A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Design Monograph

So, I have a book coming out this coming Spring. It’s called Cover, and it is now available for preorder.

And I'm really proud of it.

It occurred to me, a couple years back, that design careers follow a certain inevitable path, and that upon this path there are certain compulsory benchmarks. Namely, after having producing enough passable design to have established a reputation—and after having participated in the requisite interviews, given the obligatory talks, and pursued the necessary whimsical side projects of varying natures—it is de rigeur that that a designer should then publish a book of his or her work.

A monograph.

A design monograph.

A design monograph is a peculiar kind of book. Most books of this sort will state that they are “by” the designer in question—though often this attribution is misleading. The work shown in a design monograph will be (hopefully, exclusively) “by” that designer, but this doesn’t mean that the book is “by” the designer; at least not in the same sense that, say, a novel is “by” a novelist.  There are exceptions, but most design books of this sort are really just compilations; collections; showcases. Often these design books seem no different than design portfolio— Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with a design portfolio in book format, it’s just: the “by” part of the equation has always felt a little off to me.

(A book, I thought, rather smugly, should be: a book- i.e. it should be written; and it should furthermore be written…by its author. This is, admittedly, a personal prejudice.)

For this, and other reasons, mostly mysterious to me, the whole idea of making a design book felt vaguely distasteful. And I certainly wasn’t interested in publishing one of my own.

The making this book, Cover wasn’t, in fact, my idea (as if that excuses it!)— I was approached by Wes de Val at Powerhouse Books, who had the idea that I should compile a collection of my own work in book form- and thinking that this was the expected thing- I agreed and this is exactly what I did. And now I am glad that I have done so. And I sincerely hope you are too. (Why the change of heart? Keep reading.)

Cover is comprised of my design work—the designs I’ve dreamt up, mostly book covers, from these last eleven years since I left the piano to embark upon this weird and wonderful path.

There is also writing in this book- by me: some of my own stray thoughts on design and books (some of which has already appeared on this blog- some of which hasn’t) as well as essays from some of the writers and designers I’ve been fortunate enough to know, and/or work for and with over this short span of time. The list includes (and I can’t quite believe my immense good fortune in having corralled such talent)

James Gleick, Ben Marcus, Jo Nesbø, Jane Mendelsohn, Jed Perl, Chip Kidd, Nicholas Fox Weber, Tom McCarthy, Alexander Maksik and others.


This book should be (if I may say so) an interesting read for anyone interested in books, and book design, or just design in general. (And hopefully the pictures will be pleasing and inspirational as well.)


So: I recall, very clearly, only now, after having committed myself to the publication of this book, that it was precisely this kind of design book that helped me become a designer in the first place. (I remember this now with some ambivalence.) Without any training, and without the time or money to acquire any, I was forced to haunt the shelves of various outlets of the then-newly-resurrected Barnes and Nobles franchise. There used to be an entire “design” section in these stores (as well as shelves with other kinds of books on them—all of these shelves now housing DVD’s-past-their-expiration-dates, Harry Potter wands, kitten calendars and Avengers desk lamps.) There, at B&N, I bought “how-to” books; manuals on the various software I’d need to know how to use (Quarkxpress 4!) but also books made up of the design work of others—either volumes like, say, “best business cards, 2002!” or “Stellar Identities!” or else anthologies of the work of one particular designer. I learned, like most designers do, through looking.

See, this was how a person used to see much of the interesting design work being done—in book form. Sure, there was the work that was impossible to miss, the ubiquitous “big campaign stuff”—but for the more esoteric brand of design, these books were all we had. The internet, of course, has since obviated the need for such books.

(Though that doesn’t mean they aren’t fun to own —Cover! Only $40.50!)

And the putative obsolescence of design monographs doesn’t help explain why I had developed such distaste for the genre.  Why had I resisted the idea so? Why, and when, did the idea of making a design book become anathema to my delicate sensibilities?

Because no one had yet to ask me to make one?

Maybe. But there’s more to it than that.

Nobody wants to seem like they are tooting their own horn. And this is a big part of it too. A book of one’s own work seems like bragging; preening. It is bad manners; in poor taste. (As my boss and friend Carol Carson likes to say: “Get over yourself!”)

