Professor Earns Prestigious International Award for Book Design

By Tom McLaughlin

With its roots dating back to 1923, AIGA’s “50 Books | 50 Covers” competition – recognizing the 50 best-designed books and book covers in a given year – is one of the longest-standing, most highly selective graphic design contests in the world.

“I’ve always regarded being chosen for the AIGA competition as a testament to a designer’s skill and impact in the design field by their peers.” – Allan Espiritu

For Allan Espiritu, it is a crowning achievement in his field.

“I’ve always regarded being chosen for the AIGA competition as a testament to a designer’s skill and impact in the design field by their peers,” says the professor of fine arts at Rutgers University–Camden. “I’ve always dreamed of getting this award; it’s a tough one.”

Espiritu will need to dream no more as he and Matt Higgins, a 2017 Rutgers–Camden graduate – one of Espiritu’s former students – and colleague at GDLOFT were selected for their cover design of the 2019 book Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary.

Selected from 696 book and cover design entries from 36 countries, the 365-page book consists of two perfect-bound books connected with a central accordion page. Edited by Philadelphia artist Suzanne Seesman, the book serves as a catalog of Swarthmore College’s “Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary” project and exhibition. The two-year project, supported by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, connects the arts to historical and contemporary stories of refuge.

“This project holds incredible significance for me in the way of content and its creative/conceptual approach to that content and audience,” says Espiritu, a Philadelphia resident.

Espiritu and Matt Higgins, a 2017 Rutgers–Camden graduate, were selected for their cover design of the 2019 book Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary.

According to the Rutgers–Camden artist and educator, local Syrians and Iraqis worked with commissioned artists, writers, and illustrators on the project to create handmade books that explore connections between history and experience, displacement and refuge, empathy and belonging.

Working in partnership with the immigrant and refugee service organization Nationalities Service Center, Swarthmore invited groups of refugees to work with three book artists and participate in multiday workshops designed to provide access to new creative tools, and to explore various aspects of visual storytelling, artistic expression, and craft.

GDLOFT created a catalog that documents the process and progress of the project and the artistic work. The book structure reflects issues of displacement and immigration by melding two books – stories – into one. The books share a common cover while housing two book blocks. Translated in both English and Arabic languages, the publication aims to express the experience of finding commonalities and differences akin to the refugee experience through design and layout. There are instances of commonality – images from both books cross borders to create one image – as well as displacement.

The nod from AIGA, the professional association for design, is just the latest in a series of awards and commendations for Espiritu, who was previously named one of the “Educators to Watch” by Graphic Design USA magazine and a fellow of AIGA’s Philadelphia chapter.

The award-winning design for the 365-page book consists of two perfect-bound books connected with a central accordion page.

Espiritu, a 1993 graduate of Rutgers–Camden with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and a 2002 graduate of Yale School of Art with a master of fine arts, now heads the graphic design program at his alma mater.

He is also the founder of GDLOFT, a small, collaborative studio in Philadelphia made up of photographers, artists, and students, which focuses on design for educational, artistic, cultural, and nonprofit institutions. The studio’s work has been acknowledged and published by leading graphic arts organizations and publications.

Espiritu says he founded the design studio to serve as a launching pad for student-artists. He says that he wanted to give talented, hard-working, motivated students a place where they can develop outside of traditional course work and provide them with precious experience that would set them apart from the hundreds of student-designers who graduate every year and are competing for the same jobs.

“Any opportunity to get ahead of the competition is beneficial in our field,” says Espiritu. “I owe that to them, and I’ll work hard to get them to the top and to their full potential.”

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