Many moons ago, a philosopher named Henry David Thoreau made himself at home in a self-built cabin on the banks of Walden Pond. Thoreau documented his experience in a part-memoir, part-manual aptly titled 'Walden'—today regarded as a classic in transcendentalist writing.
Though once written in isolation, Thoreau's wisdom has since influenced many—offering a communal escape route from a life of "quiet desperation". Matt Steel is amongst those impacted by his teachings. Matt Steel is a designer, writer and creative director of Steel Brothers—a creative branding agency for those who think "blending in is overrated". Matt first read Walden on the screen of an iPad. Although the content stirred him, he couldn't shake the feeling that reading on a screen, as opposed to a page, meant he was "doing it wrong". Matt searched for a more fitting, "attractive, archival" edition of Walden. Ultimately unsatisfied with his findings, Matt set about creating his own instead. His efforts produced The New Walden—a rendition that seeks to satisfy bibliophiles, design-lovers and Walden lovers alike. He has successfully created a book that visually reflects the story within, and pays homage to the very essence of the original author. Ironically, growing digital reliance and declining attention spans have rendered Walden, and many other literary classics, endangered at a time when society would benefit from them the most. Matt's mindful reintroduction of Walden to a modern audience could act as a blueprint for the preservation of these great works for generations to come.
Ever the admirer of a beautiful binding and elegant typeface, the revised Walden first caught the attention of Cherie, Visualist's founder, for its aesthetics alone. Permissible to judge a book by its cover in this case because beauty was in fact Matt Steel's intent. However, it was once we learned of the content hidden within, and the meaningful motivation behind every element of design, that admiration became fascination. Visualist asked Matt to share the story of his journey with The New Walden, from inception to completion. Matt shares his personal awakening to Thoreau's teachings, the theory in his approach to design and the legacy of his, and Thoreau's, work.
As told in Matt Steel's own words.
The first time I tried to read Walden was in 2011. I flunked out about halfway through the first chapter. Initially attracted by the concept of Thoreau’s experiment, I found myself quickly entangled in a dense thicket of language. I had expected to hear about the cabin he built in the first chapter; instead, I encountered an essay on economics and societal vice with many twists and turns. As Ken Kifer says, “[Thoreau] can shift from a scientific to a transcendental point of view in mid-sentence.” But even in that first partial reading, I could see the book was full of provocative ideas, enlightened observations and gorgeous sentences. I simply didn’t get far enough to reap the rewards. The real reason I set the book aside was that my life was heavily unbalanced at the time. I was addicted to work, putting in long hours which eventually led to burnout. I’d made a series of fear-based decisions in my design business that contributed to its eventual demise. Feeling pulled in too many directions at any given time, I simply lacked the energy and patience for such a challenging book.
When the time is right
My second attempt at reading Walden happened in the spring of 2014, and this time things were very different. Through hard lessons and some intense work with a business coach and mentor, I’d found a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. I had the mental energy to renew my love for reading, and devoured the entire book this time. I saw my former self in these famous lines: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. .... A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
So many of us are obsessed with so-called 'life hacks', the next new shiny thing, possessions and money. But none of these things satisfy us in the long run. In fact, our busyness and lust for entertainment are killing us. Life is about meaningful contribution, not excitement or status. Thoreau went to the woods because he “wished to live deliberately.” I love how Corinne, my co-editor, comments on that desire. As she says, “His implication was: Don’t you want to live deliberately, too? What other choice would make sense?”
Besides Walden and several of his other works, I read dozens of articles and essays on Thoreau, including some that criticise him. I also read Walter Harding’s excellent 1982 biography, which offers a detailed picture of Thoreau’s life – right down to the resonant tone of his voice and the peculiar “burr” in his enunciation of R’s as some of Henry’s friends described it. The book gave me a clear sense of Thoreau’s personality, motivations and creative rhythms. He was contemplative, idealistic and observant but also energetic, spending at least 3–4 hours walking the woods around Concord every day – rain, snow or shine. He was complex and conflicted. Intensity and restraint seemed at constant odds within him. At the same time, there was nothing ineffectual or undisciplined about Thoreau. He was a man of deep conviction and moral courage. You see these qualities in his participation in the Underground Railroad and famous sociopolitical essays such as “Civil Disobedience” and “A Plea for John Brown.”
