Archive for July, 2013

behind the design: mo withee & this girl is different |

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My favorite part of these trilogy posts is, without a doubt, the Behind the Design feature. For the past two days, you’ve ogled This Girl is Different’s cover and heard author J.J. Johnson’s exploration of its cover design as well as my own. Now it’s time to hear from the creator herself.


TCG: Did you get a chance to read This Girl is Different before starting on its design? What kind of information did you work with before beginning the concept phase?

MW: I think one of the most unique things about working at Peachtree is that we all have a say in what we publish. I originally read THIS GIRL IS DIFFERENT during acquisitions and fell in love with the writing style and immediately had some ideas about how the cover of this book should feel. Then when it was time to actually create a cover I skimmed the book again, and had the all-important meeting with the editor. In that meeting we discussed several core ideas that we all felt needed to be expressed on this cover. That theme time and time again was the “lightning bolt.”


TCG: What were your initial ideas for the cover?

MW: The title of the book was really my main starting point. I wanted it to be something “different.” Right now you see a bunch of photographic covers and the ones about and for girls normally have some portion of a very pretty, very skinny girl. Mostly the stereotype that you see coming through in this book. I wanted something that was different, something more punchy and graphic or something with more of a line drawing feel.

TCG: What is your normal design process after you get a working draft? What were the parts that kept getting tweaked for TGID?

MW: Believe it or not, I try to design three to four different covers as drafts. Then I bring them to our creative group and editors. We hang them on the wall and talk about what is working and is not working for each cover, we take covers down, we talk about use of color, and sometimes we start to get a Frankenstein effect. This cover was unlike another really that I have worked on here. There were hardly any changes to the original cover idea. I think the only thing that really changed was the color of the girl’s shirt as the original black faded into the grass. The parts that kept getting tweaked was the interior jacket flaps and the folios on the interior of the book.


TCG: What were the easiest parts of the design/process of this cover? The hardest?

MW: Normally I would say the hardest part of the design process for me is the minor tweaking at the end that makes the littlest elements pop. But, for some reason this book is true to its title. The tweaking was almost nonexistent, which made it so easy, and the little elements I hope shine though. The most difficult part was really the conception of what imagery would best fit this book.

TCG: What other YA covers have you designed? What’s been your favorite cover that you’ve designed so far? Are there any other YA covers (outside of Peachtree) that you love?

MW: I have designed Martin Chatterton’s THE BRAIN FINDS A LEG and THE BRAIN FULL OF HOLES, Susan Rottman’s OUT OF THE BLUE, Sneed Collard’s DOUBLE EAGLE and the new PB cover redesign, and Kristin Wolden Nitz’s SUSPECT. I am also working on the cover for our upcoming historical fiction novel, CHASING THE NIGHTBIRD. Although I really love the SUSPECT cover for its fun simplicity, I am thinking that my favorites will be the upcoming CHASING THE NIGHTBIRD and the redesign of DOUBLE EAGLE.

Other YA covers that I really admire:


TCG: Who (artists/illustrators/cover designers/photographers) inspires you?

MW: Growing up my favorite artist was always Renoir, but as I grew older I grew more interested in things that were very clean and graphic like Andy Warhol. I consider photography and typography my two favorite art forms. As for photographers, I have so many favorites it is too hard to mention, but what I will say is that I think black and white photography is the most interesting because without color you really have to capture the texture and depth of the piece you are shooting which I feel makes the work so much more interesting.


To be honest, I am most inspired by my artist friends, the works of fiction I get to design covers for and my bookshelf at home that is riddled with some of my favorite covers, from the classics like THE BFG, A WRINKLE IN TIME and THE GIVER, to things like the more modern THE DISAPPEARING SPOON, THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS, and JOHANNES CABAL THE DETECTIVE.


TCG: Do cover trends play into your ideas for designs? Where do you find the balance in prioritizing the message at the heart of a novel and including marketing at the same time? Or, do you feel cover art’s main focus always revolves around the art?

MW: Personally I think the cover is what gets people to pick the book up off the shelf and the story is what makes them buy it. I want to put something out there that really does represent the best parts of the book but will also hold its own on the shelf. Finding that balance at times can be difficult and we have had many discussions about it. I try to go to bookstores around here as much as I can to see what is on the shelf, and try not to buy as much as I can. I think it is important to see what the current trends are and fit in with them but not go so far as to look like everything else. You want your book to stand out, to be something different and interesting. I think that when it comes to a picture book the cover’s main focus needs to revolve around the art but I think there are many elements you can play with when it comes to a chapter book. One of my favorites is to play with the type treatment. An amazing font can make or break a cover as well.


Thanks, Mo, for letting me pick your creative brain! I’ve already read the excerpt and I’m definitely looking forward to picking up This Girl is Different.

behind the design: michael mccartney & where things come back |

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I think this particular interview calls for a drumroll, friends.

