artist (un)abbreviated: christian fuenfhausen

WARNING: The following interview is intended only for an audience who:

  1. Has an appreciation for art
  2. Has a sense of curiosity
  3. Has a sense of humor
  4. Most importantly has 15 minutes of interrupted time (trust me, you want to read this entire interview)

Please give a warm welcome to the brilliantly talented designer, Christian Fuenfhausen.

Without further ado:

TCG: A little backstory first. What began your foray into the design world?Had you always wanted to specialize in book jacket and cover design?

CF: My first knowledge of design came when I was taking a class on typography as part of
a magazine journalism major at the University of Florida. It wasn’t a design class, more like history. But what jumped out at me was a little story about William Caslon, an English craftsman from the mid 1700s. Originally, he was an engraver, creating ornate designs on canons and muskets. He then became a punch-cutter, literally making alphabet letters out of lead type. And it was a typeface he designed, and that was shipped to the Americas, and to one Philadelphia printer in particular that made him 
famous. Benjamin Franklin used Caslon’s font to print the first copies of the Declaration of Independence. I thought it somehow beautiful that a man who’d first worked to make instruments of death more beautiful would end up being known for helping transmit ideas of freedom instead. As kind of pretentious as that story sounds — I was and am a huge history nerd — that was my first real interest in typography.

That and Raygun Magazine. I never saw anything — or have since seen any magazine since — half as cool and inspired as the David Carson art-directed Raygun magazine issues of the mid-1990s. They just didn’t care what you thought. Meaning: You the reader. It was awesome. I still own a bunch of issues. Anyway, Raygun LOOKED like what a rock band should sound, it had the attitude of brash young musicians, and that was, and still is, amazing. It was bold. I mean, Carson famously set one article in Zapf Dingbats — they just didn’t give a f***. And that is how rock n’ roll should be.

This is getting long, but oh well.

My first real interest in graphic design came when I was working at a Kinko’s Copy Center (back before they were FedEx Office) in Minneapolis around 1997. I often helped freelancers who were renting the Macs and printing out their work, and that was where I first discovered this incredible field I hadn’t known existed: graphic design. I had a journalism degree that was going/went/had gone nowhere and I was working on a novel at the time so I, uh, liberated some application programs from work — back when that was pretty easy to do — and more less taught myself Quark Xpress (3.3!) and Photoshop (3.0!) with some manuals. It’s not organic chemistry (which is way harder than rocket science). Later, I realized I needed some real schooling so I took some classes. But being a decent designer isn’t about knowing or not knowing programs. 

I ended up turning that novel into an elaborate portfolio piece — it was full of fake ads and all kinds of wackiness — that got me in Communications Arts Design Annual and helped land me my first job. So here’s your example, would-be designers, of someone who just made up stuff and launched a career. If you’re sufficiently passionate and obsessive enough, pretty much anything is possible.

I had not specifically thought about being a book cover designer. Frankly, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of jobs there (and there still aren’t). But my heart has always been in books. And I know this as I’ve worked briefly for some ad agencies and was sort of morally repulsed by the whole thing. I mean, I get it: this is America and we’re capitalists and we sell stuff. I get that. Book publishing isn’t a charity and I charge for my time. But I personally just found many bits of advertising just a bit slimier, morally speaking, than I was personally willing to deal with, great pay or no. That and the hours they make you work at agencies seem insane and not worth it, even for the money. To sell toothpaste. Or, god forbid, seeds. [I had an instructor in Minneapolis who had a giant industrial-agriculture client at his agency for whom they made “seed catalogs” every year. You go into advertising, this could be your life, kids, so choose carefully.] I didn’t want to spend my creative days finding new ways to sell toothpaste. Or, these days, to create a viral campaign that might be about toothpaste. Sure, could be exciting and all that. . . I don’t know — not for me.

Granted, book covers are essentially like candy wrappers. They are the number marketing tool of any book. Which has essentially become another product, in lots of ways. Sad to say. But at least the candy inside is good for your brain. Reading, regardless how crappy the book (and publishing is chock-a-block full of crap), is always better than just passively watching TV or a movie. That’s my curmudgeonly take on it. If I’m going to use my art to sell something, let it be books. I never go to sleep wondering why on earth I spend all this time doing the stuff I do and that’s worth a lot, a lot more than money.

