Mark Cook, co-founder of design studio Types & Symbols, talks about his Conflict Beautiful project, designing elegant contemporary hardbacks to match the rich and meaningful narrative of Ellen White's most enduring volumes.“We drew from the geometry of the tabernacle, the color of the materials, and the life and death of Christ in making our decisions.”
Question: Your design studio, Types & Symbols, is working to publish a new edition of Ellen White’s five-volume Conflict of the Ages series. Don’t you think that most people who want to read these books either have them already or can get them easily? Why do we need new ones?
Answer: This project, which we’re calling The Conflict Beautiful, isn’t driven by a lack of access to Ellen White’s writing, but by a desire to create books that match the beauty of the content—through thoughtful design, quality materials, and expert craftsmanship. Additionally, our hope is for these books to inspire those who might have access but haven’t yet had the interest, as well as to impress upon new readers the incredible value of the words inside.
While we as a church have done a wonderful job producing these books in inexpensive formats that can be scattered “like the leaves of autumn,” we feel that some of those sets communicate that the content is not any more valuable than a regular mass-market paperback. Worse, some of the editions look embarrassingly out-of-touch and poorly designed—some with cliché, kitschy artwork, others with really terrible typography.
While we certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say we need new books, we do believe, in our increasingly design-conscious world, that there is an important place for beautiful, high-quality books.
What gave you the idea for publishing a new edition of these core Ellen White volumes?
When my wife and I were married in 2001 we were looking to purchase a set of Ellen White books for our home, but were disappointed with the options available. Over the years we started collecting some beautiful classic editions of her books, but I was frustrated that a well-designed and expertly-crafted edition of this series wasn’t readily available. Some of those vintage editions, which you can see at the start of our Kickstarter video, are incredibly beautiful, thoughtfully crafted books, but many of the modern editions have strayed from the design-rich heritage of earlier Adventist publications. In 2014, I saw the campaign for Bibliotheca on Kickstarter, and it inspired me to simply make the books I had been looking for.
Our goal at Types & Symbols is to communicate the beautiful news as effectively as possible, so when we started in 2015 we determined to find an opportunity to to help produce a well-designed edition of these books that have done so much to shape and communicate our distinctly Adventist understanding of the beautiful news.
How will these books be different than the Conflict of the Ages books already published? Are you updating the language? Are you legally allowed to change the text?
Beyond the overall design and production quality, these books will differ in their aim to create the best possible reading experience. Many existing editions limit themselves to the original page numbering, to make finding and quoting specific passages easy to do, which places limitations on the typesetting and layout. We’ve decided to handle that numbering in a way that frees us to use the best methods in book design, with wider margins, better line-spacing, and a highly readable typeface.
As a part of creating a better reading experience, we’ve also chosen to update the nearly 5,000 biblical passages cited across these five books from KJV to NKJV. In addition, we are keeping an eye out for words whose meaning hasn’t aged very well, and we are updating those to provide a clearer understanding of Ellen’s intent. We understand that there can be some legitimate concerns when it comes to adjusting Ellen White’s writing, so we are planning to make all of the changes and decisions about those changes publicly available. As far as permission to make these content changes, the text from the Conflict of the Ages is in the public domain, so there is no legal restriction with publishing a new edition of her writing.
Is your new edition authorized by the Adventist Church and the White Estate?
Technically speaking, the only authorized publishers of Ellen G. White’s books are the church’s publishing houses. However, the text of these books is in the public domain, and many other independent publishers have produced their own editions of various Ellen G. White books in the past. We did meet with the White Estate when we were first developing this project, and have maintained communication with them at different points during the project, but officially speaking there is no approval or oversight from the White Estate.
You have begun a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the publication of the books. Why crowdfunding? How’s the campaign going so far?
There are two primary reasons we wanted to pursue crowdfunding. First, it’s a great way to test an idea before going all-in. While we have already invested hundreds of hours into designing The Conflict Beautiful, the monetary investment has been relatively low compared to the cost to produce the final books. Second, printing books of this quality is a costly endeavor, and Kickstarter provides a platform for people interested in the project to preorder the books and therefore fund the initial production run.
