Limitless — Leadership that Endures.

Creating the artwork for ‘Limitless — Leadership that Endures.’ The new bestseller by Ajaz Ahmed, founder of AKQA and co-author of Velocity.


The Ask

Ajaz Ahmed is the CEO of AKQA, an ideas and innovation company he founded aged 21 and the co-author of Velocity.

While ‘Limitless’ was in its infancy, Ajaz approached me to create the artwork for it. The book would tell the stories of the leaders and organizations that have inspired him on his journey. From Henry Ford and Margaret Rudkin to Steve Jobs and Coco Chanel. 18 months later, the book is fresh from the printers. This was the process.

A selection of preliminary ideas for the book cover.

I develop global brands by combining ideas, art and code so they can better connect to their audiences whilst ensuring they meet and hopefully exceed business objectives. Turning briefs into solutions that are effective in the ever-changing technology landscape.

Having applied my crafts to many things in my career from private commissions, content creation, films, re-brands, apps and global integrated campaigns for some of the world's most highly regarded brands, a book cover remained something I’d forever yearned for. A chance to create something timeless in a disposable generation.

Books were a new territory for me. I look at them, I don’t read them. Being dyslexic, I find it excruciating to overcome the introduction without being sidetracked by something else on the page.

The Audience

Before creating anything, you need to know your audience. In my case, this consisted of 3 main groups.

Readers.

The cover had to lure them in, provoke curiosity and make an impression. Readers lives are now ocular and shareable. Books are no longer seen by their spine on shelves, nor reliant on being featured in shop windows if sales are up. Book covers are seen on every device in multiple formats. From email attachments, iTunes charts, blogs, small previews on Amazon not to mention an abundance of photos of them on social feeds. New manufacturing processes coupled with the introduction of different paper stocks, self-publishing, unconventional dimensions, new embossing techniques and binding methods, all contribute to the way a book can be seen by its audience. The way a reader see’s a book is dramatically evolving.

Publishers.

Equally important to readers are publishers. Random House would need to feel proud to print it, based on all their expertise.

Author.

Ajaz would need to feel like this was the truest visual articulation of what he had written. From speaking to James Hilton about the time it took to design the Velocity cover and knowing the extensive time Ajaz took to write this book, a book which is based upon a lifetime of learning I knew this process could well be Limitless.

The Collaboration

Ajaz gave me free reign from day one. This was both a gift and curse. I could do absolutely anything so long as it reinforced Limitless — Leadership that Endures.

There was an incredible amount of trust from day one between Ajaz, myself and Random House. Ajaz would share my designs frequently with them and in turn they provided recommendations, printing solutions or alternatives.

The Elements

Subject.

A focus for the artwork, the epicenter of an idea. This could be an object or something figurative.

Background.

Something to provide context for the subject.

Text.

Despite my efforts to leave only the title on early designs, the author's name, title and sub-title were all mandatory.

The Artwork

I set out to create as many different artworks as possible, giving each one a completely different art direction. Illustrative, typographic, vector, woodcut, freehand, photographic, collage and abstract. You name it, I gave it a bash.

There were a lot of ideas floating about and each one could have had infinite executions. Doing this alongside my client projects led to me making notes whenever I had an idea and spending any spare time grafting away on them. Some seemed time-consuming dead-ends but a necessary evil to get to where I needed to be. Once drawn I’d be able to see if they were worth pursuing. This was an interesting exercise not only to see how far I could push it but to see how Ajaz reacted.

