JUDGING THE BOOK BY ITS COVER: A retrospective review of Victor Dennis T. Nierva’s book designs


By Dennis B. Gonzaga THE ORIGINS OF GRAPHIC DESIGN Graphic design is typically considered as a discipline at the periphery of the Visual Arts. Where pure Visual Arts is expected to reveal a new idea or an innovative technique, graphic design is presumed to merely to transmit a common message in an uncommon and possibly viable manner. Pure Visual Arts is the platform upon which grand concepts are incarnated regardless of how an audience responds. Graphic design is the tool by which these grand concepts are commodified. Of course, these differences are never absolute. The origins of graphic design can be traced back to primitive parietal compositions. These cave paintings were shamanic in nature. The shaman would retreat deep into a grotto, enter a trance, and then paint his visions on the cave wall. This was usually done as a way to interpret a current crisis—such as plague or famine—and to consequently devise a way through which the tribe can survive. Soon, parietal art evolved from simply being a pastoral ritual. As primitive communities grew and developed from their humble hunter-gatherer lifestyles, they recognized the need to create testimonials of their passage for posterity. Successful hunting expeditions were celebrated by crude portraitures that depicted feats. The purpose of these cave paintings was to retell as well as instruct. When humankind transitioned from cave dwellings into walled cities, cave portraitures also transitioned from cavern walls to temple sidings. Hieroglyphs are examples of how humankind’s initial attempts at advertisement developed in scope and in complexity. FROM ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS TO UKIYO-E At the beginning of the European Middle Ages, monks and scribes started to reproduce books. The books frequently copied were scriptural materials, psalters, and lay books of hours. The Muslim regions—largely unaffected by the censures of the European Middle Ages—achieved great literacy and translated classical dissertations on Philosophy, the Sciences, and the Letters. They filled libraries with their own hand-rendered replicas. Originally, these illuminated manuscripts were mostly reserved for the wealthy. The aristocrats paid handsome commissions to monasteries for hand-copied and hand-illustrated versions of popular books. But in time, reproduction became instrumental in shattering the barrier between the privileged and the common folk. Reproduction gave people from the grassroots access to literacy. While Europe was still in the process of refining the technology for mass reproduction, the ancient Chinese had already laid the foundation for printing. The importance of printing in China is such that it is considered to be one of the Four Great Inventions, along with the paper, the compass, and gunpowder. The Chinese invention of the woodblock method gave them a flexible and efficient method of communication. Europe eventually caught up with the Gutenberg machine. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type and printing press is considered to be a landmark in the development of graphic design. The practicality of graphic design became evident with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Even traditional artistic movements turned to graphic design as an expansion of their tools and their modes of visual expression. The Japanese retained much of the classic Chinese woodblock method. The ukiyo-e became extremely popular not only because it was easy to mass produce but because it became an authentic portraiture of the blunt reality of feudal Japan. The use of vibrant primary colors and strong outlines typical of the ukiyo-e soon captured the fancy of European artists. This consequently laid down the basis for Japonisme, a Western appropriation of Japanese visual techniques. Japonisme became the principal aesthetic framework for posters and book designs common during the Parisian period. NIERVA’S ILLUMINATIONS AND RUMINATIONS Nierva’s approach to design is not only a matter of pushing the boundaries of the rules and techniques of the layout process. Though he showcases both his familiarity and proficiency with digital tools, he crafts his spreads with the contemplative pace and methodical care of the medieval cloistered monks who copied and illuminated parchments. He knows the need to promote a product through its skin. But at the same time, he ensures that the content of the published material is translated well through his design and his visuals. He reads into the text. He reads into the claims of the author. He prioritizes interpretation instead of embellishment. Nierva reveals his adaptability. His designs can be clinical and functional (Tilling Fields), unconventional and nuanced (Hunos), light and quirky (How To Pacify a Distraught Infant), or cryptic and cerebral (Kun Saná Si Shakes Taga Satô). He also has an eye for more contemporary modes of composition (Black Arcadia, Archipelago of Stars, Press: 100 Love Letters). In addition, he displays the ability to incorporate the manual with the digital. In the cover for “Mga Ehersisyo Espiritwal” he draws the hand, cross-hatches the background, and even does some medieval-style calligraphy. He draws his creativity from a deep visual vocabulary. That and Nierva is also a disciple of literature. He crafts his visuals not only purely from the context of design but out of a profound respect for the Letters. His decisions as to what typeface to use or what the book dimensions would be are not only determined by the commercial component of publication but also by what the actual material dictates. His design allows the literature to breathe and to come alive. CONCLUSION Rarely does a graphic designer display an intimate understanding of the prose and the poetry that he or she is tasked to package and market. A designer is usually detached from the inner contents. He or she works with the membrane, seldom the cell. What results is an artifact that is more of a disjointed sum rather than a unified whole. Nierva’s book covers and layouts show us what happens when a designer is fully invested in his client’s material. A gifted graphic designer is one who follows the same rigors as the medieval transcribers, illustrators, and illuminators. The tools have changed. But the discipline is the same. A good book designer is one who not only crafts the protective sleeve but also makes the whole book matter. He adds what the author often misses. He reduces what the author desires in excess. In a sense, the book is a shared relationship between its writer and its designer. And yes, a good book can be judged by its cover.