Luke Bird is a graphic designer specializing in book covers, branding, food packaging and limited edition packaging for music and books. Here he outlines his process for designing the quirky cover of Plume.
Currently, it seems I am irrevocably drawn to contemporary literary fiction with a touch of (oft-dark) humour. Plume is a brilliant novel. I find that designing a book that you really like can feel a little daunting. It sometimes feels as if there is an added internal pressure to get it just right.
I was pleased to see that the brief from 4th Estate was quite open. Julian Humphries, who commissioned the cover, described it as being very cool, and said that I should feel free to take some risks. Interestingly, he suggested that I “think ABCDs”, referencing the ABCD book cover design awards in the UK. As a cover designer, briefs don’t get much better than this. I felt it could be an opportunity to create something really striking and design-led, which was a pure reaction to reading the novel.
The blurb from the publisher described the novel as having “…dark, doomy humour...”, and being ”anarchic”. It explains that Jack, the novel’s protagonist, journeys from functioning alcoholism to non-functioning alcoholism in the course of the story, which results in paranoia and hallucinations (which are often amusing). He is also almost tormented by a plume of smoke – the result of an industrial accident – which sends a hazy black column into the sky above London.
My first round of visuals was split into two concepts. The first was centered around this plume of smoke. I set about creating clean and simple graphic covers with a vector-based, grainy smoke column. I kept the typography modern and sans-serif, and played with the idea of overlaying and subtly nudging objects, to create a sort of ‘drunken haze’.
The second concept was based around the image of a cockatoo. Throughout the novel, Jack sees (or thinks he sees) a series of cockatoos. He freely admits that he knows they a figment of his imagination; a consequence of his perennially drunken state. At one point, he suggests he is being “…stalked by a vengeful cockatoo…”. I wondered if the image of a cockatoo could look humorous and engaging. I felt the ‘plume’ on top of a cockatoo’s head would also riff on the novel’s title in a neat way.
The first time Jack sees one, he realises that what he is looking at is, in fact, a white plastic bag caught in the branches of a tree. By chance, I found an image of this exact scene on a stock imagery site. It is extremely rare that a stock library throws up an almost perfect image, but in this instance I was lucky. I tweaked it slightly, giving the bag the subtle body shape of a bird, and paired it with handwritten typography, which I rendered in a slightly care-free and chaotic manner (to mirror Jack’s personality).
He also sees a group of white cockatoos sitting on a wire fence, staring at him. I felt that could result in an interesting image, and I liked the idea of a group of cockatoos also working as a visual metaphor for the instances in which he is summoned in front of his ‘judgy’ colleagues at the magazine, as a result of his behaviour. The illustration of a cockatoo I found had an almost maniacal look in its eyes, which I liked, but it was also rather beautiful. It was sat on a light pink background, which I felt was both complementary to the bird’s plumage, and might be an unusual thing to see on a piece of modern contemporary British fiction. I paired these visuals with clean, modern sans-serif typefaces.
4th Estate liked the slightly maniacal bird illustration and the chaotic, hand-rendered typography, so the next step was a case of amalgamating the two. I placed the birds at random, perched on the words (anything too’ uniform' wouldn’t feel true to the novel), and made the type black to reference the dark branches of a tree.
Overall, I can’t think that I’ve enjoyed working on a book as much in the last twelve months. I hope that I have captured some of the darkness, some of the humour and all of the joy of reading Plume.
Design Editor, Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.