Donna Cheng on Designing Rabeah Ghaffari's To Keep the Sun Alive

Donna Cheng is a Senior Designer at Simon & Schuster in New York. Here she tells us how she created the vibrant cover for To Keep the Sun Alive.

To Keep the Sun Alive is about the intimate, vibrant lives of the people in the Iranian city of Naishapur. The novel is told through servants, children, and close families set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution. As the city falls apart the characters' strengths are put to the test as they seek justice and truth, and search for a voice.

The art direction I received was to show something rich and atmospheric, and to avoid "a woman in a veil with her back turned towards the audience" and "cliche food, Middle East memoir feel." This left me with more creative freedom and to read what inspired me to come up with a few different concepts.

Before designing, I extracted key visual images from the book that stood out and carried the weight of the story. At the beginning of the novel the solar eclipse sets the scene of the tension between the family and country at the brink of destruction. When the city becomes more violent, the family of the retired judge and his wife keep their orchard known as the “the land where the sun rises” as a refuge. Their days consist of labored, ornamented lunches with rich, aromatic flavors that brought the scenes to life. Those poetic details capture the mood of the story—the spirit of calm and order in the midst of chaos.


With these visuals in mind, I explored the contrasting states of being still and stirred.

Beginning with the more uplifting theme, I centered on the richness and continuation of family culture rather than adding focus on the corruption of the monarchy. I tried a more elegant approach with a ornate, serif font overlapping the illuminating ring resembling the solar eclipse that carried throughout the novel. Within the rings the fruitful orchard peers through, symbolising hope and community where the families bond together in deep conversations.


In the vein of that same idea, I mixed in a modern twist to the next layout. By using a thin, clean sans serif font with a white off-registration it visualized a slight shift in light and dark. Counterbalancing the type was the etched orchard tree superimposed on yellow sun shapes floating around the blue-sky background. A simple and clean balance of color and distorted imagery brings the design together in an unpredictable order.


Conversely, the other designs focus on the impact of the revolution and therefore paints a gloomy ambience. The darkness that swept the nation is offset with the sky, trees, and sun to show longing and hope of what’s to come. The separation of the glass in the window steers the focus on contention of what would otherwise be a quiet scene.


This light and dark interplay is also exemplified with the broken gate surrounding the shining crest on the other side. The bold, chiseled type mimics the edges of the textured gate and is enveloping the blue to purple hued sky. This pink-purple blush looming in the sky suggests the end of the day—the moment when the sun sets and becomes night.


Final cover


In the end, the cover that was chosen expressed nuances of rhythm and harmony. The bright, burnt orange color was reminiscent of the heat from the beating sun. Those long, endless days from sunrise to sunset marked the passage of time. The sand dunes positioned in between the sun to indicate what’s left of the past—the remains of the city that once stood.

Design Editor, Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.