My history with The A Cappella Blog went from being the friend who hangs out with the crew, to being the unofficial photographer (for the shows I could make it to), to the designer/web developer who established the look and feel of the site and its printed materials. My friends Mike Chin and Mike Scalise handled the things they were good at—writing, coordinating people and events, reviewing a cappella shows—and they trusted me with the brand and other visual things.
In the early 2010’s my day job consisted of developing interactive Flash components and client websites, and while I got to contribute to the direction of the designs I was working with, I had almost entirely made the shift over to development and the production side of things. Working with the Mikes on ACB gave me a place to use my background in graphic design and to dabble in the things I was excited to see my design colleagues do on a daily basis. When the opportunity to lay out and design The A Cappella book came along, I was excited to be a part of it.
To be honest, I don’t think I had given enough thought into what the cover should look like. The Mikes and I had thrown around a few concept ideas based on things that we liked, but our favorites ideas looked a lot like what other blogs or writers were doing. I specifically remember liking the idea of creating a microphone sculpture out of paper and shooting that, but the choice to do a single microphone alongside the title had been played out.
While we didn’t exactly know what the photo at the top of the cover would be yet, we had started down the road on a concept showing the Mikes in the audience at a performance or somewhere on stage like they would be when hosting an event. With our goal to create a cover that would get the concept of the book across to potentially Kickstarter backers, we found an empty theater and did a quick photo shoot.
After trying a few options, we laid out what the cover could look like and prepared to make a few mockups.
Because the iPad had been around for a couple of years I put together an e-book mockup, and since we expected to distribute more of the printed version of the book I wanted to create a printed mockup and photograph that as the main Kickstarter image. Because we only needed to show enough of the book to get the idea across, I had designed a cover and spine in the proportions that we planned the printed book to be.
I had found a book that I had read and no longer needed and thought that we could glue the cover design onto it for the mockup.
I printed out the cover design and used the physical book to guide my scoring marks and trim cuts. I used some mounting paper to adhere the design over the book’s existing paperback cover. At this point we had a good enough representation of the final product to begin advertising the campaign on Kickstarter.
Just like the work on the website, the book was a labor of love for me and the Mikes. We didn’t expect to make a lot of money on the book, but we did want to cover a few costs to help with the book’s production. We turned to Kickstarter and set up a campaign that would get advertised to readers on the website.
During the campaign we sort of hit readers over the head with a Kickstarter campaign widget in the sidebar of the website. This led readers to the campaign page that included a video that we had shot at the time we had done the cover photo shoot. Just like working on the mockup of the book cover, I had learned a lot about shooting and editing video from the people I had worked with.
After some promotion on Facebook by the Mikes, the campaign was successful with just a couple of days left to go.
This had meant that the work on the real book was ready to begin. As we made progress with the book, we kept Kickstarter backers and the site’s readers up to date by replacing the campaign widget one that linked to the latest news about the book.
While the Mikes were writing the content for the book I worked on the design of the cover. The layout didn’t change too much from the mockup design, but we decided not to go with a photo of Mike and Mike on the cover. I shot a few photos of microphones or other stage elements and we took some time to think through ideas while going to shows and working on content for the site and the book.
On the site we had taken photographs of collegiate groups performing and we had a collection of photos that we had begun using on the site or in promotional material.
I don’t think we ever considered using any of these as we wanted the book to feel like its own thing, but in these photos there is a common look that you get from the type of stage lighting used in college theaters and auditoriums.
Since we had connections to a local college theater, we decided to get some friends together to do our own photo shoot that would be set to look like a live performance. I had purchased some LEDs and work lights and set them around the stage, we had asked our friends to come dressed in black and white dresses and slacks, and I directed and shot the cover using my Nikon 300s.
The thing I was going for in this photo was to capture the moment just before a song starts where someone in the group has just played a note into a pitch pipe and was just dropping it back into their pocket. Because the book was for students and performers working on their craft, the idea was that they might recognize this moment of calibrating the group, even if the audience wasn’t fully aware it was happening.
It was intended that we focused on the hand and the pitch pipe, and all of the folks in the group would be cropped out or blurry. We avoided using any specific school colors and tried to make it feel like we could have been capturing any group in the collegiate a cappella world.
The one thing I wish we had done was get more diversity into the photo. One of the great things about seeing groups from around the country—and sometimes around the world—is that the members come in all shapes and sizes. We were lucky to gather some close friends who gave up their time to help us out, but given the chance to do it again, I would have tried harder to get folks who better represent the people we were meeting.
One little Easter egg that I don't know too many people caught is that to fill in the crowd of people on stage, Mike Scalise—alongside his then girlfriend, now wife, Amy—made it onto the cover.
Designing the Content
For the entire run of The A Cappella Blog the articles were set in a serif font and san-serif was used for things like captions or sidebar content. We kept that going for the book by picking from a print typeface that we felt was easy to read over longer chapters. Each chapter had a title and some included black and white photos to illustrate the topic. The book spanned about 275 pages and the last 60 pages were made up of a snapshot of the website’s Group Directory section, detailing the names and makeup of all of the groups we had been keeping tabs on over the years.
The book was laid out in InDesign and it was created for the size that we would be printing it in. Using master pages, inline images, and paragraph styles made it easy to update the content of the book or the Group Directory pages as changes would be made.
During this process I had printed a few pages on my printer, but to really test its readability we had ordered copies of the printed book and waited to get those before making design revisions.
On Demand Printing: The Good, The Bad, The Weirdly Cut
From the get-go we determined that we'd have a digital edition of the book and a printed edition. Because we planned on self-publishing the book, we would have to do all of the work to print, store, and distribute copies. To make this easier, we decided to go with Amazon’s print-on-demand service. It would digitally print your book and ship it to the buyer on a per-book basis, or in small runs.
Using Amazon meant that the profit on the book was slim, but we had decided that the goal was to distribute the book and that making money on it was secondary. This on-demand setup allowed us to set it all up and run itself while we focused on going to shows and creating other content for the site.
This also meant that the quality of the printing was in Amazon’s hands, so we took some time to do some test runs and iterated design tweaks until we landed on the quality that we were happy with.
The first thing we did was send the first draft of the book along with the mockup cover to get a feeling for the size and print quality. The quality of the interior pages was great and the cover was something like what we had expected from digital printing at the time.
After that we had taken the final cover photo and made some updates as we dialed in the final layout. At one point we created a version of the cover that let us see what the main photo looked like at a few different brightness settings.
After one last proof, we finalized the design and focused the rest of our time using the mockups to proof the book and focus on content updates.
One thing that was a result of using Amazon’s on-demand printing service was that when we went to order the final copies of our books we noticed that some of the books were cut incorrectly. While we had bleeds in place to accommodate variations in cuts on the front and back faces of the cover, the issue was that it looked like the book was settled on a slant when the book was cut so the whole book was crooked if you looked at it from its spine. When working with a local printer or book binding company, I'd expect their standards to be high enough that if you asked they would have corrected this. Being Amazon we had given up on the idea that they would reprint and resend the book to us and we had let it go.
Working on the A Cappella Book was another random design-related thing I’m glad I got to do. While I'm happy creating websites, it was a fun exercise to work on a tangible item that occupies real space. Just like everything I did for The A Cappella Blog over the years, I appreciate the Mikes giving me the chance to be a part of it.
The A Cappella Book had gone on sale for the past 5 years, and as of this writing we’ve decided that we accomplished the goal we wanted with the book and it’s now made available as a downloadable PDF. You can read it by downloading the PDF on The A Cappella Blog website.