Half the Work Is Simply Staring: an Interview with Alban Fischer
Without meaning to, I’ve been collecting Alban Fischer’s work for the past couple of years. (A few from my stash, above.) He’s designed poetry and fiction for some of my favorite small presses, including Horse Less Press, Yes Yes Books, as well as magazines like (his own) Trnsfr and Pank. So you’ve likely noticed his work too. There’s a layered warmth to his book covers that appeals to me, a sense of tactility even when I’m looking at them in digital form. They’re complex but uncluttered, and clean/open but not slick. They don’t scream, but are easily heard. Fischer’s designs succeed in attracting my attention, piquing my curiosity, and compelling me to hold and open the book even when I’m coming clueless to the writing inside. So I thought for this week’s By the Cover, we could look at a few of his designs, and I’d ask him some nosy questions about his process, to get some insight into how his designs work, and how he does. (If this goes OK, it’ll be the first in a series of designer interviews.)
Alban Fischer is the author of the poetry chapbook Status Area (Varmint Armature, 2011). His first full-length manuscript, Fake Moon, is currently making the rounds. His work has appeared in BlazeVox, Kindling, Past Simple, Thieves Jargon, Untoward, and elsewhere. He is the founding editor of Trnsfr and a content editor at Artifice. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI, where he designs things in exchange for food.
Take a look at Alban’s portfolio at Cargo Collective.
Like several of the small press designers I know, you’re also a writer. Which interest came first?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since eleven or twelve years old. Up until then, I’d wanted to be an artist, though I didn’t, obviously, fully understand what that means. (Well into my twenties, even, I secretly fantasized about “making it” as an artist.) Although I was artistically inclined, and painted and made collages all the time, I never imagined I’d eventually make my living as a graphic designer. It was only after I decided to start a literary journal that I even thought much about design. All I knew was I that wanted to make a kind of art object. I wanted to make a ridiculous, cumbersome thing you’d want to keep around and handle and stare at. (I now like to say that half the work of design is simply staring.) But I didn’t know anyone who “did” design or even where to start. Eventually I found out the industry standard, more or less, was InDesign, so I taught myself.
After I managed to put Trnsfr out into the world, I began getting requests from friends to design things here and there. Even then, I didn’t really think of myself as a designer. It was just something I did. A few years later, I was out of work for a short period and it was then that I realized I’d developed a skill I could exploit. And eventually it turned into a full time job. But it took several years of working a grueling day job and designing books in—almost literally—all my free time.
I’m curious about your process. Do your designs start on paper, or do you go straight to the computer? Do you see imagery first, or start with type? What are the steps typically like for you?
Sometimes it starts with pencil and paper, but it’s always only very rudimentary—a kind of visual note-taking. And sometimes I go straight to the computer. I don’t know what the deciding factor is, exactly—design is so intuitive a process (for me, anyway)—but I think it’s concepts more than images that I “see.” Often I’ll sketch something if I’m not at my computer. I’m more likely to jump right in if I am. In which case, it typically begins with a type treatment. It’s important to me that a book have a synergistic, or at the very least complimentary, relationship between cover and interior, so sometimes, I’ll even start with page layout. And sometimes I’m provided with an image or artwork or for the cover, so any manipulation is very minimal. But when I do have the chance to build a cover from the ground up, I’ll take notes as I read the book before I start drafting anything.
Interesting—I tend to start with type too, and usually get the interior designed first (if I’m doing both), and always think of how they relate. I sketch on paper first (but I write that way too.)
What was the first book you designed? If you were asked to do it again now, would it be the same? Have your approach and influences changed?
I don’t remember what my first book was, actually. Well, it was Trnsfr—but as far as books, it must have been something for Tiny Hardcore Press or YesYes Books. But, yeah, I would definitely have done it differently—even without knowing for certain what it was. I will always, invariably, no matter how satisfied I am with it upon completing its design, pick apart a book upon receiving the hard copy in the mail. I always see things I feel I could have done better. I’m neurotic. And sometimes I do get to do things differently—Curbside Splendor just wrapped up the second edition of Amber Sparks’s May We Shed These Human Bodies, so it was nice to be given the chance to go back and finesse things. And I got to do a new cover.
