Abraham Burickson: Books are Experiences

What does the staying power of the book have to teach us about designing for focus? 

When I sat down with Erica Holeman to talk about designing a book about experience design, the task was daunting. The book was to lay down ten basic principles for the practices of experience design, but it was to be an experience itself. How to do that? We played with all the traditional tools of graphic design—the white space, the typography, the hierarchies—as well as the way a book is a conversation with the reader. We addressed the reader, asked the reader to write in the book, to tear out pages, to hold their breath. 

Many things made it into the book, but even more ended up on the cutting room floor. In the end, we wanted to focus our design on creating a coherent world within the book. This meant the book would be a little less wild than some of our early passes, but that it would be more immersive. When you step into a book—even a non-fiction book—you step into a world, built with many of the elements of worldbuilding. It has a clear aesthetic, a value system, a population, a history, an ongoing narrative, and it even has a role for the reader.

Along the way we produced quite a few book covers. I thought you might enjoy seeing some of these rejected ideas.

 Rejected Cover #1 - Click Show Blocked Content above to see the designs

I really liked this cover. It used an image from the 2012 performance The Map is Not the Territory. This was made in the Mapping Office (Samsara Cartographic Consultants). One of our performers used chance operations to overlay a map of the city on the image of the city out the window. It was a great exploration of layering, evoking the way an experience design can take place as an overlay on the ordinary world. The frame around the image uses the graphic language we developed in the book for the idea of frames of attention. 

Rejected book cover

This cover evokes travel and the way that the experience of travel is embodied in the material culture that surrounds it. Why do we love our maps, our passports, all the unusual papers that we gather when traveling? The single color is the spot color of the interior design work. You can also see the filigree assembled from the symbols we created for worldbuilding concepts much more prominently here.

an early rejected cover design

This much simpler, early design evoked the diagrammatic nature of the design approach of the book. It established a line-art language that defines much of the book’s diagramming and illustration, uses the spot color, and clearly explains itself. Ultimately, we wanted to go a little wilder.

Erica must have produced upwards of thirty cover designs. We presented three to Yale University Press and they chose their favorite. It’s not the ordinary process with a book—usually the author sends a text to the publisher, and the publisher gives the text to a designer to lay out. Then, when that’s all done, another designer (like, say, Na Kim) iterates on the cover.

The design of this book was so integral to the content that this process was not an option. Erica and I worked far more closely than most book designers and authors generally do. As I wrote, I would draft diagrams or sketch ideas for illustrations and send them to her and she would make sense of them, revise them, or come up with other approaches. We had long brainstorming sessions about how you might express empathy graphically, how a spot color could be used to indicate experiential intensity, how to make the book graphically exciting without being overwhelming.

Excerpted from Abraham Burickson’s newsletter, Phase Zero.

Abraham Burickson is the cofounder and artistic director of the performance collaborative Odyssey Works, where he codirects the Experience Design Certificate Program. He also teaches in the MFA program in graphic design at Maryland Institute College of Art and has trained in architecture and poetry. 

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