So far, the Kickstarter campaign has been going well, and the enthusiastic response from those aware of the project has been super encouraging—but we still have a ways to go. As with most crowdfunding campaigns, generating awareness is the most challenging aspect, and with Kickstarter it’s an all-or-nothing proposition; so either we meet our funding goal by November 15 and The Conflict Beautiful goes into production, or we hold onto our old copies of Ellen White books—which would be a great disappointment—and hope that someone else is able to bring a project like this to fruition in the future.
What is your ultimate goal for the publication of your “Conflict Beautiful” series? How many sets do you hope to sell?
Our ultimate goal for the publication of this edition is that these books will be someone’s first introduction to Ellen G. White, and the beautiful story told within their pages. Instead of learning about her through decontextualized quotes, or compilations, we’d love for more people to interact with Ellen G. White as the storyteller that she was, without the distractions of poor design, canonical page numbers, or dense text.
As far as selling, we have our no limit to how many we would like to sell. However, we do need to secure at least 1,000 preorders through Kickstarter because that’s the minimum quantity we need to get these books produced at the quality we’re seeking.
Have you worked on similar projects in the past? Has Types & Symbols published any other books?
While we’ve helped with book projects for clients like Adventist Review Ministries, Pacific Press, and Review & Herald, and though we’ve been involved in specifying some very high-quality materials and packaging for the Andrews Study Bible and Commentary, this is the first project that we have had complete ownership in. Whereas client budgets can sometimes be limited, we’ve been able to treat this like an ideal client project, in which design is driving the process, and enough time is allotted to deliver a truly remarkable product.
What other projects has Types & Symbols worked on? You say you are “a creative studio that designs Adventist experiences.” What does that mean? Do you work exclusively on Adventist projects?
We describe ourselves as a design studio that creates beautiful Adventist experiences through both self-initiated and client-commissioned projects. We have a decided focus on Adventist projects, and while we are often hired to create design systems or specific materials within a larger system, we intend to consider every element in terms of how the end user will experience an entire ministry, publication, or organization..
We design a number of publications, including Adventist Review, Adventist Journey, Adventist World, and Liberty Magazines, and a significant amount of our work is based in identity and branding systems, notably the Adventist Identity Guideline System, the Sonscreen Film Festival, Your Story Hour, and Hope Trending. In addition to client work, we also have a long list of studio-initiated projects that are driven by a desire to create compelling Adventist experiences. The Conflict Beautiful is the first of these projects we are launching, but we intend to release many more over the coming years.
How big is your company? How many people work there?
We are a small, five-person studio, all located in different states. I’m in Michigan, Ivan Ruiz-Knott in Massachusetts, Bryan Gray in West Virginia, Brett Meliti in Tennessee, and Ellen Musselman in Maryland.
You helped to start Types & Symbols, right? Do you spend most of your time doing graphic design, or are you managing the company, trying to land clients, doing admin? What takes up most of your time? What do you most enjoy about your work?
I co-founded Types & Symbols with Ivan, and my days are split between design and administration—with design being the primary focus. The thing I enjoy most about the work we do is knowing we have the potential to make a significant impact on how Adventism is perceived outside of the church. I never want a member to feel embarrassed by the materials used to promote an event, signage outside their church, or a website they might want to share with a friend. The Adventist message is beautiful, and I enjoy being a part of making the packaging of that message just as compelling.
What advice would you offer to young graphic design students at Adventist universities?
Nearly every experience is influenced by a designer, and the sum of those experiences shape how we view the world around us. As a designer guided by faith, you have an opportunity and a responsibility to create things that go beyond simply being beautiful and well-crafted—but also good. Experiences that encourage people to fix their thoughts on “what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable” (Philippians 4:8). This doesn’t necessarily mean working for the church, but it does mean never designing something that goes directly against those core values.
So, work hard. Pay attention to the details. Welcome constructive criticism. Seek out internships. Hold yourself to a high standard. Be kind and honest. Be grateful for every opportunity. Don’t focus on awards. And do good.
Mark Cook graduated from Andrews University in 1999 with a BFA in graphic design, and then earned an MFA in graphic design from the University of Notre Dame in 2005. During that time he designed for brands like Herman Miller, Whirlpool, and Johnson & Johnson. He spent eight years running Thesis, a design studio focused on the architecture and interior design trades. Cook co-founded Types & Symbols in 2015 with Ivan Ruiz-Knott and now splits his time between designing client solutions and creating studio-initiated projects like The Conflict Beautiful.
Photos credit: Ullom Photo. Top photo: Ivan Ruiz-Knott and Mark Cook.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
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