After some cover fawning and a lovely interview with author Corey Whaley, it’s now my absolute pleasure to welcome to the blog Michael McCartney, the designer responsible for both covers for Where Things Come Back.


TCG: Take us back to the drawing board — in this case, WTCB’s early design phases for its hardcover artwork. What kind of information were you working with in regards to its story, prior to even thinking about its design? What were some of the ideas thrown out during concepting? And further down the road, when and how did Grady McFerrin come along for the ride?

There was a lot of excitement about this book because it struck a number of people as being uncommonly good. Here was an author making his début with a complex and nuanced story of what roles such things as faith and hope play in the lives not simply of teenagers but their parents and the adults around them. This was a young-adult novel with so much of what we call “crossover appeal” to older readers that we all knew that the packaging was not going to look like it belonged on the teen shelves. One of my first thoughts as I began reading the manuscript was that some of the more superficial qualities of the book evoked To Kill a Mockingbird—it is set in a small town in the South and has an avian metaphor right at the centre and is poignant as well. I should note that the book had a working title of Good God Bird, which only changed after several months of discussion.

Throughout those months, the editor, Namrata Tripathi, and I undertook a pitch to various decision-makers to allow us the freedom to venture outside the safe and well-populated areas of young-adult cover design. I would have simply repurposed the first-edition cover art from Harper Lee’s book if Little Brown hadn’t just done it for The Mockingbirds. We pointed to illustrated covers on adult novels by Jonthan Safran Foer, Chuck Palahniuk, and David Foster Wallace and said we wanted to follow suit. The immediate response was that teen books must have photographic covers to receive any sales attention. That isn’t our sales policy as much as it is the bookselling industry’s.

Our retort was that there are plenty of examples of successful packaging for younger consumers in other media. I brought up album art for Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Neko Case, Sufjan Stevens, and the like (with the perhaps outdated notion that album art counts for anything today). Our mission was then to make a Decemberists cover; something hand-tooled, preferably brown and weathered. (We also requested it be printed an a specialty stock, which is something one can only experience by holding a copy in one’s hands.) I had wanted to work with Grady McFerrin for years, but given that teen jackets aren’t supposed to be illustrated, the opportunity to hire him did not exist until this moment. Grady and I both loved the idea of using wood panelling in the background as though this cover were being hung in the dining room of one of the characters in the book. His cover art was a little more ornate than what was printed on the hardcover and I readily admit that the cover we printed without the border and the angels is missing something.


The notion that teen jackets aren’t supposed to be illustrated makes me cringe. But WTCB is basically a YA book that looks nothing like a YA book. You could easily find it sitting in the fiction section alongside a couple of other novels and never know its audience was for teens. Was this a conscious intention from the get-go for both covers?

Indeed, I did not want this book to appear to be marketed to teenagers. This is a young-adult novel in that it features a teenaged protagonist and is published by the Children’s division, but it could just as easily be an adult novel given its thematic content and quality of execution. For that reason, I did not want to turn away adults who might be embarrassed to be seen reading a book for teens. I don’t mind designing a cover that might turn off a large number of people because I presume that a segment of potential readers remains, waiting for something different—and better—than the usual fare to come along and speak to them. This book was not expected to reach the best-seller list when it released. I can say that without disparaging Corey’s work because I believe that most of the books that sell in bulk are completely awful. The good stuff just isn’t popular.

virginsuicides-1491269The editor and I talked about this being the kind of book a few people will find and fall in love with; it will be a book all their own and it won’t be ruined by being overexposed. I compare it to the feeling of reading The Virgin Suicides before Middlesex came along. (The first edition cover is very spare and nearly perfect.) I figured all throughout the design process that no matter what I did with the hardcover, it was going to change for later editions. Not only would our Sales force recommend that we do the book a favour and try something friendlier on the paperback edition, but that this book would start to gain some accolades and really come to life in time, and that extra attention would bring about a repackage. This book is unusual, in many splendid ways, and wrapping it in a commonplace jacket in order to attract readers who probably won’t appreciate it while discouraging those who would was always a bad strategy. If there were any boy-and-girl scene I would have suggested for the cover, it would have been Cullen waking up in Alma Ember’s bed, and that was sure to upset somebody. 

Oh, yes, I’m sure that would’ve ruffled a few feathers. You mention that you knew while designing the hardcover, the paperback would need to be a friendlier version. How did the re-design for the paperback come about? It’s simple, but alluring. What was the thought and design process behind the new cover?

As I suggested, not many people much cared for the hardcover design. Book reviews tend to concern themselves very little with the packaging, and yet a number of them have, for this book, singled out the cover for derision. My consolation is that this a popular cover among designers, and since we tend to have the reputation as being the cool kids, that was all the approval I needed. Everyone wanted the opportunity to bring this book to their accounts for a second chance to sell it in. To do that, it needed a new look. The publisher gave me complete freedom to design the paperback edition because, I suspect, he figured that I couldn’t do any worse than the hardcover.


