The Penguin art department collaborated with renowned photographer Dan Tobin Smith to create a unique cover design for Mark Miodownik’s equally unique book Stuff Matters. Here Penguin designer Richard Bravery talks us through the process.

Penguin: What aspects of Stuff Matters did you want to convey on the cover of the book?

Richard: Something the editor, Will [Hammond], said at the start of the project stuck with me throughout: ‘The challenge is to make the reader feel more in touch with the physical world around them, to make them grasp its materiality.’ So, for me, the brief was simple: to take everyday, ordinary things that we all take for granted and present them in an extraordinary way.

Stuff Matters pb

From where did you take your inspiration in the early phase of its design?

Most designers would say the same thing: at the start of a project there are no right or wrong ideas, it’s just about putting things down on paper or in pixels; more often than not the wrong idea will spark the beginnings of the right one. This project was no different. We drilled, melted and broke all different kinds of stuff, to try and expose its inner workings. We looked at the idea of a trompe-l’œil cover, where strips of the physical book would be laser cut away. But in the end all these ideas felt overcomplicated, when what we really needed to do was take this complex subject and communicate it in the simplest way possible.

Why did you approach Dan Tobin Smith and what was the initial brief?

I’ve followed Dan’s work since I saw his Alphabetical project, where he used anamorphosis [distorting an image in such a way that it comes into perspective only from a particular angle] to create letters from everyday objects. His album cover for Jay-Z’s ‘Blueprint 3’ employed the same technique and I remember how blown away I was when I first saw it. His consistency over the years is amazing, and the way he takes impossibly intricate concepts and turns them into beautifully simple photographs made him the perfect photographer for the book.

What was involved in the process of working with him?

The book seemed to strike a chord with Dan, and rather than any formal kind of brief we instead spent a long time discussing the most interesting materials and objects, and the broader messages we wanted to convey: that these mundane bits and pieces were actually packed with incredible stories; that, deep down, all of the materials of which they’re made are connected; that looked at for their material qualities, the most familiar objects can become amazingly beautiful and strange; that taken all together, the material world is an astonishing human achievement. Beyond that, the most important thing was that Dan felt he had the freedom to run with the project and create something unique.

The images that Dan creates almost can’t be comprehended or visualised until you actually see them. You can try as hard as you like to describe what a thousand objects organised by colour and material will look like but, in the end, you simply have to take a leap of faith.

It took two days to shoot, with Dan and his team painstakingly piecing the still-life together. The result looks effortless and belies the time, energy and attention to detail that Dan gave to the project. It’s a brilliant image but the real genius of Dan’s photograph is its simplicity: the first thing you see is a wave of colour; it’s only then that you are drawn to the many individual objects that create the whole, and that idea articulates the book so well for me.

What makes this book cover special in your eyes?

When I look at the cover I’m filled with that same sense of curiosity that I had as a kid but that you so often lose as an adult. A rare thing.

Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters is available in paperback now. Watch our short film showing how the cover was made:

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Looks like hard work but also like so much fun creating. What a great result.


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