Redesigning Cormac McCarthy’s Brutal ‘Blood Meridian’

In the last few years I feel like my pace of designing has slowed down. This is mostly due to the fact that I have spent the last decade or so managing teams of very talented people. I have definitely designed things that have been critical to campaigns, been more hands-on when necessary, and ultimately, gotten my hands dirty when a project comes down to the wire. But designing for me? Much less so. Because that energy has been focused toward my day job, and we all only have so much to give.

So, I hopped back into things with a book cover. My tried and true medium for playing and experimenting, I’ll walk you through my design process. I have been doing a lot of Flickr digging lately, finding old photos, textures, type, handwriting, etc to add to my resources folder. I love having a digital archive of things to pull from, my own little toolbox of assets that may one day come in handy. I started out with the photo below, an intense photo of what I believe are a herd of Ankole, a type of long-horned cattle.


Initially I thought, “maybe this works for a western book, something like Cormac McCarthy´s There Will Be Blood?” Yes, I quickly realized McCarthy did not write There Will Be Blood, Upton Sinclair wrote Oil! which P.T. Anderson based the film on. This rabbit hole lead me to Blood Meridian instead, which I have never read, though I immediately became deeply fascinated with the book. The creative process is a circuitous journey.

If you’re unfamiliar with Blood Meridian, like I was, it’s set in the mid-19th century, following the journey of a nameless protagonist referred to as “the Kid” as he travels through the borderlands of the United States and Mexico. It explores themes of violence, the human condition, and the nature of evil, and has been praised for its literary merit but has also been criticized for its explicit and disturbing content. This short description really doesn’t do it justice, but it helps give some context for what I created.

Blood Meridian — Type Assets — AGILITY

First off, my mind heads toward typography. I love old type, scanned in typefaces or letters, and old handwriting on photos from long ago. There’s a charm that to it all that I never get tired of. Back into my archive I went. I wanted to find three unique styles of type or lettering: one for the title, one for the secondary title, and one for the author’s name. The primary titled needed to have the most visual weight, the secondary title needed to be legible but a tertiary element, while the author’s name should have a fair amount but lay somewhere between primary and secondary in the visual hierarchy of things. I’m going to show you how it all came together, and then describe why I made those choices, as well as some variations.

Blood Meridian - Cover - Cormac McCarthy - AGILITY

When I start to lay out the elements, I’ll start with the background. I knew there would be a wonderful tension between the horns of the cattle and the type, and I wanted to emphasize that. The book has a lot of themes of evil, the character of Judge Holden perhaps personifying the devil, and the overall setting maybe being an allegory for hell. So having the cattle sitting toward the bottom, their faces partially obscured with their eyes staring menacingly, the set a perfect tone. The image fills the frame just right, the horns framed perfectly within the bounds of the cover. Again, the idea was to build tension.

Furthering the idea of tension, I went through a lot of variations with the type for the primary title and ended up with the type bleeding off the edges. It’s not the most original layout, I will confess, yet ultimately it felt the most appropriate to create an overwhelming feeling. I kerned and leaded everything rather tightly so that all the letters and the two words felt like one, cohesive element. Below that I sat the secondary title, space nicely under the end of the M and the end of the A, and positioned neatly between the bottom of MERIDIAN and the top of the cattle horns. When I design I’m often looking for that Goldilocks spot, a place for the type to sit where it feels just right, an emotional understanding devoid of logic.

Blood Meridian - Cover Close-Up - Cormac McCarthy - AGILITY

Finally, the author’s name, which in my opinion, is a hugely important element. A lot of people buy a book because of their familiarity with an author. In this case, many people know Cormac McCarthy’s name because of his books (and respective films) The Road and No Country for Old Men. You can see above I pulled the type from an old photo, names written in of each member. I pulled the letters one by one to give a feeling that someone from another time had written McCarthy’s name. I really love the personality and think this turned out quite well. I think the position of his name works really nicely too, sitting nicely in the negative space of the L and resting well on the two O’s.

I enjoy the monochromatic feeling of this version of the cover of a lot. It reminds me of the stark brutality of the book, of life and death, the harshness of the land “the Kid” faces. But I had to try a red version. “Blood” and “Red” appear in both titles, the color red is present in nearly ever cover that’s been made, it felt wrong not to. This also presented a unique challenge for legibility, and I love a good challenge.

Blood Meridian - Cover - Cormac McCarthy - AGILITY

I had to spend a good amount of time finding the right red tone. I didn’t want the red to feel too cartoon-y or vibrant. It had to be more yellow than magenta, as red can easily start to look too pink-y. And overall, the red really decreased the legibility of the cattle, washing out a lot of the details that make it easy to see what at the bottom of the image. Color is a funny thing. For the type, I felt like this dusty gold color sat nicely with the red, and felt tonally appropriate to the book as there’s a lot of mention of coins. It could be hot to have it as a lightly gold metallic sheen. That all said, I do feel like this version feels rather safe and a bit expected, so I created another version that to me, was a bit more contemporary in tone.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, design by AGILITY

I love a magenta and red combination. It’s one of my unabashed go-to’s in design, and I will never get tired of it. In thinking this version through, I’m of two minds. Does this feel tonally correct for the book and the story it tells? Yes, but no. I think the book feels very disorienting and surreal in place and this color combo kind of underlines that. But the two previous versions feel like they hit that mark better. Do I think this would grab attention on a book shelf? Absolutely. At the end of the day, grabbing eyes is a huge part of marketing a book and I think this achieves that. Ultimately, I like all three versions I created, though for very different reasons.

What do you think? Any one stand out as your particular favorite? I hope seeing behind my process is interesting. I don’t usually externalize all my interior motives, but I had fun going through some of the choices I ended up making. If you have any questions or are looking for guidance on a project, feel free to reach out!