Design Makeover: Caught Between Cultures


Joe Blondo


Seattle writer and poet Joe Blondo first met Milton Wan at the Chinese restaurant where Wan worked. Their many conversations about how the Vietnam-born Wan wound up behind the counter of a Seattle restaurant eventually turned into Caught Between Cultures: A Story of Milton Wan and Viet Nam. In the book, Blondo traces Wan’s journey from a difficult childhood in ’40s and ’50s Saigon, through a risky escape via tramp steamer from Cambodia, to his sister’s house in Seattle. Soon enough though, Wan found himself back in Vietnam—this time as a soldier in the U.S. Army.


When it came time to design a cover for the book, Blondo turned to a longtime friend and collaborator, illustrator Frank Morgan. “I wanted the cover to convey the cultural elements inherent in Milton, both in his personality and the world he grew up in,” he says. Frank feels the cover communicates those elements with its use of the red and yellow of the South Vietnamese flag and the red, white, and blue of the American flag.

He also appreciates the way the bold colors placed against a black background should help the book stand out on bookstore shelves. “I find this cover very conversational in the way it ‘shouts out’ to the passing book buyer,” he says.

Blondo agreed to let us assign his cover to three designers to see what others would do with the personal and political elements of Wan’s story. We were also able to supply the designers with some of the photos that appear inside the book, courtesy of photographer Peter Mumford. Here, then, are three alternate covers for this book about one American immigrant, but also about every immigrant’s experience in an adopted country.


DESIGNER: Kristine Stallman

The main thing the client liked about his current cover was the flag theme, so I decided to carry that aspect over into my design. I wanted to create a cover that the author felt still “shouted out” to book buyers but could also communicate a little more about the book’s content.

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I started by searching for images of flags from the two countries that frame the story, the United States and Vietnam. I didn’t want just flat drawings of flags, however, I wanted pictures that showed movement to help bring a more 3D aspect and some life to the cover.

Once I found the images I wanted to use, I brought them into Adobe Photoshop. I wanted to show both flags overlapping, almost merging into each other, to portray the blended cultural elements of Milton’s character. I positioned each flag in an opposite corner of the cover and then applied a vector mask to each one. Using the Gradient tool with the Foreground to Background option, I faded out one side of each flag and then overlapped the flags to merge them into each other.

To lend a personal touch to the design, I added in a couple of grayscale photos from Milton’s past—you can see these through the flags in the bottom corner. This helps to communicate to a book buyer that it’s not just about two countries but that it’s a personal story as well.

Choosing a clean serif font (Adobe Caslon Pro), I placed the book’s title slightly to the right to keep the focus on the background images. I used white for the text and applied a slight shadow to help it pop off the background. Setting the word “between” smaller than Caught and Cultures not only makes it visually appealing but it also plays upon the words themselves. Placing the short description of the book in the bottom-left corner draws the eye down from the title and toward the black-and-white photos in the background.

Kristine Stallman

Inspired by designing a cereal box in a high school marketing class, Kristine decided early on to pursue a career in design. She attended Sheridan College and graduated with a diploma in advertising. Since then, she has worked in several business environments, and with her schooling and natural design talent, she brings a unique perspective to design that her clients have come to rely on.

She started her own home-based graphic design business in 2004, focusing on working with small businesses and startups, so that she could stay home to raise her children. With a little word-of-mouth advertising, her client base has steadily grown. Kristine specializes in print design but also dabbles in a little Web work as well. She relies heavily on the K.I.S.S. theory of design.

Kristine currently resides in Waterford, Ontario, Canada with her husband and their four children. She can be reached at



DESIGNER: Keith Gillespie

I wanted my cover to both tell and sell. “Tell” by foreshadowing the story inside; “sell” by using colors and design to attract shoppers’ eyes to store shelves and webpage listings. Such a cover would work its hardest to get noticed, pique a prospective reader’s interest, and drive impulse sales.

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The book is about Mr. Wan’s cultural and family pressures during the time he served as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam. So my cover likewise focuses on Mr. Wan, while using design to depict his being “caught between cultures.”

