Thursday, March 26, 2009


by Dave Cullen

Art Director: Flamur "Flag" Tonuzi // Twelve Books - Grand Central Publishing

Photograph by: Steve Peterson / ZUMA Press

• An AIGA's 50 Books // 50 Covers Best Cover Selection
• An Art Directors Club GOLD Winner
• A Type Directors Club Winner
• An EYE Magazine / JUST ADD STOCK Winner
• A Communication Arts Design Annual Winner
• A Most Coveted Covers Selection, No. 215
• Appeared in The Financial Times section, "How to judge a book by its cover" by David Shaftel. November 13 2009
• A 50 Coolest Book Covers Selection

The Original News photo:

Apr 24, 1999 - Littleton, Colorado, USA - Columbine High School Shooting: Columbine High School southwest corner shortly after shooting. Windows are boarded up from the gun fire at The Columbine High School shooting where two teenage gunmen fatally shot 12 classmates and a teacher before killing themselves, on April 20, 1999. Front area of Columbine High School where Harris and Kledblod opened fire on students and teachers.

I thought that like 9/11, this was a regular day in the life of a regular high school. I wanted to depict the banality of school life. Lockers, linoleum floor tiles, classrooms, students shuffling between classes.
At first I used stock images of school hallway:

They were looking too pretty, too much poetry. Is that possible? And I thought if I continued this approach, it wouldn't make sense if I didn't use an image from the actual Columbine high school. These comps used photos of the school's actual hallway and library:

I also had to explore using the classroom video feed taken during the shooting. But I already knew it would have been too exploitative and painful to use on the final jacket:

In the end, I didn't want to say anything or felt the need to frame the book in any Point-of-View. What really needs to be said? The Publisher had already set the tone for me. As far as the cover copy, there was no author's name, no descriptive subtitle, no high school, just the word COLUMBINE on the front cover. That said it all. So I pulled all the way out of the school's interior and used an exterior news photo of the high school that photo-researcher Laura Wyss found for me. I made it as small as I could and cropped out any distracting elements and set it low on the page. I extended the gray skies heavenward and set the title small and floating in knock out white from a light sky. The contrast was subtle. K.I.S.S. Keep It Subtle Stupid. Hopefully the dramatically haunting spareness will draw you in. The final has a matte lamination with the title in spot gloss to punch it out a little. Because you still gotta read it from across the room.
I was told that the Sales department wanted to change the type solution to make it more legible because they were worried that the cover wouldn't reproduce well in Amazon. So we just made a darker JPEG version for the web. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. But thankfully the Publishers loved it just the way it was. Me too.

This is the second book cover I designed for Grand Central Publisher's new TWELVE imprint. The first being The Man Who Wanted Everything: Michael Ovitz and the Dark Dreams of Hollywood. And BOTH have won the Type Directors' Club Award for typographic excellence. How suh-WEET is that? Big thanks goes to the Creative Director Anne Twomey and my Art Director Flamur "Flag" Tonuzi. Although I've known Flag for years since we went to NYC's School of Visual Arts/SVA together, this was the first time we've worked together.

Here's Flag with a head of hair during Senior Year in the Design Workshop of SVA showing off some kind of big conceptual thingy design:

My Art Directors Club Winner GOLD Cube:

Photographed by Keith Hayes


Holly said...

Excellent cover! It looks abysmal, dark. The simple font works as well. I really like this cover!

Anonymous said...

It looks like a prison under an endless, grey sky. Not a place I would want to visit.

Anonymous said...

Perfect work, great inside. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I saw COLUMBINE in person about a week ago and it stopped me in my tracks. I can't imagine a better cover treatment for this subject. You've done far more than just capture the target or setting of so much tragic violence. By underscoring the stifling blandness of the place--and of high school in general--you've actually managed to elicit in us, as viewers, some of the same dread or disdain that the killers must have felt for their environment. And what a terrifying realization, to have to share ANY thought or feeling with such monsters....

With this one cover you've managed to hint at the emotional and psychic lives of victims and killers alike, and even implicate us as viewers, (perhaps as a society.)

In all the years that I've worked as a cover designer, this stands out as one of the most disturbing, memorable and, (given the weight of it's subject matter) appropriate covers I've ever seen. Just incredible, Henry.

Anonymous said...

I love reading about your process. The cover is wonderful. Thanks!!

Ian Koviak said...

what a winner! Love the subdued title. It's almost like it's not there.

Bowman said...

You've done well.

Meg said...

I think the final cover is very striking. The image hit an emotional chord with me as I'm sure it will with many others.
Excellent job!

Dana Strotheide said...

I was a senior in high school in Colorado (not at Columbine) when this tragedy happened. I love the cover. It really captures the bleak feeling that the whole situation invokes. As student body president, I went to Columbine with banners and flowers right after it happened and the dichotomy of all of these well wishes with the boarded up school in the background was striking, even to my 17 year old self. The simple picture of the school definitely captures that moment. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Nice work, Flag.

I love the white text on grey. So glad that you got away with that.

Funny how my immediate desire would have been to go the green on the text ... seeing the white makes me question why I always choose to be safe by default.

Anonymous said...

Stark, and very well done. When I saw this cover, my first and enduring feeling was that the school was sitting under an impending gray doom.

