Take Cover: Alice Marwick on Creative Process

Here is the thing about Alice Marwick: she refuses to apply only one philosophy to cover design. So far, her open mind and portfolio have served her (and the authors for whom she designs) well. Marwick has designed for publishers like Bloomsbury, Zed Books, I. B. Tauris, Simon & Schuster, Little, Brown, Atlantic Books, and John Murray. She has also worked in-house at a small independent press. Now, Marwick works for herself and the books in which she believes. Her latest cover design for Sweet Thames is yet another testament to her versatility as a designer.

Marwick cannot be painted into a corner; rather, she approaches each project with whatever craft-based process she feels is most appropriate. “It’s a challenge to describe my general process because I work across a number of different genres, fiction and non-fiction, and use whatever techniques for image making and lettering that feel appropriate, handmade or digital, so it varies a lot between projects.” Marwick’s ability to flit between hand-lettering and digital illustration makes her designs especially dynamic, since she can move between artsy, original script and clean, streamlined font. “This year I’ve found myself potato printing lettering for book of short stories, cutting tiny images from paper for a book on puppetry, and stretching cartridge so that I could paint a really wet, inky image of a river for a book about the Mekong. Less messy days see me making vector drawings for ‘my’ TED and Object Lessons series, and I work a lot with stock photography too.”

As far as the evolution of her projects goes, Marwick says she follows a timeline that most designers and publishers would recognize: “Once briefed, I spend some time reading, researching, thinking and sketching thumbnails. I try not to rush this stage because a thoughtful and well-informed cover design will usually shine through. Then I work up my most promising ideas from rough inDesign sketches to more polished designs.” In an ideal world, revision is always possible and clarity always within reach. “If time allows”, Marwick says, "I like to set them aside for a day or two and come back to them with fresh eyes. It’s amazing what a difference this makes!”

After receiving a brief, sketching, and revising, Marwick keeps her mind (and her InDesign software) open: “After that, it’s just about going where the feedback takes you.”

With Sweet Thames, Marwick approached the cover design by staying extremely close to the creative brief. She drew on the mystery and Dickensian nature of the book to create a haunting and fascinating cover. “Sweet Thames takes a look at a very grimy phase in the history of London when a Cholera epidemic swept the city, and a foul miasma hung in the air - ‘The Great Stink’ - due to sewage pouring into the Thames. A young engineer searching for a solution to the miasma finds himself in desperate pursuit of another mystery: that of his missing wife.

Marwick explains that this project was, in essence, a dream. “The brief was very straightforward for this one. I was asked for something Victorian looking, and to include an image of the Thames shoreline. I read the book before I got started to get a flavour of the mood and atmosphere the cover needed to convey, and to see if there were any idiosyncratic details I could add in. I researched some graphic design of the times, and, aiming to come up with something contemporary but with a strong Victorian flavour, came up with this first round of designs.”

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“This was one of those happy, beautifully straightforward projects; my favourite design was chosen with only a few small tweaks needed.”

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“They went for the one with calligraphic swashes suggestive of swirling water. I had drawn inspiration from this beautiful art nouveau binding, which may be for The Water Babies, I’m not sure.  Also, I had been so pleased to find a beautiful and very detailed photo of London taken in the exact year the story is set. This provided a reference for my illustration.”

Water Babies

Water Babies


“The watery swashes were only mocked up at this stage and I thought they looked a little clumsy. I did want them to look hand drawn though, so after a bit of experimenting with different calligraphy and drawing pen nibs, I settled down to try and get them looking slicker, redesigning their shapes to fit the new text. Not being a hugely practised calligrapher (at all), this took a few goes and a bit of digital editing to get right.”

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


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