I represent his cultural past by placing the pre-1975 South Vietnamese flag behind him. The U.S. flag is in front of him, much as our culture was in front of him when he left Vietnam in his youth. Mr. Wan is trapped between the two flags, as if in a vise clamp.

The word “cultures” presses in on his head, which is his mental and emotional center. And I use an old photo of his family and an image of Vietnam-era U.S. soldiers to grip him within yet another visual vise. Finally, I chose Aachen Bold for the headline font, because its capital “C” echoes the shape of a clamp, and its letterforms are squeezed as well. The parallel lines in the flags provide even more visual stress, serving as fencing.

Yet despite all these restrictive design elements, the flags stand brightly, boldly, proudly. Their parallel lines symbolize the parallel cultural allegiances that tug on Mr. Wan’s heart and soul. And Mr. Wan—the only vertical element on the page—rises like a phoenix, further foretelling the story inside.

Mr. Blondo’s name recedes in the design much as an author recedes behind his words. He’s not caught between cultures, appearing only within the American flag.

Keith Gillespie

Keith served as creative director for one of America’s largest marketing agencies, overseeing five offices across the U.S. In 2001, he began his own agency, JonEvan Marketing Group. With clients ranging from major corporations to small businesses, he delivers the strategic planning, concepting, writing, designing, website programming, and search-engine marketing himself, using outside support sparingly. His multiple skills let him work efficiently, with a deep understanding of how each skill affects the others while working toward specific project objectives.

He has sold products and services in a wide range of industries, with work in print advertising, direct mail, radio, TV, consumer activation, in-store displays, websites, email, banner advertising, search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click advertising, and more. Keith has degrees in both design and writing, and is the featured crossword puzzle constructor for Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine.

Keith resides in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife, two sons, and dog.




After reading the synopsis of the story, I had a clear image of the visual for the cover and I knew I wanted to do the illustration myself rather than use any stock photography or stock illustration. My goal was to show, simply and powerfully, the drama of Milton Wan’s unique struggle at a glance. And, of course, the cover clearly needs to draw readers to pick up the book and want to know more.

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The original cover, predominantly black, with portions of both the Vietnamese and American flags in the text, needed a stronger visual component. I felt the human piece was missing, leaving it to look a little more like a textbook or something similarly impersonal. The author did state that he felt black would get the book noticed on the shelf, that he liked the bold colors, and wanted to convey the cultural elements. That seemed to fit right in with my plan.

I created a composite using multiple images that provided the structure to work from—a lone soldier looking out over a Vietnam landscape. I can only imagine the incredible internal conflict of returning to your home country to fight as a soldier of another. I made a couple of sketches and then scanned my final choice, adjusted the scan in Adobe Photoshop, and rendered the final art in Adobe Illustrator. For the landscape, I used red and varying tints of yellow—the colors of the Vietnamese flag. This provided a striking backdrop for the stark black silhouette. I resisted using the distinctions of the flags as literally as the original cover, because the story, in addition to the historical context, is about the personal challenges of familial relationships. Finally, I used Eurostile for the font, as it gave a clean, tight look for the title, tag line, and author.

LuAnn Arena

Originally from Rochester, New York, LuAnn made her way to the Hudson Valley after regularly traveling the U.S. playing her original music to anyone who would listen. After thousands of miles on the road, it was time for a new challenge.

With a B.F.A. in Graphic Design, LuAnn has more than five years’ experience in print and Web design, starting with an on-campus job in the SUNY New Paltz Publications Department and continuing through her current work on SEGD, an international environmental design magazine and 2009 SNAP (Society of National Association Publications) Award winner. Along the way, she has also worked on numerous freelance projects for print, Web, and logo design. LuAnn has also produced hundreds of event posters, many including her original artwork, for the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, New York.

LuAnn writes a design blog at her website focusing on interviews with designers, sustainable practices, and the sources of creativity. She’s currently working on a limited-edition poster series including a special poster donation to the The Haiti Poster Project.

APPLICATIONS USED: Adobe Photoshop CS4 and Illustrator CS4