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Judith Stagnitto Abbate describes following Douglas Coupland's visual cues in her design of Generation X


There are some books whose designs have to be coaxed laboriously into shape, and others that practically arrive on your desk fully realized due to the sheer personality of both the author and the manuscript. Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture was definitely the latter.

Frankly, it's one of the reasons I can still recall it 18 years and hundreds of book designs later. My design goal was essentially to stay out of the way graphically and just allow Doug's characters and vision to shine.

Doug may not recall this, but I remember him strolling into our art department at St. Martin's Press in New York, looking (aside from the preppy sweater) like any of the other young, jeans-clad designers there. He was quiet spoken and it was the most casual of exchanges, but seeing him added a slight electrical charge to the project: he was our age. One of us. Books quite like this — about, conceived and designed by twentysomethings — hadn't come around very often. Let's face it, ever. There was a moment of glee as I realized the possibilities. I could go to town with the design or deliberately underplay, knowing that the team would "get" whatever cultural references I toyed with.

I begin any design with the same question: What does this need to convey? The answer was already supplied in this case. The manuscript was accompanied by a series of illustrations by Doug and Toronto-based illustrator Paul Rivoche — a stack of pages composed of Paul's wry comic book tableaus and Doug's Gen X mantras.

Along with a list of now-famous definitions ("McJob"), they provided an instant snapshot of Andy, Claire and Dag's world and, more important, an unmistakable design direction. Sardonic, unflinchingly honest and helplessly ambivalent about the future, these characters needed a text design as direct and utilitarian as the semi-disposable Swedish furniture they sat on. That meant no ornamentation, a sturdy sans-serif font and above all, space.

The last one was never easy. While designers view expanses of white paper as evocative, publishers often looked on them with admittedly more practical eyes — as wasted space that should be filled to reduce the page counts and manufacturing costs. Luckily the editor, Jim Fitzgerald, was a step ahead. Always genuinely supportive of book design's impact on the final product, he'd requested a square trim size that allowed plenty of room next to the text for the various illustrations. It also provided the visual breathing space that I felt the story craved. Andy, Claire and Dag were adrift both emotionally and literally as they traveled the California desert, so the text pages needed to feel empty and austere, with text blocks floating on the page.

I'm partial to books with a sense of design continuity from front cover to index, so I knew I'd like to carry some element from the jacket through the interior. St. Martin's was blessed with a true symbiotic relationship between the cover and text design departments. We routinely wandered into each others' cubicles, coffee in hand, to trade design ideas. Because of this, I'd gotten a glimpse of the disturbing sky photo on the cover, and knew it was fraught with text-design possibilities. I typically like to start with title pages, so I began there. This was designed pre-Macintosh, so the layout would have consisted of Xeroxes pasted up on board: the type copied on acetate, with tracing paper over the cloud photo to simulate screened printing.

The title appeared confident on the jacket (by necessity) but I thought it should have a different feel in the interior: less assured, unmoored. The title's set one or two points smaller than Doug's name for imbalance. It's almost imperceptible, but it recedes slightly with the background clouds.

Chapter openers were next. The sky was used here, too, with an exaggerated halftone screen for "grunge appeal" in keeping with the illustrations. After some experimentation with various layouts, I decided to center it within the text block itself, where it seemed alternately expansive or claustrophobic: Depending on how you view it, it appears to be either a window piercing the text or a slice of sky imprisoned on all sides by structured lines — which felt apropos to the story. The rest of the chapter opener layout is a simple bisected page, to mirror the distinctive halved format on the cover.

The text was designed with utter simplicity in mind: Bodoni, generously leaded, with the marginalia spaced widely apart. The idea was that the interest should come mainly from texture — the grainy style of the illustrations, uncoated paper, the rough front pages.

While you're working on something, you honestly never think about what will become of it. Each book is truly unique and important, whether the print run is large or modest. Witnessing how Generation X — and Doug's enormous creative impact on our culture — remains fresh and relevant is a reminder what an honour it is to be a small part of the publishing process.

Designer Judith Stagnitto Abbate is based in the greater Philadelphia area.

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