A Designer's Journey: Karen Horton on Influences, Startups & Cover Creation

A Designer's Journey: Karen Horton on Influences, Startups & Cover Creation

Art Director Karen Horton has over a decade worth of experience within the publishing industry. Currently at Henry Holt & Company, she's also produced creative work for publishers such as St. Martin’s Press, Oxford University Press, Little, Brown, and Company, and Flatiron Books. Here she answers a few questions about her influences, process, and her own venture in developing an online design community. 

Tell us more about yourself. What’s your background? 

As a young child my favorite outings were either to a flea market, the art supply store (Pearl Paint) or ChildRead bookstore. I was always a visual person, loved English and art class, while disliking PE and math. 

Born and raised in Miami, Florida and grew up with an Israeli mother. 

Graduated from Palmetto High School (class of ’99) and then went on to get a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from the University of Florida. While some of my wiser, more logical classmates were self-motivated to pursue careers in the digital space and UX design—from my first typography class, I knew that I wanted to focus in the area of print. In the summer before my Senior Year, I interned in New York City at a food magazine. By the time graduation came along, the magazine had folded. But, the idea of working in the publishing industry in New York City was nearly cemented in my mind. Immediately after college, I moved up to NYC and begun applying to positions at both magazine and book publishers. At the time I hadn’t decided whether my focus would be in editorial design for magazines or working for one of the large trade book publishers based in New York. 

How did you come to be an art director/designer? 

When I was very young, the answer to the “what to you want to be when you grow up question?” was that I wanted to be a Kindergarten Art Teacher and in 2nd grade I took that thought even further and drew up plans in crayon of a school to teach art to kids. From that regard, later becoming an Art Director might not seem like such a deviation from my childhood plans.

My first exposure to “Graphic Design” was an elective art class in high school titled “Commercial Art.” In this class with my high school art teacher, Mr. Jackson, we did exercises such as redrawing logos and alphabets by hand. The class was 100% off of the computer. An another major influence was a Great Uncle who was a commercial artist in the 1950s for cosmetic companies. Thanks to my Uncle Roy Horton, before finishing high school I had a collection of vintage Art Directors Club, AIGA, Graphis, and International Poster annuals along with some old issues of Communication Arts to inspire me. My parents weren’t too keen on the idea of me going to a dedicated art school or majoring in Visual Art Studies or my 2nd choice, Photography—but they were fully supportive for me to pursue getting a BFA in Graphic Design. Another book that was a great resource and I would recommend to anyone trying to figure out what niche within the Graphic Design world they wish to pursue working within is, Becoming a Graphic Designer by Steven Heller. I think it is now on the 5th addition, with an updated title of Becoming a Graphic and Digital Designer.

Initially, all I knew was that I preferred to work in publishing than enter the world of advertising. My idealistic younger self was loosely governed by a set of personal ethics which dictated the kind of work I dreamed of doing from the kind of work I wanted to avoid. The funny thing I learned early on in my career is that book covers absolutely are a form of advertising and your client is both the author and the reader.

It was partially luck and being at the right place at the right time that I ended up on the path of being a book cover designer and eventually an Art Director. My first full-time job in the industry was as a Junior Designer in the Ad/Promo department at St. Martin’s Press (Macmillan). There I designed everything from ads to store displays related to books being published by SMP. It was great experience as I got the opportunity to work within many genres and wasn’t confined to one format. While there, my Creative Director tasked me with taking on the role of being a liaison between the Art Department and the Ad/Promo division. Essentially, I was the nag that pre-Dropbox, would stop by the Art Department (sometimes multiple times in a day!) to remind designers that we needed layered files and/or hires jpgs for the printed catalog. So you can imagine my surprise when I got a call from the Art Director of the Griffin imprint when an opening arose in the Trade Art department for a new Assistant/Junior Designer. It was a lateral move, but one of those rare opportunities that you don’t pass on. At the time I didn’t believe I had the confidence or the portfolio to become a book cover designer, so I’m forever thankful for that phone call! 

