Nothing to see here

This week I had the fun of working on the cover design for my book, Absence and Nothing: the Philosophy of What There Is Not. It’s the most involved I’ve been in the design of a book and I was very pleased with how accommodating Oxford University Press were.

Given the subject matter, I wanted the cover to have letters that were absent though their shadows were present. You ‘read’ the title only by seeing its shadow. I rejected a couple of proposed designs that made the letters look too solid, and we agreed on a very minimalist solution.

There was a remaining worry that the words were a little too ghostly and might be difficult to read. Would this put off potential buyers who were browsing the covers? I hope not. I remembered something that happened years ago when I was a lecturer at Nottingham. I was given a study leave and wanted to put a sign on my door informing students. In the middle of a sheet of an A4, I typed ‘I am on study leave’ in the tiniest possible font. I think it was 6pt.

Surprisingly, absolutely everyone who passed by read the sign. No one could resist leaning in to see what it said. Even I, when I was passing my own door, couldn’t stop myself from looking closer. Someone passing for the 20th time couldn’t help looking. Michael Clark was my Head of Department back then and eventually asked me why the notice was so small. ‘I wanted to attract attention’, I could reply with good evidence.

How does this relate to the proposed book cover? I think most of us are curious beings and don’t want to miss out on potential new information. If something intrigues us, we will make an effort to get it. Similarly, if I want my kids to listen to me, I’ve found it better to speak more quietly than to shout. The title is not completely easy to read, I admit. It’s not exactly hard but if someone glances and sees the design, the element of uncertainty might produce a double-take. If so, it will get more noticed because of the slight doubt as to what it says. We are natural problem-solvers, after all, and sometimes it’s nice to play with that.

Thanks to Constantine Sandis for the title for this blog.

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