Kaitlin Kall is a senior designer at Dutton, a division of Penguin Random House. Here she details her process for creating the vibrant cover of If You Want to Make God Laugh.
Bianca Marais’s writing is emotionally rich and deeply felt; I absolutely loved both reading and designing for her novels. If You Want to Make God Laugh is set in post-Apartheid South Africa and tells the story of three very different women who are brought together unexpectedly and, through their journey together, challenge the conventional norms of both family and identity.
This cover is a bit of a publishing unicorn, as it was an outtake of one of the comps presented for Bianca’s first novel, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. The editor sent Bianca two cover concepts for Hum, and she loved both so much that when it was time to jacket her next novel, it was suggested we try and rework the unused one. This almost never happens!
To get started on the cover, I did quite a bit of research on the time and place of pre- and post-Apartheid South Africa. It was noted on the jacket brief that the Putnam team wanted to showcase the sense of place using color and type design rather than photographs. I kept this in mind as I collected reference material.
South African textile patterns, color combinations, and typography are very vibrant and beautiful. This was a dream jump-off point for me. When trying to bring the tone of the novel to life, I kept coming back to Bianca’s expert writing and the journey she sets us on. Many of the patterns I found in my research used abstract shapes, so I thought using an organic line around the type could signify the journey of the characters. I added the dots to feel like footsteps: paths that intersect other paths, just as the characters intersect in the novel. The painted typography is an homage to the South African sign typography I found in my research. I used India ink on tracing paper to achieve the right transparent/crinkly quality and scanned it in. This took a little trial and error, as I tried quite a few different sets of lines around the type until I found one that felt the best.
I worked with my art director, Anthony Ramondo, to select a few color combinations to present--some brighter and some more subdued--but in the end, we went with a lovely bright yellow, coral, and black. While the story takes us through dark times of some of its characters, it is always full of hope, and I’m happy the chosen colors reflect that. Finally, after experimenting with including additional plot elements, the team settled on using both an owl and a dog, both of which I painted.
In my experience, it’s very rare for an old concept to reenter the conversation--let alone to be chosen as the final jacket--so this one involved some wonderful serendipity. I’m so pleased with the final cover and the new life we breathed into it! A warm thank you to Bianca for the lovely storytelling, and to the Putnam team for giving me the opportunity to work on such a wonderful project.
Design Editor, Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.