The title of “Art Director” can be subjective and the role can really vary from publisher to publisher, imprint to imprint. I’ve been given that official title numerous times in my career and in each case it was a new experience and the requirements of the role differs. The next publishing job I had after leaving St. Martin’s Press was at Oxford University Press. When I first got there I had this feeling that it was a nearly perfect fit and that I “could see myself happy here for years.” But we all know what happens when you try to plan out the future... After only working there a couple of months, there was a major restructuring within the company and as a result my Creative Director and many others I respected were laid off. This was devastating to me especially since I felt I had a wonderful working relationship with my Creative Director and felt there was much more for me to learn from her. The biggest surprise came next: [I] got a promotion to become the Art Director for the Trade and Reference division at Oxford University Press. Though the promotion was an incredible honor and opportunity to challenge myself, deep-down I felt I got the position by default and that I was undeserving of it. It never sat well because of who had to be shown the door in order for these changes to occur. But it did turn out to be a critical part of my growth as a designer and eventually an Art Director. The highlight of this new position was that I was allowed to hire two Junior Designers to report to me. At the time I was approximately the same age and/or younger than my direct reports. At 25, I thought that I was too young and inexperienced to be at this level of authority. Sometimes you can be your own worst critic and you don’t appreciate situations until you are long removed from it. I wanted to be on the learning end. But I soon realized that being an Art Director can have a reciprocal effect of exposing you to new ideas and more efficient ways of working. Though I loved our little team, Oxford wasn’t done with their restructuring and it was clear that none of our jobs were a guarantee. Years later I’d hear from the designers that worked with me that I was “the best boss.” Hearing that meant much more to me than any of the cover designs I have ever created on my own.

When I found out about a Senior Designer opening at Little, Brown and Company from a former colleague, I took the gamble and applied. Though there were many aspects of the culture of a university press that I liked and would miss, it felt exciting to return to a big trade publishing house. More specifically I was looking forward to be at a place that specializes in both literary fiction and smart non-fiction.

And at Hachette there was no shortage of talented designers and Art Directors for me to be inspired by. But right when I was settling into enjoying the often coveted role of Senior Designer, (where you are often are spared from administrative and managerial paperwork, corporate politics, and have most of your day available to try and design your heart out), I was promoted [to] Art Director. But this time I wouldn’t have an in-house team to direct. In this role I would be designing for only one author,  James Patterson. Looking back, this was one of the best experiences of my career and I learned so much throughout. Coming from OUP where art budgets and print runs are kept low, it was exciting to art direct photo shoots, experiment with special effects and work on titles that get expansive exposure. I think it wasn’t until my mom saw the book jacket for I, Alex Cross on television that she finally respected my career choice and had a better idea of what I do for a living.

Image: Karen Horton

Image: Karen Horton


In the early morning and night-time, sandwiching all of these full-time in-house jobs designing book covers in the middle, I was also developing, writing, managing, designing and curating content for a startup I was a co-founder of, design:related. At the center of design:related was an on-line community and portfolio tool for designers ranging across a broad range of disciplines. At the time the project seeped in deep and an integral part of my professional and social identity—maybe it was too much. It is very hard to explain a site or a project when it now longer exists in physical form. But anyone who knew me during this period, knows how passionate I was about design:related. One of the most rewarding aspects was helping to connect designers from all over the world and provide advice and inspiration to students. A few years into working at Little, Brown, my design:related partners told me that we were very close to being acquired by a major entity and could be set up in an office in as little as a few weeks. Personally I didn’t want to be acquired by Corbis, but I also knew that the project already sucked up our savings and that in order to continue doing what I loved, getting acquired would be the next step. With this in mind I made the boldest, riskiest decision to leave a good, secure job to pursue taking the startup full-time. But I continued to design book jackets for James Patterson and Little, Brown off-site and some other freelance as well.

The Corbis acquisition fell through, followed by more disappointment and false starts, including a tease of having an amazing industrial studio space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to work out of for design:related. In 2014, my co-founding partner decided to shut down the designrelated.com site with no plans for the future of the startup. I was devastated. It was depressing and I felt I let down so many people, especially fellow book cover designers whom helped to cultivate a remarkable community of designers. At the time I didn’t have the determination, back-end technical skills and money to save it and take over from the others who wanted out of a site that didn’t generate revenue. That’s the problem with passion projects...the reality is that money often is very important, especially if you are providing a free service, trying to scale and keep up with technology.

Once design:related was over, I didn’t feel that the freelance life was right for me anymore. I was getting a little stir-crazy working and living in a studio apartment. I needed to be around people and get out of my own head space. When a temp opportunity opened up at William Morrow (HarperCollins) to fill in for a designer on maternity leave, I took the job. Having the experience of working in-house again made me realize that it was time for me to consider a full-time position again. My luck returned when I learned about a new imprint being developed at Macmillan, Flatiron Books. And so roughly 10 years later, I returned to the Flatiron building, home of my first job in book publishing. Now I’m still working in the Flatiron building, but as the Associate Art Director at Henry Holt & Company. It feels like I finally found my place in the industry and all of my varied work experience up until now assisted in getting me here, to a job that I love. 

Describe the creative process behind art direction and design.  What’s the journey from initial idea to completed project? How do you decide which projects to pursue? 

