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Sherlock Holmes DIY, early attempts

2011 June 14

And I mean really, really early, as in 1998.

While I continue to mull over various options for a set of Sherlock Holmes books, as well as the persistent nudgings from author and self-publisher Sean that I make my own, I’ve been reminded of the first time I tried my hand at designs for one of Sir Arthur’s detective-story collections.

Student cover designs for The Return of Sherlock Holmes

Yes, my work... from when I was NINETEEN okay?

This was from my fall studio course at dear auld ISU, during my junior year, and was one of the first graphic design assignments where we were allowed to do something other than relatively abstract projects, as I recall. Why I ended up with Sherlock Holmes, I don’t remember; it may well have been randomly assigned, or at least a selection from a list of choices provided by our professor.

In any event, while not an ardent fan, I was happy enough to work on it. Can’t say that the results were that great, of course, at any rate not as potential designs for a real book cover rather than practice studies…

In fact, in looking over the various designs I produced, this morning, I recalled that this project was closely-tied to one of the more memorable reversals-of-fortune during my student years.* At the conclusion of our first full year in the graphic design program, we’d had what was known as “sophomore reviews” and pinned up our work on the studio wall for any and all of the graphic design faculty to critique. I was a big hit at sophomore review; my work was well-received and I said just the right things in response. Felt pretty impressed with myself. Of course, pride goeth…

Several months later, halfway through my junior year we repeated this exercise with “semester reviews,” which was rather a different experience for yours truly. The fact that I overslept and was late merely set the tone; subsequently I was ripped to shreds, particularly by one rather peevish and unpleasant man (who, fortunately, I never had to suffer through an actual class with) who seemed almost personally offended by what he considered the illegibility of some of these cover designs.

Student cover designs for The Return of Sherlock Holmes

yeah... eh.

Well, “pppbbbblltttttttt!!!” I mean come on. In fairness to nineteen-year-old me, this was 1998; amidst the popularity of grunge type, I was getting hammered for the “illegibility” of some mediocre self-designed ultracondensed but otherwise traditional serif lettering?

No, these aren’t really great, all the same. The magnifying-glass design almost works, at least as a layout, though the Adobe Illustrator faux-3D magnifying glass and the Adobe Photoshop lens flare aren’t going to win any awards. The design to the right of that, with the colorized photo, is kind of interesting even if it’s more of a movie-poster than a book cover. If I was way over-reliant on digital design tools at this point, I may have just about made up for that here through sheer effort; I have no idea how I produced that swirling-fog effect but I know it was more through sheer brute-force patient effort than through application of efficient trickery.

And, ultimately, a dozen years later and after much searching of actual, professionally-published Sherlock Holmes titles… I have to say that on the whole these efforts really aren’t much short of the “industry average.” Which, unfortunately, is due much more to low standards on publishers’ parts rather than to brilliance on the part of my student self…

* This also reminds me of another story which, after this experience, I felt justified in having a laugh at even though there was more than a little cruelty involved…

Spring semester of this same junior year saw my studiomates and I busy at work on a poster design project, the context for a sad but educational parable of one young woman’s own, even more-remarkable, reversal of fortune. She was working with a historic subject which lent itself very well to a sort of 1920s-to-1950s vintage look, all of which placed it right up the alley of our professor who also taught our design history courses and loved that kind of stuff. So he happily spent considerable class time every day with this young woman, tossing out ideas and suggestions and ultimately, it was quite obvious, basically art-directing the project himself. Which the young woman in question was perfectly content with, seemingly very reasonably; her project seemed like a guaranteed win.

And yet she was being led down the garden path the entire time. When the project deadline arrived along with time for critique, my largely self-directed poster was actually defended by our professor (vindication!) while he cheerily deconstructed the young woman’s seeming “guaranteed win,” piece by piece. “Why did you do this, did you consider that, etc., etc.”

I think the poor girl eventually made some attempt to protest the unfairness and point out “but you told me,” but she knew as well as any of us that this would cut no ice. As this very professor always said, “you’re the designer.”

Of course, the whole thing was a bit mean and even sadistic. Yet, in addition to being quite educational, for my part at least I couldn’t help seeing the humor, particularly because our teacher was so cheery and plainly-amused, himself, while springing his meticulously-laid trap. Ah memories.

3 Responses
  1. June 14, 2011

    I’m amused that the magnifying glass cover LOOKS so very late 90s. Limitations of the technology, of course, but that it can look so dated so quickly is fascinating. That said, I do think the way you’ve broken the “Sherlock Holmes” text worked surprisingly well there from a readability standpoint. The other designs, interestingly, come across as a little more timeless, even if they aren’t supremely well designed.

    Of the four, I’m probably most partial to the black cover. Largely because of the font treatment on “Sherlock Holmes.” Probably not the most ideal font there and it could stand some kerning adjustments, but the wordforms with the ultra-high ascenders strike me as the most visually interesting.

    I think we had three book cover projects while I was in school. I only dimly remember my designs, but I’m pretty sure they all stunk. I did try briefly pulling out my old files but, oh darn, they seem to be unopenable.

    Also: nudge nudge. 😉

  2. Matt permalink
    June 14, 2011

    Lens flares… usually a reliable giveaway of late-90s Gee-whiz Photoshop Magic™.

    The typography on the black cover has its good points, I think (and not just because it irritated Prof. Gruber). I can see elements which really failed, now, like the “m” and the “s,” but overall a decent effort.

    I’m not entirely sure why I drew so much of my own lettering in school, I think it was mostly because after sketching something out it just seemed more natural to do a refined drawing and then render that in Illustrator, rather than hunt around for a typeface which would never really quite fit the shapes and proportions I’d had in mind. Aside from my college internship, this habit naturally met its end very soon upon going to work in the “real world.” I should do a post on this some time, in any event.

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