Alvin Ong on designing covers using the language of collage — Singapore Lit Prize feature

This July 2018, in light of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), we’ll be featuring our writers who’ve had their works shortlisted for the SLP 2018! Ethos is proud to have five titles on the shortlist this year—Phedra, 17A Keong Saik Road, Bitter Punch, The Magic Circle and Giving Ground—and beyond the SLP, we’re most interested to find out what went into the creative process behind these books.

A good cover catches the eye, compels you to pick up a book in a busy bookstore, and often gives a unique take on the story. Throughout this series of 'Judging a Book By Its Cover', we discover books through their cover designs.

Featuring our final SLP shortlisted book this year, we have Alvin Ong, the cover designer of Giving Ground. Read on to find out about how he overcomes design roadblocks and what inspired his cover design!

"I felt that this collection was aesthetically bounded by a sense of being situated at the crossroads, so I responded using the language of collage, an act which brings together disparate and hitherto unrelated material." —Alvin Ong

What is design to you?

It is a reminder of an earlier time in my life, when I was in architecture school. I’m a painter and I don’t consider myself a designer now.

Describe your creative design process.

I found that when I begin my paintings with a particular idea or plan, the results often end up looking like an illustration. So my works don’t begin with a blueprint. I allow my figures to be borne out of themselves. Parasitic at times, and in others, informed by design and accident, wrestling between a mark and an image.

What do you do when you hit a design roadblock?

I try to avoid overworking my paintings as I like to keep a light touch. When I’m stuck, I try out different strategies in my doodle app. Failing that, I turn the canvas against the wall and return after days or weeks. I find that time is the best ingredient to allow anything to come to its own fruition.

What art mediums would you be interested in exploring in the future?

I consider myself a painter-painter, so I still find the traditional mediums such as ink, paint and canvas very exciting to work with—these remain immensely fluid and open-ended even as others have declared painting dead. However, I’d like to make my own oil paints from scratch in future.

If you could describe your art style with one food item what would it be and why?

Durian—smelling like rotten flesh but possessing a taste that is out of this world. It’s a heady mix of extremes. And the process of bringing these seemingly incompatible extremities together continues to fuel and excite me.

On book design, what was your main inspiration for the cover design of Giving Ground?

    I felt that this collection was aesthetically bounded by a sense of being situated at the crossroads, so I responded using the language of collage, an act which brings together disparate and hitherto unrelated material. I  hope my responses have created an atmosphere through which worlds and cultures have collided.

    I also saw myself in the character of the artist, which only appears once in the book, in "Farquhar". So in my response, the birds from the Farquhar’s collection of natural history drawings are woven in and out of their journeys in text throughout the collection.

    If you could use just three words, how would you describe the poems in Giving Ground?

    Old meets new.

    What do you think is the difference in designing covers for books as compared to other creative projects?

    I suppose it depends on the content of the book itself. In this case, I felt many affinities to Theophi’s poems in this collection, through my experiences of my own travels on foot, and also being in Oxford at the same time as him.

    With the advent of e-books and digital platforms, some say that book covers are increasingly taking a back seat. How do you think book cover designs can evolve with this trend?

    I think current e-book cover designs attempt to replicate the format of their physical counterparts, so I don’t see e-book covers coming into their own in the near future. Personally, I use e-books for their utilitarian function, for these, their e-covers are irrelevant to me. But as an artist and a maker of objects, I still treasure physical books. They exist side-by-side with my digital library.

    If you could turn one of your art pieces into a book, which piece would you choose and what would the story be?

    It would probably a tale of magical realism, full of surreal twists and turns. But at the moment, I am sufficiently satisfied with the language of painting.

    Artist photo credit: Genevieve Chua

    Giving Ground is available on our webstore, and in all good bookstores.

    P.S. For the first time and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore Book Council, the public is invited to attend the SLP awards ceremony. Come meet your favourite authors! Free registration here