I’m not sure my approach has really changed—deepened, perhaps, or expanded. My influences have certainly broadened. After you’ve been doing this for a while, you start to see design everywhere—because it is everywhere. So I can look at a box of cereal and think, You know, this design is really smart. But also, I think design has always been something I was drawn to without really knowing I was drawn to it. So I’ve followed designers without consciously feeling that their work was influencing me.
I enjoy seeing the different iterations of a single cover in your portfolio, which is one reason I like poking around in your Facebook album. Do you have a favorite “alternate take”—a design you loved but wasn’t chosen as the final cover?
Again, Amber Sparks’s May We Shed These Human Bodies. The first time around I did a number of sketches. Only two of them were really any good. I’ve always kind had a soft spot for the alternate—though I’m happy with what we ultimately went with—the way the tree rings echo the fingerprint, and vice versa, the whole thing kind of forming an ersatz face. But with the new edition I was able to integrate the concepts of the final cover and this alternate cover, folding the fingerprint and tree rings together into a retro design, which is something Amber really wanted to see, which I think makes a lot of sense for this book.
Eric Amling asked me do come up with a few sketches for his first book (some of which I’m really proud), but ended up going with one of his own designs. [Fischer’s and Amling’s both below.]
I’m quite happy with a cover I did for John Colasacco’s first book as well [shown below], but he’d already previously settled on another design. There are others, I’m sure, but these are the first ones that comes to mind.
And how much do you like to know about a book, before you begin? Do you read it, or part of it, or is a description and some direction from the publisher enough info?
As much as possible. I always read a book first, if I can. More often than not, I design both cover and interior, so obviously I’m usually able. But reading a book in preparation for designing it is weird. You’re not really reading, not fully. You’re on the lookout for images, colors, themes, resonances. I’m still surprised at how different a reading experience a finished book is from its pre-design form. It’s a little like riding passenger for the first time on a road you’ve always only driven: you finally see it. Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to read a book beforehand, though. Sometimes, when doing just the cover, I’m not provided with the manuscript. Sometimes there just isn’t time to read it. Losing In Gainesville, for instance, I wasn’t able to read beforehand—not fully anyway—though this is another one for which I did both cover and interior (luckily, though, the front panel had already been done by artist Ryan Duggan). Due to various problems—the not infrequent logistical issues that can come up from time to time in publishing—this book had to be put together very quickly. I pulled a few all-nighters to get it done in time.
How does designing a magazine cover differ from designing a book cover? What changes about your concerns and emphasis?
You’re provided a broader canvas with a magazine cover. You can be a little “artsier,” a little more abstract. Lately, I’ve been trying to introduce a bit more randomness, a bit more non-linearity into my work. And magazine covers are very well-suited to this. You’re working more with tone than content. You’re not trying to tell or or show; you’re trying to sum up, at most. If even that. You’re trying to cajole, in a way. That might seem counter-intuitive to say, given that book covers are so commercial in that they’re effectively advertisements for themselves. But I think a magazine cover has more to do with enticement because its basic constituent curated parts constitute a mood. There’s something sensuous about trying to project that mood.
Thank you so much for talking with me for Real Pants, Alban! I love your work, which I hope is obvious. I’m not going to have space to work it in here, but the design for Sheila Squillante’s Beautiful Nerve is just gorgeous. I particularly loved the contrast between the ultra-flat and randomized arrangement of the type and the soft glow in the master-style painting. I gasped when I saw it the first time. Really beautiful, and the title is a visual poem in itself. Then the back cover is a shock, in a good way. (Click the link to see that.) Oh wait, I guess I did have space to work it in.
Right now I can’t find my copy in this disaster I call a personal library, but one of the first Fischer-designed books I laid my hands on was Corey Zeller’s Man Vs. Sky (Yes Yes, 2013). Rather than discuss at any length how I think Fischer’s approach supports the poems, I’ll just show you:
Man Vs. Fountain
Of the red liquid in my fingers where I have lain out naked I have nothing to say. Paul Celan has become a fountain. He pours blonde birds from his mouth that peck each other to death. If not that, they build their own cages to soon peck each other to death. Neruda is the same as he was before. He reaches inside his fat stomach and pulls out flowers to pass to the skeletons of women. He says: if you still had hair I would wind myself in it like a tarantula, wind it round my neck till it was the only thing that held me between the air and the light. The skeletons stick the stems through their ribs like knives and arrows. The flowers in their bellies make them look like cherry blossom trees, petals floating from them as they walk away.