Damon Young is an award-winning writer, critic, humorist, satirist, and editor-in-chief of Very Smart Brothas. He's also my cousin and one of my best friends whom I've worked with on several different occasions before, including: the aforementioned VSB, 1839 Mag, and his and VSB co-founder Panama Jackson's first book Your Degrees Won't Keep You Warm at Night.

Because I've designed the vast majority of websites, platforms, and published works that Damon has ever spearheaded or been a part of, I hoped that I was a shoo-in to design his first memoir as well: What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/Harper Collins). However, I was humbled very quickly when I learned that I was actually not in the running to submit mockups for the jacket design despite Damon tossing my name into the hat. It was actually my brilliant friend Frank William Miller Jr, Harper Collins' first choice designer, who insisted they put me in the running. I'm forever grateful to Frank for advocating for me and to Sara Wood, HC's Associate Art Director, for extending the opportunity to submit mockups and guiding my creative process.

Designing a book for one of the world's largest publishing companies—a highly anticipated memoir, at that (several celebrities, including Questlove and Ava Duvernay, blurbed Damon's book proposal)—was not something I took lightly. I submitted approximately thirty mockups in four rounds (I've included some of the earlier rejected designs below) for feedback and approval. As is often the case, I knew the design that reigned supreme was most likely the one as soon as I'd completed it. The bright colorway, the bold typography, and my perceived timelessness of the eventual cover were very apparent to me before I'd even submitted the round to Harper Collins.

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker was officially released March 26, 2019 and can be purchased at any major book retailer or via hc.com/damonyoung. I also took the author photo for the memoir, which is included on the inside of the book jacket.

The official synopsis reads as follows: From the cofounder of VerySmartBrothas.com, and one of the most read writers on race and culture at work today, a provocative and humorous memoir-in-essays that explores the ever-shifting definitions of what it means to be Black (and male) in America. For Damon Young, existing while Black is an extreme sport. The act of possessing black skin while searching for space to breathe in America is enough to induce a ceaseless state of angst where questions such as “How should I react here, as a professional black person?” and “Will this white person’s potato salad kill me?” are forever relevant. What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker chronicles Young’s efforts to survive while battling and making sense of the various neuroses his country has given him.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker
What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker: elements
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker

Because I know Damon well—his humility and self-professed awkwardness in particular—I also knew that he would initially bristle at the use of his actual photo or silhouette on the book's cover. However, given the immensely personal nature of this memoir that's intrinsically tied to being a Black man, I felt it was worth the risk. I also believe Damon's ever-present glasses are tied to his brand, hence the decision to highlight his frames.

The font, which I modified slightly, was originally designed by famed typographer Dennis Ortiz-Lopez—a man of color himself. This was an intentional choice.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker

I took a few product shots at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh the morning What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker was released. Ace is where Damon wrote the majority of the book. I sat in his 2 favorite seats to take them: a stool at the lobby bar and the seat with the best light by the windows. Sentimental and apropos.

Damon Young author photo
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker

Damon's author photo, as well as the photo I used to create the cover art, was actually taken in 2016 at Arnold's Tea on the Northside of Pittsburgh, PA. He'd been using it as his official headshot/press photo since then, but I was still surprised and honored that he chose it to be in the book, as well.

Book Credits
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker
Book Acknowledgements
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker

To sarah huny young, for creating the places that have housed and covered my work—platforms and web designs and book covers so spectacular that my writing feels anticlimactic when existing next to it.

--Damon Young
Rejected Mockups

I submitted multiple rounds of mockups to to Sara Wood, Associate Art Director at Harper Collins, to nail down the final design for What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker. Her feedback and guidance during the process was knowledgeable, savvy, and imperative. During later rounds, Damon himself, and his agent, Tanya McKinnon, chimed, in too.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker

A bit of elaboration on these drafts:

  • All the typography on mockup c is my own handwriting;
  • I envisioned a & b to be printed with actual gold foil;
  • The fist on mockup c was just too "on the nose", but sometimes it's beneficial to submit a design the parties involved might need to see in order to know, for sure, that it *doesn't* work;
  • The use of arrows, on mockups d & f in particular, were an homage to Muhammad Ali's April 1968 Esquire cover (which was, itself, a reference to St. Sebastian). I wanted Damon's book to have a an iconic, memorable cover, and I felt the reference was very appropriate given the book's title and subject matter. Although the arrow concept didn't make it onto the final cover, it did last until the penultimate round. Very often, simpler is better, and resonates appropriately (and they maintain that resonance at thumbnail size).
Promo Tour: Waterfront Barnes & Noble (Pittsburgh, PA)
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker

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