I revisited some of the ideas thrown out during the hardcover design process. One was a parody of the Led Zeppelin tour shirt Gabriel wears in the story. Another was to emulate Notes from the Dog by Gary Paulsen, which the editor and I appreciated for being a successful, illustrated cover for teens. I ran with the Book of Enoch theme in some admittedly bizarre ways, including bloody angel wings. I also made a photographic collages of an ivory-billed woodpecker, a motel TV set from the 1970s, a boy in a gilt frame who looked like my image of Gabriel, some more wood panelling, and an Arkansas landscape. These cover comps were increasingly speaking only to somebody who knew the novel very well already, as opposed to a reader who was seeing it for the first time.


In the end we went for simplicity. (I had been reading The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and one line was quite pertinent: “Now the definition of virtue and philosophy is: simplicity with prudence.”) Joel Holland illustrated the paperback cover. Like Grady, Joel was an illustrator whose name I had at the top of my list for years. He likewise loved the project and turned in amazing work. The original colour scheme was going to be red and black, but that palette seemed to dwell on the darker components of the story rather than the more optimistic ones. The background is now a vibrant spot blue, which can only begin to be reproduced on a monitor.

voyeur-8536521Only after the fact did I see that I had been borrowing from one of my favourite covers, The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet. A few other similar covers were brought to my attention after the fact, including The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Wonder by    R. J. Palacio. 

What’s your design theory when it comes to storytelling across a novel’s cover? How do you balance audience, story, and marketing while maintaining creative integrity?

My opinion of what makes for a good cover is just about the opposite of what popular opinion dictates. I always prefer to tell something specific about the story in the cover; all the better if it is a bonus for the reader after finishing the story. For the paperback cover, the silhouette of the woodpecker flying with its wings spread wide refers generally to the alleged sighting of the bird relatively early in the book but more specifically to Lucas’ description of it in the last chapter. The woodpecker is a symbol for the people of Lily and what it can do to revive the town, a symbol for Cullen of what he sees wrong with the town’s misplaced brand of faith […]. The title Where Things Come Back plays a subtle trick on the reader.

As I said, I don’t design for what I think teenagers might want to see. I’m not a teenager. Given how many young-adult books are clearly written for a female audience, I especially don’t know what a teenaged girl wants. I am certainly not interested in being trendy. I simply try to design a cover that is right for the book. I want to stay true to the details of the book, whether that means ensuring that any figures match the physical description of the characters but that the other elements of the design are accurate: not being anachronistic with the wardrobe or even the typeface, not using the incorrect setting, and so forth.

Beyond that, I want the cover to stand out by being different. A cover of mine may, by popular standards, be a little on the unglamorous side. Covers don’t all need photogenic models on them. Our industry has become even more ridiculous on that count because most covers take themselves far too seriously. I shouldn’t imply that I do not take a book seriously. The cover design process lasts months or perhaps years and I have been working on Where Things Come Back off and on for about eighteen months. I must have designed two dozen different comps for it. One criticism I have yet to read about one of my covers is that it is wrong for the book. It may not be what somebody wants, but it makes a kind of sense that may not be obvious. I don’t really like to be obvious unless the other options are exhausted.

I should also say that a good deal of my effort goes toward ensuring the author is happy with the cover. This doesn’t usually mean that the author is difficult to please although it does happen on occasion. I know how much effort an author dedicates in writing (and editing and rewriting) a book and I feel that the book deserves better than the first idea I have that pleases everybody. For Corey, this is his first book. It was doubly important that my design pleased him because this is what he would be bringing home to his family and friends to prove that he had made it as a writer. 

I definitely gathered he was pleased in his interview. So eighteen months to design the cover! I can only imagine what that process was like, especially juggling other creative projects concurrently. What were the easiest parts of the process of designing both covers? The hardest?

Not much was easy about designing this book; there were a lot of battles. I always had the support of the author and editor, which is crucial. If they weren’t on board with me, this would have been a still more difficult assignment. Grady and Joel did the hard part of illustrating the covers. That much was easy for me. 

Who inspires you?


Neil Kellerhouse

Neil Kellerhouse and everyone who designs for the Criterion Collection are so good that I steal from them as much as I am capable. John Gall, Paul Sahre, and Helen Yentus are always seemingly doing something that I wanted to do before I even thought of it. I look at movie posters a lot for inspiration too. That behaviour is often discouraged by purists, yet we are in the business of making money and movies make a lot more money than books, which is how I see things when I am feeling cynical or practical. Perhaps publishers don’t want to admit that a book’s greatest aspiration is now to become a movie. (It should be noted that the Gotham Group has optioned the film rights for Where Things Come Back. There is a book trailer on Corey’s site, which only amplifies how much I would love to see this made into a film.) I also work with a number of designers at Simon & Schuster who are so much more talented than I am that I often consider changing careers. 

