ready to push the limits and risk failure. You take a classic recipe and change it. You try new spices and new methods and you don’t hesitate throw out convention.

So while the average book publisher goes on to churn out “cheeseburger books”, there are authors and publishers that question fast food book cover design and ask for something other than mass products, something that looks like someone actually cared.

Becoming a Cover Design Chef

Both of Gray’s parents were avid readers and since his father has been an archivist, Gray grew up in a house full of old books. He studied at the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication) “a cordon bleu kind of design college”. Gray went through a training with a strong emphasis on hand rendering typography but he could never do it right: “I love type, I love line, but I am sloppy at both.” Going by eye rather than working with a grid, he would design something and then draw a grid over it at the end just to comply with his assignments.

After college Jon Gray worked designing conventional covers for a publisher. But he was frustrated with the way a book cover was just treated like a picture with some type placed over it. With Paul Rand’s work in mind he thought “Why can’t it be like in America!?” – the book as an object, the cover an integrated piece of thinking that functions like a poster or a logo for the book.

Hand-Lettering and The Safran-Foer-Thing

Eventually Gray began to freelance as a book cover design chef. Publishers ask him to bring out certain flavors in a cover and Gray takes his raw ingredients – the manuscript – gets deep into the text, mixes it around a bit and comes up with something new. This is what he did for Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel “Everything is Illuminated”. The brief from Penguin went: “The text is brilliant and very original – so we want something brilliant and very original for the cover.” Like, no pressure at all.

Gray looked around for inspiration and got interested in old hand written signs often posted at churches. Written by sign writing dilettantes who need to communicate something to their fellow churchgoers, to Gray these signs tell a story, they speak of dedication, personality, of love. The signs reference a specific time and place, an idiosyncratic personality and character. Gray took the loose and spontaneous quality of the handwriting on these signs and used it for the cover of “Everything is Illuminated”.

What he got gave him one of these rare moments where “You make something and you know it works, it’s something new – I made it and it was completely me. I liked it, Penguin loved it, the author was all over it.” Published in 2002, the rough all-over hand-lettering on the cover contrasted strongly with the clean lines and vector graphics that had been dominating graphic design for a while then. It was the avant-garde of what Steven Heller called “The Decade of Dirty” when handmade aesthetics became fashionable again. And it marked the very beginning of the still ongoing revival of hand-lettered typography.

“The idea for the cover came from the book, as it often does.”

When Safran Foer’s next book was scheduled to appear in the publisher’s catalog, all the information Gray got was the very short title with only four letters. He created a beautifully symmetric and extremely flourished design which, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with the yet-to-be-written book. Everyone loved it. Then calls the publisher: “Yeah Jon, a couple of problems … we actually love what you have done, but – first, we have a title change …”.

Title change – dreaded words for anyone who letters titles by hand. Yet it can happen at any time in the process of publishing a book. Gray had to start all over and this time, the idea came from the book, “as it often does”. The final cover of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” – the book’s new title – shows hand-lettered type on the silhouette of a hand. Gray’s hand. Live-size. He embarrassed his children for months when he high-fived himself in bookshops each time he came by Safran Foer’s books on display.

At some point an ad agency from San Francisco called: “Can you make us a font of the lettering used on the cover of ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’?” Yes, of course. Gray drew a whole character set of the charming hand-rendered letters, other people made a font of it and it off it went to be used in a huge campaign for Hewlett-Packard with the claim “The computer is personal again”.

“Hand-lettering is like balsamic vinegar and publishers just love splashing it around all over.”

Hand-Lettering became the next big thing in book publishing “It was like balsamic vinegar, at first it was special, but now it’s on everything.” Success is great, but even the best chefs sometimes get stuck in routines and fall back on what they think the customer wants. And so did Gray. For Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated” he had created something inspired and new. But after a little while, when clients started to ask: “That Safran-Foer-Thing – can you do more of it?” he began to repeat that same recipe “I was no longer answering the brief, I was making the brief fit my work.”
Jon Gray sums up how to not get stuck © Bettina Ausserhofer (Monotype) Jon Gray sums up how to not get stuck © Bettina Ausserhofer (Monotype)


Mind Your Raw Ingredients

At this point Gray became very unhappy and decided to use no more hand-lettering and drawing in his work. Instead, he focused on what his work had been about all along: great ideas.

When he was in Amsterdam, Gray took a walk to the red light district (“Without any intentions, but because that’s what you do when you are in Amsterdam.”) The women displaying themselves in vitrines didn’t catch his attention, but a window with a heavy velvet curtain drawn not quite completely did. In front of the curtain, one high heel shoe and a dildo. Like his breakfast in the morning, this scenario gave Gray another insight: “There is far more power in a story hinted at than in a story on display. Restrict the information – and you get mystery and intrigue.”

“There is far more power in a story hinted at than in a story on display. Restrict the information – and you get mystery and intrigue.”

He had already applied this understanding to the cover of a book titled “Tampa”, published by Faber & Faber in 2013. The book is about a female high school teacher who has sexual relationships with her students. The brief said “It’s a controversial book, can we please have a controversial cover?” Hinting at the story rather than showing it, Gray used the close up of the buttonhole on a pale pink shirt as an image for the cover. “This to me is like good design, it engages the viewer and it makes them ask questions ‘What does it mean? Am I a pervert?’ This cover gave me another Heureka-moment and I don’t have to talk about it to explain it.”

Jon Gray

Jon Gray

Illustrator (London)

Jon Gray or gray318 designs and illustrates book covers for publishers around the world. His work is featured on the covers of amongst others: Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, A.M Homes and Roald Dahl. Other clients include: Nike, Stussy, Hewlett-Packard, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Observer and the The Berlin Opera. His work has been recognized by the D&AD, AIGA, TDC and ADC. He has exhibited at various galleries including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and as part of the Gateways series in Porto.

So Jon Gray’s advice if you are stuck creating fast food design and keep repeating your own recipe: “Go back to the raw ingredients and bring your love to them. The best projects come out if it.”