How I got into publishing is: I answered an ad on my local AIGA job board. I caught a break and landed my first job at a place called Milkweed Editions, a tiny nonprofit literary publisher in Minneapolis. There I became their entire art department. It was a great place to start for someone with interest in books — I designed all their book covers, every book interior, all their catalogs, ads, trade show materials, all manner of stuff. I still design covers for Milkweed on a freelance basis and it’s a lot of fun. I think it’s a good idea for a young designer to find a place where there is a variety of work, until you discover what you’re really good at. And it’s pretty impossible, I think, to know what you’re good at until you’ve actually tried different things.

I’ve worked at a variety of design places, mostly publishers. But also at an all-purpose design studio — doing everything from business identities to posters to all kinds of collateral — and at an environmental graphics place, which was an object lesson in being anal retentive. When you’re designing letterforms that are going to be cut from steel with plasma torches, or sandblasted from granite, then whatever you do is going to be there forever, basically. So they took kerning to a new, scary level. It was rigorous but I wouldn’t wish that job on an enemy. No fun. 

Work should be fun. You should enjoy what you do. If you’re not having fun and you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then find work that is fun and that you do enjoy. I mean, this is America — if you can’t figure out a way to do what you love to do and make a living at it, then I think you’re not trying hard enough.

It’s always interesting looking at the revision process when it comes to design work. I really love two rejected covers of yours — Paper Towns (even though the push pin cover has always been my favorite) and If I Stay, which looks completely different from its final print.
I know that sometimes initial mockups/thumbnails/sketches may start off in one direction, then do a complete 180 and take another path sometime later. Do you have a particular story about a cover that took this route, where the final cover surprised and pleased you more than the original concept for its design?

Rejected cover

John Green’s books are always interesting and always a huge challenge. He doesn’t write “genre” titles, like about girls in some elite academy. Or about vampires. Or about vampires in an elite academy. He writes, for lack of a better term, “literature”, which appeals to guys and gals both. So the challenge is always to try to find a cover that will speak to his audience and to the books (which are smart, quirky, funny, serious and usually wicked hard to summarize). Paper Towns in paperback went through like a million versions. Well, OK, mid-eight hundred thousands, fine. But seemed like a million. I think we (meaning me and a whole bunch of other designers called in to help) were re-designing An Abundance of Katherines for paperback so maybe a half-million of those versions were for that.

Wait, sorry, the book I wanted to discuss is Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. It’s about these two guys both named Will Grayson, and a high school musical and like a million other things. But we were thinking of originally doing an illustrated “rock poster”-type cover. Illustrated.

Wait. NO. No, first, I had done a version of the book that looks like all the lettering was made of lights. . . We had actually planned on having neon signs made of the title “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” and a different sign (from light bulbs) of the two authors names. But for whatever reason, that version got nixed. And I was bummed.

OK, so then. . . later. The Neon Sign Idea was an early version, but then the manuscript got bumped to another season so by the time we came back to it, people had other ideas of what they wanted. And now they wanted a rock poster. So we hired two different design studios to come up with covers that would look like “rock posters”. We hired Aesthetic Apparatus — whom I knew sort of from Minneapolis when I lived there. They make amazing posters. And a different poster designer whose name I forget. Anyway, the two studios did awesome stuff, including a fantastic poster of a kitten sticking its paw in an electrical socket (it was in the book?). Funny stuff, great stuff. And I did some Sonic Youth “Washing Machine”-inspired covers.

Anwyay, none of that worked. 

A cover I did with a thumbs up on one side and a hand flicking the bird on the other. That I WISH had made it, just for laughs, but it got shot down. 

(TCG: I would’ve loved to see this one.)

I forget all the stuff that was done. A huge number of “rounds” (think: boxing), working on stuff, showing it, getting shot down.

We (mostly me) tried a lot of different stuff about musicals. Around that time, I was seeing posters around town (here in NYC) for a new show that was supposed to be set in a high school and would have singing or be about a musical. . . it wasn’t clear– the show hadn’t aired yet. But I loved the type for it, so I decided to use the same typeface. That show was called “glee”. 

At the last minute, then I found some disco-y nightclub-y show-biz-y colorful art and married it to my glee-stolen title — the typeface is ITC Avant Garde Demi, lowercase, for those of you at home keeping score. Designed by typographic legend Herb Lubalin.

And once we printed the thing on holographic, I really came to love the Will Grayson cover. Maybe not as much as I loved my crazy Happy Robot/Sad Robot Reading Hamlet version I had done. Or the Thumbs Up/Bird-Finger version. Or the one that looked a Marshall amplifier. But still, it’s a lot of fun.

