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New Work: ‘A Wilderness of Error’

In 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was accused of the brutal killing of his pregnant wife and two young daughters, a crime he attributed to intruders. He was convicted, but has always maintained his innocence. In A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris presents 20 years of his own investigation into one of America’s most infamous murder cases. Pentagram’s Michael Bierut and his team have designed the book, out September 4, as well as a promotional online trailer and accompanying website.

Pentagram designed Morris’s previous book, Believing Is Seeing (2011), which examined the mysteries behind several famous photographs. For A Wilderness of Error, Bierut and designer Yve Ludwig worked closely with Morris to develop a design that eschews the typically lurid look of “true crime,” in favor of simple line drawings in stark black and white to convey the in-depth analysis of Morris’s arguments as well as the horror and notoriety of the case.


Promotional trailer for the book.

“True crime” is a well-established genre, and the MacDonald mystery has been, if anything, over-examined. The case is the subject of several best-selling books, including Joe McGinnis’ Fatal Vision (in which the author begins in sympathy to MacDonald, then decides along the way that he is guilty), and Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, about McGinnis and MacDonald (and the “betrayal” of the latter by the former), as well as a widely-seen television miniseries and more.

As a result, Morris wanted the book to look and feel different than the others that investigated the case, as well as other true crime titles. A Wilderness of Error is exhaustive, combining countless sources and a wide range of material, including interviews, transcripts, documents, and timelines. At 524 pages, it represented a serious information design challenge.

Morris is a former private detective, and a theme that runs through all of his work—in his films like “The Fog of War” and “The Thin Blue Line,” and in his column for The New York Times—is the idea of evidence and what it represents. The core pieces of evidence in the MacDonald case are everyday household objects—a coffee table, a rocking horse, a pajama top—that have been examined and reexamined so many times they have acquired a kind of iconic significance to people that know the case.

Early on in the design process, simply to create a visual inventory, the designers reduced the objects to simple line drawings. Morris was so struck with the deadpan quality of the drawings that he suggested the designers create even more, and further, to make them a significant visual element of the book. Reversed out of black, they seem both childlike and sinister, and serve as guideposts as Morris leads the reader through the evidence. At the same time, the simplicity of the images complements the straightforward nature of Morris’s analysis.

A floor plan of MacDonald’s house has been embossed on the book’s cover, setting the location of the crime scene and playing off the “wilderness” of the title. The font Din Next Pro is used for titles and chapter headers; text is set in Minion Pro.

The drawings have been adapted for the book’s promotional trailer. Urgent, ominous music by Morris’s frequent collaborator John Kusiak plays as lines come together to complete the drawings, one by one. A mass of lines unraveling at the end alludes to the “wilderness” of the book’s title.

The book’s presentation of evidence is augmented by an accompanying website, which goes beyond simple promotion to serve as an actual resource for background on the case. Visitors can sift through materials like photographs and testimony, organized chronologically by year and displayed with detailed captions.

Pentagram Project Team: Michael Bierut, partner-in-charge and designer; Yve Ludwig, book designer; Niko Skourtis, Lee Cerre, and Matt Delbridge, illustrations; Aron Fay, animator; Niko Skourtis, website designer.