Q & A with Designer Mark Swan

Mark Swan is a designer for Kid-ethic, a studio specializing in print design for the publishing and film industries. Here he answers a few of our questions about his average work day, previous book cover creations, and what he believes makes a great book cover.


Do you have a typical working day? If so, what does it look like?

After 5 years sharing a studio in Brighton I have recently acquired a space in Seaford (a smallish coastal town 13 miles away from Brighton) which is where I live with my family and is 15 minutes from my house. I share with three very talented illustrators that I’ve know for many years and who have also been part of the exodus from Brighton to more affordable climates. It’s a curious space that resembles a sauna, and it would seem, mimics a sauna on hot days. That said, it does have a sea view. I have always found that I work much better early in the morning, so this move has given me so much time back that I lost through traveling to and from Brighton.

So, usual day is I’m woken by the dawn chorus, my daughter, early, and once we have watched Frozen again I will fling her round the lounge a bit and then if time permits I will go for a run into the countryside. Seaford has breathtaking scenery all around and I find that the morning run helps me focus on the day ahead and also gets me away from technology. Also, the surrounding nature and quiet helps energises me for the day. Once this is done it’s into the studio where I will say hello to whoever has made it in, fire up the computer, music, and caffeine and get busy. First off, I will answer any emails that were neglected the previous day or reply to any American clients who have emailed during the night. As I mentioned, I have always worked better in the morning. The later it gets the more I can sometimes lose focus on a project. Like when you stare at a word for too long and it stops making sense. So early in the morning I will review visuals and projects I’m working on and will usually be able to sort any design solutions that evaded me the previous evening. From here it really does tend to be a solid day of design. There will be some chatting with studio friends, more caffeine. If a project gets too fuzzy I may get away from the screen and go for a walk on the beach to help me mentally work through a project. Time away from the screen is so important for a project. It helps to bring much needed perspective. Being able to do this is one of the real perks of being a freelancer. Once I feel that my projects are in a state I’m happy with, I will shut down the studio for the day, usually about 6, and go home. Having a space to work in away from home is very important to me. I have tried to work from home, but there are too many distractions, even cleaning, and being able to have that distinction between work and home is essential. Otherwise I just wouldn’t stop working which in the long run wouldn’t be positive for the company. That said, the brain is always ticking away on projects, even when sleeping it would appear.

Crime novels often look very similar, yet your crime covers are always surprising and unique. Could you talk a bit about how you push those boundaries while still fitting within a recognisable aesthetic?

 
 

Thanks. Glad to hear that’s how they are received. I would say that it could be down to my time designing film posters. When I worked the film posters I was head of international sales which is pretty much designing poster and advertising for films before they hit the cinema. Much of the time we had projects that were for films that weren’t even made yet, so you had to come up with solutions without any stills, or even no actors linked to the film, or a script for that matter. Teaser posters they are called. These posters have a real aesthetic to them, which when I left the film industry to come back to publishing came with me and influenced the way I design covers, especially Crime novels. My designs are a sort of hybrid of film posters and book covers. It’s a bit of a creative circle these days. Crime book are published with a design. They are then sometimes made into TV shows or films which have a their own design aesthetic, which then feeds back into influencing book covers. When doing a project, like all designers I will do a range of covers, and I have noticed of late that many clients are being braver in their choices of designs and really want to stand out on the busy shelves. This in turn inspires me to push things further. For me it’s all about tone. Once you get the tone of the cover right you can really start to experiment with the layout, angles, treatments of imagery. I’m very lucky to design all the covers for a fantastic publisher called Orenda books, which publishes mainly crime novels. It is run by the one woman publishing machine, Karen Sullivan. From outset of this working relationship there was a real creative trust. She has never really interfered with the designing of the cover, which is a really rare and incredible position for a designer. This has allowed me to hone in on a look for the crime covers.

You have a fascinating selection of alternative covers on your website. Are there many there that you still think fulfill the brief better than the final published ones?