Please don’t change careers! For the love of…please just don’t.

Last prompt, and always a fun one  name three of your favorite pieces of cover art  — designed by someone else.

I already mentioned The Voyeur and The Virgin Suicides as two of my favourite covers. That I made reference to them while working on Where Things Come Back is a testament to how good I found this book to be because I wanted this to look like it belonged in that group. I have a few random selections of the many covers I keep hanging around for inspiration.


Some I like because I enjoyed the book and now the cover has positive associations. You’ll see that I love type so much that I don’t consider images necessary for a cover. There are also times I love an image so much that type is unnecessary.


To be fair to children’s designers I include one recent young-adult jacket that is simply amazing. Lizzy Bromley designed it for our flagship, S&S Books for Young Readers. Once it’s a printed book, I recommend looking at it in person. Anyone can splash a model in a gown on a cover. This cover surpasses all of them. The props are fantastic, especially the rocking horse. I love all of the geometry in the green layer (which will be stamped foil). It has a lot of motion going on for being a still life.

Oh, that Fever cover. I have to admit I was thoroughly confused by this cover at first. My friend Asheley recently read it and has convinced me that this cover is seamlessly interwoven with its story. I’ll definitely have to keep an eye out for it when it’s in bookstores. (Mmm…stamped foil.)

Thank you so much for stopping by the blog, Michael. It’s been a pleasure cover-talking Where Things Come Back these past few days and my hope is that more publishers recognize the need for cover art that does right by its story and author, and not just by its marketability. I will definitely be reading the novel very, very soon!

behind the design: carol chu & awaken |

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Woot! This is my third Behind the Design post! Can you believe it? Not only does this please me to no end because it allows me to pick apart designers’ brains, but I’m so glad to finally get to share the thoughts on how Awaken’s cover came to be. Please give a warm welcome to Carol Chu, the designer behind this gorgeous cover:


TCG: There’s definitely something beautiful and melancholy about containing the beauty of a flower in something as simple as a jar. How does this concept relate to Awaken’s story, visually? Did you get a chance to read the novel before starting the design?

CC: I got to read the editor’s synopsis and as I began to search for an image to use on the cover, I was able to get a hold of the manuscript and quickly devoured it. I am a big fan of this particular editor’s acquisitions and the stories she edits. The author is amazingly talented and this was a great story.

TCG: What were your initial ideas for the cover? Do you have some early illustrations/mockups that you can share?

CC: Well, to be honest, intially we pushed for a cover which showed both a girl and a boy (both teens)… This cover direction was shown as an alternative solution. It’s more conceptual and mysterious.


TCG: What is your normal design process after you get a working draft? What were the parts that kept getting tweaked for Awaken?

CC: This cover direction was a completely different direction than the original I showed. The image changed, the type changed…

I created a blown-out bitmap type of pattern around the edge of the cover image, to allude to the digital virtual reality that is questioned in the story. Just a hint!

TCG: What were the easiest parts of the design/process of this cover? The hardest?

CC: Hmm, good question! The easiest part was probably designing the title type treatment after I found a strong image. The hardest part was probably finding that image and then presenting the cover at the cover concept meeting where the editor, publisher, marketing and sales team all weigh in on approving it for the cover.

TCG: What other YA covers have you designed? What’s been your favorite cover that you’ve designed so far?

CC: Here are some covers I did which I particularly liked:



MY BIG NOSE (AND OTHER NATURAL DISASTERS) won a book cover design award last year, and I loved working on that cover. The author is amazing and so is the editor.


TCG: It’s an awesome cover, and congrats on the award!

Who (artists/illustrators/cover designers/photographers) inspires you?

CC: I used to work at Pushpin for Seymour Chwast and I learned and absorbed as much as I could while I was there. The design department here at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt inspires me daily— we’re all in it together! icon_smile-2173066 Anyone involved in publishing is inspiring, b/c ultimately we’re in the line of work where the goal is to get people to read. You can’t really argue with that! Paula Scher, Henry Sene Yee, Kelly Blair, Peter Mendelsund, John Gall— they are all amazing art directors and designers and I find myself lingering over their work at my local bookstores time and time again.


TCG: Do cover trends play into your ideas for designs? Also, where do you find the balance in prioritizing the message at the heart of a novel and including marketing at the same time? Or, do you feel cover art’s main focus always revolves around the art?

CC: I would love love love to be able to say that the cover’s art main focus always revolves around the art. I really would. This is simply just not the case, especially in an industry which is being challenged not only by the economy but also by other media; the printed book is now just one of many means to enjoy a story. Also, in terms of prioritizing the message at the heart of novel, often times there are different messages for different readers in any given book. Marketing provides context and a sense of the shelf scene out there— and then it’s decided whether we make the book look like the others or we do something different. Either method theoretically sells books!


TCG: Can you please give a brief history of your career as a designer?

