R. Jordan Santos: Judging By His Covers


Like all great career stories, when one was forced to learn the inherent rudiments of the trade, when the one who was usually tasked to do to it did not show up at the work place, for independent graphic designer R. Jordan Santos that was 13 years ago. At the tail end of the second semester, at the Philippine Collegian, the official student publication of University of the Philippines Diliman to be exact.

That being March, it was thought about for the Philippine Collegianto come out with its first Women’s issue with Maureen Gaddi Dela Cruz of Kultura and Joms Salvador of Features as special editors. With the final exams week approaching, most staffers were unusually busy with their classes and rushing deadlines, this time academic. Some were even sick, only few can commit. Verk Magpusao, the Grapiks editor that time was not even available to do the layout and design forcing Jordan to step up the plate.

“On that slow Friday general assembly,” Jordan reminisces: “I volunteered to do it. I think it was even a relief for everyone. Layout work carried stigma of being a lonely, thankless activity nobody wanted to do. You end up being the only one left awake during press work when everyone else was done with writing, illustrating, and developing their photos. However if you were an artist who wanted control on things, layout gave you that. You had a say on how big a photo will be, how many illustrations needed, or to even edit a lengthy article with advice from the section editor. But it isn’t for everyone. 

Book designing however will take to its full swing a few years after. Ani Almario, Jordan’s boss at the Adarna Publishing House entrusted him to doing the cover for her father’s new book of poems, Supot ni Hudas, for UST Press. It had an image of the constellation Pliedes or the seven daughters of Atlas, manually illustrated against a stark gray horizon. Its simplicity has now outlived its prose and to this day it remains one of Jordan’s most revered executions. National Artist Virgilio Almario would eventually commission him to do a few more book covers for him such as Memo Mula Gimokudan, Tatlong Pasyon Para sa Ating Panahon and Si Rizal: Nobelista.Being honored by this ongoing trust by our greatest living Filipino writer, Jordan continues to challenge himself to come out with even better covers, matching his latest prose and poetry every time the invitation is extended.

Juxtaposing his self-styled illustration with photography taunted his initial cover designs on books. Somewhat like his trademark pieces favored more photography on black surfaces with tinges of red. He then rounds it up with the usual suspects in fonts to finish the job. This is reflected in at least three of his works in Love’s a Vice by Mike Bigornia as translated by Krip Yuson (NCCA, 2004), Misterios and Other Poems (UP Press, 2005) by J. Neil Garcia and the recently launched, Manila Noir (Anvil, 2013). 

Persisting illuminated slits on slabs, Misterios and Other Poems renders a voyeur-like peep into the personal and social meanings of J. Neil Garcia’s poetry. He further decodes this process further by allowing the sacred and the sublime to co-exist on the same plane, making it illicit or banal depending on the viewer. For Jordan: It still stands as one of the works I’m most proud of. It was a very tricky execution where I was able to combine S&M images, a church, and even the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus.

Ever the realist, Jordan relies heavily on photographs being imposed upon like stretched canvases in rendering his covers. The drama of a black and white image has never failed to present its almost cinematic message across–blatant reality right smacked on one’s face.    

Affirming its aesthetic functionality, Jordan freely allows the photo speak for itself, altering or embellishing (or not embellishing it) it in the least possible way. He adds: this design direction has roots in photojournalism where photos should show what really happened. You cannot do that if you’ve altered a photo. Current photojournalism though is changing, with post processing becoming a norm. 

Such is Confronting the Ecological Crisis (Center for Environment Studies, 2001). With a hint of sepia, Jordan merely placed the best possible image to represent the subject matter and best font there is. The reflection of the title contemplates to even larger dismal plight of the theme.

Final Press Ready

Primarily an illustrator first before becoming a graphic designer it was in the rigorous weekly training of the Philippine Collegian, the only college paper that comes out weekly, churning out 60 issues for an academic year, that would eventually be his standard work ethic. He illustrates and designs fast and efficient because of this imbibed college media experience.

After being an in-house and project development officer for Adarna, for four years now he has been an independent graphic designer. He does main publication design but word of mouth made him do related work such as illustration, identity, and design consultations.

A typical process of book designing first involves defining specifications which according to Jordan most designers tend to neglect. After initial meetings with a client, as a general rule he will not start work unless all materials (manuscript and photos) are turned over. This saves both the client and him time and redundancy of efforts. One thing Jordan does best is his diligence to his craft. After reading the manuscript he researches on the net and even scouts the fields of what is there.

He does the rounds in the bookstores, visita biblioteca as he calls it, which is sort of conditioning for him before he does his initial cover design studies, inside pages and choice of fonts, and design treatments. After getting his client’s direction he digs deep in the trenches of design (his words).

