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.
“I think all those years of magazine design were like layout bootcamp for me. You have to work so quickly and to such tight deadlines that it really hones your layout and typography skills.” – Fiachra McCarthy, Fenit, Kerry
What pathway lead to you designing book covers?
Previous to starting my own practice, I worked for many years as a magazine art director for titles such as Hot Press, IMAGE and House and Home. I collaborated with editors to create arresting designs which harmonised with the writing – this was a great foundation for book cover design.
What is the most important part of a book cover design brief for you?
Each project is different, but, by and large, a good brief document is a great entry point into a project. I’m always aware that publishers and authors may have been working for years on this book before it reaches me.
So, a good brief document will give me a sense of where we are on this journey, and get everyone on the same page, so from day one we’re all moving in the right direction.
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?
Ideas can come from anywhere, sometimes it’s from the text itself, sometimes a good brief document will spark ideas. I’m big fan of having conversations with the publishers, sometimes something that feels off the cuff can spark a direction that wouldn’t have come from a brief.
With the cover for Sophie White’s Corpsing the publisher told me over coffee it was a ‘haunted house story, but her body is the haunted house.’ Immediately the image of a haunted house with legs came to me, it felt right straight away and was a big hit with the author. It’s great when an idea feels like it’s sparked organically through collaboration and feels like the right fit from the start.
How do you approach the relationship between images, font, colour and information?
I think all those years of magazine design were like layout bootcamp for me. You have to work so quickly and to such tight deadlines that it really hones your layout and typography skills. As soon as you’ve finished one issue, you have to start another one, so there’s no room to be too precious either. I think that’s left me a fast, accurate designer with really strong typography skills, which seems to be something people respond to in my work.
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?
Overall, Ireland’s publishing industry is incredibly strong and vibrant. I think we punch way above our weight, and to me that’s driven by an audience who want to read Irish writing and aren’t afraid to be challenged. Design-wise, it feels like things are getting better and better.
15 or 20 years ago cover design was done in-house and treated almost like another stage of the typesetting process, but I think now people can see that a great cover can get your book out into the world via social media, book blogs, Facebook book clubs, and that the initial visual aspect is more important than ever. In terms of design, I’ve seen a few covers of Irish editions that beat the UK or US edition designs hands down. So, I really hope to see Irish book design get strong and stronger in the future.
Which designers and covers do you admire most?
I think my overall design hero has to be Paul Sahre. I came across his lecture ‘Paul Sahre: A Designer And His Problems’ online and it pulled me out of a professional rut and made me wonder could I become a self-employed book designer too. As well as being a skilled designer who constantly pushes the edges of editorial design, he is also very funny and self-deprecating, which you don’t often get in the world of design.
There seems to be a great crop of book designers working at the moment that I really enjoy following and who make me try to push my own work further. These include Jonathan Pelham, Jack Smyth, Rafi Romaya, Sarah May Wilkinson, Alex Kirby and Lauren Wakefield. Here in Ireland, I really enjoy Niall McCormack’s beautiful, detailed work and Kate Gaughran and Cathal O’Gara’s covers too.
If you had one piece of wisdom to impart which you have learned to date…
I’ve been running my own design practice for almost five years now, and really feel that being my own “boss” had been the missing part of the puzzle for me for so long. In any job I’d get bored after a year or two, and then move on to the next job for the next two years! These days there’s such a huge variety of work across my desk, from cutting edge literary fiction to beautiful tomes on medieval handbells, I never get bored and get an immense sense of satisfaction from being in control of my work life. It might not be for everyone, but for anyone who thinks it might be for them, jump in!
Interview by: Michael McDermott
Photos of Fiachra: Emer O’Shea