CC: I received my master’s in design from the Pratt Institute. I was a designer at Time Inc, working at magazines such as Teen People and InStyle. I later was a designer at Random House Children’s books and now I am associate art director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Thank you so much for the interview, Carol! You can also see more of her portfolio here.

behind the design: kate gartner & mare’s war |

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And now for the last stop on the Mare’s War Cover Love Train! Please give a warm welcome (and high five!) to cover designer Kate Gartner, the creative brainchild responsible for Mare’s captivating cover art.


TCG: Did you get a chance to read Mare’s War before starting on its design? What information did you have to work with before the concept phase?

KG: Yes, I always read the entire ms. before coming up with a cover concept. I feel that it is necessary to get the feel of the book as well as to catch any physical descriptions.


TCG: What is your normal design process after you get a working draft/thumbnail? What were the parts that kept getting tweaked for Mare’s War?

KG: I usually try to do fairly tight concept thumbnails. I either draw them or Photoshop together various images to try to reflect what I imagine the design should be. In the case of Mare’s War I put together photos and title type to reflect the image that came to me as I read the ms. I added the glow of the lipstick (which is mentioned in the book and I was careful to make the color accurate to lipstick popular in the 1940s) and that was it! The only tweaking was that she faced right initially and I changed it to make her face left. It just looked better facing left.


TCG: What were the easiest parts of the design/process of this cover? The hardest?

KG: This was an easy cover to thumbnail. I imagined the cover as I read the book, then simply looked for the elements I needed to make the image. The hardest part was finding an accurate World War II helmet.

TCG: What other YA covers have you designed? What’s been your favorite cover that you’ve designed so far? Are there any other YA covers (outside of Knopf/RH) that you love?

KG: Poisons of Caux trilogy, The File on Angelyn Stark, My Not-So-Still Life, The Devil’s Paintbox, When You Reach Me. I really can’t pick a favorite. I honestly like them all.

Poisons of Caux covers are absolutely gorgeous! And I might be completely biased here, but I’ve always love the When You Reach Me cover. I loved it even MORE after I read the novel.


TCG: What’s your brainstorming process like when it comes to a cover design concept?

KG: I talk to the editor and ask how they see the book. I ask what emotional themes should be emphasized and who our audience is.

TCG: What were your initial ideas for the cover?

KG: Usually I do a few cover comps focusing on different aspects of the story (do we want to spotlight the action, characters, relationships, setting, etc.), but in the case of Mare’s War, I saw the cover as I read it and did a single very tight comp.

TCG: Who (artists/illustrators/cover designers/photographers) inspires you?

KG: I suspect this is true of most designers . . . everything inspires me, and not just art and design. Living in NYC is a great inspiration. Great visuals are everywhere you look. My colleagues here in the KDD art department inspire me every day with their sense of humor and imaginations.

TCG: Do cover trends play into your ideas for designs? Also, where do you find the balance in prioritizing the message at the heart of a novel and including marketing at the same time? Or, do you feel cover art’s main focus always revolves around the art?

KG: I think it is a designer’s job to predict and make trends, not to follow them. It is important to me to reflect the heart of the novel, so that the reader knows what they are getting. Hopefully, a good cover is good from all points of view—marketing, editorial, design, and our readers.

I think I nodded at every single point of view you highlighted, Kate. When designing in publishing (and most other realms), there’s so many people to please. But please do check-mark your box for “YA Cover Snob Bloggers.” icon_wink-3459952 Thanks again for the interview!

PS — These interview series are growing in numbers, which absolutely pleases me to no end. If you’ve missed any Authorthoughts or Behind The Design posts from the past, please do check them out!

behind the design: ellen lawson & gigged |

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Today’s post features the artist responsible for Gigged’s thought-provoking cover art. The purpose of this feature is to give you some insight on the processes behind great cover design. Please give a warm welcome to photographer and graphic designer, Ellen Lawson.


TCG: Did you get a chance to read Gigged before starting on its design? What information did you have to work with before the concept phase?

EL: I read some to get a feel of the book. I also get a summary, information on similar books in the genre, and audience info from the Acquisitions Editor.

TCG: What were your initial ideas for the cover? Do you have some early illustrations/mockups that you can share?

EL: Some of the initial ideas in our first meetings were of three stars on a shoulder of a cadet with one of the star’s points broken off, or a fist clutching dog tags, or a folded flag referencing the father’s death in Iraq. But I really thought the toy soldier was really iconic, and evoked a feeling right away.

TCG: What is your normal design process after you get a working draft? What were the parts that kept getting tweaked for Gigged?

EL: It’s different for each book. Some books need an illustration done, or a photoshoot. Or we need to purchase fonts or stock images. Sometimes the authors have problems with covers. I don’t think there was a lot of tweaking with GIGGED, everyone pretty much liked it as is.

TCG: What were the easiest parts of the design/process of this cover? The hardest?