That’s a hard one to answer. There are certainly designs that I have done that I really loved but never saw the light of day, but as far as I’m concerned if it didn’t get picked, then it didn’t fulfil the brief as well as the one that did. There are many people involved with this decision and these people have much more insight and knowledge of the book than I do. So many factors have to be considered when a design is chosen for a cover.

  Photo: Mark Swan

Photo: Mark Swan

The Bell Jar 50th anniversary edition design was a very good example of this. I did many designs for that, and if I had my way at the time I would have chosen the hand drawn design on my site, but really Faber made all the right decisions on that one. The final design put the book back on the bestseller list. Much of the reason for this was the national press and online critiques that the design attracted. Much of it was very negative. “If Sylvia Plath hadn’t already killed herself she would now if she saw the cover to the new edition of the Bell Jar,” I love that one. And some was very positive and really understood the design. Either way, all this press was incredibly positive for sales of the book, and I know this success wouldn’t have happened if the design I felt fulfilled the brief better was chosen. I trust my clients. The covers are on the site because I feel they were good designs and ones that sometimes show a different style or skill that kid-ethic can offer. I’m planning a website called kid-alt which will be a site containing alternative covers. Though that been in the works for many years, much like me updating my actual site. I have always joked that on my grave stone it will say ‘Here lies Mark Swan, New website coming soon.’

How do you know when a design is finished?

It’s a very interesting question. The simple answer is you just know. There are things to bare in mind before hitting that send button. Does it answer the brief, or does the visual add something extra? When a client hires me they are hiring my design skills and aesthetic, so it’s important to present some visuals that they are not expecting along with the ones they are. Sometimes you are really not sure if a visual is finished, but you are unsure how to take it further. Here I find it best to finish it to a presentable stage and then send it to the client to get their input. They will maybe see something you have not that will help develop the design.

 
 

What percentage of your work is digital? Do you start off in a sketchbook before moving onto the computer?

Of course everything ends up being digital but computers can be very predictable beasts, so I do love to get messy and create original content to my designs. This can be the most enjoyable aspect of the project, and can throw up some very unexpected results. I’ve used some many things to create a design: ice, ink, cake, projector, hover bags, fabric, to name a few I’ve given a go. When I get a brief there are images and designs that spring to mind immediately so it can be the case of getting those out of your head and making them a reality. Sometimes I will sit down with a sketchbook and draw out designs or do word play exercises. The thesaurus has always been a hugely important source of inspiration, especially for non-fiction books. I also find that picture libraries can be fantastic for developing an idea. The number of tags that they apply to an image means that the search can throw up images and ideas that you never considered.

What are some of your favourite covers by other designers?

I could happily think about this all day. I think the technical genius of Drugs and Human Behaviour by Diagram blows my mind. It’s such a fantastic idea and I really struggle to fathom how they did it. I really love covers that have a simple image that says so much. A Wolf at my Table, designed by Chip Kidd nails the book in one very clever image that’s beautifully executed. Most book covers by Paul Rand are winners. Recently, I thought that Jack Flag’s design for Girls in Fire was excellent. It didn’t feature any of the imagery you would of thought would of made it onto that cover but still managed to capture the tone perfectly. Cannibals in Love designed by Na Kim is so good that I find it annoying to look at. Again, says so much with so little. The Pale King by Jonathan Gray is genius. Metamorphosis by Jamie Keenan is exquisite. Maestra by Blacksheep really stood out to me when I first saw it. It was a very brave cover for such a mass-market book. A real game-changer, as they say. The list could go on and on.

What do you think makes a great book cover?

To Quote one of my heroes, Alfred Hitchcock: ‘A great film should ask more questions than it answers’ I think I’m paraphrasing him, but you get the gist. A great book cover should have just the right amount of information to attract the reader, but leave so many questions that they need answering, thus compelling them to by the book and read the story.

Do those questions get answered as the reader progresses through the book, so that the cover and text make sense together? Personally I always cherish an 'a ha' moment when a visual from the cover lines up with something in the book.

In some cases yes. The questions do get answered and I agree with you about the feeling you get when the meaning of imagery on a cover is revealed, you have suddenly been let in on a secret. Sometimes though I think the covers can be more about a feeling that the reader can project their own personal answers and feelings.


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