American Psycho

American Psycho - student project

November 22nd

If you aren't aware of the story, American Psycho is about a 26-year old called Patrick Bateman. By day he's a Wall Street banker, and by night he's a serial killer. It's Bret Easton Ellis' third novel, and is drenched in controversy. The art director at Simon & Schuster who did covers for Ellis' previous books simply refused to work on this one after reading the text.

To begin with, this certainly isn't my favourite book. I only read it for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and it's by far the most difficult piece of literature I've ever read. I still can't decide if I enjoyed reading it or not, and I don't think I'd openly recommend it to anyone who knows me well, but there's something about the book that captivated me and kept me reading. It's like nothing I've ever read before, so I'm keen to design it's cover.

The 2 covers below are for the first editions printed by Vintage and Pan Macmillan in 1991:


Cover designs that feature photographs or detailed illustrations of any important characters tend to annoy me, as it should be left to the reader to paint their own portrait, so the design on the left doesn't grab me (the hyphenation is also a pet peeve!). The design on the right features a painting by Marshall Arisman, portraying Bateman as half-man half-devil, which holds much more impact and intrigue.

Below are more covers for various editions over the past 12 years:


The story was taken to film in 2000, hence one of the covers (top row, second from right) featuring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman. Few of the above covers reveal anything of Bateman's physical appearance, and even fewer choose to warn bookshop browsers of the raw violence behind it. Apart from the businessman theme, the most common visual element is the emphasis on the author's name. It was this book that gave Ellis his reputation, so people are just as likely to be drawn in by his name as the title.

Of all the editions I can find online, the below is my favourite cover design:


It's part of a banned book series published by De Morgen in 2003, all of which include a number in the top left corner, and a black-and-white illustration on a block colour background. The image in this case depicts one of the most disturbing scenes in the whole book, and the presence of what looks like hair in the bottom right corner adds to this, but placing the rat on the cover suggests that it represents Bateman's personality and behaviour. It's a rodent, so it's perfect.

As difficult as the story is to forget, I'm going to skim through it again in the next couple of days and make notes on the various themes covered, so that I can begin the ideas stage.


November 25th

Had enough spare time to quickly go through the book again and make a few notes. My handwriting is fittingly psychotic:


Something that struck me during the first time I read it was how much repetition there is throughout the book. The most recurring theme is the way he constantly introduces characters by the brands of the clothes they're wearing, as opposed to their physical appearance, which makes Bateman and his friends/colleagues come across as shallow and lifeless, like ghosts in suits. This is emphasised as he's always being mistaken for other people, something he once uses to his advantage to kill Paul Owen. Other forms of repetition are sentences that almost become catchphrases, such as using "I have to return some videotapes" as an excuse to leave social scenes that he doesn't want to be involved in.

A story where the main character is a straight-suited OCD businessman during the day and a raging blood-hungry maniac at night would suggest that there's 2 sides to Bateman, but this doesn't come across. One of the most unsettling things about this book is the way he describes the crimes he's commiting, which can only be described as 'casual'. The horrific events are explained in a matter-of-fact manner, he never loses his composure, and he's often thinking more about a business meeting the following day than the person who he's destroying. If there are 2 sides to Bateman, they're so entwined that it's difficult to tell them apart. Maybe this is something I can focus on with the cover design?

In one of the final chapters, he kills a homeless person within earshot of a police car, and gets chased through Manhattan, where he manages to kill a taxi driver and a cop. It's during this chapter where the story mode switched from first-person to third person (mid-sentence) for a few paragraphs, as though the sheer panic of being close to getting caught has led to an out-of-body experience. The sympathy I felt towards Patrick at that moment was just as worrying as reading any of the murder scenes. Creating a cover that evokes compassion towards Bateman could be an interesting direction.

In the midst of this panic, he phones his lawyer and confesses everything. Several weeks later he sees him at a party, and (after another case of mistaken identity) his lawyer says he couldn't have killed Paul Owen because they met up in London twice ten days earlier. Bateman is as dumbfounded as the reader, and it makes the reader question what actually happened throughout the story. From looking online there seems to be 2 schools of thought amongst readers, either believing that every murder was true, or that everything violent happened in Bateman's imagination.

Anyway, rambling aside, there's 6 directions that I'm thinking of exploring:

  • Clones/Ghosts.
  • 2 very different sides to Bateman, entwined as 1 person.
  • Something that makes the reader feel sympathy towards a serial killer.
  • 'True or false', but if done too literally it could ruin the ending.
  • Album artwork, taking reference from the 80s musicians that Bateman is a fan of.
  • Secrets. Killing is practically his hobby that nobody knows about.


November 28th

Thank you to everyone who's given feedback recently, it's been very helpful! I started looking at reference images for the routes that had most potential, or hadn't been done before.

The 3 images in the lower left section are screengrabs from a great animation called Myosis, which portrays the kind of mood I was thinking of. I also looked into using a pattern or tessellation to represent the repetition element of the story, perhaps made from the windows of the office building where Bateman works.



Album artwork
Designing something in homage to a specific style or era is something I really enjoy doing, but the design relies on a square format in order for it to be obvious enough that it's an imitation of an album cover. I'm also looking to avoid using an image that gives too much detail about his physical appearance, something which is common in 80s album covers, but perhaps I can take cues from the style of typography used.



