Designer Lisa Horton Talks Process for Flight of a Starling

Designer Lisa Horton Talks Process for Flight of a Starling

Lisa Horton is a London-based designer and illustrator. Horton was kind enough to take some time out of her busy schedule and answer a few questions about her life as a freelancer, and share her creative process behind the cover design of Lisa Heathfield’s young-adult novel, Flight of a Starling

Can you share with us your background as a cover designer?

I’ve been designing book covers for about 7 years now, 4 years as a cover designer in house for Transworld, and 3 years ago I decided to go it alone and set up my own business designing covers freelance. I now have a little studio in Bethnal Green, which is my little design sanctuary, filled with too many books!  

When I first went to Uni I wanted to become a fashion illustrator, that was the dream. When I finished Uni I moved straight to London, and tried my hand at making the dream a reality. This didn’t exactly go quite to plan and it was a struggle. I had bits of freelance work here and there, so I got a job working in retail on the shop floor as well, to keep things ticking over, working shifts and spending what ever other hours that were left of the day chasing freelance deadlines. That’s when I decided to go back to college. I did an evening course in graphic design, so I could work at the same time. It was a really tough year but completely worth it as I got a job pretty quickly after as junior cover designer. I worked my way up, and stayed there until I decided the freelance life could be the life for me.


My background in books is designing adult fiction covers, and since I’ve been freelance I’ve continued to do that but have also been designing YA and kids books, which I absolutely love to do as it kind of just frees my brain in a way. My publishing clients know with me that when I get a brief in I like to just go for it, so as well as sticking to the brief I like to have a bit of a play around as well. I like to pull out as many ideas as I can in the beginning, then filter out the best ones, although if an idea is a bit of a wild card but has potential, if I think its worth showing I will. 

I do like to spend time on my covers, its very important to me to give the book the best cover I can, and sometimes I think I get a little too attached! I love the use of colour, the bolder the better. I think with both my adult and kids book designs you can see that bold colour is part of my style that I’ve developed over the years, and it suits me well!

What is your freelance work schedule like? How do you set and adhere to your routine? Or do you have a routine?

I work five days a week, sometimes six on Saturdays if I have a lot on. My studio is a five minute walk down the road from my flat, so no commuting for me which is amazing. Although sometimes I can stay at the studio pretty late if I get carried away as it doesn’t take long to get home! Having the studio does help a lot, I think, with having a regular routine as a freelancer and I love spending time there. It's a really nice space to be in.


The cover for Lisa Heathfeild's Flight of a Starling is gorgeous! How did you go about creating it?

Flight of a Starling by Lisa Heathfield was such a cool cover to design for Egmont. I worked on all 3 of her books at the same time (Seed, Paper Butterflies, Flight of a Starling) so there was a clear style developed. With each of the covers Laura Bird and the Egmont team wanted a sort of hand made feel, so a way to work in hand made paper textures or water colour in to the design. We wanted to push it on from being just a flat graphic, so the introduction of a water colour paper texture gives it such a nice finish, that teamed with the acid colours and the black background on Flight of A Starling, makes it bold and stand out. Something I love to be able to with YA and kids books. With this cover, the guys at Egmont wanted to have a bird as part of the design, so that was always going to be the most important element. Adding the stars and feathers behind the bird gives it a real sense of movement. Like its been caught in that moment, taking flight. The typography is bold and simple, with just a little quirk to it, so nothing too tricksy! What I love the most about the Lisa Heathfield covers is just their pure simplicity, and they look lovely lined up together. I was away for a long weekend in Rye recently and I was walking past a lovely indie book seller and saw Seed (her first book) in the window which was so nice to see outside of London.


Getting a cover to fit the brief and fit the market is my job as a designer, but to also make it stand out on its own and not get lost in all the other covers in that genre is a part of the design process which I really enjoy as it’s a challenge. I think that’s what a cover like Flight of a Starling does so well. It fits the market, but its different to the rest. I’m really chuffed to have it on my book shelf!

You mentioned that texture played a role in your Lisa Heathfield book covers. Do you try to incorporate different surfaces, as opposed to flat graphics, into all your book covers?

It's something I’ve started to look at, as a lot of my work has involved silhouettes, which has been very popular in covers. So I’ve been trying to progress my style a little. It could be a use of a watercolour, a background texture, more layering of the silhouettes or using shadows to create more depth with in a silhouette design. Its just small subtle things really but I think it makes a difference.

How do you know when you are 'finished' with a book cover design?

That is a good question! Its quite a tricky one to answer I think, as sometimes I look at something and feel really happy with it. Other times I can look at a design and something may niggle me about it, so I have to then figure out what it is and fix it. I think a big part of it though is learning to know when a design of yours is good enough and doesn’t need any more tweaking, and I think that comes from experience and working in the industry really. When I was student I found it really difficult to say something was finished, and even though I still get a little attached to things now, I find it easier to say I’m happy with that and its finished. Also a massive part of this process is working with great art directors and designers in house as its not just me that needs to be happy with the cover! 

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Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.