Story Design: Life of Pi (2001)

Design in Books

This post may contain spoilers and large images that may compromise slower internet connections. This post also contains disturbing images of blood and gore in illustrated form. Read at your own discretion.

Just recently, I started examining the aesthetics of books. From cover and sleeve design, typography, book binding, page spacing, and the many other elements make up the art of book design. Rather, the elements of story design, particularly when including creative interpretations of certain extracts of a plot.

Doing a bunch of story design jotter posts is an idea I’ve been entertaining for a while. I particularly enjoyed the process of compiling design samples for the inspiration posts I’ve written so far, and I would like to extend that effort to other disciplines wherein design has intimate involvement. For the first post of this series, I plan to start off with one of my favourite books of all time, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

Existing Book Cover Designs

The most popular cover design is the first edition illustrated by Andy Bridge: blue, offering an aerial view of the sea, the lifeboat, and the title character(s) occupying polar ends of the device. Some may have orange spines and some are solid blue. I own the orange-spined paperback edition, and it also has discussion questions at the back, presumably for academic use. When the book was re-printed and re-hashed into illustrative form, a series of new cover designs have emerged.

Story Design: Life of Pi (2001) Story Design: Life of Pi (2001)

Both of the above covers incorporate symmetry to a large extent. If I dare analyse the design, the symmetry could be associated with the novel’s use of allegories in tandem with the literal — two ways of presenting the same story. Using allegories — something Martel is familiar — is his way of daring the reader to pick “the better story”.

Below is a book cover design that has broken away from the mould of symmetry, the cover of the illustrated version. Unfortunately, I could not find an image of the entire spread. I would have liked to see how the rest of the cover appears.

Story Design: Life of Pi (2001)

The Life of Pi Illustrated Version

Published in late 2007, the illustrated version of the novel showcases a brilliant balance of typography, texture, and colour. After taking a glimpse at the visuals created by Croatian freelance artist Tomislav Torjanac, The ‘Life of Pi’ Illustrated Edition became a quick personal wishlist item. Torjanac’s style is wispy yet rich in texture and colour. It is a technique apt for such a vibrant story.

Story Design: Life of Pi (2001)

An outstanding trait in the above illustrations is that Torjanac paints in an empathetical manner, adhering to the first person narrative of the novel. The scenes are painted from the eyes of title character Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel, keeping the reader to focused on Pi’s perspective alone. Neither his face nor explicit descriptions of his appearance are shown, save for indications of a dark complexion and lean build betrayed by the occasional limb.

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi by Tomer Hanuka

New York-based cartoonist and illustrator Tomer Hanuka is one of the shortlisted candidates in a competition Martel held in order to find an artist for the illustrated version of Life of Pi. The competition, which took place several years ago, entailed $10,000 and potential royalties, something that winner Tomislav Torjanac (see previous) received.

Story Design: Life of Pi (2001)

Hanuka’s works are detailed and bright, yet maintain a distinctive colour scheme with each work. The subjects are drawn with such fluidity, almost moving that they seem to almost float off the page.

Pi by Joanna Barnum

Those who are of pastel persuasion may be able to appreciate the following piece. Maryland-based illustrator Joanna Barnum interprets the scene by portraying a young Pi Patel running among the cages of his zoo home at Pondicherry, India.

Story Design: Life of Pi (2001)

The giraffes, deer, bison, flamingos, peacock, and hippopotamus are delicately brushed with spots of watercolour, resulting in a dream-like atmosphere. The golden hues are particularly striking. It is a quality appropriate for the title character’s brokenness towards the end of the novel when trying to remember the India he and his family left behind as well as the childhood that gradually fades from his memory.

Re-Hashed Book Cover Designs

Should there be another re-print in the future, the internet is teeming with artists and designers equipped with brilliant ideas for cover design proposals. One of my favourites is from graphic designer Chelsey Scheffe. Scheffe presents sleek minimalism in her book cover design: white with a tiger illustrated in black. Classic. Elegant.

