In June of 2009, I received an email from Tammy Lu, a Canadian visual artist then based in Bournemouth, UK, inviting me to participate in the design of a new series of books for the open-access academic publisher Open Humanities Press (ohp), to be entitled New Metaphysics. Now four and a half years later, this groundbreaking series has four titles to its name, though Lu and I have created covers for six volumes. She writes of
Graham Harman (a philosopher) is co-editing (…) the series with Bruno Latour, and as you will see on the website, the Editorial Advisory Board is made up of some of the most influential and well-known academics in their respective fields from top institutions around the world .
While Lu would be developing images for the covers of each volume, my task would be to develop a graphic identity for the series and to design the covers and templates for the interiors. From its inception, the design and illustration associated with each volume reflected a deep engagement with the theme and content of the books, such that we worked closely on the covers and oversaw the production of final files.
OHP is an international effort that works as an imprint of MPublishing out of the University of Michigan’s Scholarly Publishing Office. Thus they are able to distribute peer-reviewed scholarly publications as print monographs as well as making them available on the internet. In the words of OHP, open access publishing is about “…making peer-reviewed literature permanently available, free of charge and freely redistributable by taking advantage of the low cost and wide access of internet distribution”.
From a design perspective, this is a valuable and commendable project; the press seeks to counter the “digital credibility” problem in academic publishing, where printed words are perceived as being more valuable than words on screen. It also embodies an increasingly important publishing model, one that combines international collaboration with open source and print-on-demand production. The press makes use of an international board and puts proposed manuscripts through a rigorous peer-review process, after which they are subject to the same editorial demands as ones destined for the press.
The editorial goals of the New Metaphysics series are ambitious:
The New Metaphysics series aims to provide a safe house for [original speculative metaphysics] amidst the demoralizing caution and prudence of professional academic philosophy. We do not aim to bridge the analytic-continental divide, since we are equally impatient with nail-filing analytic critique and the continental reverence for dusty textual monuments. We favor instead the spirit of the intellectual gambler, and wish to discover and promote authors who meet this description. Like an emergent recording company, what we seek are traces of a new metaphysical ‘sound’ from any nation of the world .
The series has gained some acclaim; the cover for the first volume, The Democracy of Objects by Levi Bryant (Figure 1), was featured in David Evans’ Critical Dictionary, under the letter ‘T’ for ‘Thing’ . It was also included in the 2012 Critical Dictionary exhibition at WORK Gallery in London, UK.
The Design Process
Working remotely on the design of the series has been a learning process, and one that has required patience in working with a team whose members are based around the world. Lu and I have alternately (but not simultaneously) been based in the UK and in Canada. Series editor Graham Harman is in Egypt, and the typography and typesetting requires coordination with series editor David Ottina, a co-founder of OHP, who is currently based in Australia.
The challenge of creating a consistent, elegant layout appropriate for work in metaphysics, that is easy to navigate in print, e-book and online versions, has given me a lot of insight into the translatability and limitations of the different formats. Because the books are freely available as open access electronic books as well as in paperback form, the typesetting and design needs to be appropriate for reading onscreen as well as in print. As a Print-On-Demand (POD) book, the design has to conform to a series of production constraints. These include limits on the page sizes and spine widths, the use of default page and cover stocks, and fairly wide margins (of error) in printing on interior pages (13mm) and on the cover (6mm). The overall design of the series aims to be elegant and scholarly regardless of the mode of production, and to reflect the status of the series despite the vagaries of POD production quality.
Stylistically, the design of the series is meant to be a contemporary take on a scholarly work desk; the typography is old-school Humanist without being precious, and the labels on the cover and hand-drawn artwork suggest an older world, hand-made and letterpress-printed. This approach is intended to accommodate the widest variety of background drawings, rather than interfering with them. The conceptual labels on the cover harken back to old stationery and allow for repositioning according to the features of each drawing. They are thus modular in two ways: the labels can move to accommodate the background, but also grow or shrink to conform to the text lengths of different titles and blurbs, as with the longer title on the dynamic cover of Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin’s New Materialism (Figure 2).
The design process for each book is different, and involves varying degrees of interaction with Lu. For some volumes, I was provided with the artwork and have designed around it. For others, we collaborated more closely, as with Ontological Catastrophe by Joseph Carew (Figure 3), for which I did some manipulation of the artwork including mirroring and colour correction.
