Grace Han on Designing Brandon Taylor's Real Life

Grace Han is an Associate Art Director at Riverhead Books. Here she tells us how she created the cover for Real Life by Brandon Taylor.

I’m always excited to read the work of Riverhead’s debut authors, and this was no exception. Brandon Taylor’s voice is smart and electric and I am truly enamored by his ability to navigate us through a range of emotions in such an elegant, profound way.

Real Life is about Wallace, an introverted grad student who is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working toward a biochem degree. After the social intricacies of a late-summer weekend, he is forced to face his private wounds. For Wallace, real life unravels in a place where he is studying the complexities of biological life. What is striking to me is that there are raw and violent emotions being brought to the surface in this seemingly controlled, academic, backdrop.

Based on feedback from previous rounds and meetings, I knew that this cover had to be bold and unexpected. With that in mind, I jumped on the project and began my usual process of reading, sketching, taking notes and familiarizing myself with what the characters and their environment may look and feel like. My understanding of biochemistry is limited at best, so for this title I had to do some research. I have to say—I did not expect gel electrophoresis to be so beautiful.


Among other imagery, birds seemed to be prevalent in the book. They often served as a visual metaphor. I felt like it was used literally and figuratively in such a smart, intentional way… so much so that I wanted to incorporate it onto the cover. I started my image research to find the right bird and once I did, I felt the need to disrupt this delicate, organic, living thing with something methodical and graphic. I made my way back to my research on gel electrophoresis; the separating and analyzing of DNA, RNA, and protein–methodical and graphic.


I worked on juxtaposing the birds with DNA bands and played with different compositions. I tried to make sure the type reinforced the boldness while using colors that brought warmth to what could otherwise be a stark, graphic cover.


Final cover


It’s not often that I present comps with a singular concept, but this felt like the right direction. I’m glad that the Riverhead team and the author agreed!

Real Life by Brandon Taylor will be published February 18, 2020 from Riverhead Books.

Design Editor, Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.