Split personality
The idea that seemed to get the most encouragement was that there's 2 sides to Bateman, and Brandy W mentioned that the stress of keeping up his appearance as a Wall St businessman could have led to the psychopathic monster being created. I've looked at ways of showing this through type and image, and I'm quite keen on using a spliced photography technique, whether it's as clean as the telephone/typewriter image or as complicated as the image in the top right corner. Rather than having a person in both of the spliced images, I was thinking that one of them could be a silhouette of a man, with the other being of something gruesome or repulsive that represents his dark side (without being too graphic).



A couple of months ago I stumbled across the work of an artist called Ryohei Hase, whose work mostly involves people with their heads replaced by animals. The illustration on the right instantly reminded me of the countless restaurant scenes from the book, and the violent expressions of the wolves on the left could be a great way of showing Bateman's not-so-polite side.



The next step is for me to source images and experiment with how they're spliced together. I also need to start thinking about the typography, whether it should be incorporated into the spliced effect or if it should sit elegantly above the chaos.

Getting very excited about this project! If you have any further suggestions or comments, I'd love to hear them.


December 6th

I've been taking the 'split personality' concept forward by playing with how the 2 sides interact with each other, and how prominent one should be over the other. I still haven't started looking into the typography, as I wanted to decide on how the images work first before figuring out how the type marries with it.

After the previous stage, both Jessica and Lavinia mentioned that the torn paper technique of one of the moodboard's images could be something worth trying. It'd be an interesting touch to most of the designs below, but I'm starting to settle on a much more minimal layout (further down), and something I noted after re-reading the story is how seamless these 2 sides of Bateman are, to the point where it's difficult to tell them apart.

To get myself started I grabbed a couple of images to work with. A blood-thirsty wolf and a gentleman plucked from the American dream gave a nice contrast. (I was originally thinking of using a rat, or a group of them, but it didn't feel vicious enough, just unclean).

Below, the sizing of the images on the right could suggest that Bateman is being owned/possessed by his dark side, beyond his control...



...whereas here it would imply that it's something he's trying to hide – his nasty secret.





I tried using the 'spliced' technique I was keen to use from the previous stage, and I quite like the design on the right as it shows a gradual transition from left-to-right of Patrick's descent into his dark side.



Could this concept work with just one image? There's something about this design that appeals to me. Maybe it's the slightly vague link with pinstripe suits. It also has an illusion feel to it which is, conveniently, relevant to the whole 'What's truth/lies?' element of the story.





I started working with one of Ryohei Hase's illustrations, and added a red overlay (maybe a bit too obvious?). On a whim I deleted the image of the man, and felt that I'd actually got closer to the finished cover design. Cramming 2 images together is possibly too obvious to represent 2 sides, and it makes it difficult to create a cover that isn't an assault on the eyes.



Reducing the size of it also doesn't make it any less prominent or eye-catching, and gives the impression that the white space is a curtain revealing the violence behind it.


I'm starting to think that some elegant script typography could be something worth trying, to contrast with the image.

There's a few routes that I could take from here, and I think the ones I'm most keen on are the pinstripe effect and the one above with the red overlay and white space, but I'm very eager to hear your feedback!


December 17th

So after deciding on only using 1 image to portray the split-personality concept, I had another play with scale and how much of the cover it should fill.

The 2 designs below would (hopefully) suggest that the wolves, which represent Bateman's violent side, are so dominant that they're almost pushing the title and author off the cover.




The next 2 covers share a similar approach as before, but I like how the type looks like it's cowering in the corner.




The next 3 covers return to the behind-the-curtain idea that I mentioned at the end of the first stage of design, but I'm not entirely sure that it's working. Before I started putting type on the page I thought it would make sense to have the title and author centred, with the wolves disrupting the harmony, but it looked odd.





After I was stuck for a while, I remembered that we're meant to take advantage of the spine and back cover. Why not use the back cover as the place to hide Bateman's secret? Having some of it spilling onto the front cover shows that his mask is slipping, and teases people to turn it over to reveal more of the wolves. There's also still a balance on the front cover between the image and the recessive type, exaggerated by the distance between them.



I didn't want to leave too much white space on the front cover, as it felt too cold and clinical, so I worked on a couple more variants, which still have the feeling of the wolves piercing the otherwise clean and minimal cover. The shape of the trangle feels aggressive, and using the full width of the covers and spine makes it dominant.



I'm unsure which of these 3 designs (that include the spine and back cover) is my favourite, so I'd love to hear what you all think!

Jinjin's comment on the previous update mentioned that using the red image makes the design feel gothic, and I'd like to look into using typography that reflects that, maybe using a blackletter typeface. So far I've been using Bureau Grotesque, and haven't done much exploration with typography.


December 20th

Of the last 3 designs from the previous stage, it was the first that got the most positive comments. I was concerned about using so much white space, but Stacy mentioned it's an accurate depiction of the way Bateman displays himself, with the wolves creeping in from the corner.


Turning the book over reveals more of the violence that Bateman is hiding, which is dominant to the point that it starts overlapping the barcode. I experimented with using gothic typography, as mentioned in the previous stage, but even having it small on the cover began to distract from the image and disrupted the balance.


Thanks again to everyone for the feedback throughout this project – I often get too absorbed in whatever I'm working on and can sometimes lose track of what's working or not working, so I appreciate the many pairs of fresh eyes that have helped me.


Graphic Designer in London, UK