Burning Stock: Redesigning The Uncommon Trilogy

by Kevin Barrett Kane

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On an unusually warm day in the fall of 2013, I found myself chasing burning sheets of paper down Walnut Street near downtown Boulder, Colorado. Though I had set the papers on fire intentionally, a sudden gust and the resulting scattering was not a part of my plan. 

The content of these papers was as much staged as their fiery demise—it outlined a financial investment contract between the venture capital firm Foundry Group and Mozaik, a technology startup devoted to uncovering financial fraud. Mozaik, however, was not a real company, and Foundry partner Brad Feld had not actually agreed to invest millions of dollars in their future prospects—though, in other circumstances, he might have. 

Mozaik and its founder Mara Winkel are the brainchildren of author Eliot Peper, and the burning financial agreements that I had to extinguish were part of a photoshoot for Eliot's book, Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0. As the creative director of FG Press, I was set on a mission to build an astonishing and thrilling cover for this first book in the Uncommon Trilogy, which had led me to this precarious situation. Just the previous week, I had walked into Mara's favorite coffee shop, The Laughing Goat, and requested a photoshoot in their cafe that would include a 9mm handgun. They were quick to decline the request. I never expected that life as a book designer could be so dangerous.

The resulting covers for Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 and Uncommon Stock: Power Play were some of the very first covers that I designed in my career. As my style has changed over the years, I have always wondered what I would do differently, if anything, with the covers for the Uncommon Trilogy. 

Since the publication of Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy in 2014, the design of Eliot's published works has changed drastically. After the success of Cumulus in 2015, we decided to stick to the more minimal style featured in that cover, with an emphasis on strong and legible typography. The shift away from focusing on custom photography was a result of several strategic discussions, mostly based on the shifting landscape of publishing to its current state, where cover designs must be eye catching and legible even at a thumbnail size on Amazon. 

The result of these discussions ultimately led Eliot to reconsider the designs for Uncommon Stock, and, in late 2017, he called to let me know that it was time for an update. By this time, not only had my style changed quite drastically, but I was also accompanied at The Frontispiece by my partner, Emma. We were excited to work together on the redesign of some of my first books, and to bring the Uncommon Trilogy up-to-date with the 6 other books we'd designed for Eliot since their publication. 

To start, we considered several factors of the original design that we were hoping to mimic. We thought the overall color scheme worked quite nicely in sequence, and maintaining it would provide a visual dialogue between the previous designs and the new ones. We also knew that it was important to keep up appearances—that is, to make the covers just as striking and "thriller-y" as the first. Keeping the excitement level high for the redesigned covers would be the biggest challenge, given that the originals feature fire, a hunting knife, a gun with several discarded clips, perfectly-sculpted latte art, a very noose-like climbing rope, prescription meds, Oban scotch, and blood spatters. We knew from experience that Amazon's publishing guidelines actually limit the visibility of book covers with these kinds of violent elements (another reason for the redesign), and so none of these features, except for possibly the latte, could be used in the update. 

The redesign process was frustrating. Both Emma and I presented Eliot with numerous rounds of covers, but nothing was sticking. The expectations were high, and designing three covers at once was proving to be a more difficult task than imagined. Months went by, and many rounds of iterations later we still hadn't made much progress. One of the reasons for this is that Emma and I were both convinced that we could pull off a cover featuring Mara, the protagonist of the series. Typically, we do not recommend featuring characters on the cover of our titles for a number of reasons, but we were committed to trying in this case. The resulting covers didn't quite fit the bill, however, and we scrapped the idea. 

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Finally, we got a lead on a concept from Eliot, who sent a link to a website on the fractal designs of mathematician and programmer Bill Gosper. Gosper, a notoriously brilliant programmer from the early age of computers, is considered to be one of the founding members of the hacker community. The relationship between Gosper's reputation and the contents of the series were too good to pass up. 

We discussed the possibility of featuring iterations of one of the fractals, to give the sense that with each book, "the plot (and the fractal) thickens." It was the direction we'd been waiting for, and Emma and I got to work building covers featuring fractals. 

The covers we ended up choosing feature the first three iterations of a fractal set known as the Gosper curve, colloquially referred to as the "flowsnake." The fractal itself is what is known as a plane-filling function, meaning that when repeated, the function fills a given space. The space filled by the Gosper curve in its 7th iteration is known as the Gosper Island. 

 Larry Riddle,  Classic Iterated Function Systems , Agnes Scott College. Read an extended description of this function  here .

Larry Riddle, Classic Iterated Function Systems, Agnes Scott College. Read an extended description of this function here.

The correct application of these fractals ended up taking even more time to iron out, so when we reached the final design featuring glitch effects and bold colors, we were quite relieved. The time and energy devoted to redesigning the series was ultimately worthwhile, and we successfully launched the new covers within a week of the release of Bandwidth. So far, the reception has been exclusively positive. 

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More important than the success of these covers independently, however, was that the update brought the Uncommon Trilogy visually in-line with the other titles Eliot has written. Whereas before these first books seemed out of place alongside Eliot's more recent efforts, now the books in the Uncommon Trilogy take their rightful place as some of the best covers in Eliot's author library.  

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You can order the new editions of the Uncommon Trilogy here, and be on the lookout for the second book in Eliot's new Analog series, Borderless, available in October.