Diane Chonette, Designing for Claire Fuller's Swimming Lessons

Diane Chonette is an art director at Tin House Books in Portland, Oregon. She is responsible for creating the cover of Claire Fuller's Swimming Lessons. Here she details for Spine her process for the design.


I loved reading Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons so much that I thought the cover design process would be inspired and quick. That proved to be overly optimistic, of course! During the initial design phase, it felt obvious that there be water on the cover. I had many conversations with the editor, Masie Cochran, about finding a photograph of a woman either underwater or in the waves or looking longingly out to sea. We both searched high and low for the right photo, but none seemed to capture the mysterious complexity of the narrative in spite of how compelling the images were on their own. There are so many elements to Swimming Lessons: hidden letters, family secrets, affairs—with children left in the wake. These images all felt romantic (and there’s plenty of that in the book), but didn’t hint to the darker, enigmatic qualities of Fuller’s work. 

As time went on, it became clear to me that a photograph was not working. I had to search for a new solution. The cover called for something that conveyed both hope and despair with water as a central element. Books and handwritten letters also play an important part of Swimming Lessons—so much so that I also thought of ways to incorporate their significance into the cover design either in the form of script or of paper itself. I tried creating water out of paper by tearing and gluing sheets of blue construction paper together. At the same time, I started looking for a silhouette of a woman’s profile that I could combine into the design. After playing around with it in Photoshop, I got to a point where I thought I might have something, but I wasn’t quite ready to share it. 

 
 

As I’d stared down a road that was a big departure from our original vision, I felt I had to show more than one direction. After some hunting, I found a pattern that ultimately became a part of the final design. I loved how graphic and undulating it was, the lines themselves had movement and a kind of pull. I started to visualize placing a body or head within the lines, and it wasn’t long before I began to see how her hair could float along behind, almost weaving into the art. 

In the end, the design was a combination of the paper artwork I had first created and the use of the water pattern. I’ll admit that this jacket had me worried for more than a few weeks, but I’m thrilled with the finished design. And it’s even more fun that I’m not alone—the cover design has been used by publishers in the UK, Germany, and Canada. And, most importantly, Claire loves the cover and it’s hard to ask for more than that. 

 
 

Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.

@PaintbrushMania