EL: The easiest, I suppose, is reading! That’s fun, as well. The hardest is thinking of an image that will be true to the book, evoke emotion or thought, and be sellable.

TCG: What other YA covers have you designed? What’s been your favorite cover that you’ve designed so far?

EL: I’ve designed:


TCG: Who (artists/illustrators/cover designers/photographers) inspires you?

EL: Designers Alvin Lustig, Paul Rand, Jessica Hische. Photographer Alec Soth.


TCG: Do cover trends play into your ideas for designs? Also, where do you find the balance in prioritizing the message at the heart of a novel and including marketing at the same time? Or, do you feel cover art’s main focus always revolves around the art?

EL: No, I always think about selling the book and who is going to buy it. I want people to buy the books and enjoy them. I wouldn’t be happy with any piece that no one wanted to have around.

Thanks so much for the interview, Ellen! For the final installment of this series, check back tomorrow to hear from Gigged’s author, Heath Gibson. Here’s a little snippet from one of his responses toward cover art in general:

See you tomorrow on the blog. =)

behind the design: liz connor & pure |

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If you’re a frequenter of this here li’l blog, you know exactly how much I love to interview artists and authors alike regarding cover art. By the way, if there are any wealthy benefactors out there who have absolutely no idea what to do with their money (after donating a lot of it to charity, of course), I’d love to pitch a series of short docs that revolve around cover art design. Oh wait. This post isn’t about me and my bookish filmmaking fantasies. I forget easily.

Today’s post is actually dedicated to this gem and the AD responsible for seeing it come to life. Please give a warm welcome to Liz Connor


TCG: Pure’s cover falls into the category of simple and symbolic cover art. Was it always foreseen to be simple and symbolic? What was your process like from concept to final design?

LC: My boss, creative director Anne Twomey, actually came up with the front cover image fairly early on. Having read the manuscript we knew this book required an evocative cover rather than a literal one. We wanted to set a tone, to show rather than tell. And for a book like this you want to keep the cover “simple” in a way that allows it to appeal to the broadest audience.

So Anne came up with the idea of a “live” butterfly in a bell jar, and someone else—I can’t recall if it was me or the editor, Jaime Levine—thought of a similar image where the “live” butterfly was replaced with a mechanical one, to stand in for the bugs Pressia builds out of scraps. Both ideas seemed fruitful, and when Anne considered what was involved, she immediately thought of a photographer whose work she had admired but with whom she’d never had the chance to work, Kevin Twomey (no relation). We started talking to him about our plans, and in our research both he and I independently came across the work of Mike Libby. He’s an artist and the driving force behind something called Insect Lab Studio. In essence, he re-builds insects using real carcasses and filling them with tiny clockwork bits and pieces. The he mounts and displays them in sealed bell jars. (It’s no wonder he’s been embraced by the steampunk community…) We got in touch and hired him to build our mechanical butterfly.


© Mike Libby/Insect Lab Studio

Kevin shot both scenes—we’d decided to leave the mechanical butterfly on the outside of the bell jar/dome for a little variety—and sent them to us. With the publisher’s input, we decided pretty quickly to use the “live” butterfly version on the front cover. Its appeal was more immediate, I think. We knew people would want to pick it up in the store if the blue butterfly was on the front.


We had tried a number of different typefaces—from the simplest serif faces to much more niche-y, sci-fi looking options—but Anne’s combination of the swash capital (which she blurred so it seems to vibrate) and the small, spaced-out lower-case italics, just seemed to capture the right tone.


When all the design decisions were made, we had to consider production issues. Our production manager, Antoinette Marotta, found us a super-soft, almost velvety, matte lamination that would make the book feel really good and set the background back in space. She also recommended an extremely glassy-smooth spot gloss treatment for the bell jar. And the combination of the two has created a package that is really hard to put down. And that was that.

Okay. I’ve picked up this hardcover and I’ve flipped it over with my own two hands. That matte lamination feels exactly like butter tastes: extremely rich and so, so good. The spot gloss doesn’t make reflections annoyingly blinding, either. The final print is perfect.

When designing, how important was it to factor in designing for an audience?

It’s always important to consider your audience when designing the cover of a book, but a good design by its very nature will reach a wide range of people. That’s what we wanted here. Certainly there is an expected audience for this book, but I think there are many more people who would like it if they gave it a chance. We figured if we made the cover design beautiful enough, and went broad enough with the concept, then even people outside that anticipated readership would have a hard time ignoring it.

Also, while the book leans slightly towards the YA readership, that didn’t mean we should alienate adult readers. On the contrary we wanted the cover to appeal to readers of all ages.

How do you feel about design trends in the YA genre? How do trends fit into your own design methodology?