And there is still another, deeper origin to my disinclination towards design books. Upon reflection, I recently determined that I seem to have been hedging, and still am hedging, even after all these years, about calling myself a “designer” at all.

I don’t think I’ve ever fully liked the idea of design as a profession. I have never completely self-identified as a designer. (I’ll plumb the twisted psychology of this at some later date—it obviously has something to do with being obliged to leave my old career, music.) But suffice it to say that somehow, despite all this time I’ve spent designing, I still had still been thinking about design as a stop-gap occupation between being a pianist, and being some glorious third thing altogether.

Well, the publication of this book was a clarion call to myself, that perhaps what I am is what it says I am on my business card.

(We are all, in fact, not what we hope to be, but what we spend our time actually doing.)

So, here it is: I am a designer.

My name is Peter Mendelsund, and I am a designer. And that is that.


But then…


About a month and a half ago, I was working on retrofitting an essay that I thought at the time needed to be included in this book of mine: Cover. It was a blog post I wrote up over the course of a week, about a year or so ago, about seeing and reading. It was called “picturing books,” and it used to be listed to the right of this post, under the heading “popular posts.”

Maybe some of you read it?

The phenomenology of the reading experience has always interested me, as an avid reader, but since I’ve become (he admits, again) a designer, the sensuous aspects of this act are now a part of my every working day.

Only a week after the post went up, I grew regretful over the topics I didn’t have time to explore in the piece, including sections on metaphor, on synecdoche, and all of the other things “seeing” can mean in the context of reading a book. But my life is very full, and I forgot about the piece, and its gaps, entirely.

Until I started editing the essay again.

Then I set about filling in the gaps.

Ten pages became twenty; twenty became a hundred; a hundred became three-hundred. Three hundred became….

I illustrated the entire thing.

In these four recent (exhausting) weeks, I had written… a book.


A little more background: I’d written books before—I’ve just never seen fit to try to publish them. That is because all of these books were really, really bad.

I was asked by an editor at Knopf in 2008 (?) to write a book on Beethoven, which didn’t work out, as I was incapable of writing a decent book about Beethoven. We hired someone else to write it instead. I wrote a book length un-packing of the book designer’s art, called “Fictions,” which ended up so impenetrable and insular that this was shelved too. Around the time I was designing the new paperback covers for James Joyce, I wrote a very long family history in the style of James Joyce. Let us not speak of that project ever again.

But this book, this new book, about the feeling of reading, it was simply (there’s no other way to describe the feeling of it) publish-able.

(Some writer said on Twitter recently that knowing that your writing is a book is like finally knowing that you want to marry someone: by the time it hits you, you can’t believe how lucky you are. This is how this book felt to me.)

A week after I had something in good enough form to show it around, (last week) I inquired after an agent, showed it around; it was read by several editors at a couple of different houses— (speed was of the essence: I knew that if I didn’t sell the thing that it would become another enormous stack of paper on the floor next to my bed and that I would never re-visit it and eventually it would be thrown out or used as scrap paper for phone messages) and it was bought, by Vintage, quickly, by editor Jeff Alexander. And it will be a French-flapped paperback original (which was exactly how I envisioned it. A hardcover offer was looming, which was eschewed.) And this book comes some mere months after Cover in 2014.

It is called (rather more directly than its original title):

What We See When We Read.

And I couldn’t be happier.


WWSWWR is a little book to Cover’s large, art book trim-size.

WWSWWR is mostly words, with some pictures; Cover is the opposite.

WWSWWR describes what I see when I read; Cover shows what I saw when I read.

They are siblings, these two books. And I hope they represent, together, a more holistic view of my professional interests.


And as a coda:

How do I self-describe now?

Well most certainly: as a designer. I’m proud to be one. Now more than ever.

I am just beginning to understand that the mandate given a designer is quite a bit broader than what I initially presumed it was.

It took me chaffing at the boundaries of my job description to discover this.

But we can talk more about all that in 2015.

I intend to sleep for a good long while.

It’s been a bit tiring, these last four or so weeks.

Thanks for reading,

All my best,