Cover Statement: Book Designer Rodrigo Corral Talks about his new SNEAKERS Anthology

The Celebrated Designer Reflects on His Process, the Future, and Bringing POV to Book Covers

  • Interview: Maxwell Neely-Cohen
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Rodrigo Corral's studio

For two decades, Rodrigo Corral has designed some of the most iconic book covers in contemporary literature. You can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing his work: the eerie iconography of Jeff VanderMeer’s speculative fiction; the golden Andy Warhol ink blot adapted for Jay Z’s Decoded; the pattern of cresting, aqua-blue waves on Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies.

This past month, in collaboration with journalists Alex French and Howie Kahn, Corral released SNEAKERS, a taxonomy of kicks culture told through 60 of its greatest influencers. The list includes Virgil Abloh, DJ Clark Kent, Alexander Wang, and Serena Williams. No ordinary coffee table book, SNEAKERS is driven by story—the personal motivations and histories of a subculture’s stewards, catalyzed by graphics which go beyond the typical or the expected.

We sent writer Maxwell Neely-Cohen, whose own book cover Corral designed, to talk to his friend about kicks, sports, narrative build, and the future of aesthetics. They sat in his Downtown Manhattan studio, where in-progress images of painted tennis balls and sketched basketball courts dot the walls.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen

Rodrigo Corral

In light of the release of SNEAKERS, I was wondering how sneakers influenced you aesthetically, what they meant to you, even before this book, even as a kid?

Like so many of the people that contributed to the book, my draw to sneakers started really young. Probably between 13 and 15. It was mainly the connection to hip-hop, to sports. I got to a point as a teenager where I wanted to go to school representing myself in a certain way. I wanted how I looked to say something, even though I knew kids in the school would be very quick to make fun of you no matter what you wore. So I would be the kid that would be wearing a pink polo that I would rock with white Keds, Adidas. I mean I tried it all. When I wanted Jordans I couldn’t get Jordans because my parents were like, “That’s too much money.” But super early on, like so many people in the book, it was this idea of, you can’t afford a car, but man I can afford a pair of fresh sneakers, and that can make you feel a certain way. I really did feel like I could jump higher and run faster. Sneakers are the frame to what you’re wearing that day. That kind of stayed with me for a while, and then dipped away for a number of years. But I don’t think the feeling ever vanishes because it’s almost like figuring out a puzzle for yourself.

You once told me a lot of artists and designers in the generation before you were really influenced by car design—that American ideal. I wonder if sneakers in their engineering, have almost become that.

Oh yeah. You can take a Jordan and almost find Ferrari qualities in it. Like the air vent system. There’s definitely a link there. One of the early contributors to the book, this guy Salehe Bembury, he’s like 31 years old, he talks about how he sees sneakers being such an incredibly relevant thing right now because they look like spaceships to him. That’s a canvas for people: this idea of the future. What does the future look like to you.

How did you decide on this format, of taking a look at all these different influential people, and how they related to this culture?

One of the reasons why we thought it was a good idea to make the book, is because we thought most of the other books weren’t going beyond the physical sneaker, and we felt like we wanted to tell the stories within these people. Like you started this interview asking, “How did I come to love sneakers?” I wanted to get that answer from each contributor. “What’s your path?” That’s the interesting question to me. I don’t know if 10 years ago, this level of depth would have gone over well. But now with the internet, no one needs a coffee table book with just pictures of sneakers. That seems pointless.

“There is what I would describe as a “candy quality” to how sneakers are interpreted through graphics.”

What were the particular challenges of designing this book? How to translate all of this into two dimensions?

I don’t design a ton of interiors, because so much of my time is spent designing covers and conceptualizing covers. I couldn’t shake trying to approach every single section like it was its own book. So we would sit here, four or five of us, hand out everyone’s individual story, and work on them one at a time. We did that every day for six weeks, and you can think how frustrating that can get. You have 60 incredible people, and we applied that book jacket approach to an interior, conceptualizing each person’s story like it was their individual book. And when I bring it up to my friends who spend more of their time doing interiors, they’d say, “You’re crazy. You can’t do that.” But it felt like it needed it.

But some themes do keep popping up throughout the book.

There are definitely common threads, many of the contributors talked about “hustle.” Work ethic is a huge thread. I really connected with Yu-Ming Wu because he always brings it back to his family. His parents’ struggle was right in his face; it was never a secret. But there’s a range of experiences, which is what makes this book special.

There’s a lot of images that aren’t directly of or about sneakers, but are sneaker adjacent, that are related to music, or sports, or are even just abstract visuals riffing on a culture.

There is what I would describe as a “candy quality” to how sneakers are interpreted through graphics. There’s a lot of illustration, a lot of vector graphics, and I was mindful that there’s enough of that in the world. What could we do that feels like it’s coming from another perspective? Like I’m a graphic designer, I love sneakers, but I’m not the standing-in-line, overnight person. I think I started the project being really self-conscious about that, but by the time it was done, I was thinking my perspective is a valuable one even if I’m not in it in such an obsessive way. But I have a deep appreciation for it.