We don’t really work on YA books in our department, but I read quite a few for someone my age, and there have been some really lovely things happening in the genre. As a huge Lois Duncan fan in my teens I was really excited by the new graphic, hand-lettered repackaging done by my colleagues at Little, Brown for Young Readers. Also the ornate layered feel of the Incarceron series does a good job of straddling genres, I think. And I adored the progression-of-concept on the Hunger Games covers, but it’s hard to separate my appreciation of the design from my love of the books themselves…

Trends are definitely on our minds when we’re designing covers. But we try not to let them dictate what we do. You do your best to stay current and pay attention to the trends, but in an ideal world you try to create the next trend yourself.

When I look at Pure’s cover art, there are design elements that make it feel familiar to its genre but also different from its YA cover art family as a whole. And though artwork will always be interpreted differently, what is the one thought that you’d hope each person would take away after just one glance?

After just one glance? That’s tough.

I guess I would hope that after just one glance a viewer decides they need to look again. And again. Repeat until they can’t help but purchase, consume, and enjoy it. And then, once they’ve finished the book, I hope they look at the cover with new eyes and realize that not only is it a beautiful cover, but it’s also an extremely appropriate one.

That’s what I would hope anyway.

“Repeat until they can’t help but purchase, consume, and enjoy it.” That quote’s going on my quote wall, for sure. A million thanks for stopping by and letting me pick your brain about Pure’s artwork, Liz!

behind the design | | Page 2

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If you’ve missed the past two days of me gushing about Jackie Morse Kessler’s Hunger cover (oh, and she gushed too), today’s post may catch you a bit off-guard. Illustrator and designer Sammy Yuen joins me today to talk about the blood, sweat and tears that went into designing the face of Hunger, the first … Continue reading »


Three cheers for Kristin Smith, Penguin’s creative energy behind Five Flavors of Dumb’s cover design. She was kind enough to let me harass her with endless cover-related questions. For my first official interview with a designer on the blog, Kristin knocked it out of the park. What were your initial ideas for the cover? Do … Continue reading »

behind the design: kirk benshoff & the haruhi suzumiya series |

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2011 marked the year of finishing my very first graphic novel, Blankets by Craig Thompson (READ IT, IT’S AMAZING). Ever since, I’ve actively sought out more and more graphic novels, and have been recommended a ton so my TBR pile is already outrageously out of control. While ambling around the internet one evening, I happened upon the work of Kirk Benshoff — a talented graphic designer and art director responsible for the new face of the wildly popular Haruhi Suzumiya series. A few years ago, the Japanese light novel series was finally translated for English-speakers to enjoy, along with an overhaul of the cover art, to boot:


I immediately knew that I wanted to pick Kirk’s brain as soon as I saw the artwork. I couldn’t begin to wrap my head around what it’d be like working with cultural barriers and how or if they’d bleed over into the aesthetics of designing for a new, English-speaking audience. I mean, have you ever wanted to know what goes into rebranding for a different language? While staying true to the story’s content and characters? Of a brand that happens to also have its own anime series, web series, film, and video games too? If your answer’s YES, like mine was, you’re in luck. I’m so excited to have Kirk on the blog today!

TCG: What was it like being tasked to start the redesign of a highly successful and very franchised Japanese series? What were the challenges in bringing it to an English-speaking audience?

KB: Haruhi was a pretty challenging project because it had a very difficult hand of variables that needed to be addressed. We had to keep the tone of the original series while making the property appeal to an American audience, respect the property, for it already had a large audience in the United States and abroad, and  appeal to a new readership that does not read manga and light novels. We also had to find something that not only would be approved by everyone state side but also the licensor and creators in Japan.


From Bandai’s anime

The first book was the biggest hurdle, not only because we were setting the tone for the series, but also introducing this character, Haruhi Suzumiya. Who had already been a global phenomenon, but was largely unknown in the United States outside the manga/anime community. Our goal was to lure readers who don’t normally read comics to read Haruhi. To prevent non-comic readers from dismissing the book altogether based on the original cover art, we decided to redesign the series.


In the end, the look gravitated to a more simple and bold direction because of the constraints. In the end, I couldn’t be happier with the designs.

As someone who normally wouldn’t read manga/light novels before this year, consider me hooked via cover art. The cover redesigns are bold, simple, and eye-catching. What were your original ideas/concepts for the cover series? Did you get a chance to read a majority of the books, or were you given an overall synopsis for each novel?

No, I couldn’t read the books beforehand because they only existed as fan translations. Fortunately, I’m a pretty big anime fan and had seen the anime series, so that helped a lot in designing the first book.
haruhi_silhouette-9046375 Re-illustrating the characters was not an option because of conflicts with the original art/brand, and since we were trying to appeal to a broader audience, using the original artwork wouldn’t work, either. So we explored doing a photographic version of Haruhi and we went as far as to getting our hands on a costume, hiring a model, and doing a photo shoot. But something wasn’t translating through the photos, they seemed to be lacking something. There is a quirkiness with Haruhi and her friends that we didn’t think were conveyed in a photograph.

