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On the Cover

by Griffin Hansbury on December 7, 2012

The Nostalgist cover was designed by Matt Tanner, an art director who has created book covers for Little, Brown, Oxford Books, and Fiction Advocate, where this year he won an award from Design Observer’s 50 Books/50 Covers contest for his work on The Real Holden Caulfield. Matt answers a few questions here about how he came to the design for The Nostalgist.


What was your thinking process in coming up with the preliminary designs for The Nostalgist?

I came to cover design from a writing and editing background, so for better or worse, that’s how I approach design. I tend to make a list of motifs or iconic scenes while I’m reading, and then I try to figure out how to represent them visually. With The Nostalgist, I got to choose from Jonah’s obsessions, which all made for strong concepts. There was his collection of radios and 9/11 and his menagerie of ghosts, Rose chief among them–not to mention the larger theme of loss. I took those ideas, and I researched the hell out of them.

What led you to reference the Penguin Classic cover (aka the Vertical Grid)?

My original thought was that I could make the book look like an old radio. I had the concept but couldn’t get it to make sense visually, so it was on to Plan B, which in the end, I think made it a better cover. Though the book isn’t in Jonah’s voice, it is very much from his point of view, and so my next idea was to make something Jonah himself would gravitate toward. True to the title, Jonah has a lot of sentimental attachments to things that old, but he also has a very specific aesthetic sense, so old formatted paperbacks seemed to be the right way to go.

How did you rework and update the Penguin look for this book?

Penguin is very proprietary and protective of their brand and for good reason. Their old formatted covers are some of the most iconic designs ever made, so I hardly felt I could slap it together and say, “There! It looks old!” That wouldn’t just be an act of forgery, it would have been complete artistic malpractice. In fact, I was tempted not to include that design in the comps I submitted. In the end, though, it was a chance to reference Jonah’s fixation on the past and the twin towers at once, without–I hope–being too heavy-handed. Still, I made a point of asking a couple other designers how they felt about it. With a cover like this, you run the risk of just copying something, and I wanted to make sure that wasn’t what I was doing. The goal with something like this should be to use an allusion to augment the concept.

The central image of the radio and hat has led some to comment, “It looks like a face, but sort of disturbed.” Is that close to what you were aiming for there?

I wouldn’t say I was aiming for it to looked disturbed, but to me, it looks like the face of someone who’s under a lot of stress and trying to keep it together. I also wanted it to give someone a sense of the comedy and absurdism in the novel. If the radio looks like the face of a maniac, that’s not quite what I intended, but I suppose it’s close enough.


The unchosen covers:

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