My influences,” he continues “are actually comic book in origin — sequential art people who tell a good story. In a way, my take on designing covers is that there is a story there, and is presented in design. Chipp Kidd is a major influence. He’s the Neil Gaiman of cover design, in such a way that people always point to him when you want to be introduced to cover design.”

For Jordan, one must not only be inspired in the confines of one’s field of expertise. In fact as graphic designer one must even be worldly(his word). Aside from collecting comic books, movies, Jordan has been a keen observer of other media of design like CD labels, packaging, posters. He adds: the more you know about the world, from current events, politics, pop culture, human nature, the more you’ll be able to be armed with knowledge you can use in design.
Erotica Books(Anvil)was Jordan’s first foray as an independent graphic designer. With sensate and sensitive a subject, he diffused lust and pinned down any sexual undertones by incorporating symbolic forms and special fonts. As Jordan would say: The challenge was to come up with a cover design that was erotic, but not titillating or scandalous. Easy to say, hard to execute. We ended up with a design that was smart and witty.

The Book of Beginnings and Endings (National Book Development Board) won for Jordan the Best in Design-Publishing/Book Design for the 2014 Adobo Awards. Again photos as complimentary images were manifested on the covers: The idea was to come up with two publications, a writing journal and an annual report that features beginning and ending quotes—and leaves me to do my thing. We ended up with a cover featuring a photo of two trees, one at the height of blooming and the other of shedding its leaves. Both publications were originally meant to have red accents. Camille Dela Rosa of NBDB suggested at the last minute if we could change the accents on the Annual report to green to make it more distinct.
More than a one-man show book designing is a collaborative effort, a conspiracy actually with the writer, editor, marketing people of your publisher. For Jordan it is a service where one has to meet his client’s needs. He adds: It’s not an expressive medium like painting. It could, but only on specific projects. You cannot force it. This was one of my earliest challenges where I treated book design or cover design as an expressive medium. I’ve come to terms with this, and limit my expressive design to non-commercial projects for myself or with friends.
Sometimes a cover is when preparation and opportunity meet. For quiet sometime Jordan had been taking a lot of photos that he could use if he was given a Noir book. When Anvil Publishing wanted a Philippine edition for Manila Noir cover to differentiate it with the US edition, Jordan was more than ready to step on the plate. Although the US edition was not as striking it was meant to be part of a series: Anvil decided with the one most manipulated of the studies I’ve given. The side is a sunset scene of electricity cables along Marcos highway and the angel comes from a shop that creates religious statues behind SM City, North Edsa. My only gripe was that the printing wasn’t that good.

Between Loss and Forever by Cathy Babao-Guballa (Anvil) remains one of his most emotional and had Jordan finding it hard to detach: The original plan was to use some old fashioned painting of a mother and child. I suggested, how about we use photos? If the book was about facing grief, it should reflect on the cover and that photos of the writers holding their kids pictures would be best to convey this. We ended up with a collage of photos contributed by the authors, and only when I started placing the them did it dawned on me that as easy it was for me to give a photo based design solution, it must have been hard for the writers to share them and I should treat it with respect as well as give it justice. The background texture was meant to remind you of sticky photo album pages, the ones where you place photos between it and an acetate sheet. Photos have a white border reminiscent of photo booth sessions or ID pictures taken from a photo studio. The black and white photo on the front cover features poet and painter Maningning Miclat with her mom, Alma.

Wanted: Designer
A good graphic designer knows what’s best to promote himself and how to effectively appeal to his audience. In fact, Jordan half-jokingly thought of advertising himself the way a local plumber did – to place his name and contact numbers in those small pre-cut tin sheets placed on a post. He pitches: My work for Anvil Publishing is my most visible work locally. I’ve been doing covers for UP Press for years while still working for Adarna House, and even now as an independent. Bare necessities ang promotion ko. I have an online portfolio (www.coroflot.com/saintjordan), I give away calling cards, but I live on referrals.

Jordan still keeps his love for comics by designing for his comic group called Polyedron Comics. The main title is Cadre. The plan is to continue making well-designed local books, one at a time. An Ambeth Ocampo book is on his bucket list, but it has to come from the publisher or the historian himself. He ends: What local writers aren’t aware of, much is that when a publisher carries your book or paper, you can suggest an outside designer to do your book. Tell your publisher and as long as the designer follows certain design house rules, it’ll be fine. Some publishers may tell a writer that they have to shoulder the design fee though if they choose an outside designer. But if you’ll be able to get the designer you want, what’s a little extra expenses? Good design is always worth it.