For the cover drawings, Lu’s creative process is an organic one that begins with a consideration of the raw manuscript, book title and blurbs:
Rather than “illustrating” specific concepts or passages, I begin working from an initial feeling/impression inspired by the text, gradually visualising and folding it into the general flow of ideas and projects I am working on at that given time.
The overall composition for a cover could be derived from a sense of energy /direction intuited during that initial reading, or be developed in contrast to a previous book cover, or be a formal experiment. Visual details then develop naturally in response to relevant thoughts, questions, mark-making and images that occur to me and are laid down on the page as a drawing progresses .
Her approach for the covers is also sensitive to design elements such as the back cover blurb and spine width, without sacrificing the concept of a wrap-around image. She has, for example, developed images that make use of separated, digitally layered pictorial units. Of her process, she says:
Technically-speaking, I use found and custom-made stencils to create densely layered coloured pencil drawings on paper. These are scanned and handed over to [the typographer] for further cropping and layout adjustments.
I do not think of a finished cover image as secondary to the text, but as an integral part of an assemblage that also includes philosophical writing, typographical design and a globally dispersed range of actors and influences .
In general, the working and production process has been effective, though not without hiccups. For the first volume, The Democracy of Objects by Levi Bryant (Figure 1), Lu created a stunning composition with drawn objects strung across an even salmon-coloured surface, which comprised the background of the entire cover. Because of the laser-printing technology used in POD publishing, however, flat areas of colour can appear uneven, which is only really obvious when handling a copy of the printed book. In response, for subsequent covers Lu has aimed to create backgrounds that are variegated or white, which disguises the qualities of POD printing and elevates the quality of the printed book.
Lu’s work on the covers speaks of a deep and critical engagement with the content:
For me, negotiating between my own artistic intentions and the parameters of POD technology to further philosophical dialogue constitutes practice-based research on a number of levels. Not only does this project allow me to examine my own practice, but we are continually refining a process of collaborative publication while contributing to current philosophical debate.
For the cover and text face of the books, the series employs the typeface Plantin by Monotype, a heavy transitional serif face based on the work of the French Humanist typesetter Robert Granjon in the mid-16th century. It is a sturdy and traditional serif face with great character and good legibility on screen and on paper. Despite Plantin’s features, Timothy Morton’s book, Realist Magic (Figure 4), presented particular typographic challenges; Morton’s philosophy text uses an expanded character set with full Eastern European diacritics and Greek alphabet. It also required mathematical characters for displaying equations. David Ottina summarised the problem in an email:
(…) generally you can expect to see a lot of foreign words, Greek, French, German and Latin being the most common. Logic and Math symbols are frequently used. There are likely to be references to people with northern and eastern European names; Žižek causes a lot of trouble, perhaps not unsurprisingly .
Though Monotype Plantin is an extensive face, it did not include the extra multilingual and mathematical characters required for Morton’s book. After some searching I discovered that the text face Minion (designed by Robert Slimbach in the early 1990s) possesses the expanded character range of Greek, Latin and Cyrillic characters we needed, and that in addition to this, a face called Minion Math  could supply the mathematical symbols. It thus seemed reasonably appropriate as a substitute, with its late-Renaissance letterforms. Rather than redesign the typesetting for the entire series, I opted to substitute Minion for Plantin in the required symbols rather than reset the entire layout (Figure 5), which would have created lighter and more delicate texture overall. This seems like a suitable compromise that maintains the consistency and style of the series.
A New Model for Publishing
Overall, my experience working on the design of the New Metaphysics titles has been a highly instructive experience, and one that has also contributed to my perspective as a designer and to my approach as a teacher (for publication design in particular). The New Metaphysics book series, a multichannel, open-access and POD publication design, embodies a model that I believe we will see increasingly in the future of academic and other forms of publishing.
-  “About.” Open Humanities Press. Open Humanities Press, n.d. Web. 17 December 2013. <openhumanitiespress.org/about.html>
-  Evans, David. Critical Dictionary. London: Black Dog, 2011.
-  Lu, Tammy. Email to the author. 11 June 2009.
-  Lu, Tammy. Email to the author. January 2014.
-  “Minion Math.” Typoma. Typoma, n.d. 15 January 2014. <typoma.com/en/fonts.html>
-  “New Metaphysics.” Open Humanities Press. Open Humanities Press, n.d. Web. 14 January 2014. <openhumanitiespress.org/about.html>
-  Ottina, David. Email to the author. 10 February 2013.