The 3D printed book cover

Art director Helen Yentus talks us through her amazing 3D printed slipcase for a special limited edition of Chang-Rae Lee’s book, On Such A Full Sea

When the idea came up to do a special, very limited edition for Chang-Rae Lee’s book, On Such A Full Sea, the parameters were really only that it be “a covetable object”, writes Helen Yentus, art director at Riverhead Books in New York. Besides that, it was pretty open. The only other thing that was mentioned by my publisher Geoff Kloske was “For this one time only, readability is not your primary concern here”. That’s the opposite of what you are told as a book cover designer. So you can imagine my excitement – and paralysing fear – at such a completely open design opportunity. For me, those tend to be the hardest projects. When you can do really anything, what do you do?

We ran through a number of directions, and because we were doing such a limited number (200) there were a few options we normally couldn’t even consider; like having a street artist paint each individual cover separately, and so on. And as this novel takes place in a dystopian future, it seemed apt to package it in a ‘futuristic’ way. From the beginning we were also toying with the idea of having the cover 3D printed – it seemed a bit of a pipe dream, as we didn’t really think we could make it a reality with the time and money we had for the project. Surely it wouldn’t be possible? And it wouldn’t have been had 3D printing company MakerBot not been so open to new and untested ideas. They’re an exciting, forward-thinking company who are redefining the idea of manufacturing.

My initial sketch, which was really more of a stand-in until I figured out what I really wanted to do, had the type going into the cover, getting smaller and smaller. I had hoped to create something that would work well with the nature of how the printer prints, which is in layers, like icing. But I began to see that something that was much more sculptural and striking was possible. And going back to our initial brief, “covetable”. I quickly experimented with something with a topographic feel, but had trouble printing it in a satisfying way. I was learning as I went what was possible within this 3D landscape.

Here are a few of the ideas I discussed with MakerBot, complete with terrible sketches trying to explain direction and angles. It turns out waving my arms around while talking on the phone wasn’t that clear. In the end Geoff and I decided to move forward with a design. Lane Feuer [director of the MakerBot Studio] felt it was the most workable as far as the printer was concerned, and I liked it the best design-wise. The angled type moving through the surface had a sculptural, even architectural feel that I was initially striving for but was having a hard time achieving. I angled the surface where the two planes collide to create as much spatial energy as possible. I was very happy with the solution, imagining how light and shadow would add to the effect of the final printed piece.

The thing that bothered me a bit (which I chose to ignore) was that the book itself would have been almost an afterthought. Yes, maybe you would have been able to see it through the cut-outs of the letters left in the surface (not really), but they wouldn’t really interact. It didn’t quite feel like a complete concept, but I was willing to overlook it mostly because the rendering looked really cool and dramatic and unlike anything I’ve ever designed.

In the end it turned out that I was inadvertently testing the limits of what was possible. The thickness of the case added maybe ten hours of print time and the cutting-in effect of the letters wasn’t smooth. More than that, because of size constraints the case would have to be printed in two parts and joining them together was proving less than ideal. I think we were looking at about 30 hours print time per case. When we met with Lane and Nick Joshi [project manager] at MakerBot to look at the prototype, I realised this wasn’t going to work.
Meanwhile, Nick and Lane and their team had sunk weeks into getting the prototype to where we were looking at it. Keep in mind that every time we made a tweak to the file, it took about 30 hours to print it to see if it would work. And we were now looking at whether we were going to be able to print enough by the release date.

I’d committed to creating a design in a medium that had tremendous possibility but was still quite foreign to me. It came down to a meeting where we were either calling the project off entirely, or figuring out a simpler solution right on the spot. After initial panic, it dawned on me. Because the case had to be printed in two parts, I was holding the larger part in my hand and slipped the dummy book into it. And there it was. We could cut down the print time by doing away with the thickest most cumbersome part of the case, and the part that wasn’t looking great because of the cut-outs.

So that’s what we did. We went with a 3/4 case so the book would be visible and really interact with the case in a way that was missing from the concept before. Lane had made some adjustments to the file in order to make it print better, which I really liked, angling the letters as they came out. My initial design had them joining the surface at a right angle but this added the drama I was looking for. And in this way I feel like it turned out to be an amazing instance of creative collaboration – really working with the constraints of the process rather than trying to work against them, which is the thing that makes me happiest about the result.

It was a very stressful process for both me and the guys at MakerBot. None of us had done anything like it before. They did the hard work. They stayed up nights to get the prints right. After we finally figured out how we were going to this it was a race against the clock to get the run printed by publication date. Soon I turned my worries to frantic conversations with my project manager, Lisa D’Agostino, who was tasked with inventing a strategy with the warehouse to make sure we could safely ship the cases around the world.

The entire run sold out almost immediately through online booksellers and physical bookshops as far away as Singapore. And it was a fitting tribute to a remarkable book by one of our most important living writers.

On Such A Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee is published by Riverhead Books, riverheadbooks.com. The limited edition was originally priced at $150. Details of MakerBot’s range of 3D printers can be found at makerbot.com; more of Yentus’ work can be seen at helenyentus.com

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