Thursday, August 6, 2015

Book Designer on Reinventing Texas Classics

The first Texas-based writer to gain national attention, J. Frank Dobie proved that authentic writing springs easily from the native soil of Texas and the Southwest. To capture the intrigue of Dobie's storytelling, one of our book designers drew inspiration from old western pulp paperbacks to breathe new life into some Texas classics. Here's award-winning designer Derek George on his creative process.

Redesigning Texas Classics
By Derek George

Not being a native Texan myself, I’ve had to do my homework since moving here in 2007. There were so many names unfamiliar to me when I first got here, but I’d see them everywhere: Lamar, Travis, Burnet, and Kinky Friedman. Working for UT Press (and reading a few history books) has opened my eyes to the rich history of this state that I now call home.

If you like your history to sound like your old grandpa telling you stories on the front porch at dusk—full of cowboys and outlaws, buried treasures and lost mines—then J. Frank Dobie is your guy. The University of Texas Press keeps J. Frank Dobie’s books in print and as our current stock began to run out, our marketing team decided that it was a good time for a refresh of the design. I was the lucky designer who got to work on the project. As I began brainstorming concepts for the new designs, one of our sales reps at the time, Chris Hoyt, showed me a photo of an old western pulp paperback. I love old pulp paperbacks and immediately gravitated toward this approach. The style seemed to fit well with the Dobie books.

Drawing inspiration from old Western pulp paperbacks
I collect a lot of design from the internet to inspire me and liberally “borrow” from (all designers do this), and over the years, I’ve collected a lot of pulp paperback cover designs. One thing you notice right away from these old covers are the colorful, dramatic, and sometimes lurid illustrations that helped to give these books their character. We looked into commissioning new pulp art for the book covers, but it wasn’t within our budget (and apparently there aren’t a lot of illustrators who do this type of work these days). So I looked instead at the existing art inside the books and found that there was some pretty great stuff, most of which was done by the great Tom Lea, a good friend of Dobie’s.

A few patient and kind souls at the Harry Ransom Center helped me track down the original art that I wanted to use from the J. Frank Dobie archives here on campus. With the art chosen, it was just a matter of finding the right typography that fit with the western pulp paperback style, but still looked attractive to modern eyes. Since I was designing an entire series at once, I had to plan ahead with colors that go well together as a group, and designed a template that tied them all together. The ribbon with Dobie’s portrait was inspired by a similar treatment on some of the old Dell paperbacks. I like to work with a large pasteboard area in Adobe Illustrator and try out different colors and fonts until I get the combination right.

Click to enlarge and see the designs progress

Since designing the new covers, I’ve had a few people think that these were older cover designs of these books that they had never seen before, mistaking them for actual old paperbacks. I love when this happens.

This was a fun project to work on and I hope that the new redesigns can help people see the J. Frank Dobie books in a new way.

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