His encouraging lessons on contentment are unforgettable. “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.” For me, discontentment is almost always the result of envy. I’m not much given to envying someone else’s possessions or wealth, but as a creative professional and an artist, I’ve been prone to envying other people’s creative accomplishments my entire life. I take Thoreau’s admonition to “Love your life, poor as it is,” as an invitation to stop comparing, to stop looking outside myself for contentment or validation and instead to appreciate the life I have, right now. Nothing is missing. Even the most mundane moments can be beautiful if I meet them with my full presence and a grateful heart.
Building a team
Before I approached Corinne and Benji to collaborate, they were already familiar with the project and loved the concept and approach. Corinne is a devoted Thoreauvian and Benji is a designer, illustrator and bibliophile. Our common interests were substantial and bringing them on board was easy. What’s more, I was Benji’s creative director for three years at my previous agency and we’ve remained close friends, so he was already familiar with my creative process and our communication styles blend comfortably. Honestly, communication was never difficult with either of them. They’re pros. We set clear expectations up front, emailed as needed, spoke on the phone as needed and left each other alone as needed.
Corinne and I discussed the existing annotated versions of Walden and how ours might differ. We agreed that we didn’t want to create a study companion as much as an unobtrusive guide. She led research and wrote the first drafts of annotations, sending them to me in batches. I edited the annotations for style and typeset them in the book, then she proofread the typeset pages. The greatest challenge for all three of us, I think, has been the need for patience and flexibility. Walden is a passion project, not my main gig. The same is true for Benji and Corinne. So turnaround times and communication have moved at a much slower pace than if we worked together full-time. The upshot is that this book has had abundant time to mature and evolve.
Elements of design
Simplicity was one of Thoreau’s core values, and it’s among Walden’s prevailing messages. To me, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. In creative projects, it isn’t the pursuit of minimalism per sé but rather recognising when you’ve reached the point of “just enough.” Simplicity is about finding the balance between creative exuberance and restraint. Knowing what and when to edit. It’s a constant struggle for me! Without deadlines, self-imposed or external, I’d tinker endlessly.
The book’s layout and proportions connect to Thoreau’s subject matter and physical energy as well. A book about living simply in nature deserves organic proportions and a lively tension between the page shape and the text column. After trying out several page shapes and layouts, I settled on a short pentagon – a proportion found in living things from roses to starfish. This makes for a relatively wide page, giving room for body and annotations to coexist comfortably. Also, an asymmetric layout makes the words feel as if they’re about to walk off the page and around the bend.
Instead of the typical justified text block, ours is ragged on the right, which is the most natural approach for rightward-reading languages like English. Ragged setting makes it easier to achieve consistent white space in and between words, and reduces eye fatigue. The aesthetic result is a typographic deckle that breathes. Lastly, Thoreau was an early advocate for conservation, and sustainability is critical to this project. From cloth and thread to paper and ink, all of this edition’s materials are high-quality, archival, durable and responsibly made.
Typeface in tribute
Typography is at the heart of my edition. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to use only one typeface, which meant finding a font family with optical versions for headlines and text. I decided against typefaces based on those from Thoreau’s day. Most felt either too stiff or too ornate for this project. I hoped to find something that was not only effortless to read but also crisp, energetic and timeless. Thoreau had French Huguenot ancestry on his father’s side. So I looked for a typeface that felt efficient and relatively anonymous, with just a little Gallic flair. Lyon Display and Lyon Text, from Commercial Type, fit the bill. Type designer Kai Bernau created the Lyon Collection as a contemporary rendition of serif typefaces created by the 16th-century French type designer and printer Robert Granjon. Lyon’s optical variations look superb at every size from the front cover to annotations.
I usually begin branding projects with interviews and surveys but Thoreau was unavailable. So, I had to interview him through biographers and scholars, so to speak. Additionally, whilst I’ve been a working designer since 2003, my creative process is almost always words-first. My branding work starts with strategy and messaging, and only then do I think about what the brand might look like. With Walden, the story already existed, so I established the design direction first and then tackled the editorial work.
