The Designer's Process

Cover Reveal! Alban Fischer Discusses his Design for Sara Mesa’s Four by Four

“Every project feels like the first time,” says designer Alban Fischer, despite having designed over 300 covers in his career. Before the full translation of Sara Mesa’s novel, Four by Four, was even complete Fischer knew “it was right up my alley.”

Cover Reveal! Alban Fischer Discusses his Design for Sara Mesa’s Four by Four

David Litman Designs an Epic Cover for Ask Again, Yes

A lot of designers talk about the trouble of working on a cover for a book that they really like. For me, it’s usually that I’m trying too hard to represent all the complexities of the novel rather than focusing on a simple idea and executing it in an attractive way. This book had me going down a lot of wrong paths in trying to do it justice.

The story is an epic about two families who move to a town outside New York City. Without giving anything away, there is a tragedy and the characters spend the rest of the novel and many years reconciling this event. Thematically there’s a lot to unpack - issues of mental illness, the American suburban ideal, family, love, secrets, forgiveness… A lot.

David Litman Designs an Epic Cover for Ask Again, Yes

Jo Thomson, Bringing to Light the Cover for The Vanishing Hours

I came to work on this brief after a we’d had a few rounds of visuals from a freelancer that weren’t quite working for the cover meeting. They were great designs, in keeping with the cover style that had been established with his two earlier novels, but the meeting felt we needed to step away from this look for the third novel. I had voiced some ideas in the meeting and so, with the deadline looming, my Art Director asked me to try some new options. Naturally, my ideas evaporated as soon as I sat down to work on the cover and I mentally kicked myself for having been so chatty in the meeting. I talked the brief through with Alice (the editor working on the novel and all round lovely human) and this helped give me a bit more of a steer, although I was still a bit stumped. An accident involving a scalpel and the tip of my finger resulted in some much needed reading time in the glamorous location of Ealing Hospital A+E waiting room! I whizzed through the novel in the couple hours that I was waiting there and returned to the art dept inspired with some ideas and a comedy bandage.

Jo Thomson, Bringing to Light the Cover for The Vanishing Hours

Grace Han on Designing Brandon Taylor's Real Life

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.

Grace Han on Designing Brandon Taylor's Real Life

Cherie Chapman, on Designing the Simon Brett Murder Mysteries

Designer Cherie Chapman has a knack for turning the intrigue of a novel’s plot into a series of captivating images for its cover. Chapman’s passion and talent for creating book covers continues to earn her high-profile projects, including a recent redesign of the Simon Brett murder mysteries. Canongate’s new imprint, Black Thorn, commissioned Chapman to rework 14 of Brett’s titles. Editors at Black Thorn thought the series needed a more illustrative approach, and they sought Chapman’s particular gift for creating fiction book covers with zing. Chapman’s guiding principle for the Simon Brett series? Fun. Imagine it: a project infused with joy for both designer and potential readers alike. Here’s how Chapman made magic for these quirky, cozy murder mysteries.

Cherie Chapman, on Designing the Simon Brett Murder Mysteries

Kaitlin Kall, Breathing New Life into a Concept for the 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!

Kaitlin Kall, Breathing New Life into a Concept for the Cover of If You Want To Make God Laugh

Eleanor Crow teams up with Illustrator Yehrin Tong for Infused

Henrietta Lovell is best known as the Rare Tea Lady. She is on a mission to revolutionise the way we drink tea by replacing industrially produced teabags with an appreciation for the best quality leaves. Her quest sees her travel to the Shire Highlands of Malawi, across the foothills of the Himalayas, and to hidden gardens in the Wuyi Shan in China to source the world’s most extraordinary tea. Infused takes us on a remarkable journey, introducing us to the people who grow and craft the precious leaves as well as the celebrated chefs who serve them. And always guiding us is Lovell herself, who tells the story of how her love affair with tea has shaped her life through times of both great joy and adversity. The result is a delicious infusion of travel writing, memoir, recipes and glorious photography, all written with Lovell’s unique charm and wit.

Eleanor Crow teams up with Illustrator Yehrin Tong for Infused

Michael Morris with a Look at Different Directions for The Travelers

The cover for The Travelers by Regina Porter came about when I was trying to do something completely different and, once I stopped trying so hard, it finally started to come together. Basically every cover designer will tell you the road to a cover is almost never the same, which makes it interesting but also stressful of course.

This novel is a family saga of two families, one white and one black, interconnected over many years and places. It’s a story made of many different stories, none necessarily more important than the other. This meant there was no shortage of symbols to represent each part, but which ones could represent the wide scope of the entire book was the challenge. Initially in conceptualizing with editorial, we wanted something bold, modern, but with a touch of a southern classic feel. Even though it takes place all over, a large selection of the stories take place in the south, in particular one scene that shapes the events of much going forward. This particular scene takes place on a tragic night when a young black couple is pulled over by the cops in Georgia in 1966. Along that stretch of road are weeping willow trees, we felt that given the strong family narrative it would make sense to use willows as a sort of family tree.

