What does it take to design a book cover? How much do you need to engage with the author or understand the audience? What are sources of inspiration and what tips can one impart with aspiring designers? We talk to five of our favourite Irish book designers based in Ireland, the UK and US to find out why you can judge a book by its cover.
“A lot of good design comes from equal parts panic and inertia.” Graham Thew, Dublin
What pathway lead to you designing book covers?
My father was in publishing, so I grew up in a home stacked full of books. Alongside the usual kids’ favourites, I had exposure to an eclectic mix of books from an early age including a lot of quirky titles picked up at European book fairs. Book design was going through a dynamic shift in the 1970s and looking back I can see its subtle influence on my creative process.
Originally, I went to art college wanting to be an illustrator, but quickly realised I was better suited to design. I was a pretty terrible illustrator. In my final year in college, I got lucky and won a student book design competition and managed to wedge my big toe in the door of the publisher, getting to design a few titles the following season. My initial forays into designing books were pedestrian at best, but there must have been some spark because I was soon working regularly with a handful of publishers in Dublin.
What is the most important part of a book cover design brief for you?
A strong cover brief can be the difference between a streamlined and liberating design commission and a random whack-a-mole design-by-committee rejection fest. The author, commissioning editor, sales team and designer may all have very different ideas for a what a particular cover could be, a solid brief should build consensus and confidence amongst everyone.
The ideal cover brief should be laser beamed and concise – sometimes a single, savvy pitch-line like ‘Alain de Botton meets Wes Anderson’ is worth as more than the standard who’ll buy it, why they’ll buy it and where they’ll buy it info on a brief.
What sparks ideas for book cover designs? Do you read the whole book/manuscript? Do plot, themes, characters, symbols, imagery or atmosphere impact on your choices?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to read all of the titles I design, but oftentimes it’s unnecessary, particularly with some straightforward non-fiction titles. A good brief and a selection of chapters can be enough to get a good sense of the book’s identity. This is often enough for a book that may rely on a strong supplied image like autobiographies, cookbooks or children’s books, for example. However, that’s not the case with fiction, where it’s usually important to read the full text. Most stories have a face value and an underlying concept or message, it’s important to fully read a manuscript to reflect on both.
In broad strokes the process is usually read, scribble notes, think, panic, read more, sketch ideas, a bit more panic with lots more sketches and then make a decision on what broad approaches to take. An initial concept can spark from a variety of sources – an object, a time and place, an abstract or metaphorical interpretation of a theme or an event. Part of the process is weeding out the bazillion ideas into that one knockout concept that captures something intrinsic in the novel.
How does your interaction with the commissioning editor/art director/author work and vary? Do you always, or never, speak directly to the author?
Once I have an initial design to show, I’ll present to the marketing department and/or commissioning editor. For the most part, it’s an exciting part of the process – showcasing the creative thinking of a cover design leading up to the big reveal is one of my favourite parts of the job. Like most design projects, the story of how you got there is integral to a design’s success. Plus, you get an immediate sense if you’ve nailed it or missed the mark, adding to the excitement.
Interaction with authors tends to be kept to a minimum, usually the marketing department will liaise with them once we have an agreed cover, or I’ll pitch the cover to them directly at that point. However, occasionally it can work to develop a relationship directly with an author early on in the process to get their input directly and help flesh out their vision – if it’s carefully managed by the publisher. Working with authors has been almost universally positive with only the very rare diva thrown into the mix.
How do you approach the relationship between images, font, colour and information?
Every cover is very different, another reason I love designing books, there’s no hard and fast rules. However, prior to investigating the finer details like type and colour palettes, I’ll consider the medium of the chosen concept I’m developing – does it need photography, illustration, a collage or is it just typographical? How will the book title itself interact with the imagery on the cover, is it integrated or separate? Understated or florid?
Once these elements are coming together, I’ll then consider font choices. Options like whether it’s a hand-drawn, serif or sans type treatment, if it’s a modern or traditional approach all need to be carefully navigated. Subtle differences in typography can have a huge impact on how a cover is perceived.
Weirdly, for a designer, I’m colourblind. I’ll always get another safe pair of eyes to look over my work, just to make sure the colours that I think are in the design are the actual colours in the design. At least 30% of the time they’re not, mostly leading to car crash palettes, sometimes seemingly inspired choices.
How do you rate the evolution of book cover design in Ireland? With a large publishing industry next door, do you think it is a growing field within design/visual communications here?
Internationally, book design feels like it’s going from strength to strength. The value of a beautifully designed physical book has gone up, perhaps as a reaction to the ebook explosion of the last decade, and you see this in the Irish market too.
Which designers and covers do you admire most?
It’s impossible to keep up with the explosion of incredibly talented book designers on both sides of the Atlantic. I think anyone in this field would be in awe of Peter Mendelsund, Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf who came to book design late in his career and with no training, his work is as varied as it is phenomenal. London based Penguin book designer David Pearson’s work is consistently inspirational. I love anything by Helen Yentus, such smart and beautiful covers.
Choosing a favourite all time book cover is impossible, but Jamie Keenan’s treatment of Lolita is hard to beat. It’s such a beautifully simple cover that visually switches back and forth between a generic bedroom, the setting of much of the book, and Lolita’s legs. I’m left scratching my head wondering how he came up with it.
If you had one piece of wisdom to impart which you have learned to date…
A lot of good design comes from equal parts panic and inertia.
Interview by: Michael McDermott