How would you encapsulate the prolific career and generation-defining films of a cultural icon like Spike Lee? Known for his bold and uncompromising approach to controversial subject matters, Lee has over 35 films, 7 documentaries, more than 15 TV series and pilots, dozens of music videos, plus a Broadway show dedicated to Mike Tyson.
His body of work could fill multiple volumes—and it starts with this one.
Spike Lee’s first career-spanning book is a visual celebration of his life and career to date. Out today and published by Chronicle Books, the aptly titled Spike is packed with hundreds of film stills, on-set photographs from Spike’s brother David Lee, personal photographs, and quotes. “This book revisits all da werk I’ve put in to build my body of work,” Lee writes in the Introduction. “Film is a visual art form and that sense of my storytelling has been somewhat overlooked. Why now, after all these years? Folks be forgetting.”
The book is a treasure trove for any Spike Lee fan, but it’s also a powerful example of visual storytelling, courtesy of graphic designer Tré Seals, who created an array of custom fonts for the book. More than a monograph documenting the work of an acclaimed filmmaker, Spike is a graphic gem that uses color, typography, and an overall cinematic approach to capture Spike Lee’s personality.
Seals is best known for his type foundry Vocal Type, where he designs fonts inspired by protest movements throughout history. Examples include Martin, a “non-violent typeface” that was inspired by the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968, and Du Bois, inspired by hand-drawn infographics by the black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois.
Now, Seals is making his debut as a book designer, with homework that involved watching “a whole lot of movies.” The result is a visual delight of over 30 chapters, each devoted to one of Lee’s works. Each chapter title comes in the same bold font—inspired by Radio Raheem’s unforgettable “love/hate” brass knuckles from Do the Right Thing as well as the all-cap titles on movie posters for School Daze and Get on the Bus. In the void between the words, Seals added thick black blocks to mimic film strips.
In total, Seals created five custom fonts, including an angular one on the spine that was inspired by the type on the New York Knicks jerseys. (Lee is famous for his near-religious appearances at Knicks home games over the past 28 years.)
Seals was first approached to design a few custom fonts, but he ended up designing the entire book. He says Lee himself had little involvement except when it came to the cover, which consists of the name “Spike,” painted in gold and set against a vibrant pink background. “[Pink] is his mom’s favorite color,” says Seals. (The gold came from the LOVE/HATE rings.)
When you open the book, the inside cover is filled with images from Spike’s Instagram account. “People get an idea of who he is on a personal level,” says Seals. Then, about 99% of the background is black, “so it feels like you’re in a movie.” Each chapter title is awash in one background color that hints to the general color of the movie: Army green for the epic war film Miracle at St Anna; dirty blue for Inside Man, a thriller centered around a bank heist on Wall Street. This rich color palette translates into a striking rainbow on the contents page. “Spike is such a colorful person, I wanted the contents page to feel as vibrant and exciting,” Seals says.
With a nod to Lee’s introductory words, film is indeed a visual art form—and so is this book.