Michael Morris with a Look at Different Directions for The Travelers

Will Staehle Discusses his Cover Design for Sarah Gailey's Magic for Liars

I’ve worked with the talented creative team over at Tor on countless covers, and I’m always thrilled when they approach me with a new project. Magic for Liars came across my desk at a particularly busy time for me, but the book concept was really interesting, and I was excited to take the project on.

This fantastic debut novel from Sarah Gailey follows our lead, Ivy Gamble. When a gruesome murder is discovered at The Osthorne Academy of Young Mages where Ivy’s estranged twin sister teaches Theoretical Magic - Ivy ( a reluctant detective ) is pulled into a world of untold power and dangerous secrets. She will have to find a murderer and reclaim her sister―without losing herself.

Will Staehle Discusses his Cover Design for Sarah Gailey's Magic for Liars

Interview with Cover Designer Emily Courdelle

Designer, letterer, and illustrator Emily Courdelle infuses texts and images with unadulterated joy. Emily Courdelle earned her First Class Honours Degree in Design for Publishing from Norwich University of The Arts. Since then she has worked in house at London based publishers. She now works as a freelance designer/lettering artist. A cursory glance at Courdelle’s portfolio reveals enchanting scripts, inviting layouts, and dazzling motifs. Spine recently chatted with Emily about three of her most recent covers: Jeffrey Boakye’s Black, Listed, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, and Nicola Mostyn’s The Love Delusion. Additionally, Courdelle got real with us about her creative process, her life as an artist, and her decision to go freelance. 

Interview with Cover Designer Emily Courdelle

Kelly Winton on Designing The Paper Wasp

The cover design for The Paper Wasp came together very organically. I was hired as a freelancer by Grove Atlantic’s Art Director Gretchen Mergenthaler. The cover memo had some specific direction, but Gretchen always encourages original ideas and experimentation and it sounded like a great project. I was excited to work on it.

Kelly Winton on Designing The Paper Wasp

Jakob Vala Explores the World of Taxidermy for Mostly Dead Things

Mostly Dead Things tells the story of Jessa-Lynn Morton, who takes over her father’s taxidermy business shortly after his suicide. Still grieving, she struggles to keep both the business and her family from falling apart. While Jessa buries herself in work and alcohol, her mother begins making lewd window displays with animals from the taxidermy shop. Jessa's first love—also her brother Milo’s wife—ran out on the family years before, leaving Milo with their young daughter and her troubled son from a previous relationship. Struggling to cope with her absence, Jessa and Milo remain locked in a pattern of resentment and grief.

Jakob Vala Explores the World of Taxidermy for Mostly Dead Things

Sounds Like You Have It Covered: Eric Wilder’s Cover Design for Sounds Like Home

For the 20th anniversary reissue of Mary Herring Wright’s memoir Sounds Like Home: Growing Up Black and Deaf in the South, designer Eric Wilder faced the challenge of delivering Wright’s message to 21st-century readers. The memoir’s old cover, which featured a scripted typeface a sepia-toned photograph of the author and her brother, simply would not do for the much-anticipated reprint of Sounds Like Home. Instead, Wilder decided to play with elements of Wright’s Carolina heritage for a cover that subtly conveys the memoir’s strong sense of place.

Sounds Like You Have It Covered: Eric Wilder’s Cover Design for Sounds Like Home

Emily Courdelle on Designing Is Butter a Carb?

I designed the cover for Is Butter a Carb? while I was working in-house as a junior designer with the wonderful design team at Little, Brown Book Group. I put myself forward for this project in the cover briefing for two main reasons: 1) the title (who doesn’t love a Mean Girls reference?), and 2) that I felt this project could give me a chance to experiment with my love for hand/digital lettering.

Emily Courdelle on Designing Is Butter a Carb?

Baily Crawford Tackles a Sensitive Subject for On a Scale of 1 to 10

On a Scale of One to Ten by Ceylan Scott gives us a look inside life in a psychiatric ward through the eyes of teenage Tamar. Based on the author’s true story, it is as poetic as it is unflinchingly honest. With themes of depression, self mutilation and suicide, the cover had to be intriguing while remaining respectful of the content. The read is deeply emotive, raw and beautiful; I wanted to encompass these qualities while also remaining accessible, considerate to the reality that a manuscript this dense with hard-hitting subject matter can provide important refuge to so many readers.

Baily Crawford Tackles a Sensitive Subject for On a Scale of 1 to 10

Lauren Peters-Collaer gets Creative with Collage for Feast Your Eyes

Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg is an arresting and deeply compelling novel. It tells the story of Lillian Preston—a single mother and photographer searching for artistic recognition in 1950s New York City—and is formatted as if it were a catalogue of notes from a posthumous MoMA exhibition of her work. The “catalogue”, written largely in the voice of Lillian’s daughter Samantha, describes her mother’s life, including a show at a small gallery early in Lillian’s career where a display of partially nude photos of a young Samantha leads to obscenity charges, Lillian’s arrest, and mother and daughter becoming a lightning rod for national scrutiny and scorn. I was mesmerized by Feast Your Eyes immediately so was simultaneously incredibly grateful to my art director, Jaya Miceli, for giving it to me, and terrified at the thought of not doing it visual justice.