This image is a photo of some artwork. I stretched the artwork and printed it out so anyone taking a photo of the cover from a certain angle would feel like the birds are almost hovering over the book. The issue was from directly above the artwork looked distorted.
Rendering different typographic forms has always been a supreme passion of mine. I tried to make the type feel as fluid as possible as if it were made of liquid which would end up being the ocean for a small boat.
Some designs took me 10 minutes (left) others 1 hour (middle).
These were some of the first designs I did. In hindsight, they were perhaps too intense but I really wanted to push the conventional ‘business book’ cliche and try things that were a little bit more unexpected.
Left: Blood, sweat and tears. The traits of a true leader. Middle: Infinity Sand timer. Right: A howling wolf standing tall against a ferocious hurricane.
Right: The notion that a true leader consists of many different attributes.
I’ve probably never spent so long on an individual piece of artwork. This took weeks of retouching as I literally painted trees in by hand. I wanted to paint every detail myself.
This artwork involved putting a trail of birds over the landscape as if they were following a leader over new territories. A small wolf can be seen in the foreground. I manipulated the color to convey the treacherous environment I wanted the birds to overcome.
We abandoned this design after many variations due to it feeling like the cover of a novel in a similar vein to Game of Thrones or something of that genre.
This project was a chance to try out brush techniques I had never used.

The Lion

There was a recurring theme of the king of animals in my sketches. Nothing says leader more than a Lion. Proud, audacious, majestic, courageous, confident and solicitous. The leader of the pack with relentless energy. Known to live in tight groups and in times of conflict they conduct themselves with dignity.

Coincidently lions were also Gabrielle Chanel's favorite feline figure. She always kept a small statue of a lion by her cigarettes and scissors and engraved it into the buttons of her tweed suits.

Every idea was a chance to explore different techniques and styles. This one was purely vector-based.

A direction I felt most restless about was a fearless lion pressing against the cover about to break out. Not bound by any limitations.

Unable to really mock this up the way I had imagined it was evident my techniques would need to alter, so I went on a hunt for a taxidermy Lion.

I rang The National History Museum and got shot down immediatly, movie prop warehouses only had old busted up ones. Some places had lions but they were not roaring or showing any signs of passion, ebay had none that would get to me in time. I had a lead on a few others that had been seen spotted in bars around Manhattan by friends, all of which had either been removed or stolen when I went to check them all out. To be honest, it was good to know taxidermy was hard to come by and doesn’t have the bragging rights it once had.

After exhausting all options — I gave The Explorers Club a shot. I lie, I was actually too intimidated to call, as it felt too exclusive so I asked my wife to. The Explorers Club is a private members club located near Central Park known for not only a vast taxidermy collection but also promoting the scientific explorations of land, sea, air and space. The clubs members have been some of the first to the north pole, the south pole, the deepest point in the ocean and to the surface of the moon. Something felt serendipitous about using this place to create a cover to represent leaders that endure, this place was full of them. Hearing they had a Lion seemed liked a sign.

Lacey Flint from the club invited me over, I could have spent an eternity in their archives. Expedition photos, timeworn maps, salvaged flags, souvenirs, scientific findings and things that have been in space. Far from your standard museum full of photo kiosks and gift shops, this was any boys dream. It had that warm feeling when your welcome at your nan’s house and there's no pressure to leave and everything you see on the walls and mantle pieces has kind of earned it’s own right to being there. You could point at literally anything, the rug, ceiling, furniture and door knobs and you knew they’d be the most impressive story behind them.

The Lion was attained on an expedition that Teddy Roosevelt himself led. After literally telling Lacey that she was the deal breaker between the cover being made or not she kindly allowed me to come back and do some tests.

I came equipped with an empty frame and various matt white lycra textiles along with dowelling with soft rubber ends to gentle prod into the lion without damaging it.

Working my way around the lions face, I applied small amounts of pressure around each facial feature which I would later composite together as a proof of concept.

After seeing the proof of concept, Ajaz agreed this route was worth exploring but the decision between doing this as a composition of images or in 3D was still undecided.

Screenshot from Ajaz’s email response.

The pros for 3D was that if we didn’t like the lighting and shadows, or the amount the lion was pressing into the fabric, the stretch marks or contours they could all be adjusted quickly. Unlike a series of images, which we would then need to set up another rig, prod each facial feature and take all of them again, comp it all up again etc.

As time was now a factor, we decided to go with 3D. Using a Kinect scan we now had a replica of our feline friend to manipulate.

