Monday, July 4, 2011

Creating a Cover: Looking at WPA Posters

Some may be wondering about how long it's taking for me to do a cover for a 99 cent novelette, which hasn't even been written yet. It doesn't actually take that long to do a cover. I'm doing two things here -- I'm using this as a jumping off point for various subjects, and I'm also going through the creative process of developing a brand.

The period for this alternate world story is what I call "Golden Years of Silent Movies" or approx 1914 to 1927. But it isn't an actual historical so I'm not worried about evoking an exact year. Going for general Art Deco feel is the main thing.... and it was a little later that Art Deco really hit the pop culture end of design.

And for ebook designers in particular, it doesn't hurt to look at the wonderful posters by the Works Progress Administration (later Work Projects Administration). Most people these days don't know too much about the WPA. You may live in a town with a post office built by it -- although that old building may have been converted to a restaurant or something else by now.

During the Great Depression, the WPA acted as form of stimulus, hiring people to do works for the public good of all kinds. Not just building roads and buildings, either. One fun story I heard in grad school is that there was a program to provide manual labor for archeaological digs for colleges. Later on, some of the road construction managers complained that their workers, whenever they found an artifact, would set up a grid system and carefully record all the finds in the road way! (Unfortuantely, in later years, archaeologists came to realize that just recording the locations of items wasn't as important as a whole lot of other things they could do in studying soil, etc. And it probably would have been better to not dig the sites at all. The roadways, though, they would have been destroyed anyway.)

Among the creative people the WPA hired were writers, musicians, actors, jugglers, and yes, artists. The writers and musicians largely went out and recorded folkways and oral histories (and unlike the archaeology, much of what they recorded would have been lost if they hadn't done so). The artists, though, made posters. All kinds of posters, safety warnings, travel posters -- lots and lots and lots of travel posters. The idea was to help small communities struggling in the depression.

The posters were largely woodcuts, with simplified colors and style, and are largely a lesson in design. This safety poster is a lesson in itself. Everything about it is clear, even in thumbnail. The goggles at the center make a striking image. They are the only white in the image other than the unprinted boarder, and where they aren't white, they are blue -- which is the compliment, or opposite color to the predominant orange of the rest of the image. You don't even have to read the subtitle "use your goggles" because "SAVE YOUR EYES" and the goggles themselves are all the reminder you need.

This poster is an interesting one color-wise. RGB monitors notwithstanding, the primary colors of reflective material (i.e the real world) are Red, Yellow and Blue. Those are the inks used in this poster. It is one of the basic color schemes. This poster, though, evokes two other color schemes. One is complementary -- where you stick to two colors which are opposite each other on the color wheel. Blue and orange are complements -- and though the inks used here are red and yellow, they are mostly blended to make orange, or in the case of the face, with a little black to make brown. The other color scheme that it evokes to me, though technically it isn't, is split-complementary. That's when you use complementary colors, but instead of using an exact complement one one end, you use close colors on either side.

This travel to Sea Cliff poster is another that feels like both a primary color scheme and split complementary. They've fiddled with the basic colors, pushing the blue toward purple (which would be the opposite of a yellow-orange) and then pushed the red a little toward orange.

The main thing about this one is the really dynamic design. First there's the dark foreground of blue and black, a foreground with an active human figure in it. Dark and cool colors recede, and "feel" like background. The background here, though, is vibrant -- almost jumping out at us with its brightness. It really makes us notice the negative space.

And, of course, there is a further aspect -- one most people would notice right away: the figure of the human is also leaping, as across a chasm. He hasn't landed yet, so even though his back foot is on the ground, there is nothing supporting him at the moment. Nothing to stop his fall. We expect him to make it, but he isn't there yet. This is like the moments of tension I talked about in my post about N. C. Wyeth and that image from Treasure Island.

I have more examples I'd like to talk about, but I don't have time this week, so I'll just end with one more point which is important to ebook cover creators: The fonts. In both cases here, the fonts are quite simple, and the most important element ("Sea Cliff" and "Save Your Eyes") is legible even when you shrink it down to sub-thumbnail size. They both use fonts with some style to them, however. It's just a more subtle style.

The Sea Cliff poster has more text, but not all of it has to be visible in a thumbnail. In this case the title and the dynamic image are likely to make you look closer, at least if you are interestd in travelling to cliffs by the sea.

As you see, I am posting this at midday, rather than at midnight the night before. Since I'm not posting as much for the duration of the dare, I'm going to experiment a bit with the time of day of postings. I'll tell you why in the Wednesday Update post.

See you in the funny papers.

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