Lauren Peters-Collaer gets Creative with Collage for Feast Your Eyes

Luke Bird Designs an Offbeat cover for 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.

Luke Bird Designs an Offbeat cover for Plume

Faceout Studio's Jeff Miller Explores Russian Folk Patterns for Romanov

The cover for Romanov actually came together more quickly than expected. Some cover projects just present themselves that way. You immediately get the creative juices flowing and have imagery and/or art in mind that propels you in overdrive. There’s almost a good anxiety that takes place where you’re desperate to see things come together. That was the case here.

Faceout Studio's Jeff Miller Explores Russian Folk Patterns for Romanov

Steve Leard Plays With Perspective for The Mountain That Eats Men

The Mountain That Eats Men (Zed Books, 2019) is the haunting story of Cerro Rico, a mining mountain near Potosí, Bolivia. 

From the 16th century, the mines of Potosí bankrolled the Spanish empire. During those years immense wealth allowed the city to grow larger than London at the time and the mountain was quickly given the epithet Cerro Rico – the ‘rich mountain’. But today, Potosí’s inhabitants are some of the poorest in South America while the mountain itself has been so greedily plundered that its summit is on the verge of collapsing. So many people have died in the mines that Cerro Rico is now called the ‘mountain that eats men’.

Steve Leard Plays With Perspective for The Mountain That Eats Men

Nicolette Seeback on Designing the Luminous Cover for Trust Exercise

Designing the cover for Trust Exercise was a unique experience for me because I didn’t have the chance to read the manuscript before I started working on it. This was because the project wasn’t initially assigned to me, but I had been attending jacket meetings where many beautiful designs were being presented, none of which were being approved. I had been listening to the feedback on the other designs, while also learning some clues about the book itself during this time. When I was asked to contribute some designs to show in the next round, I thought about all that I had heard, and my first instinct was to experiment with intimate figure drawings. I had heard that sex and consent were themes in the book but I hadn’t yet seen any covers exploring the body, so I set out to fill that gap. I used crayons, thick markers and various other pens to create line drawings on paper that I scanned and vectorized. I treated each of these designs very similarly by placing large type in the center and weaving the illustrations through the letters. These comps were liked by some but ultimately killed because they weren’t quite right for the book.

Nicolette Seeback on Designing the Luminous Cover for Trust Exercise

Jack Smyth Creates a Bold Cover for The Half-God of Rainfall

Inua Ellam’s The Half God of Rainfall is a modern take on ancient mythology / basketball saga which is part poem / part play. It’s about as far away from a regular piece of fiction as you can get, and I really wanted to try make it feel different in the way the cover was approached.

From the get go, Jo Walker’s wonderful covers for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s paperbacks were a loose reference, so I kept things graphic and pattern based.

Jack Smyth Creates a Bold Cover for The Half-God of Rainfall

Artist Cristina Pagnoncelli Breaks Out the Inks for We Set the Dark on Fire

In December of 2017 I was hired by HarperCollins - one of the largest publishers in the world and the English language - to do lettering for the cover of a new book by a young writer. I read the book's digital preview and quickly devoured the 304 pages. I fell in love with the history - which is fanciful but parallels very closely with our current society (machismo, xenophobia and class conflict). Only after absorbing the whole plot, I set out for visual research. The briefing asked to bring some Mexican / Spanish character to the lettering since the story is about immigrant characters.

Artist Cristina Pagnoncelli Breaks Out the Inks for We Set the Dark on Fire

Sarahmay Wilkinson on her Incredible Design for the Cover of House of Stone

Some stories read like beautiful, bitter medicine. Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s first novel House of Stone, a multifaceted and fragmented reflection on Zimbabwe’s harrowing past, is one of those stories. The novel oozes intensity, even terror. It’s magnificently composed, but it’s also so raw it might cut you. When designer Sarahmay Wilkinson, who currently serves as Associate Art Director at W.W. Norton, received the creative brief for the cover of House of Stone, she knew the project would be challenging. How does one wrap a biting story in shelf appeal?

Sarahmay Wilkinson on her Incredible Design for the Cover of House of Stone

Greg Heinimann Explores Photography and Illustration for The Other Americans

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami is a novel about the fallout from a hit-and-run accident involving a Moroccan immigrant man in modern day California. It features multiple narrators tied together through their connection to the event, the cover up that follows, and the strength of the deceased’s family in dealing with such a trauma.

The brief was fairly simple in that it asked to convey the mystery behind the accident, and should be photographic. A small-town nighttime scene with illuminated windows was suggested, or perhaps the intersection where the crime took place.

Greg Heinimann Explores Photography and Illustration for The Other Americans