Some of you enjoy glimpses of the design process I use for my projects. So I thought I’d share a few details about the development of my new book Monster Etiquette. As always, you’ll see that the process is bumpy, inefficient, and full of course corrections. That’s part of what I like about the process.
The finished book is an illustrated guide to good behavior for monsters, gargoyles, aliens, and nephews. It includes 50 nuggets of advice about how to behave—each with a drawing created especially for this book. It’ll be an active Kickstarter project for the next three weeks.
I started working on this book when my previous book, Stay Home: The Ugly Truth About Space Travel went to the printer in the summer of 2017. I continued to work on Monster Etiquette off and on until January 2019. During those 18 months, I changed direction several times. Let me describe some of the detours.
The big idea. Initially, my idea was to copy advice about how to behave from old, Victorian etiquette manuals. I thought contrasting the verbose and stilted language of 19th-century books with my contemporary drawings would be funny. The antique text might say, “A gentleman caller does not fidget with his cane, hat, or parasol” and I’d draw some cad fidgeting with all three at the same time.
Detour. When I looked at those old books, I found they had way too much to say about behavior that is irrelevant today and too little to say about modern problems. There was a danger that my book would become a pointless mockery of an earlier age. Always a cheap shot. I thought I could do better than that.
I liked the idea that, while silly, the book could still be fully relevant and useful to readers today. So I shifted from warnings about eating peas with your knife to warnings about staring at your phone when you should be making eye contact.
Get the people out. Many of my early drawings showed men and women exhibiting good or bad behavior. Text is okay, but text with pictures of people doing things tends to be more engaging.
Detour. Sometimes, while sketching, I’d draw a monster or alien acting out the behavior instead of a person. Those images were always funnier and much more fun to draw. Some big oaf hogging adjacent seats at the theater is okay, but having a demonic snake hog multiple rows of seats is even better. So, I had a breakthrough when I replaced all the actors with creatures. None of the lessons were compromised and most of them became more vivid and memorable.
Here's an example. On the left a creature violating the personal space of a woman and on the right a creature violating the personal space of another creature, the image I included in the final book.
There’s something funny about a self-help book trying to give advice about proper behavior to demons or gargoyles. Letting monsters do most of the work also gave the book a great title.
Made some bad rhymes. Until the last few months of the project, my captions under the pictures were all concise, straight-forward descriptions. Because of the page layout I had developed, no caption could be more than two lines long. Those captions were okay, but they seemed a little stiff and few of them were funny.
Detour. I tried rewriting some of the captions as two lines of iambic pentameter with rhymes. So that this advice about choosing the right eating utensils...
Many specialized implements are available. Not sure which tool to use? Match the actions of the other diners.
Observing companions can help you deduce,
in moments of doubt, which utensils to use.
I’m not a poet, so many of the mini-poem captions don’t respect the meter, are awkward, and strain to make their rhyme, but I think that just adds to the humor. The captions are silly, but the advice remains valid. I like that tension.
And I had more fun because I got to make egregious pairings like “luck” and “mega-schmuck.”
When to stop. All design projects could continue forever. That’s why real-world projects have deadlines...so the effort will stop. My self-inflicted projects are dangerous because they have no deadlines. To prevent myself from going on indefinitely, I used a trick I learned from my old mentor, Richard Wurman. Just pick a reasonable number and structure your content around that count. Then stop.
I chose 50 nuggets—enough to make an interesting book but not too many to overwhelm the reader. I also chunked the nuggets into chapters to break up the parade of advice and give the reader a chance to breath from time to time.
Because of the 50 limit, some ideas had to be dropped. I didn’t get to address the curtsy, removing hats, nor leaving the toilet seat up. But a little pruning is almost always a good thing. Every project has some elements that can be discarded.
Sadly, stopping at 50 nuggets also means that some juicy drawings will probably never be seen by a broad audience. Like this extrovert expressing gratitude. Oh, well.
I hope you choose to become a sponsor of this project. It would be a shame if I couldn’t justify a production run because of a shortage of supporters. You can see the Kickstarter project here.
Pittsburgh, February 15, 2019