Choosing a cover and a type language for Mary Matsuda Gruenewald’s memoir, Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American Internment Camps, was both rewarding and challenging. The challenge grew out of one of the central points Mary addresses–we tend to stereotype other cultural and ethnic groups. You hear it all the time in racial epithets. But it is also present in art. Mary speaks of the cartoons depicting Japanese people as buck-toothed, slant-eyed, yellow-skinned figures at once threatening and comedic.
That stereotyping is particularly common in kitsch–the “Black Mammy” cookie jars, the “Pickaninny” embroidery on dish towels, the Asian faces so distorted as to be almost alien on tea pots. In the past–and in some cases in the present–we ourselves with images that reduce other cultural and ethnic groups to simplistic, often comic, figures. Maybe it’s a way of reducing something complex and unfamiliar to something we can understand; I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist. The result, though, is that much of the art and type available reflects stereotypes, rather than reality.
In choosing the cover art for Looking Like the Enemy, Maureen Michelson at NewSage Press and I faced the challenge of finding and choosing art that would reflect the insights the book offers, rather than the limited vision that made the events in the book possible. Because of the politically and racially charged atmosphere in which the story takes place, we knew that finding appropriatee art produced during the time period under discussion could prove problematic. Anything produced in Japan would not reflect Mary’s American heritage; anything produced in America would not reflect her Japanese heritage. And art that attempted to bridge the gap was very likely to be highly charged racially, politically, and socially.
So the challenge: Find an image and type language that pays homage to the time period and subject matter without descending to the level of kitsch.
The solution was to choose cover and interior accent fonts that evoked both the era and the subject matter: We used Engravers for the book and chapter titles and Skia, a simple, clean font with something of the structural feel of Japanese characters, for the secondary copy on the book cover and the interior running heads.
Choosing the body copy and caption fonts was simpler. Numerous studies indicate that comparatively simple serif fonts are easiest to read, so we chose Palatino, a clean, traditional font that would “disappear” as the reader became engrossed in the story, Palatino Italic for captions, and Frutiger, a simple, clean font that retains readability at comparatively small sizes, for the letter and document insets, an important part of the book.
The solution for the cover art proved to be a photo. In it, a Japanese family being evacuated to an internment camp leans out of a train window. An adult in the background waves the “V for Victory” hand salute. In the foreground, a small Japanese boy holds and American flag.
The image was black and white, though, and black and white covers typically don’t catch the eye. On the other hand, garish colors would have been inappropriate to the subject matter. We compromised by colorizing the image with soft, desaturated tones, and then setting it into a cover that picked up some of the photo colors–the rusty red from the flag, and the forest green from the train car. To create a bit of warmth we used a deep gold for the cover lettering.
While Mary had a number of family, farm, and personal pictures, she did not have many from her years in the camps. In order to find images to illustrate that part of her story we turned to national, state, and university archives. While using the images was free, or virtually so, we did need to provide source information for each image, and acknowledge the usage donation. It was worth it. I was surprised and pleased to discover that some of the photographers documenting the camps–like Ansel Adams–did world-class work. This book is probably the only opportunity I will have to work with photography of that caliber. And that’s one of the “Easter eggs,” the inexpected, hidden benefits–of design. I not only learned about a part of our national heritage, I learned about an incredible source of imagery for future projects.
In the end, designing a book like this offers a designer the opportunity to learn, to grow, to experiment, and to create an experience for readers in which the story, given a face, stands on its own, unimpeded.
For more information, or to order a copy of Looking Like the Enemy, visit NewSage Press online.