Prof. Lauber said...

When I first saw it I immediately thought of Dutch landsape paintings that dedicate 2/3 of the canvas to sky. Your cover captures "place" in the same way, directing our attention to the vast expanse that surrounds us. In this case, so hauntingly.

Well done.

Dave Cullen said...

Henry. Thanks, again for a great cover.

I wrote the book and I am so proud to have that cover on it. And I have been showing it off since I got the first ARCs right around Thanksgiving, and everyone gushes.

(That has actually helped me, because I feel awkward taking compliments and the first positive thing every time is something I can take no credit for, so I can say, "I know! Didn't he do a great job!"

I'm actually still ignorant of the role the creative director and art director play. Do you have a post on basics like that?

It was also great to read this post and learn about the process.

(For the record, Jon Karp was great about checking in with me about it and making sure I was OK with it, and even offering to put my name back on the cover if I wanted, but I never saw/heard much of how it came about. I don't think writers usually get to see that part, right? I had no idea there were all those drafts.

I've gotten so used to it that it's a little hard for me to conceive of one of those other covers, but I think you went the right route.

As for the title disappearing, I have to admit that I had that fear. I first saw it as a scan they emailed, and the title was faint, but when they mailed the first actual mock-up, with it raised and glossy on the matte finish, I knew that was OK. First thing I did was set it on the table and walk across my living room to see if it popped, and it did. Shew!

I have not yet seen it on a store shelf, but I've tried it on my bookshelves and I love how it stands out. The matte paper will even feel different than most others.

I'm headed to Tattered Cover tomorrow to see if it's on the table yet, and how it looks there. Can't wait.

Thanks for this.

Haila said...

Henry, I received the manuscript for Columbine and I couldn't stop reading it. The increasing momentum to the horrific climax and the inevitability of fate made me feel that I was reading a Greek tragedy. Archetypal. When I saw your cover I felt it was the perfect visual representation of what I had experienced as a reader. The word "Columbine" frozen in the ice blue sky has an iconic quality to it. There is an unsettling stillness to the image, as though the school, low to the ground, was the stage where soon the bloody scene will be enacted. Bloodchilling. Perfect cover. Thanks for letting Blackstone use it on our audio.

Entire Cities said...

Ignoring that old saying entirely, I want to buy this book just for it's cover.

H3NR7 said...

Thank you all for the wonderfully touching comments.
I always strive to create a cover that's intelligent, simple and visually arresting, but most of all a solution that has heart. I'm very happy that I was able to create something that was also respectful to the subject matter. I'm grateful that this jacket came together just right and struck such an emotional chord with so many of you.

Max Db said...

I also was taken by seeing the cover before I recognized the publication. Compelling and certainly 'covers' the feel of the incident and writing. Interesting thread of process and early examples - corridors especially - which in themselves would garner plaudits. Strangely this book seems to, despite some years separation, appear as a companion to Gus Van Sant's stunning movie on the subject - "Elephant".

frau said...

I actually liked your second use of the video feed footage, the juxtaposition between an intense scene and a calm, subtle typography for the title.

But where the final cover shines, I think, is the way it makes us feel this could be any high school, anywhere. Again the title is perfectly understated for that ominous feeling.

Awesome work.

David Fletcher said...

Springsteen wrote "Empty Sky" about 9/11 and that's what I thought of when I saw the cover. The attacks on New York and D.C. were defining moments in our history, as was Columbine. You say "9/11" and "Columbine" and there is not a person in this country over the age of 18 who does not know what you are talking about. The sky's grey coldness is so striking, just like the Manhatten skyline looked after the buildings came down. It looks like death. I can't think of a cover that captures the esence of an event so well. The school almost seems like an afterthought. I know I am reading way too much into this; but that's what art does. Fantastic job for a fantastic book.
David Fletcher
Denver, NC

embeedub said...

I was already a book design obsessive before I recently went through the experience firsthand with my own book. It's a hell of a ride.

The cover for Dave's book is so simple, so poignant, so arresting -- it's a classic example of the image and the story inside coming together beautifully. Thanks for giving us a glimpse inside the process.

Mitch said...

My friends and I were in Barnes and Noble and we also stopped in our tracks when we saw how well-designed and minimalist (in a good way) your cover was.

It was definitely a tasteful choice for the subject matter, and it made the book look a lot more arresting compared to a lot of the other ones on the best-seller shelf, lol. Good job!

Dave Cullen said...

I continue getting emails from people loving the cover. I direct them here.

Thanks again, Henry.

Vanessa said...

When we think of Columbine, we think of the Trench Coat Mafia; we think of Cassie Bernall, the girl we thought professed her faith before she was shot; and we think of the boy pulling himself out of a school window-the whole world was watching him. Now, in a riveting piece of journalism nearly ten years in the making, comes the story none of us knew. In this revelatory book, Dave Cullen has delivered a profile of teenage killers that goes to the heart of psychopathology.

mary said...

Thanks Henry. great cover.

Steve Capell said...

I just finished listening to amazing book. Every-time I looked down at my iPhone there was your amazing cover staring back at me. I agree it was simple, but somehow within the simplicity there the unknown that is hidden behind the school walls. GREAT design!