Posted on April 16, 2009 - by katy
You’ve wandered into a bookshop. You’re not looking for anything in particular. You browse the displays near the window. What makes you pick up a book? We all judge books by their covers, and getting the design right has never been more important.
I interviewed the brilliantly talented Patrick at Walker Books about what it takes to make a great cover. Look no further if you’re interested in becoming a designer yourself – Patrick has some handy tips.
How do you decide what the cover is going to look like?
The toughest question of all! And I’m afraid there isn’t a straight answer… Basically the process goes something like this:
First of all is the brief. The editor will give you a plot outline, a title, the author’s name and a few suggestions about where the book sits in the market (who the book’s for)… Quite often, particularly if the book is by one of our key authors (ones who have sold lots of books before), the brief is raised at a covers meeting, which is attended by the editor, the art director, the sales director, the marketing director, the publisher, the tea lady, the tea lady’s dog, all of whom will have an opinion on how the book should look. Generally, however, the designer will then go away, ignore the brief and actually read the manuscript to get some idea of what the book’s really about…
Once we’ve got a feel for the book, the designer and art director will start playing around with ideas and themes. We can go in many different directions, taking inspiration from all sorts of places, but at the heart of it is trying to stay true to the book itself, and though we always have half an eye on what is current and cool out there in the world, we try not to be swayed too much by the dictates of fashion or style.
It may be that we feel a photographic approach would work best, and so we trawl through one of the many picture libraries looking for just the right image that perfectly conveys the mood of the book. Or we might try a typographic approach, letting the words of the title take shape over the whole cover, becoming artwork in its own right. Or we may even go down the tried and trusted route of finding an illustrator whose work encapsulates the spirit of the story.
Whatever route we choose, our aim is to find an image or design that doesn’t try to tell you the whole story, but instead evokes the mood or atmosphere, or conveys a sense of place or time.
How do you produce the designs?
Depending on the choice of image and style of the cover design, the exact process can vary quite a bit. More often than not, the designs are produced digitally, but it’s a pretty organic process, and the individual elements of a cover – the lettering, background texture, or central image or motif – can come from literally anywhere. Sometimes I find the perfect image in a photograph library, but often the parts of a cover are the result of much hunting and researching, drawing and painting. One cover I remember working on involved gathering fallen leaves in the park and scanning them in, while for another I cut shapes out of potatoes and made potato prints for the lettering! Usually it’s a little more high tech than that, but wherever they come from, these elements are then scanned (if not already digital in origin…) and the whole thing assembled using a combination of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign.
What do you like most about cover design?
It’s difficult to choose just one thing – there’s so much about creating and putting together a cover that I really enjoy. I particularly like the beginning of a project, being faced with a blank canvas, and that initial “playing around” with ideas. Even in these desperately commercial times, fiction cover design is still an extremely creative business, and at the beginning of any project you never really know where it’s going to end up visually, which for a designer is hugely exciting.
The other bit I like best is, of course, at the very end of the process, with the finished, printed and bound book. Often, particularly when the design incorporates any special effects or treatments, it will be the first time you get to see all your ideas come together, and seeing one’s work realized can be wonderfully satisfying.
What do you like the least?
Inevitably, some covers are more difficult than others, and the approval process can at times be a little demoralising, particularly when ideas for a cover are rejected and you have to start from scratch! The worst that can happen is when the various people involved in the process, sales, marketing, editors and publisher (and sometimes the author!) will try to design the cover for you, by suggesting ideas for images or styles of cover. What usually happens then is you end up with a cover that has been designed by committee, which rarely brings about a satisfactory end result.
How did you become a graphic designer?
Sort of by accident in the end! I set out as an illustrator originally, specialising in pen and ink drawings, but over the years found that I became more interested in the relationship between word and image than the actual drawing itself, and gradually edged into design, through a number of different roles. In many ways what I do now is still illustration, taking imagery and lettering from all manner of places and creating digital collages.
Where did you train?
After school I did a Foundation diploma in Art and Design at Falmouth School of Art, then a Degree in Visual Communication (an umbrella term for Graphic Design, Illustration and Photography), specialising in Illustration, at Bath Spa University College. The rest was on the job!
Did you have to do work experience?
I didn’t do work experience, but I would strongly recommend it, particularly for anyone wishing to work in publishing. There’s a lot more to making a book than meets the eye, and for anyone wanting to get into the industry it’s enormously beneficial to gain an understanding of the processes involved – often the only way to do that is to spend some time in a publishing house!
If you were were interviewing someone for a job, what kind of person would you be looking for and with what skills?
Top of the list has to be a passion for books, and in particular book covers and packaging. Other than that, it can be quite hard to pin down one’s exact requirements, and finding the right person can sometimes feel a bit instinctive. Usually the things I’m looking for come across in the interviewee’s portfolio. They have to be able to demonstrate strong basic design skills, and technical abilities (experience in certain computer software and the like), but I think more important is that they are full of ideas, not limited in terms of how they approach a given design challenge, and willing to explore all manner of visual solutions. A certain fearlessness in front of a blank canvas!