Lastly, we made some bold editorial moves that would’ve required convincing, or might’ve never happened at all, if this was a client project. I’m referring to the way we revised the structure of Walden, albeit not in a way that changes Thoreau’s words or rearranges them in any way. Thoreau loosely arranged the book to follow the progression of seasons, so we simply created four sections of similar length along discernible lines of thematic drift and gave each section or “book” its own title. We’ve turned “Economy,” Walden’s long first chapter, into the first book and broke it down into six chapters. This yielded twenty-three chapters of similar length. The new structure created a more sustainable pace and a better rhythm. Perhaps another editor in Thoreau’s day might’ve suggested the same approach... or maybe not. As a designer, I’m very sensitive to attention spans, how they’ve changed over time and how visual pacing can keep readers engaged. I suppose you could call it UX thinking. Some diehard Walden fans may see our restructuring as sacrilegious but the purpose is to reduce friction and enhance the reading experience, not to pander or dumb down the book in any way.
Relevance and revisions
Editors note: Matt had previously launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund The New Walden back in 2016, but decided to postpone his efforts until now.
Being self-employed again for the third and (hopefully) last time, I’ve finally had the time to get the book back on track and nearly completed without the long pauses I’d dealt with in the past. I never dreamed the book would take seven years from start to finish. But I’d made a promise to myself and I believe breaking it would have, to some extent, broken my spirit. Letting The New Walden wither was never an option. Culturally, Walden remains as relevant as ever. The workaholism, materialism and hustle culture that I wrote about in 2016 are still very much with us; I don’t think anyone would expect such global, deeply-rooted diseases to to change much in a mere six years. The only real difference between then and now is that more people are aware and talking about the impacts of these addictions and how we might live differently.
The book has changed over the years in small and large ways. We originally planned to print the book in Italy, and now we’re working with MMC in Germany. I learned about MMC through my friend, Adam Greene, who publishes Bibliotheca, a gorgeous reader’s Bible. I was so impressed with MMC’s attention to detail and capabilities that I chose to work with them before the first conversation ended. The slipcase was a late addition, as was the expansion from four to sixteen illustrations.
The greatest change, though, hasn’t been the number of illustrations but who’s doing them. My initial plan was to work with a brilliant artist named Brooks Salzwedel. He made the first of several illustrations for our Kickstarter campaign in 2016. When I resumed work in 2018, Brooks was happy to hear I hadn’t given up. I jotted down a stack of illustration concepts which we narrowed and refined together. So far, so good. But then, Brooks told me a few weeks later that he was battling serious health issues. In order to focus on treatment and a long, painful recovery, he needed to step away from commissioned artwork for the foreseeable future. I searched high and low for months but couldn’t find a suitable person to replace Brooks. (It seems he’s doing much better these days.) One Saturday morning, I was sipping coffee and reading yet another email from an illustrator who couldn’t take on the project. I thought, 'The hell with waiting for other people. I didn’t go to art school for nothing!' So I decided to make the full-colour illustrations myself. It took eons, but I’m pleased with the outcome. Benji’s twelve illustrations are the most recent addition, and they really round out the book. His black-and-grey drawings take inspiration from Thoreau’s own sketches in his journal.
Venturing into the revival and preservation of more classic literature was my original plan. First Thoreau, then maybe Tolstoy, Shelley or other great writers whose works have lapsed into the public domain. Now, I’m not so sure. Working so closely with Henry for seven years has been transformative, but I’m ready to spend more time with the living. And I have at least one or two of my own books in me. Our next publishing project will most likely be a collection of my essays and poems. After that, who knows?
How to consume a story
Any medium (books, e-books, audiobooks) that draws people into literature can only be a good thing. But for me, nothing compares to a well-designed, carefully-crafted book. It was humankind’s first interface and, I think, remains our best. The most memorable books are a feast for the senses. The subtly pebbled texture of vellum uncoated paper. The silky feeling of a bookmark. The sandy murmuring of turning pages. As I wrote in my part of Walden’s foreword, a book won’t light up for you, but neither does it need a battery or charge. It won’t be made redundant by next year’s model. It will not bleep or buzz at you. It can’t help you reach the airport or queue up your favourite playlist. It offers one thing and one thing only: a story. And with good provenance and care, it can last for hundreds of years. How’s that for a product cycle?
Aesthetically, I hope they feel I’ve made something authentic that faithfully represents the story. As for lessons, two things come to mind. First, pay attention and be present! “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see,” as Henry said. You’re blessed to be alive; the universe is a startling, beautiful and wild place; and you’re an integral part of it. You belong here and your presence is not optional. And second, hope is here for the taking. Get outside more, for “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still.”