Pictures, covers, design and video are pointers to our content. They summarize our work, hint at our story and whisper out our myth. They support and concentrate focus on the story. They are the body language for a narrative voice.
I’ve been struck recently by the importance of covers and design for books. As often happens when attending to something, it brings your attention to similar ideas, somewhat akin to seeing Mini Coopers everywhere after you buy a Mini Cooper. It seems I’m running into, or recognizing more explicitly, the importance of visual signs towards musical, written and other creative content. Now, of course, the music, book, short story or other content is king; it is the main event. However, these signs help bring attention to and summarize that content. I’ve seen this in Molina Visuals‘ focus on “Imagination for Classical Music.” I’ve seen it played out in the design elements of The Hollow Crown’s Richard II and in a picture portraying how we are swept off our feet reading books. There is a long tradition of this focus in SciFi magazine covers. In this post, I intend to reflect on the use of visuals as signs to non-visual content to highlight their importance. Letting people know and drawing them to content is tough in this world saturated with movies, TV, books, music and magazines from a plethora of sources. We have more access to more content than ever before, whenever we want, and wherever we want. A lot of ink is spilled on how to draw folks in with advertising, social media and events. It’s even more critical for independent artists to be aware of how to do this well since they’re responsible for overseeing it all. Visualization is one way to draw attention (or, at least avoid being over looked) and visual design is one way to keep interest.
Now I’m no SEO guru, advertising genius or visual design artist – I’m simply a very left-brained IT guy coming at this as a consumer: reader, movie watcher, music listener and short story fan. I’m sharing what I’ve seen folks do that works to draw me in. The other part of that left-brain thing is that I notice and analyze patterns. So let’s look at this through examples:
Molina Visuals – Their mission is to “create a strong and unified concept for each project based on an in-depth knowledge of the artists and their work. Our collaborators are classical music enthusiasts and have expertise about the music industry.” I came to know their work through Anne Akiko Meyers’s Four Seasons project and that’s the example I’ll use here. Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni is an oft played piece of classical music that is part of the standard repertoire. It is not only in concert halls, but it is heard in restaurants, hotels and, yes, elevators. How do you make this music project stand out? Well first and foremost, you play it exquisitely while putting your own voicede to it. Say it with me: content is king. Ms. Meyers, does this with aplomb but she does more. She has her whole site revamped with interactive elements done by Molina Visuals that display different seasonal elements to match the seasons in the work. The CD cover and liner match the site. So now we have a cover:
and website that provide a consistent message of elegance that seems to flow right out of nature, much like her playing appears to be a natural extension of herself, flowing, as it were, from her soul. She has a visual story that is indicative of her play and of the concept of the album. She has a visual hook to bring us in for a listen. Her website actively engages us as we scroll through the site we traverse the seasons which provide a snippet of sound and video related to each piece.
UPDATE: Molina have a new post outlining the project: The “Vivaldi Project” With Anne Akiko Meyers
Now it’s likely that most independent writers and musicians would find funding this kind of experience a challenge. There is much that you can do on a reduced scale. The salient point is this: don’t give short shrift to design. Get the best cover as practicable. Put thought into it. Think about the font used. How the elements are brought together. Of course, it needs to match your content. An awesome steampunk girl on a novel about WW I-era female pilots won’t do, nor will Comic Sans font.
Find a way to visually express your imagination.
Another great example is to visually present an idea. Here’s a visual representation of being swept off our feet reading by Michael CS Photography:
This is a meta-picture, if you will. It tells a story about stories. It is arresting and will not be overlooked. So even if it doesn’t directly relate to the explicit narrative, if story telling is a theme in your work, it a viable reinforcing element.
Science Fiction magazines have a long and illustrious history of using visual elements to both invite and hint at what is inside the covers. These often include art as well as short stories. The covers have been interesting since the inception of the genre. Examples can be found from pulp magazine early days such as the 1920s era of Amazing Stories; people are so enamored of the earlier covers that they still vote for their favorites:
Then there’s the more modern magazine such as Bastion Science Fiction which recently produced its inaugural issue. The May issue has an arresting cover with the innocence of a girl on swing (and so we expect a verdant, bucolic background) juxtaposed to a mars-like red planet and dangling precariously from a cliff. Not only does this draw our attention, but the warm tones are reminiscent of the warming days of Spring while the sans serif font points to a modern world with 10 in Bast10n hinting at technology. All of the design elements go into telling the story of Bastion and inviting us into their content of top notch short stories such as Gary Emmette Chandler’s dystopian tale The Endless Flickering Night, where children are juxtaposed to a life digging underground after a wasting war above ground (about which more in an upcoming review).
We even see visual elements within a visual production. While Shakespeare plays are all about the words, that is his gift after all, visual elements help emphasize the message. An excellent example of this is The Hollow Crown’s Richard II.
Richard II “Persecuted”
Mr. Winshaw portrays Richard II as a king in denial, who is “deeply spiritual” and untouched by the world and yet using worldly powers for his own desires. He sees himself as an almost martyr; persecuted by Bollingbroke and the other nobles who take the royal crown from the rightful bearer. Indeed, it is in his loss that he waxes his most poetic.
Before I have shook off the regal thoughts Wherewith I reign’d? I hardly yet have learn’d To insinuate, flatter, bow, and bend my limbs: Give sorrow leave awhile to tutor me To this submission. Yet I well remember The favours of these men: were they not mine? Did they not sometime cry, ‘all hail!’ to me? So Judas did to Christ: but he, in twelve, Found truth in all but one: I, in twelve thousand, none. God save the king! Will no man say amen? Am I both priest and clerk? well then, amen. God save the king! although I be not he; And yet, amen, if heaven do think him me.
Shakespeare, William (2011-09-07). The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kindle Locations 67176-67186). Latus ePublishing. Kindle Edition.
We see this (I might add, clearly false and self-serving) identification with Jesus’s betrayal in his movement and his stance:
The physicality of theater, of movement and voice, gesture and tone bring about the vision for a character along with the words. So besides being sign posts to work, visual elements play a role in emphasizing meaning in a work.
A final example is the use of fonts and layout. Fonts should be indicative of the work. One of the things I love about the English Standard Version Study Bible is its layout and its fonts. They make no bones about the production and indicate quite clearly
|Type Size:||Text: 9pt Lexicon; Notes: 7.25 Frutiger|
|Page Layout||Single Column|
|Additional Features||Sewn Binding|
It represents careful design and order to emulate the God, whose image they bear, in their vocation of producing bibles. The scripture content is no different than any other ESV bible, but it is a joy to read (alas the crispness of the font loses something on this page, go here for better representation):
So, we need to care for cover and font, web site and video. While it’s not the case that if you build out the visuals, they will come, it won’t hurt and it does help. If you are publishing on Kindle, use Kindle Format 8 (KF8) and the latest version of KindleGen and take care of the details like using a publishers font if you have something perfect (otherwise the readers can choose), “real” page numbers and X-Ray. Use great covers and book trailers:
We have many visual weapons in our arsenals to highlight our work, to provide visual support and to enhance the experience of our content. Woo me. Draw me in. Help me to know about you. I have a lot of content available to me and relatively little time. Make me want yours. Of course, the main way I’m going to want your content is that I know you from other work and like it, someone I respect likes your work (telling me via reviews or word of mouth) or something stands out to raise my curiosity. On the flip side, avoid driving me away with a slapped on photo and cheesy bold yellow gothic font (unless you’re going for campy). Inexpensive doesn’t have to mean terrible. Use stills and background classical music (copyright free) to make your book trailer ala Timebound. There’s a thousand ideas from folks much smarting than me about ways to go about it. The main point is to go about it, to take design and visuals into consideration when making your content available. Avoid simply defaulting to out of the box. Don’t ignore possible ways to bring attention and focus. By doing so, you’ll also bring attention to other creative folks (because, of course, you’re going to cite, get permission and, in all other ways, support your fellow artist.)