Designing for Celebrity

The following article by Susanna Baird appears in Spine Magazine issue 6, available for preorder the week of September 12th. For more articles, interviews, and a showcase of remarkable book cover designs, be sure to preorder your copy when available.


We know our celebrities. We watch them onscreen. We follow them online. We know what they eat for lunch, we know the names of their pets, we know for whom they're voting. We know them. Or at least, we know their public personas, their brands. Designing a book cover for a title written by a celebrity involves not only the usual herculean task of transforming a complex universe — that of the book — into a single powerful image, but also grappling with a person readers think they already know.

Jay Shaw, who made a name for himself designing movie posters and album covers and now serves as brand director for Austin-based Mondo, created the book covers for Aziz Ansari's "Modern Romance" and Jessi Klein's "You'll Grow Out of It." He thinks that, while a celebrity's image can obscure the purpose of a film or other fictional work, "with an autobiographical book cover the focus needs to be on the author." The author is the purpose, the book's central concept. The design challenge becomes how best to represent the celebrity in a way that not only stays true to their well-developed public persona, but also riffs on that persona in a way that gets at what they're expressing in the book. 

 
 
I had the idea of using a photo of him based on this great photo I’d seen of a young Stanley Kubrick holding a camera.
— Jay Shaw, Brand Director, Mondo

Ansari's book "Modern Romance" focuses on 21st century courtship. The comedian covers the topic during his stand-up and on his show, but the book isn't a straightforward comedy read or memoir. Working with social scientist Eric Klinenberg, Ansari gathered mounds of research and presented it alongside his humorous observations. He took a similarly thorough approach to the book cover.

“When I say a client 'collaborated,' what usually I mean is they gave me notes," Shaw said. "When we were working on the book cover he’d call or text or send e-mails full of incredible reference material he ran across. We went back and forth on at least two dozen concepts. I had the idea of using a photo of him based on this great photo I’d seen of a young Stanley Kubrick holding a camera." 

Ansari replaced Kubrick, the cell phone replaced the camera, and the photographer, Ruvan Wijesooriya, came up with the idea of using hearts. Ansari and Shaw spent another week poring over fonts (final choice: Avant Garde), and the cover said what it needed to say. "Aziz standing there, blinded by false notions of love and romance, trying to navigate his landscape (an iPhone) pretty well communicates what you can expect to find inside the book," Shaw said.

Like Shaw, the designer of Amy Schumer's "The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo" twisted the typical celebrity-photo book cover into a new shape. Simon & Schuster Senior Art Director Lisa Litwack has created covers for a number of esteemed authors, including Stephen King and Catherine Coulter. She's a huge Schumer fan, and was excited to learn Simon & Schuster's imprint Gallery Books was publishing the comedian's title.

 
 
I feel it reflects a vulnerable but strong image of Amy [Schumer] which represents her brand and her book perfectly.
— Lisa Litwack, Senior Art Director, Simon & Schuster

Working with the book's publisher and editor, Litwack came up with concepts that were, like Schumer, funny. However, they failed to reflect the honesty and bravery found inside the book. Going back and forth with Schumer and photographer Mark Seliger, the team ultimately landed on the now-iconic cover. "I feel it reflects a vulnerable but strong image of Amy which represents her brand and her book perfectly," Litwack said.

Focusing on the author doesn't necessarily mean including a celebrity-caliber photo. Comedian and "Inside Amy Schumer" writer Jessi Klein found Jay Shaw's name on the jacket of Ansari's book, and asked him to work on the cover of her collection of personal essays. The two talked on the phone and shot emails back and forth, initially aiming for a more conceptual piece that illustrated "the juxtaposition between what girls and women in our country are 'supposed' to experience in their lives and what they really do," explained Shaw.

This led Shaw down several dead-end paths. He took a classic 1950s female silhouette and broke it: too goofy. He tried a collage made from fashion magazine clippings: oddly violent. He found doll molds at a craft store: big "nope." (He gave the doll molds to his daughter, who painted them silly colors and set them on fire in the backyard.) Finally they talked old photos, and Jessi found the one from first grade. Using that as a base, Shaw "went to town on the type treatment."

 
 

In all three instances, the book cover designers ultimately chose a traditional celebrity-memoir design route, prominently featuring the author's image. But each designer took the concept in a different and unique direction, transcending cliché and expressing both the author's well-known persona and the new creation that is the book.



Susanna previously wrote for the online design community Dribbble, helping transform their occasional blog into the online publication Courtside. Her bylines also include AOL News, Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, among other publications. 

@SusannaBaird