Painful challenge to design own book jacket

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Peter Mendelsund, who has designed striking covers for departed literary giants such as Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, dreads working with picky writers who demand a particular font, colour, image or visual theme. "It ends up looking like hell."

Then last year, Mendelsund, associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf, became his own worst nightmare. He started writing a book himself. Coming up with a cover for his book, What We See When We Read - a playful, illustrated treatise on how words give rise to mental images - was excruciating, he said.

As the author, he felt as if no single image could sum up the book's premise. As the jacket designer, he had to put something on the front or resign in disgrace. His first attempt was stark and off-putting: a plain black cover with small white text.

The subject seemed to defy illustration because his central thesis is that readers often invent images that the text does not support. "The whole point is not to show something," he said. Finally, he found a solution: He added a small, reflective gold keyhole to the plain black cover.

In the past decade, Mendelsund, 46, a "recovering classical pianist" who taught himself graphic design, has designed about 600 book jackets, ranging from a sober cover for Tolstoy's War And Peace to hypnotic fluorescent swirls for Stieg Larsson's thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

He has long been regarded as one of the top book designers at work today, alongside design luminaries Chip Kidd and Alvin Lustig. Now, he is making his debut as a writer, with two books coming out next week. Both explore the challenges of transforming words into images and blend illustrations with philosophy, literary criticism and design theory.

In What We See When We Read, which is being published by Vintage Books next Tuesday, Mendelsund tackles the mysterious way text yields vivid mental pictures, even when the author supplies very little visual detail. He argues that reading is an act of co- creation, and that people's impressions of characters and places owe as much to their own memory and experience as to the descriptive powers of authors.

On the same day, PowerHouse Books is releasing Cover, a 267-page coffee- table book with more than 300 of Mendelsund's most arresting book jackets and dozens of rejected drafts.

The images are interspersed with notes on his process, along with essays by authors of some of the featured books, including Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo and James Gleick, author of non-fiction books Chaos and The Information. "Most designers look for a central image to sum up a book, but Peter isn't looking for an image - he's looking for an idea," said Gleick. For the hardcover edition of The Information, Mendelsund repeated the title about 60 times so it looks like a flood of code.

To come up with a cover, he begins by scribbling notes on a manuscript and underlining key sentences. Then he catalogues his ideas. He picks the most promising concept and creates a draft on the computer. Once he has a rough design, he will often switch to illustrating by hand. Finally, he prints out a mock cover, wraps it around a hardcover and leaves it on his bookshelf for a few days. If his eye is drawn to it a day or two later, he considers his direction on the right track. If the cover disappears into the background, he knows something is missing.

He often repeats this process dozens of times.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo took nearly 70 attempts. The resulting cover became ubiquitous as the novel went on to sell about 10 million copies.

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