Friday Book Design Blog: Instant-Flex 718 by Heather Phillipson

Jonathan Gibbs

friday instantflex718 cover 189x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Instant Flex 718 by Heather PhillipsonIf books and things like books are to be sold online, and Amazon et al are the shops where we buy them, then Twitter is the shop window, the place where objects and concepts can briefly flit through our consciousness without invading it. Like something glimpsed from the corner of your eye as you walk down the street, a tweet exists (almost) in your peripheral vision, it (almost) doesn’t stop you getting on with whatever it was you were heading down the street to do.

And, Twitter being Twitter, you would hope that the things that do flit into your consciousness on your timeline are likely to be things you might be interested in – it’s a street you like walking down, to complete my rather laborious analogy.

That was how I saw this book (published by Bloodaxe Books), retweeted by someone, possibly @borispasterlike, as I didn’t follow the author/tweeter myself. I loved the cover, retweeted it, realised I had read some of the poet’s poems before, and took a punt on the book, ordering it (via Twitter) from my local bookshop @kirkdalebooks.

What do I like about it? Well, it is a superbly immediate piece of design – the colour scheme is in-your-face-charming without quite being twee, and very much plays off against the severity of the cover’s other elements: the sans-serif font, constructivist angles and general lack of cuddliness. (What the hell does ‘Instant-Flex 718’ mean, anyway?) Just having the title and author on an angle like that marks out the book as potentially edgy – you just wouldn’t see it on a mainstream cover – but with that pink, and that green, how could it ever be? And what of the lower case ‘f’ – is that playful, or threatening? I’m not sure.

friday instantflex718 back 193x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Instant Flex 718 by Heather PhillipsonKnowing from her author biog that Heather Phillipson is a practising artist, I’m sure she’s getting all this stuff direct from the source, but my first thoughts were more second-hand – that it looked less like a book cover than a record sleeve, perhaps something designed by Peter Saville for Factory Records. (The title sounds a bit Factory too, as if the 718 was a catalogue number.)

Phillipson gave the nod to this reference, when I emailed her, saying: “I have a huge archive of images on my desktop and, when I first started thinking about the design, and compiling reference images, it included a number of record sleeves. Perhaps it has something to do with the glossy surface – I was acutely aware of gloss + graphics. Also, naturally, my partiality for the ‘pop’ element.”

Another reference in the design (a collaboration with fellow artist Ed Atkins) was the first issue of Wyndham Lewis’s short-lived but influential Vorticist magazine BLAST. “I wanted it to be gutsy,” Phillipson says, “dynamic, all angles – hence the full-wraparound triangle, welding front and back into a single arrow, always pointing you to what’s between the covers. And the title Instant-flex 718 is the name of the glue that’s used in the binding. [A-ha! – Ed] So the whole thing is a package – a Neapolitan wedge of elements jammed in and bound together.”

friday blast 240x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Instant Flex 718 by Heather PhillipsonAs for the colour scheme, Phillipson says: “That came from a Chevrolet I spotted in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. It’s ice-creamy.”

It is indeed, but it also makes me wonder about the use of colour in branding and copyright. The green and pink, for instance, are very close to those of the branding identity of British publishers Visual Editions, who are operating in a not-unconnected part of the art-literary field. This is only one book, to be sure, but I wonder how far Visual Editions feel they ‘own’ those colours? What would happen if a publisher or shop or other brand started using similar colours regularly, as a matter of course? Nasty thoughts, as the artistic and literary world grows naturally out of people’s better impulses, but unfortunately it’s a friction that everyone has to face, sooner or later.

Phillipson’s final comment: “I wanted it to be a punch in the eyes… in a friendly way.”

It is that – a playful organisation of serious elements, that does a very good job of advertising its contents – the poems inside are comic and unsettling and riff off critical theory positions they would never want to be bound by.

The titles, in fact, function in much the same way as the cover: ‘Hello from This Position’; ‘SPEECH TO BE DELIVERED AT THE FIRST CONVENIENT OCCASION’; The Baby [hereafter referred to as ‘The Baby’] hereby contracts with The Mother [hereafter referred to as ‘The Mother’’. You know instantly if you’re the intended audience of this material, and if you are, it makes you instinctively want to reach for it.

friday tati 300x225 Friday Book Design Blog: Instant Flex 718 by Heather Phillipson

  • Neil Astley

    Thank you for this posting. Heather Phillipson’s title is indeed [I won't say "reference", which I refuse to use as a verb] the name of the glue used to bind the book, Instant-Flex 718. This is a pliable glue which allows the book to be splayed open without the spine being broken. Unlike the glue used by mass market publishers, Instant-Flex 718 is not brittle and will not crack after a small amount of handling, and because the binding is sewn in signatures as well as glued, the pages will not drop out (most publishers skimp on that and favour so-called “perfect binding” in which the signature folds are sheared off). It is also a chemically-based glue not derived from any animal product, and only contains waxes and polymers. And the book is printed on high quality 100gsm white cartridge paper which is acid-free (ph7 – which is neutral, with an alkaline buffer i.e. acid-free leaning towards alkaline). This kind of paper will not discolour, rip or break up after ten years, as happens to the kinds of paper used by many other publishers. When we’re making our production decisions, we want both quality and durability; we want the poetry and the books we publish to last, and for readers to be able to appreciate both the work and the physical book. The poetry and the object go hand in hand. As do design and production.

    And thank you, Jonathan, for ordering the book from your local independent bookshop. When the writer takes such care over their work and the publisher over producing it, we all need to support professional, dedicated booksellers who care about books and giving a good service to readers.

    Neil Astley, Editor, Bloodaxe Books

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