The process varies from project to project, each comes with its own personality and challenges. After hearing the editors present the new list (usually at an internal Packaging meeting and later Launch), I send in my wish list to my Creative Director and cross my fingers that I get my top choices. Usually I like to have a fair mix of non-fiction and fiction titles. Sometimes there’s a manuscript to read, but often we need to begin designing before there is more than a proposal to read. Fortunately I work in place where most projects are desirable to work on, though some are significantly more challenging than others. It’s really a guessing game as to which books will pose as a canvas to create something creative or beautiful or which will shape up to be influential, important books. I struggle with the concept of originality—often times I stop myself prematurely if I think my design is too derivative of something else I’ve seen elsewhere, or worse I’ve already done myself. It is hard to feel innovative when there is so much visual noise everywhere now. I’m lucky to work with many talented freelance designers also. Part of my job as Associate Art Director is finding who is the bast match for a project, which is often not myself.

Often it is the projects you expected to be easy that are the ones that seem to go in endless circles. It depends on what day you ask me. Which is harder: designing a big think book where the directive is “it should be all type,” or designing for a debut fiction author where they are hoping for something “fresh,” but not too edgy as it needs to sit well within the existing books in the genre. Every-time I manage to get a book jacket design approved sans a cropped woman on the cover, I consider that a personal accomplishment.

Design isn’t done in a vacuum. It is a process, an evolution... Being a book cover designer is not the same as being an artist, though there can be overlaps.

What are your favorite parts of the process? Least favorite?  

One of my favorite parts of the process is the beginning, especially if there is a manuscript to read. I like immersing myself in the content and exploring different concepts. For books with a historical component, researching to find the appropriate typeface is important to me. I’m also thrilled when I’m assigned a book jacket design that justifies field trips to the Strand, flea market and thrift stores.

There isn’t a part that I would consider my “least favorite.” All of it is part of the process and evolution, and I’ve found that missteps sometimes result in a better outcome. But what I find hard is hitting the send button on that “kill fee” email to the amazing designer that did as you asked and then some. Also, it is a terrible feeling when you hear that a rep, or worse, the author, hates their jacket design (especially if that feedback is discovered after the book is published!)  

What’s your favorite project that you’ve done?

In the past few years, some of my favorite projects were ones I art directed and felt highly collaborative.

While I was at Flatiron Books, I art directed the jacket design for Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. I believe it is a package that is hard not to smile at when you see it in person. But I was a skeptic because I was initially a little squirmish about taxidermy front and center. But Rory (the raccoon that graces the cover) has so much personality in his expression and the designer Philip Pascuzzo, added an additional layer of fun in the way he handled the design. Another book I’m very happy with how it turned out, is Caraval by Stephanie Garber, a young adult fantasy novel.  There was a time in the process where I lost faith that we would have an approved jacket design in time for publication. But all of the rounds of comps were worthwhile when I’m able to hold the finished, shimmery book. The designers for Caraval who didn’t give up even when we surpassed the project scope is the duo of Erin Fitzsimmons and Ray Shappell. For both of these special effects were utilized in a way that enhances the design and the production team’s patience and expertise was critical to the success of both of these books.

My favorite jacket design of my own is for an upcoming debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. This is another one where I didn’t believe we’d come to a consensus on the jacket design in time. But as I said before, it is often the projects where you struggle the most that end up becoming the most rewarding in the end. It also helps when you like or love the book itself that you are designing for. In the case of Goodbye, Vitamin, it was the first manuscript I read once I started working at Henry Holt & Company (a little over a year ago) and I read it in one sitting. 

Who or what inspires you?

Alvin Lustig
Alexander Girard
Alexey Brodovitch

Type Directors Club

My professors in college that were always honest with me and encouraging through all my various endeavors: Professor Brian Slawson and Professor Maria Rogal

Designers that create bold designs out of limited materials and colors, i.e. take a look at vintage Cuban political posters.

Those who help give voice to social injustice, political issues, and are working to make our world a safer, more inclusive place for all.

Those who help promote literacy and teach.

The three women behind The Queens Book Initiative—an example of people seeing a need in their community and working hard to make their dream a reality.

Investigative Journalists that are digging deep for the truth & substance in a post-truth era.

Tell me more about your current/ future projects. What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future? 

Finished copies of Goodbye, Vitamin are expected in the office any day now and I’m very excited to hold the physical book and re-read it in its fully edited form. 

In the fall I’m looking forward to the release of Freud (which is hefty at approx 800 pages) and Real American, a new memoir by Julie Lythcott-Haims. In 2018, look out for The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literature by Daniel Kalder. This is a difficult book to design for because of the content, but I believe designer Christopher Sergio did an incredible job with the jacket design and concept.

Though I haven’t figured it out yet, I’m looking for a side project and or outlet to fill the void that was left when the design:related project folded. Maybe I’ll find a new home and reason to resume my neglected research and archiving project of vintage postage stamps by design and illustrator. Perhaps Instagram is the next logical home for that after flickr.

I’m not sure where the future will lead but I’m looking forward to the diverse, thought-provoking books I’ve yet to read and hope to be designing in the years to come.

Hiba Tahir is a YA author, a freelance journalist, and an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas.