This is the cover of my forthcoming book on food in Korea. Sara Wood at Ecco Books designed it, as she also designed my first book, Eating Việt Nam. I’m really happy with this for a number of reasons and, to give a little bit of background, this post looks at how we reached this cover.
But first, I have to briefly mention that first book again. To help Sara think about the look of the Việt Nam book, I sent her some ideas including the photograph above, which I took in Tam Đảo in 1998. I wanted this font and the wonkiness of it to appear on the cover. And, to me, the cover Sara produced absolutely screams Việt Nam. Perfect.
Ecco wanted to keep to a similar theme for this second book as it is a kind of a series. However, Korean hangul is a different animal from Vietnamese and a font was going to be trickier to nail. I had an idea that there might be a way we could somehow combine hangul and English into a unique font. Here’s what I wrote to Sara,
I keep thinking of the front cover font in sixties style writing, but somehow influenced by modern hangul designs. See this guy for modern hangul designs. Korea has entered a really interesting design phase where many fixed things from the past are being turned on their heads. This is happening to food too and I touch on this throughout my book. I think a psychedelic type font would symbolise that change and also the somewhat warping experience Korea can be for non-Koreans.
Together with those thoughts, I sent Sara some images to help visualise the feeling of what I had in mind for the font. The emphasis here is on the word ‘feeling’ as I didn’t want her to copy anything. I just wanted her to be influenced by these things.
And I added,
The often intense flavours of Korean food makes me envision a very bold cover. Something with the strength of the design below (obviously not this design, but maybe with something of its intensity)… this is how I see… the feeling of my book.
And to somehow combine that feeling with the hangul you see on every street in Korea every day (see below) and make it modern too. Easy enough to say, not that easy to do and I really didn’t know if it would be possible.
I suggested some of my own photographs for the cover, but once I’d seen the incredibly inventive font Sara had come up with, I didn’t think my efforts were up to the job. And nor did anyone else. We tried some other photographer’s images, but they too didn’t look quite right. I strongly felt that we needed a powerful, honest photograph to support the superb font. I wanted a photograph that was a true representation of what lay within the book. After looking at some of the early designs (there were eight in total) with fairly stock photographs, I wrote,
I’m just not sold on these colour photos as they look like generic tourism shots and I think the font deserves something better. It looks mismatched to have such an original, cool font next to something that is the opposite of that.
I had corresponded with the photographer and Korea resident, Josh White, for years and when I was in Seoul in 2015 we finally got to meet for the first time. He’s a much better photographer than me and I mentioned the idea of using his images in my Korea book. Josh had read my Việt Nam book and said he’d be happy to have a go.
Over the following months, Josh regularly sent me many excellent images, but none were quite cover material. For example, I adore the photograph above, but it’s too moody for the cover of a food and travel book. The following images are also fabulous, but they’re not cover shots.
In all fairness to Josh, he’s a street snapper, used to getting in people’s faces and he almost always shoots black and white. He was well outside his comfort zone trying to hook a food or restaurant image for me. But then in May 2016, a year after we first met and quite late on into the cover design process, Josh was walking around Seoul one night with his original 2006 Ricoh GRD camera. He sent me eight images. They were all good, but I only sent one to Sara.
This one stood out immediately, this was the cover shot I felt sure. There’s a lot going on, it draws you into the restaurant and it’s exactly the kind of place I describe in my book. Plus, it looks 100% honest, the light is as it would be if you went to eat here at night. This shot stood out for another reason too, I knew the restaurant and I refer to it briefly in the book. However, there are a gazillion restaurants in Seoul and I hadn’t given Josh any guidance as to what and where to photograph. I’ve no idea what the chances are of him seeing a place I knew and choosing to snap it, but in a city the size of Seoul they must be a million to one or more. Below is a photo I took of the same place at one in the morning and a year before Josh.
I took this shot shot with a Ricoh GRDIII, which is a more modern version of Josh’ camera… More modern camera, but a far worse photo… Everyone at Ecco loved Josh’ photo; Anthony Bourdain approved, my editor and the whole design team. Once Sara put the font and the photo together, everyone agreed that the cover finally worked.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, unlike Eating Việt Nam, this font did not simply fall off a shelf, it had to be designed from scratch. This is a 100% custom-made font and it took two days to make by hand. I couldn’t be happier that the first place it will ever appear is on the cover of my book.
@woodsarawood it shows. It’s got all the right elements; vibrant, psychedelic, neon, identifiably Korean, yet English. Super clever. Thanks.
— Graham Holliday (@noodlepie) May 26, 2016