Story Design: Life of Pi (2001)

The following two cover designs — student projects at the time they were made — incorporate a seamless concept, save for the line depicting the location of the spine. The lower left book cover’s illustration marries the typography to the Richard Parker’s stripes in such a graceful manner. The tiger is also portrayed to be the stronger figure in contrast to Pi’s slumped, submissive posture. The boat is seen as the constant subject that carries through the back to the front cover.

On the lower right book cover, the sea is seamless, and the line marks of the cover’s illustration resemble that of an engraving or screen-print.

Story Design: Life of Pi (2001) Story Design: Life of Pi (2001)

Why I Love Life of Pi

I bought Yann Martel’s 2001 novel about six or seven years ago at the prompting of a friend, who said it is a book that will “make you believe in God”. It was quite hard for me to believe that a story about a 16-year-old Indian boy, who finds himself trapped in a lifeboat for almost a year with a hyena, orangutan, Bengal tiger, and zebra with a broken leg, would strengthen my belief in God — unless he survives. (He does.) Later I learned the claim of Life of Pi being a faith-reinforcing story had been repeated from a book review from a renowned publication, but never mind.

Reading it initially had little effect on my belief in God, but in terms of its story, I was immediately blown away. I have probably read the novel about a hundred times, and every time I pick it up, I experience it in a different way. During my college years, I kept the book under my pillow as my personal safety blanket, and gradually took to the tell-tale God element referenced by that book review.

I have discussed Life of Pi with people, and have encountered a handful who weren’t fond of it. Fair enough. The extreme detail in describing the mundane routine of a boy stranded at sea can be a taxing read, but aside from it being part of Yann Martel’s writing style, I feel the overload serves a purpose beyond literal. Written in first person, bits about tying ropes and adjusting the lifeboat’s tarpaulins is Pi’s way of avoiding complete insanity. Such jarring loneliness can send anyone into a frenzy. Besides getting strength from the three faiths that he practises at once, I don’t think Pi would survive otherwise.

Another thing I learned upon picking up Life of Pi is that Canadian author Yann Martel is an adult third cultured kid. Born in Spain, he grew up in North America, South America, and Europe, and as an adult, spent time in Turkey, Iran, and India — the latter providing the experience to conceive the initial workings of Life of Pi. Martel’s own background inspired the cultural exposure for title character Piscine Molitor Patel. Being an adult third cultured kid myself, I found personal joy in seeing that most of the story takes place at sea, a place unbound by the confines of national borders.

Unrelated: 2010 Eid ul-Fitr Vacation

From tonight up until the 14th of this month, I will be on holiday. I suspect that I may not be doing anything of incident — a good thing, mind you. Many things happened during this year, and I could use a temporary plateau in happenings. But I do hope to use some the ten to eleven days to catch up on reading, watching films, listening to good music, and looking out for design inspirations as substantial content for jotter posts upon my return. Those who wish to contact me, I will have online access, though kindly be patient, as I will not be answering website-related emails until I come back.

To all Muslims celebrating the month of Ramadhan, I would like to extend a happy and blessed Eid in advance.

(All images are credited to their respective owners. Click on any image to go to its source.)


  1. Pingback: Life of Pi (2012) | Maria Celina

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: “Story Design, Frankenstein (1818)” | Maria Celina

  3. Gillian

    This is a great idea for a post. I love seeing how artists glean details from a story to create a new cover.

    I haven’t read Life of Pi yet, but I have seen the blue book with the aerial view of the boat several times. I never understood what the cover was trying to convey, but after reading this post, my interest is piqued.

  4. Maria Celina

    @Jonathan Manor: Your comment, Jonathan, just wow-ed me. Thank you for sharing how much Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist means to you. I remember the first time that book was recommended to me. I was an incoming senior in high school and was working over the summer as a summer camp counsellor. One of my fellow counsellors mentioned the book as being one that blew her mind. I have yet to read any of his books, and I guess I have delayed in doing so because of the apparent hype that surrounds his work. I did not want to get swallowed into it, as hype can sometimes be the root to the destruction of a book’s dignity.

