Jacket and Spine: Sarahmay Wilkinson

Posted September 8, 2021 in Arts and Culture, Design, Features, Illustration

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.


“Things we are thinking a lot about is representation of diverse illustrators and authors and trying to spread the work around.” – Sarahmay Wilkinson, New York


What pathway lead to you designing book covers?

I was born in the Coombe, grew up in Bray, moved to Canada when I was about six and then went to Parsons (design school) in New York at 18. I was born into a hyper creative family and always felt encouraged and supported. Parsons were really encouraging and I started an internship in my second year at this amazing hair product company called Bumble and Bumble. I ended up doing product launches, package design and advertising. I got my hands into everything and learned about production and printing from a really broad perspective which has been tremendously helpful in later years.

Book covers are a much more specific product, the canvas is very limited, but I think and hope that what I bring to this space is bigger thinking about it as a package and not just a cover…all these different aspects of launching a book, it’s not just about content and cover, but making sure to land in the market in a particular way that is going to make it a success – whether that is financial, reviews or readership.


How do you approach a brief? What is your process?

I work in-house and as a freelancer. Working in-house as art director at W.W. Norton, we have certain processes that are in place. We have a design brief and always require manuscripts. Potentially, we will ask for thoughts from the author. Design briefs can be great tools, but they are not, ultimately, the work. Whenever I feel lost, I always know I can go back to the manuscript – the work is there, the answer is there. It’s right here, 300 pages, find it.

I’ll read as much as I possibly can. Typically, novels I will read from start to finish because you never know what is going to happen until the last page. With non-fiction works, I’ll read introductions and get a sense of what the general thesis is, read key chapters and the conclusion. In-house, I have a team I can rely on, I am not an island unto myself.


How do you approach freelance projects where the budgets may be more limited?

 What I often ask for in exchange for a lower fee is greater creative control. If you are hiring me and really confident that I am the right person for the job, then I want to drive this boat.


Are there any books which have had more added meaning for you?

I hate to pick favourites, but there’s certainly books which felt really important to me that I really want people to read. That’s when it’s great to have colleagues whom you trust who can say, ‘yes, but also…’ They can pull you back if you’re not seeing things because you’re so invested.

Most recently, Olivia Laing’s book Everybody is a tremendously important book, not just that its contents and message are meaningful and important, but her way of conveying ideas is tremendously unique, she takes you in these weird directions and makes these unique connections. This work is about gender and the bounds of our body and how they have been dealt with throughout history.


Is book design responding to society, being brave and boundary pushing?

I would hope so. I see things around me, other forms of design – environmental and architectural is really important to our sense of safety and security. Maybe it is more evident to me. Things we are thinking a lot about is representation of diverse illustrators and authors and trying to spread the work around. As I mentioned, everyone knows everyone, the scene is really small, why? Unfortunately, it comes down to convenience.

I know that so-and-so will deliver the work on time, in the format required, because they have done book cover design for the 15 years. But, man, there’s this really cool artist that I just saw on Instagram the other day who is doing work that’s within this world, that’s speaking about these particular topics that’s super relevant to this body of poetry that I just read. Are they going to be a total wildcard, I don’t know, but let’s see. I want to find artists who feel appropriate and right for the work and sometimes that means working with people outside the book cover design community.

Recently I started working with Renald Louissaint – traditionally an editorial designer who has just started out. He had never worked on book covers, but I just decided he’s doing super cool things with typography which is enough for me if we can work together, which we did on The Joy of Sweat. It does mean more heavy-handed art direction on my part, as opposed to going to someone who is more seasoned.

Another book would be a poetry book Felon. Reginald Dwayne Betts is an unbelievable poet, activist, really amazing. He suggested we collaborate with artist Titus Kaphar. Getting to work with people like that who are creating socially conscious artwork is a real honour. Non-seasoned designers have a different way of doing things and sometimes that lack of knowledge and understanding of the industry can be to their benefit.


Do you have any advice for aspiring designers?

 Work hard, be kind, don’t stop, keep going. If you’re stuck, just do the next right thing you can think of and just keep going. The biggest hindrance to creatives, generally speaking, is that you can become doubtful and, you know what, that doesn’t go away. It doesn’t matter how much success you have, at least in my experience, or how much people say I love this or that. I always feel not quite good enough and that’s what keeps me going, the next one will be different, the next one will be better and I am going to improve in this particular way or work on this particular aspect of my craft. Always moving forward, that’s most freeing. Just hold it lightly and move on. Every book is a new adventure and collaboration, it’s hyper engaging.


Are you subject to the world of algorithms or focus groups which inform the design process?

 There is a data, but not as concrete as A/B testing in other industries…That is ultimately a blessing for the creative. How can we make new and interesting work that comes from ourselves if we are being told by a computer what the new popular colour is? I want to be a maker as well as a collaborator because it keeps me on my toes in both spaces.


How do you approach the relationship between images, font, colour and information?

The order in which they are considered, or I am inspired by them, changes with every single title. The book cover has a job to do but it is not the same with every book. For example, with Fareed Zakaria’s Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, I mean that was going to sell no matter what. That was a highly marketed book. That’s not to say the cover didn’t need to be good, it did and I worked very hard on it. Did I think about letter count, absolutely, because ‘post-pandemic’ is a massive word, and they will want this title big because it’s an important book.

Whereas my only directive with David Baker’s poetry book (Swift) is he would like a bird on the cover and I did a whole series of works with birds. And I’m so glad they chose the one we went with, it’s a totally different tone.


Interview by: Michael McDermott


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