Some early 3d tests with various tension points, textiles and pressures.

Weeks of back and fourth went by, but the results fell short of what we knew it could be. We felt like the only way to nail this was to do it how I did the original test, but in a more controlled environment. I reached out to Sam Kaplan who specializes in this field, and we set up a shoot.

We applied the same process as before, only this time everything was in focus, higher resolution, lights were locked, the frame was clamped in place and we had a whole day.

Already these felt like they had more potential. After various efforts, retouching and countless renditions it felt like we had the cover.

Two examples of the type of feedback I sent on to the retoucher.
After many iterations on the artwork, we exhausted all font combinations and placements.
The design mocked up in indesign including all book elements ready for print.

Each time I came up with around 15 designs I made a new folder on my laptop. It had been over year at this point, so seeing a folder ‘Round 24’ with a file name ending ‘...Final.jpg’ in it, felt pretty good.

Ajaz sent this on to the publishers to execute some test prints. We were both getting pretty excited that at last we had the final cover. Ajaz came to New York heavily ladened with many test prints on various papers, none of which sadly resembled the beauty and emotion we wanted from the cover. The way we had both envisioned it feeling in our hands was completely different to the reality.

The Final Cover

“The simple will always displace the complex.”

Ajaz Ahmed

Fresh from the disappointment of the test prints we revisited all previous directions and went back to one of our joint favourite designs. The bird that was soaring high into the sky.

The one email I leave in my inbox as a daily reminder is from a thread of emails with Ajaz ending in the quote below.

With that in mind, we both agreed what we currently had as our favorite was not as simple as we both wanted.

We tried birds flying in flocks, a bird replacing the 2nd tittle on the I, two birds replacing both tittle’s. We questioned what did it mean to have landscape on the bottom? What about no landscape? Does it mean the bird wasn’t actually soaring high enough? Should the bird be an eagle and of a stronger nature? If so what bird? Should the colors reflect dawn or dusk? Does moving the word Limitless to certain heights make the bird look like it’s flying farther away, or just taking off? If we moved it too far, would people know it’s part of the ‘i’ that’s flown off? We continued to question.

Out of many background variations we decided to move forward with a faint tint of baby blue sky (CMYK 17,4,0,0 or Pantone 657U). Blue is the primary color in the RGB colour model used to create all the colors on a screen. A small nod to a world gone digital. Blue for me also symbolized harmony, faithfulness, and infinity. The thought of blue skies also resembles optimism.

The bird went from being a timid small breed to a bird of prey which now puts the philosophy and principles of Limitless in action.

As the title on the first ‘i’ is a regular dot we can question whether it will also evolve into a bird and follow suit, enforcing that our bird is a leader.

The font used for Limitless is Garamond MT Std, a small nod to my invaluable time in Paris, where working alongside Peter Lund, Nicolai Smith and the rest of my Paris fam helped me truly develop my craft.

Claude Garamont (commonly known as Garamond was a french punch-cutting type designer. Known to this day for the elegance of his typefaces. As the first type designer and punch cutter to retail his punches to other printers, Garamond helped shape the future of commercial printing, a leader in his own craft.

The long extenders and top serifs have a downward slope and variation in stroke widths are restricted to which resembles handwriting, creating a style that feels almost organic. It’s also among the most legible readable serif typefaces when printed on paper. It also has thinner strokes than most common print fonts which can reduce printing ink consumption by 25%.

The font Baskerville was used for ‘Leadership that Endures’. Created by a perfectionist and self-taught printer, it’s a font that feels elegant, unhurried, calm and in control whilst being very legible. John Baskerville was a true leader who redesigned the press as existing ones during his time did not capture the small details of his type. Again, another pioneer in his craft.

The dust jacket itself has not been folded to fit the form of the book, in order to feel loose and free.

Both tittles on both ‘i’s were kept on the spine as without seeing the front it would seem like a mistake if one was missing.

You can purchase Limitless — Leadership that Endures by Ajaz Ahmed here.

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