7 Questions with Series Book Designer Ken Baumann October 29 2014


Now that we're Kickstarting a new season of books, I checked in with Ken Baumann to talk to him about his work as a cover designer. - Gabe Durham 

Boss Fight Books: What's the difference between a good book cover and a bad one?

Ken Baumann: A bad book cover desperately communicates; a good book cover gets your attention, but leaves something unsaid. Or maybe this: to be good, a book cover must be at least a bit mysterious.

When you agreed to do these covers, I don't think I had many demands. I knew the spines needed to be numbered (because I loved that about 33 1/3), I think I requested we somehow visually indicate the console or computer, and I'm positive I didn't want to get sued. But the whole minimalist aesthetic and use of real photography was all you. Where did this approach come from?

I’ll cop to it: I just wanted to create a series like Peter Mendelsund’s great Foucault covers. Those covers—and Mendelsund’s covers as a whole—are so ordered and simple, so limited, and yet they're also alluring, enigmatic, and, to the reader in the know, clever.

Sometimes I'll suggest a cover concept to you, and you'll say something like, "Well that doesn't quite fit." What rules do you keep to? Or, maybe better: What constraints do you work under?

I try to make sure that each Boss Fight cover has just one ploy, or just one concept. In other words, I want each cover to have the bare minimum amount of visual information to stimulate at least these responses:

1. The cover should entice the reader who isn’t familiar with the game, and

2. The cover should let the reader who is also intimate with the game know that, yeah, we love and understand your game too.

I’ll take the Super Mario Bros. 2 cover, for example. While that cover has three visual elements—the star, the beet, the cherries—the triptych is structured to allude to a slot machine, which should be automatically intuited by most readers. And to those who understand the game, they’ll recognize that all three objects are powerful, helpful, and make your experiences as Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, and Toad a lot more fun.

In other words, I want each cover to elegantly stimulate joy and curiosity in the reader, and joy and intimacy in the gamer. 

For Spelunky, I pushed pretty hard for an adorable pug because that is my permanent damsel whenever I play. [For readers who have never played it, you get to pick whether you're saving a hot babe, a hunky dude, or an adorable pug.] But you made a passionate argument for the eggplant. What about the eggplant sums up the magic of Spelunky?

Well, here’s the thing with the Spelunky cover: I read Douglas Wilson’s article at Polygon and sort of had a spiritual experience. The arbitrary presence of the eggplant within Spelunky, and the absurd quest to beat the game holding just that eggplant, reminded me of the beautiful human impulse to pursue a goal that is so impractical, so worthless, but to pursue—and finally achieve—that goal so damn well—with such crazy stupid grace—that the pursuit and subsequent achievement of that goal transcends any considerations of the goal’s intrinsic worth to humanity. In other words, Bananasaurus Rex’s solo eggplant run is so skillful that it is immediately more interesting, more harmless, and therefore more heartening than 99% of our species’ other bungled, boring, and/or harmful endeavors. So yeah: I wasn’t budging on the eggplant.

What are your favorite Boss Fight covers so far?

I’ve got soft spots for them all, but I’m very happy with the Galaga, World of Warcraft, and Metal Gear Solid covers.

I enjoy the Galaga cover because I think that it does exactly what I set out in that earlier question: You see a wasp, which is familiar enough, but that perfect formation of wasps feels unnatural, feels too neat or structured. Early video games are full of natural objects that are represented and arranged in that blocky Euclidean way.

The World of Warcraft cover is ideal to me because it states the most culturally-accepted idea about that game, which is—like a coin—double-sided:

1. World of Warcraft has made a lot of money, and

2. World of Warcraft is primarily about plunder and adventure, both in-game and in the real world.

The intersection of these two ideas is the phenomenon of farming, which first became a cultural item of the news cycle with World of Warcraft. So yeah: one simple image, three potent allusions.

And finally, Metal Gear Solid. This is my favorite cover. It’s so ridiculous, but so is the idea that the world’s greatest spy/assassin walks around while hiding underneath a cardboard box. But a cardboard box is so innocuous and so everyday that it is basically invisible, which is why Kojima’s joke—and that element of the game—works.

Will you tell about how you created the Metal Gear Solid cover?

I found a box in my garage, flipped it upside down in my backyard, my wife hid underneath the box and lifted it a tiny bit off the ground (yes: book designers gladly sequester their wives to a life in cardboard boxes), then I photographed the box from different angles and with different lighting, and then we—you and I—chose the box that felt most like Solid Snake was in there.

Are there any games that you want us to do a book about SOLELY because you want to do the cover?

Any games. All games. I find that the limitations and conceptual play necessary to make a good Boss Fight cover provide me a designer’s version of a Zen exercise.