Over the last few years, the Penguin Press art department has garnered a reputation not just for its book design but also for showing how printed objects can live online. Its latest project, the reissue of three books by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, does just that – and it has proven to be one of its most challenging to date.
Dawkins himself has been an integral part of the process – or, at least, some of his own early computer programming has. To create both the images for the new covers and the accompanying website, Penguin used re-coded versions of several artificial life programmes, known as the Watchmaker Suite, that Dawkins created 30 years ago.
The result is a series of covers like no other. Literally. Each individual edition of the three reissued texts – The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996) and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) – features a unique cover design: a jagged, insect-like ‘biomorph’; a curving shell-like structure; or a minimalist set of colour wavelengths, respectively.
At Penguin, a close-knit multidisciplinary team consisting of designer Matthew Young, creative developer Mathieu Triay and marketing manager Claudia Toia has taken the project to fruition, following on from online success with sites for Pelican Books and the Little Black Classics range.
“We knew we had this original code; we were planning to do something with it, but then someone said we need some covers … so we started thinking about what to put on them,” says Young of the team’s initial thoughts on the Dawkins project.
“I knew that Dawkins’ programmes could generate these kinds of ‘creatures’, that they simulate evolution,” he says. “He’d used them as part of his research. In the Blind Watchmaker, for example, the computer programmes are an integral part of the book; he references them all the time – and it’s the same with Climbing Mount Improbable”.
In part, the programmes illustrate how the occurrence of random mutations can become more pronounced over generations. In 2014, developer Alan Canon cleaned up Dawkins’ original 1986 versions, providing the source code for the Penguin project. (Canon’s desktop versions, based on Dawkins’ code, can be downloaded from sourceforge.net.)
Developer Triay, who now works part-time at Penguin, says that Dawkins’ code was written in ThinkPascal and ran to thousands of lines over several large text files. Using OS9 – running in OSX – Triay managed to take Canon’s work on and decipher and rewrite the programmes.
“From a technical point of view, [Dawkins] saw the power of computers to speed up the process of evolution, in a way,” says Triay of the biologist’s early coding. “He says the closest we can be to ‘seeing’ evolution in action is dog breeding or growing roses – you can see how the genes are passed on. But even that takes decades…. He wanted the computer to help visualise that process – of the offspring and the parent”.
With this thinking in mind mountimprobable.com enables users to generate ‘biomorphs’ and modify them using a series of variables (‘stretch’, ‘spread’, ‘reach’ and so on) to create new forms, potentially making generations of creatures from a parent organism – evolution in action. (Shell variants are called ‘flare’, ‘spire’ and ‘verm’, as below.)
“Users can generate offspring and select the children with the most desirable features to continue the evolutionary line,” runs the explanatory text on the site, “thus mimicking the process of artificial selection”.
“Ultimately it was all in the book,” says Triay of Dawkins’ programming and what it has allowed the team to do creatively. “Instead of replicating the same, he was replicating slightly tweaked versions – it’s not the same, but a variant of it”.
While Young had the newly-restored code to play with (and a generator which would inform the look of the interactive site), he still had to come up with cover designs for the three titles – and unite them in some way, too.
“There was only one approach,” he says. “I wanted to do unique covers –and seeing this programme and what it could generate, I thought, let’s try and get those on the covers. Because some look great, some look really weird and obscure, some form really abstract patterns.
“And the books are all about evolution,” he continues, “I can’t think of a better book to use this concept of unique covers. Just like in evolution, no two people, no two creatures [are the same] – here, no two covers are alike, and it’s Dawkins’ own original code. It just fits so nicely”.
The next challenge was how to bring a computer-coded image into a cover template – and print them. Young’s solution was to take advantage of a new digital press – litho printing, with the creation of three printing plates per book cover, was out of the question. “Do we send the printers thousands of different PDFs, or one PDF with thousands of pages? It turns out it’s easier to do one PDF with thousands of pages,” Young says, “so we wrote a programme where, for example, each ‘shell’ comes out as a PDF”.
Ironically enough, in order to ensure that the final cover designs worked aesthetically, the process also meant Young had to make subjective choices about the images. They also needed to work within the cover template that contained the title, Dawkins’ name and the Penguin logo.
“We got biomorphs that were absolutely tiny!” Young says of the image generation. “On the other extreme, they were massive. [But] I liked it when the image overlapped the text – and wanted it to be a feature of most of the covers.
“So it was trying to find the boundaries, what’s too small or too big, what was the sweet spot. We were tweaking the biomorphs so that they worked on the covers, but were still interesting enough”. Triay adds that, initially, the biomorphs being produced were random – but on the website users can “get to weird things very quickly. If you tweak them too hard they collapse”.
In order for the biomorphs to look as insect-like as possible, the team set some parameters on what could be produced. “We wanted them to look like creatures – but obviously they’re quite abstract,” Young says. “We found that the radial symmetry didn’t really match what you see in real living creatures in nature. They have up-and-down symmetry.
“The challenge was getting those into the templates,” he continues. “We wrote an InDesign script which takes the template, creates a page, drops a shell in and so on – repeating until its done 5,000, or however many you want. The last thing I did before it went off to print was go through the PDF with 10,000 pages. I went through every single page and weeded out the really ‘ugly’ ones”. These totalled around 400 biomorphs and 100 shells, he says. “It’s like a playing a really judgemental god!”
For the third book in the reissue series, Unweaving the Rainbow, the team decided to illustrate light waves from the visible spectrum on each cover, a process which meant ensuring they render accurately in CMYK. This generated some 400 colour options, while pairing the colours gave them a much wider variety of covers (seven colour wavelengths on a cover was visually too much). “Then we added offset as well,” adds Young, “so some have two waves, some three”.
And if the three series are reprinted again? Well, Penguin can generate another batch of creatures – or combinations of light waves – ensuring that the unique nature of the project continues into the future.
For more details on the three titles – and to generate your own biomorph or shell – visit mountimprobable.com (books are £9.99 each). There is also a competition to have your own design featured on a cover of The Blind Watchmaker or Climbing Mount Improbable.
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