I’ve read Jonathan Friesen’s Jerk, California (HIGHLY RECOMMEND, and Cover Loved it here). You’ve also designed another Friesen novel, Rush. Their simplicity and bold colors are simple but eye-catching and don’t look like a lot of other YA I see on the shelves. What’s the balance like when it comes to designing to story and designing to your intended audience?

Designing book covers is tricky in no small part because there are so many different interests at stake. First off, there are the editorial folks (editor, publisher) who may have an idea — sometimes an extremely specific idea — of what they want the cover to convey. Then there’s the art director who has some artistic ideas. There are the Sales folks who need the cover to look like The Hunger Games or Twilight or Whatever Book Is Superpopular Now. . . or to not look like those. . . or to appeal to girls. . . or to be “gender-neutral”. . . or to not have a dark cover because all the other books out now have dark covers. . . and so on. Toward the end of the process you have the Author and also maybe the Author’s Agent, who have opinions, and sometimes, if you’re really and truly unlikely, you have the Author’s Significant Other or Author’s Friend, who happens to be an art director or once used Photoshop and has an opinion.

So, this is your kitchen, Iron Design Chef, in which you are asked to cook a masterpiece.

I’m just saying: book design does not happen in vacuum.

Ok, but then you start working and you tune out all those voices, you just focus on what’s true and what’s appealing. Because if you can stick to what’s true to the book, and make it appealing, most likely all those Other Interests listed above will work out.

My personal philosophy is that I would prefer to do something different than what is out there. Every time. I’m not really interested in copying other people. I’m way more interested in being unique. It’s frankly just more fun, to come up with stuff that looks very different from all the other covers. I mean, when that’s possible. You aren’t going to be able to do thing with every cover. Sometimes, they really just want you to make a book that looks like The Hunger Games.

With Jerk, California, the publisher decided early on they wanted a type-only cover. To appeal to both genders.

With Rush, I wanted it to feel like it was related to Jerk — like a cousin, if not a sibling. Plus, again, there are SO many photographic-only covers out there that any cover that is just a solid color with type will jump out from the crowd.

Book covers are, in a sense, like poems. Or like snapshots compared to whole films. You’ve got this little tiny bit of space and time to convey an idea so it’s important to pick something that is compelling, eye-catching, symbolic. You’re picking a detail or scene to represent the whole thing, maybe. Ideally, it will be a detail that encapsulates the whole story but for the purposes of marketing, sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes it’s better to be mysterious, but appealing. Because the entire point is to make you stop, and reach for the book. Just that.

How would you describe your particular type of artistry?

I’m kind of an on-off person by nature, so my design tends toward super-minimalism or maximalism.

For example, I happen to love really dirty, grimy, grungy, distressed designs. It could be a residual Raygun magazine thing, or something I need to discuss with a mental health professional or whatever. Maybe they just seem more “real”, like posters that have been stapled to a phone pole and have gotten weather-beaten. So, to me, these are maximalist — vivid color, dense layers of grit and stuff. 

On the other hand, I love stuff that is super-clean and geometric and just flat out stunningly beautiful. 

I was lucky to be able to go see the recent Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum a number of times, including once super early in the morning when it was fairly empty. While it’s not “graphic design”, McQueen’s ethos combines extreme beauty and distress in a really startling way and his work really affected me.

As for my “artistry”, I have learned that when I pursue my gut instincts, things tend to work better than trying to second-guess what is wanted from me.

The Vlad Tod series is one of those iconic YA titles that you can immediately identify on a shelf. And say what, no author name on the cover? Do tell how this came to be!

In the beginning, there was just Eighth Grades Bites. No series. And Heather Brewer was a first-time author with no clout.

Initially we did a photographic cover — VERY different from what it looks like now. We found a model, some nice kid from western Pennsylvania, and set up a photo shoot. Kid drove in with his mom. And the shoot went well. We had a photographic cover with a kid with a backpack on it — really nothing earth-shattering. We got Advance Readers Copies made. Everything was fine until, basically the last minute. I forget exactly what happened but I was essentially told it just wasn’t going to work. Honestly, I sort of felt like that was a great idea (now I KNOW it was good idea).

I recall deciding to try something entirely different. Something very movie-postery and graphic. I ended up converting some photos into stark black-and-white line art. . . but it was lacking the humor that the books have. So I came up with that vampire smiley logo in like, literally, a few minutes. It just sort of happened. Staggeringly enough, considering how much it’s been used since then. Anyway. . . . the original cover was supposed to have The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod / Eighth Grades Bites / Heather Brewer. . . all that text on it and I honestly felt like it ruined my pristine design. So I thought: what if we just put the author’s name and the book title on the BACK. But huge on the back. Would they go for it? Surely they would make me put her name on the front, right? Amazingly enough, it somehow got approved, and for the first few editions of the series Heather’s name was not on the front. When the series blew up and got huge, I was asked to redesign all the covers so her name WAS on the front. But at first, it wasn’t.