    However, based on the experiences that you shared in your comment, I am once again curious about the novel, and will consider it for my next book haul. Also, the guest post idea sounds interesting, and I will contact you via email with regards to it.

  5. Jonathan Manor

    I guess whoever said you can’t judge a book by it’s cover was kind of wrong. I like how you said you placed the book under your pillow as a safety blanket. That was like me and The Alchemist back in High School. I was going through this really deep spike of depression because I did something wrong in sports. I know it’s just sports but back then it was a big deal for me. So I couldn’t sleep. I would wake up in the middle of the night whimpering. I remember crying before I would even open the book, hoping that there would be something that would help me through that time in my life.

    Love your blog Maria. Would you be open to a guest post?

  6. Maria Celina

    @Camille: Great to hear from you, Camille. I’m glad to find people who also appreciate Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, all the more for some of the reasons I enjoyed it. Seeing other people who I may not know also appreciate the novel to the point where they put forward their own interpretations and reactions in creative form. You say it aptly: they all command respect in their own right.

    @Karena: Thank you for your comment, Karena. It’s great to interact from new visitors. I hope to see you here more often.

    @Abby: Like you, Abby, I am also interested in book covers. My fascination with anything relating to design grew after developing a sort of conscientiousness in observing life’s details up close. It’s an especially imperative skill, considering it’s my profession. Unfortunately, not all of the book covers of the stuff I haul from bookstores have appealing covers. However, I am trying to hone that aesthetic consciousness in my future book hauls.

    I hope that you do take the time to read Life of Pi. I look forward to hearing what you think of the story, if you’re so inclined.

    @Oridusartic: It definitely beats Yann Martel’s other novel, Citra. I can guarantee you that.

    @Sinta: Sinta, to hear the same book that changed you is the very same book that changed me — in a very similar way — is a feeling beyond amazing. It makes the world feel a little smaller, knowing you can identify the shared sentiments you have with someone else.

    @Marina: I’m glad that you found a design that you personally enjoyed, Marina. It’s refreshing to learn about the personal tastes of others.

    @Ashley: I guess Yann Martel’s Life of Pi isn’t for everyone, Ashley. But had I been there, I don’t think I would have exhibited much dignity and restraint; I would have just laughed then and there. It sounds like such a dramatic gesture spurred by a single book.

  7. Ashley

    I need to come back when I have a proper amount of time to comment, but at work we’re having a book and bake sale and someone dropped off Life of Pi citing that they absolutely hated the book and want nothing more to do with it.


  8. Marina

    The book designs are brilliant except that I’m not a fan of tiger designs. But brilliant still. I think the redesigned cover, the one with orange background and pencil-like seas drawings. I guess those designs are the type that I’m usually attracted to.

    Have a great vacation!

  9. Sinta

    Amazing images, beautiful especially for a book that I love so much. Some people certain books change you, this one definitely did change me. It’s an amazing book, wonderfully interpreted by these art works :)

  10. Abby

    Fascinating! I’ve always been interested in book covers. In some books I’ve been really disappointed by the book covers, in others, I’ve wanted to know what went behind it to make it so cool. I’ve never read Life of Pi, though I’ve heard of it many times. Maybe it’s time to read it…

  11. Nikz

    Lovely illustrations! I can only dream to design book covers – they’re such eye candy! :) I have yet to read that book, too.

    Have a GREAT vacation! Hope you get the rest you need ;) *Huggles*

  12. Camille

    Your blog posts are very insightful – thank you for this spotlight. Life of Pi is also one of my favourite books; and like what you said, it occurs at a place unconfined by nations or boundaries.
    On another note, it’s really interesting to see how artists interpret the story. Each artwork commands respect in their own right, they’re all very lovely.

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