I know that this has been somewhat of a side project for you, but you have been exploring a new sense of visuals for sports over the past few years. And I’m just curious about that Rodrigo. What are you looking for?

It’s funny, I think there’s so many people like myself trying to explore that, like how you sent me those photos recently (Getty photographer Christian Petersen’s photographs of NBA players in deep emotional thought during games). It’s no longer just about the game, it’s about what meaning they are attaching to it, how it makes them feel. I’m of a generation where it was Wheaties Boxes and these classics posters of a dunk—this idea of this Perfect Moment—and you know, that’s not everything that sports stands for. And the next phase of that was “the agony of defeat”, the pain and the woe, and now it’s finally all that stuff in between. It’s all of it, even the awkward moment. The quiet moment, the boring moment in a long season, the tense moment. And I know there’s a tricky thing here, knowing that there’s a big business aspect to sports. Sometimes I wonder if I’m guilty of being attracted to it because of the commodity of it?

I’d never thought about what a good cover design a Wheaties Box is until you mentioned it. It’s incredible.

Yeah! It’s super dynamic. It’s got motion. It’s like an early gif. It’s a stagnant gif.

You’ve also said to me before how impressed you are with certain sports elements as design objects, like tennis courts.

As a designer, you’re fetishizing all these objects. These things that we’re interacting with constantly, we’re taking them out of context and creating a new relationship with them.

“If I locked you in a room, and I gave you a little bit of a brief and a concept you’d probably come back with something pretty fresh.”

In what ways has the digital age changed the way you think about book design? Like do you think about how a cover will look on Instagram?

I do. But it’s both a yes and a no answer. It depends on the project. If I’m working on something, and I feel so excited about the solution, like I’ve made a discovery, that will override how I think the internet might value it. But sometimes where there’s something with a ton of commercial expectation—like John Green—that’s something I’m not going to play games with. It’s something that has to work and has to work quickly. It has to have a punchy resonance. So I think it’s a per project basis. But I am definitely not always sitting there thinking like, “Oh will this work in an iPhone photo?” I wonder if other designers have talked about it this way, but I think it’s just taking the place of the rules you’re taught in school if you were designing a logo: Does it work in black and white? Does it work when it’s small?

What amazes me about book cover design is, you’ve read a lot of books, Rodrigo.

Yeah.

You have this sense of narrative, it must be imbued in everything you do at a certain point. Does it become natural to design from a place of deep narrative, as opposed to the sort of marketing brief you’d see for a logo?

Well first of all, it means so much to hear you say that because I still have memories of starting early as a book designer, and talking about what I read in a manuscript, and having an editor roll their eyes and be dismissive that I read something and got something from what was on the page, and that I had a point of view, and how that point of view could potentially manifest itself as a solution. That always stuck out to me. Like isn’t that what my role is? What my job is? And then as time went on, I realized, there is a percentage of this industry where they’re not expected to read, and you’re designing for a space, a market. Fortunately, I was gullible and didn’t look at it that way. I looked at it and thought, I should bring a point of view to this.

Well one thing you said to me, a very long time ago, when we’d just met, was that most of the time when you’re reading you aren’t thinking in terms of good or bad. Instead you’re thinking: “Is this fresh or not?” That those were your two categories, “fresh or not,” and that it wasn’t a judgement either way. Like if you’re working on a long-dead author’s book—a canonical classic—it’s not something new coming out of the sky. But that’s your binary as you are reading, fresh vs. not.

Yes it is, and it’s funny, and even if you gave me a sharpie and five days to map it out, I don’t know if I could point to what makes something derivative, and what makes somebody who is flirting with a new form of storytelling. I can’t illustrate that but I know it from having read enough. And it’s a funny point of view knowing that I could not do what any of these people do, but I have to translate these stories into something else.

But the flipside is true. I can’t do what you do.

But I don’t think of it that way. I always think, it’s like, when is the charade going to come to an end? Seriously man! I try to remind myself that I’ve been doing this for 20 years and yes, I went to school for it, and yes I did spend years obsessing over books, but I still think, COME ON! Come on. If I locked you in a room, and I gave you a little bit of a brief and a concept you’d probably come back with something pretty fresh.

Where do you think book design is going? It seems to me we’re at an interesting time, literally at this exact moment, where the dominant paradigm of the past decade, certain bold colors, certain arrangements, have hit a saturation point, and there are now diminishing returns. And we are just now breaking out of that.

Yeah. It feels like everyone is back at their workshop, sharpening their tools, trying to figure out what their next move is.

What’s the next move Rodrigo?

If I knew I don’t know that I’d share it. But really, we’re responding to work. As designers, we’re responding to work. A lot of that is going to hinge on what the narratives are. Are we talking about a post-Trump election era? What’s the landscape we are going to be looking at? The design has to reflect that.

What’s the next YOU project?

We’re in a reflection phase. We gotta figure out what that is. We don’t have the answer. But I definitely want to keep collaborating with people. When are we doing something? This interview doesn’t count.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen is a writer based in New York City. He is the author of the novel Echo of the Boom.

  • Interview: Maxwell Neely-Cohen
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Rodrigo Corral's studio