Who inspires you?

I love Peter Mendelsund’s covers:

What do you look for in cover design when you’re browsing the bookstore, library, or online?

Inappropriate uses of glitter. I love that.

Sometimes I play the “name that font” game. Admittedly, it’s a very nerdy game. 

Mostly I just look for something that I haven’t seen before. Or something extraordinarily beautiful. Especially if it’s both ugly and beautiful at the same time, which is admittedly pretty rare.

Are there any covers that have recently grabbed your attention?

The cover for Murakami’s new novel, 1Q84, is cool. (Of course, if you can’t make a four-letter title look cool you should resign your book cover credentials.)

Frankly, I find album or movie art more of an inspiration than book covers. (Album art, posters and book cover being essentially the same kinds of design). For instance, the latest album by St. Vincent is just a mouth screaming through a dental dam — the cover is all white with type set in Futura. It’s disturbing and beautiful simultaneously. The new album from Wild Flag is interesting — like some Adobe Illustrator drawing gone awry. The new album by The Horrors, Skying, looks great in that “everyone is using their Hipstamatic loom app” way, but hey, I am sucker for that look.

If you were to give a designer three bits of advice in order to make it in the publishing industry as a cover designer, what would they be?

1) Be ready for lots and lots and LOTS of rejection and revising, and don’t take it personally . . . just realize it’s simply part of the job. [Your cover is probably genius (as you know) and it’s just some hare-brained decision by Sales that you have no control over.]

2) Steal good ideas, make them your own. (Plausible deniability is KEY.)

3) Take courses or learn stuff in fields unrelated to art or design. And if you’re not learning something in school you wish you were, get a book and teach yourself . . . I mean, who’s stopping you, right?

If you have a crazy idea, run with it. The worst they can say is “no”.

See why I loved this interview so much? I want to frame half of his answers and have them printed (in ITC Avant Garde Demi) and framed, hanging the posters around my office. Thanks so much for stopping by the blog, Christian. Be sure to check out even more of his work at Christian Fuenfhausen Design.

15 thoughts on “artist (un)abbreviated: christian fuenfhausen

  1. Girl, I did NOT know the typeface on the declaration of independence was designed by a BRITISH dude. pretty ironic huh? Like srsly, I can’t stop laughing. We brit’s are srsly amaze. Also HELL YES to stealing ideas as long as I have plausible deniability. ALSO, JOHN GREEN COVER DESIGNER? WHAT? NO SERIOUSLY WHAT?

    I want to take this guy out for a BEER. Like really. imagine what his designs would be like if he was drunk. i need to know the answer to this.

  2. I read through this entire interview and I LOVED it.

    First off, he gets major points for designing Will Grayson, Will Grayson. I read that book a few months and, while not my favorite John Green book, it was still amazing.

    Also. PAPER TOWNS. I agree with Capillya that the push pin cover is the best (I can’t stand the one with Margo’s face), the one he designed is gorgeous. I like how it feels like a blend of the push pin cover and the Margo cover.

    I think it’s really interesting that he used the Glee type. It fits perfectly in the cover.

    Loved this interview!

  3. I love to see rejected covers. The one for Paper Towns is awesome, I love the idea and I think I would’ve liked it as the original cover (much better than the one with the girl on it :P)

    • l love seeing rejected covers, too. It’s not often I get to see the revision process in the publishing sphere, but I love seeing ideas and iterations. So glad he posted them on his site.

  4. Wow – what an awesome interview. Christian totally rocks, and a bunch of these covers are iconic. I’m with CrookedCarla – the guy needs to join us all for a beer so that we can wax lyrical about his genius.

    Oh yeah, and I also agree with Katie and Miss Bookiverse that the PAPER TOWNS cover with Margo is lame, and that the rejected cover would’ve been better, but hey ho.

    • You already know my feelings about faces on covers, so I’ve never been a fan of the happy/depressed Margo covers. And YES, we must make this outing happen!!!

  5. Great interview. As a librarian, I love the quote “I never go to sleep wondering why on earth I spend all this time doing the stuff I do and that’s worth a lot, a lot more than money.” I’m going to print that out and hang it in my cubicle. I’ve noticed that teens really love the Vlad Todd covers and it’s interesting to know more about the designer!

  6. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesdays: Flashback « Ink

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