Carol Ly is a book designer based in New York. After graduating from the Tyler School of Art with a BFA in Graphic and Interactive Design, she left Philadelphia to work in children’s publishing. She’s been making fun stuff ever since. Here she talks us through creating the sublime cover for Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across: Poems by Mary Lambert.
Like many, I knew of Mary Lambert from her beautiful vocals on the song Same Love. I didn’t realize she was an accomplished poet/spoken word artist until I became the designer for Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across.
Before the design process began, Mary invited us to see her perform. I ventured out that evening with the book’s editor, Kate Farrell, and her assistant, Rachel, without knowing what to expect. By night’s end, Mary had bared her soul on stage through song and poetry, and it was clear how much she connected with her rapt audience.
When I read the first draft of the manuscript, I was struck by Mary’s vulnerable, dark, and deeply personal writing. She speaks frankly of her past trauma, her mental health, her body image, her queerness. She also celebrates the bright moments, like Ikea shopping with someone you love.
I brainstormed and comped up multiple directions for the cover, but there was immediately a concept that my creative director, Rich Deas, and I loved. I found an Italian fine artist named Micaela Lattanzio who had a series titled Fragmenta, consisting of beautiful fragmented collages. The pieces beautifully reflected the personal, emotional, multilayered nature of Mary’s poetry.
Wouldn’t it be amazing, I thought, if Micaela could use a photograph of Mary and make a collage in the same style? Luckily, Micaela agreed to make a custom piece for the cover, and the process began. We had a small collection of photos from Mary’s past photoshoots, but we quickly realized that we would need to have a new shoot to get the exact kind of image that Micaela needed for the piece. Mary was still touring at this point, so rather than organize a shoot in New York that I could attend and direct, we contacted Mary’s photographer Shervin Lainez to catch her on the road. He carefully matched the lighting, bared skin, and other details Micaela would need to create her piece.
Once we made our photo selection, Micaela began to cut and assemble, sending photos along the way with her progress. We discussed if we should show Mary’s full face, or the colorful tattoo on her shoulder, but ultimately we wanted to let the eye move around the full piece rather than be drawn to specific focal points. When the piece was completed, Micaela shot the collage, lighting it to emphasize the dimensionality of the pins and floating fragments. I added the clean, modern type I had envisioned since comping the original idea, and edited the piece to create the effect of underlapping/overlapping around the letters. Small tweaks in color and contrast boosted the readability. When it came time for special effects on the jacket/paperback cover, we opted for matte soft touch and dimensional spot gloss, further enhancing the tactile quality of the art.
Ultimately, it was a long process but one where the final product matched exactly what I envisioned at the start. As my first cover for an adult book and also my first poetry collection, it was a challenge that I was eager to live up to. Now that the book is out in the world, I’m honored and moved to have contributed to such a beautiful work.
Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.