Q & A with Cover Designer Kate Gaughran

Kate Gaughran is a freelance cover designer whose work includes book jackets for Asking For It, Green Glowing Skull, and Don’t Die in Autumn. She spoke with Spine about her process for designing these, as well as answered a few other questions for us.

From where does your passion for cover design derive?

I have always been passionate about design. I think my love for cover design in particular, originated from an appreciation of music and artwork for album covers. After moving to London to complete my MA in Typographic Studies in the London College of Printing, I ended up taking a job at EMI in the design department. It was a great time, designing album covers by day and going to gigs at night. I always loved the way you could do something really 'out there' with album art. From there I joined HarperCollins, where I found with book covers you could be even more adventurous. Of course, it would depend on the genre of book, but within those boundaries it's always fun and challenging to see how far you can push the limits to find something that is hopefully fresh and interesting.

How do you prepare to tackle a new design? 

I always start by reading the manuscript to get a feel for an author's way of writing, and to get to know the characters in the story. There might be just one little detail or moment that I come across, that captures a feeling or particular theme from the book. I then sketch out a few rough ideas, and start trying some variations of type and images. There's usually a few bad ideas to work through first, before something good starts happening. You're searching for the right pieces, that then like a jigsaw puzzle will slowly fit into place. When something interesting starts coming together you have to stick with it and tease it out fully. Then hopefully it develops into something I'm happy with.

Can you walk us through your design process for the following…

Asking For It

Louise is an inspirationand working on this courageous and provocative story was a genuine honour. After being taken advantage of at a party and becoming the subject of victim blaming, 18-year-old Emma's pictures are shared widely on social media. I wanted to do something bold and striking for the book's young adult audience, it felt right for such a powerful book. I was trying to capture how the character had been emotionally and physically stripped bare by what had happened to her and the reaction of those around her. I wanted the cover to convey a cold, clinical and de-humanizing situation. The ideas came quite quickly. Niamh, who was the editor, gave a brief that was very clear and Louise's writing is so vivid. I tried lots of different mannequins, but the 'Barbie-esque' legs were strongest in the composition. I chose the blue background, as I wanted something appealing and bold but not at all girly. I initially tried graffiti style type over the legs, but it just wasn't working. So in the end something more minimal was much more impactful.

Green Glowing Skull

When I was freelancing at Fourth Estate, I had the pleasure to work on some of Gavin Corbett's books. This particular cover is one of my favourites. Gavin is an incredibly talented Irish writer, who has a unique way of seeing and describing the world. The book is about a trio of male Irish emigrants living in New York, who decide to form a tenor singing group. It's set in the present, but feels very much like you've stepped back in time. It is both weird and wonderful, with a loneliness at its core, which is what I tried to capture in the cover. I wanted to do something particularly bold and typographic, and explored lots of different Victorian-style typefaces. I was trying to find something that was quirky and timeless, that felt old but when put together with the other elements could feel contemporary too. I was lucky to work closely with the author for this, which isn't always something that happens. I tried lots of different crazy stuff, but when I presented my ideas to Gavin, it was this one that seemed to connect best with how he felt about the story. With the printed version of the cover, the skull is invisible printed with just a clear spot UV, which you can see from certain angles.

Don’t Die in Autumn

The cover for this one started out completely different. The publisher had wanted something photographic and autumnal in feel. The book is a memoir from one of Ireland's best-loved bird watching experts. The title relates to autumn being the best season for birdwatching, and an in-joke with his parents. He'd asked them not to die during the Autumn, as he'd be too busy birdwatching. The photographic ideas looked quite morose, and surprisingly religious in tone when paired with the title. I then decided to try something more whimsical to reflect the light-hearted nature of the book. I found a typeface that worked and chose to redraw it to make it more playful and natural-looking. It worked well with the bird flying through the falling leaves. Throughout the design process the challenge was to make it all feel very warm and positive, despite the tricky (yet great!) book title I had to work with.

Do you have a favorite cover so far?


It's hard to judge your own work, isn't it? But if I had to choose, I've always liked the Green Glowing Skull cover you asked about. Or another Gavin Corbett, the paperback of This Is The Way. And I was happy with how The Bathing Women cover turned out as well.