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A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton

2014 November 22

Here is a portrait I drew of Sir Robert Cotton, English courtier, antiquary and founder the Cotton library that I wrote a book about. Here is a high-resolution versionYou can do whatever you want with them!

Sir Robert Cotton, and his beloved Book of Genesis manuscript

Based on an engraving by George Vertue


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Cotton’s Library design notes

2014 November 17

Front cover of MY NEW BOOK (please buy it)My new book is officially released today. Please check it out. Or just go order a copy. :-)

Some notes on its design, now…

On the whole, design for Cotton’s Library was simpler and easier than Brilliant Deduction. The cover was a relatively direct affair, a rare (for me) opportunity in the “single image plus typography” school of cover design. I had a somewhat different idea, originally, hoping to find an old still life painting with books and papers. I’m sure there’s something like this in the world. But nothing that I found among public domain archives, even with their recent growth, really persuaded me.

So, plan B was stock photography. I believe it worked out entirely well enough. This is a nice, warm image, hinting at age and capturing a bit of dramatic light. The only thing I did to it was replace the printing in the opened book with calligraphy, since Cotton’s library is primarily a manuscript collection. The result, here, is rather unlikely, in that I believe that most of these are paper books and this kind of manuscript page would be more likely in a parchment volume… but, y’know, I’ve never thought this kind of literalism was very profitable in cover design, anyway. (It isn’t like I put Wolverine on the cover and he’s only in the background of one panel, e.g.)

I looked at a few options for typography, but gravitated toward Perpetua Titling, and not for the first time. I think this, too, looks smashing. Perpetua Titling has all the classical elegance and decorum of Trajan, without the baggage of overuse in a zillion often very random applications. I completely reserve the right to use this typeface on a cover yet again, in future.

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Beowulf, first folio

2014 November 7

The image below is a drawing of the first folio of Beowulf, which along with the rest of the manuscript was damaged by a great fire in 1731; for details please see my book Cotton’s Library.

I release this image, and a high-resolution version, free of charge for you to do with it absolutely whatever you want.

Drawing of first folio of Beowulf

It begins, very roughly translated, “check it out, yo.”

All of the pages of the Beowulf manuscript have been photographed multiple times, and are available online from multiple sources, but all of them forbid you from re-using their photos… and good luck getting the British Library to let you take your own photos. As I’ve detailed in this earlier post, this situation seems kind of jerk-y to me. So if you have some need for an image of Beowulf, feel free to use this one!

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ebook production 2014 notes

2014 November 5

With the formal release date for Cotton’s Library less than two weeks away, I have been working to get everything finalized and into the various retail pipelines. I’m going to post some notes, here, about working with this latest go-round, if only for my own future reference.

Preparing the print editions mostly seemed unchanged, for good and bad. Turnaround on proof copies was once again fast, despite the scare timelines presumably meant to nudge you toward premium shipping. I did learn that you can effectively “bleed” printing on the interior edge; a line across the gutter will not reveal any kind of interior margin, although the two sides may not line up perfectly. I also discovered that distribution beyond lulu restricts you to a very small number of formats, which are not really marked as such except by a cryptic little 9×9 pixel icon… so 6×9″ trade it is, I guess. Other than this, there weren’t much in the way of surprises. Their cover builder allows one to specify spine copy… but if you upload your own cover art, as I do, then it seems you’re still stuck with the full title and subtitle or, if that doesn’t fit, no title at all. Bottom line, for the most part it seems to work well enough.

Preparing the ebook…um… yeah.

I really expected this to be a mostly straightforward process. I figured it all out two years ago. I did not see what had changed. I was going to use the same version of the same software, to produce similar content in the same version of the ebook spec, and submit it to the same site. None of the “documentation” that lulu provides looked particularly different.

I’m still not entirely sure what went wrong. Thinking back, things seemed more complicated than they should have from the outset. Maybe I got my files confused, but the typography I used in what I think was the final Brilliant Deduction ebook required various modifications to get the same result in ebook software. No idea why. I added one complication intentionally; since Cotton’s Library is divided into three parts, I used the method that I found here to add some hierarchy to the table of contents. It was a bit of a pain, but it did work as intended and I believe the results were worthwhile.

So, after making these adjustments, running my epub file through a couple of validators, and examining it in two reader programs at length, I figured I was all set. Nnnooooooo-no-no-no.

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Coins of Anglo-Saxon Britain

2014 October 30

Here are drawings I made of four coins from Anglo-Saxon Britain, which formed part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton and are now in the British Museum. (Read about Cotton, his collection and the BM’s history in my book Cotton’s Library!) The image below, as well as this high-resolution version, is absolutely free for you to use however you want!

Drawings of four Dark Age pennies

All four from Britain, not necessarily “British,” though that’s complicated

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Graphic design’s status envy

2014 October 24

Apparently the College of Design signed up a successor to Professor Baer this summer; I managed to miss this until recently, somehow, but last week Mr. Canniffe introduced himself to alumni in a mass e-mail. Having now found a press release about his hiring, I see that it notes similar enthusiasms to those in his e-mail. The presser quotes the dean ascribing to Canniffe “a profound belief in the power of design to make the world a better place.” This belief presumably informed his role in founding “a social design studio that partners with community organizations, activists, researchers, scientists, institutions, politicians and artists to define solutions to societal problems and create change.” Visiting the spartan site of said studio, you’ll find more such lofty statements.

At the risk of being Debbie Downer, I’m skeptical.

I’ve written a bit about this before. For all that, personally, I regard solving societal problems and making the world a better place as both good things, and more important than polishing corporate brands, I remain skeptical that graphic design is really a great tool for the former purposes. My earlier post can probably be summarized by this suggestion: “If you really want to solve hunger or poverty or child abuse, you probably ought to go into biogenetics or politics or social work.”

In revisiting these issues, I’ve had a further thought, however. In addition to the the desire of leftish academics to pursue societal good over corporate ROI—to which I’m sympathetic, certainly—I think this attempt to conjure a “power of design” that solves social problems may be driven by disciplinary insecurity and envy.

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The Cottoniana, an Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi

2014 October 22

Here is a pencil reproduction I drew of a wondrous Anglo-Saxon world map from the Cotton library. You’re free to do whatever you want with this, and with a high-resolution version that I’m also sharing.

Anglo-Saxon world map 'The Cottoniana'

The top represents east; Britain is at lower-left…

You can read more about this map and the Cotton library in my book, though I will also point out this page at Jim Siebold’s Ancient Maps web site. As much as I’m trying to promote my own project, here, Mr. Siebold was kind enough to bless my excerpting some of his comments about the map; if his permission was not strictly necessary it still offers a fine counter-example to the kind of miserliness at which I’m trying to thumb my nose.

As explained in this previous post. Otherwise…

Yeah, again, this one was plenty of work. Duh. I will note that most of the text here is gibberish, standing in for whatever is written on the real map. Even with a high-resolution photo the text is very difficult to make sense of—I think most of it is Latin—and for my purposes it didn’t seem like it would make any difference.

ISU Inspire: Hallelujah

2014 October 16

Just a moment or two before I began this post, a grim gray morning exploded in bright sunshine. Exactly the kind of transformation you associate with a cliched “Haaaa-llelujah” moment in a movie, e.g. Appropriate, though, as I had much the same reaction to the latest issue of the Inspire newsletter from dear auld ISU’s College of Design.

This is the cover:

Front cover of Fall 2014 issue of Inspire

I wish I were this cool

It isn’t bad, by any means, though personally I didn’t really react to it as an exercise in graphic design initially. I know this guy, so that—plus Roger’s daring sartorial choices—distracted me from my usual design critique. Once inside, it took a couple of more pages for me to key back in, but then… read more…

Art of the Lindisfarne Gospels

2014 October 7

Here is a detail of the Lindisfarne Gospels, re-drawn by me for my upcoming book Cotton’s Library. I also have a high-resolution version. You can do whatever you like with these images!

Drawing of part of the Lindisfarne Gospels

A small detail from (where else) the Gospel of Matthew

Now for details and other notes…

The Lindisfarne Gospels are a magnificent illuminated manuscript, created in medieval England. For the past four centuries, the book has been part of the Cotton library, which is today a part of The British Library in London. For a bit more about the book of Lindisfarne and much more about the Cotton library, I encourage you once again to have a look at my book. :-)

The above image is a pencil drawing I made of part of the manuscript. It was certainly an enlightening experience. The complexity of reproducing just this small section of one page, in monochrome, from a model, really brought home the artistry of master illuminators. Astonishing.

That said, my original motivation for doing this had nothing to do with art appreciation, drawing practice, or even converting a color image for reproduction in a black and white book. The British Library’s web site hosts high-res images of the entire manuscript—I used one of them for my reference—and I could have made any of them into perfectly serviceable grayscale images with Photoshop. Except they claim exclusive intellectual property rights to their digital photos of a centuries-old manuscript, despite the fact that they are a public institution.

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Pro tip: inkwell pencil sharpener blades

2014 September 8
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A little tip if you have or ever acquire one of these fantastic glass “inkwell” pencil sharpeners:

They look like this

The sharpener itself is marked “DUX” and “ALVIN,” in case anyone searches those terms

You can replace the blade when it wears out. (Which does happen, eventually; when the sharpener starts constantly snapping off pencils’ lead, the blade has gone dull.)

The 530S blades from Kum are compatible. I post this information because a while ago, I decided to investigate the possibility of replacement blades, and could not find a whole heck of a lot. Eventually, I found a message board post that implied the 530S blades might be compatible. I decided to give it a shot, because they look similar to the original blade.

I can now confirm, in case anyone else goes looking for this intel: yes, they work. Purchase them with confidence. All you need to swap the old blade for a new one is a Phillips head screwdriver and a bit of patience. Plenty of online vendors sell the 530S blades; here’s one.