Beautiful Books: The Singularity

Nominated for the August Prize and EU Prize for Literature in its original Swedish, The Singularity by Balsam Karam is now available in English, translated by Saskia Vogel and published by Book*hug. We talk designing translated editions – and the gorgeous approach to this one – with The Singularity designer Gareth Lind.

The cover of The Singularity by Balsam Karam. An illustration of buildings and palms with the rolling sea in the foreground is bisected by the book's title. A bold yellow river also crosses the cover.


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All Lit Up: In general, how does approaching the design of a new translation of a book differ from the design of the first ever edition of a book? Does anything change in your process?

Gareth Lind: This is the first time that I’ve designed the cover of a translation. In this case, the design brief was to use the same illustration as all the other editions, which didn’t vary from one another aside from colour. Book*hug co-publisher Jay MillAr didn’t want the Canadian edition to be more of the same. He gave me a clear design brief: make this edition stand out.

All Lit Up: As you mentioned, you’ve used the illustration from the original Swedish edition of The Singularity on the cover, but given it a significantly different treatment. Tell us more about your choices of colour and scale for this cover.

Gareth Lind: The illustration by Swedish book designer Sara R. Acedo is evocative of early 20th-century Expressionist woodcuts. Franz Masereel, a hero of mine, who is the creator of the first woodcut novels, comes to mind. In the other editions, the illustration is free-floating and relatively small. I felt that they weren’t utilizing its full potential to attract attention. So I decided to make it larger. Right off the bat, I had given the book a clear distinction from the other editions.

However, doing so eliminated the space that the other editions had used for type and created a design challenge: How to make the title and author name readable on a high-contrast, patterned background? 
I usually focus on form before colour. Colour is often easy to switch up after the design has been established; it’s not as easy to vary a design once colour has been established. So, form is my primary design focus for my initial concepts. 

All Lit Up: Were there other cover designs in contention? How did you settle on this one?

Gareth Lind: Usually, I provide at least five options to establish a cover design direction, aiming for as much variety as possible within the design brief. For The Singularity, I tried three distinct options:

  • Making Singularity large and translucent, with the illustration appearing through it in lighter tones.
  • Hand-lettering the type to mimic the style of the illustration, using the only blank space available—the road—for the title. In this version, the illustration is dominant, cropped tightly to fill the entirety of the cover and pop out.
  • Reducing the contrast in the illustration (in this case, making it black on dark blue) so that light-coloured text can be set overtop it. I alluded to the repetitive construction of parts of this novel by repeating and shifting the illustration in the background.
The three cover concepts for the Canadian edition of The Singularity.

Publisher Jay MillAr agreed with me that the middle cover was the strongest, but he felt that the text in the road wasn’t working, so I set the title in a bar of colour. When I put it on an angle to echo the curve of the underlying road, it resembled a “not” bar—like police caution tape. This worked especially well because of the incident that starts the book.

All Lit Up: There’s a kind of velocity to the title treatment on the cover, which is echoed on the title page, with the title on an angle and the dropped “A” in “Singularity.” It communicates motion, especially when accompanied by the waves motif in the original illustration. Why did you choose to bring more dynamic elements to the cover?

The word “the” in titles is one of my design nemeses—a word that takes up a whole line of valuable space when stacked above a much longer word and thus stands out far beyond its relative importance. I wanted to run SINGULARITY right across the cover, for maximum impact, but THE was being a space hog again. If I made the bar wider to accommodate it, more of the illustration would be obscured. With THE SINGULARITY on one line, the title didn’t have the impact it needed.

Solving design problems can give you unexpected gifts. What if the offending THE, in trying to find space in the caution tape, pushes one of the type characters downwards and out of the box, into the sea? Since the book concerns the repercussions of a drowning (the singularity of the title), this would give the title treatment its own “singularity,” a twist on conventional typography that makes it memorable.

A closeup of the falling "A" in Singularity on the cover.

The A was the victim here, since it has two legs, resembling a human form, but I wanted a wider top to suggest shoulders. One type style that contains an A with “shoulders” happens to be one of my favourite for titles, Beauchef, designed by the Chilean foundry, Latinotype. (I also used it for the first cover I designed for Book*hug, Dear Current Occupant by Chelene Knight.) This font was originally designed for University of Chile Center for Mathematical Modeling—the foundry calls it “as tough as advanced mathematics”—but I find it works well with the illustration’s Expressionistic vibe.

When I’m lucky, form and content make the colour choices for me. Since I had caution tape in my mind, I had to use yellow. I tried black as well, but it felt too stark to evoke an unnamed coastal city, presumably on the Mediterranean. So I chose a rich Mediterranean turquoise.

The full cover - front and back - of The Singularity.

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Gareth Lind, RGD, was born in Pennsylvania in 1964 and moved to Toronto as a child. Based on his self-taught cartooning skills, he was hired as an apprentice graphic designer at Bakersmith Graphics under the Ontario government’s Futures program at age 19. He spent some time in Germany with his future wife and settled with her in Guelph, Ontario, in 1994, where he founded his design studio, Lind Design. He has been working as a graphic designer and cartoonist ever since, specializing in branding and publication design for public and cultural institutions, book publishers, social change groups, and small businesses.

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Many thanks to Gareth Lind for sharing a behind-the-scenes look at the design considerations resulting in the Canadian cover of The Singularity by Balsam Karam. The Singularity is available now on All Lit Up or at your favourite indie bookstore.

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