Whoever said a picture was worth a thousand words, right? Apparently those words were simply lost in translation. (Ha, not one but TWO adages!) Interesting to see the whole concept carried all the way to a photo shoot stage, but I’m sure it was frustrating as well — which brings me to my next question. What were the easiest parts of the design/process for the series? The hardest?

haruhi_sigh_icon-7921046I wouldn’t say any part was necessarily easy, but the concepting was the most enjoyable and frustrating at the same time. Most designers will have an attachment their best ideas, and when you have to nix those ideas and come up with new directions it can be hard. But I love concepting, so I set new parameters to the project and get going again.

I think the hardest thing was waiting to hear back from the licensors and creators. Because of the time difference and the time it takes to get the designs in front of everyone who needs to review everything. I was biting my nails down to the quick.

Who (artists/illustrators/cover designers/photographers) inspires you?

I’m a huge fan of quirky art all over the spectrum. I love everything from character artists like Friends With You and EBoy, street artists like Banksy and Neckface, to toy designers like Michael Lau and Frank Kozik. I surround myself with people who make art as well that constantly inspire me like my buddy Jonathan Lopes who makes LEGO sculptures and my wife who is a crafting addict.


Friends With You

Name three of your favorite pieces of cover art (they don’t have to be YA) — designed by someone else.

This is a toughie. There are so many things out there that stop me in my tracks. I would say right now I’m in love with the work of Olly Moss. All of his designs and illustrations are well thought out and just beautiful.


Olly Moss

Thank you so much for taking the time out to stop by the blog today, Kirk. The Haruhi Suzuyima series is at the very top of my light novel list! To check out more of Kirk’s work, you can find him on his website, tumblr, or Twitter.

artist (un)abbreviated: christian fuenfhausen |

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WARNING: The following interview is intended only for an audience who:

  1. Has an appreciation for art
  2. Has a sense of curiosity
  3. Has a sense of humor
  4. Most importantly has 15 minutes of interrupted time (trust me, you want to read this entire interview)

Please give a warm welcome to the brilliantly talented designer, Christian Fuenfhausen.

Without further ado:


TCG: A little backstory first. What began your foray into the design world?Had you always wanted to specialize in book jacket and cover design?

caslon_doi-6279448CF: My first knowledge of design came when I was taking a class on typography as part of
a magazine journalism major at the University of Florida. It wasn’t a design class, more like history. But what jumped out at me was a little story about William Caslon, an English craftsman from the mid 1700s. Originally, he was an engraver, creating ornate designs on canons and muskets. He then became a punch-cutter, literally making alphabet letters out of lead type. And it was a typeface he designed, and that was shipped to the Americas, and to one Philadelphia printer in particular that made him famous. Benjamin Franklin used Caslon’s font to print the first copies of the Declaration of Independence. I thought it somehow beautiful that a man who’d first worked to make instruments of death more beautiful would end up being known for helping transmit ideas of freedom instead. As kind of pretentious as that story sounds — I was and am a huge history nerd — that was my first real interest in typography.

raygun-7451157That and Raygun Magazine. I never saw anything — or have since seen any magazine since — half as cool and inspired as the David Carson art-directed Raygun magazine issues of the mid-1990s. They just didn’t care what you thought. Meaning: You the reader. It was awesome. I still own a bunch of issues. Anyway, Raygun LOOKED like what a rock band should sound, it had the attitude of brash young musicians, and that was, and still is, amazing. It was bold. I mean, Carson famously set one article in Zapf Dingbats — they just didn’t give a f***. And that is how rock n’ roll should be.

This is getting long, but oh well.

My first real interest in graphic design came when I was working at a Kinko’s Copy Center (back before they were FedEx Office) in Minneapolis around 1997. I often helped freelancers who were renting the Macs and printing out their work, and that was where I first discovered this incredible field I hadn’t known existed: graphic design. I had a journalism degree that was going/went/had gone nowhere and I was working on a novel at the time so I, uh, liberated some application programs from work — back when that was pretty easy to do — and more less taught myself Quark Xpress (3.3!) and Photoshop (3.0!) with some manuals. It’s not organic chemistry (which is way harder than rocket science). Later, I realized I needed some real schooling so I took some classes. But being a decent designer isn’t about knowing or not knowing programs. 


I ended up turning that novel into an elaborate portfolio piece — it was full of fake ads and all kinds of wackiness — that got me in Communications Arts Design Annual and helped land me my first job. So here’s your example, would-be designers, of someone who just made up stuff and launched a career. If you’re sufficiently passionate and obsessive enough, pretty much anything is possible.

cross_dullboy-8013526I had not specifically thought about being a book cover designer. Frankly, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of jobs there (and there still aren’t). But my heart has always been in books. And I know this as I’ve worked briefly for some ad agencies and was sort of morally repulsed by the whole thing. I mean, I get it: this is America and we’re capitalists and we sell stuff. I get that. Book publishing isn’t a charity and I charge for my time. But I personally just found many bits of advertising just a bit slimier, morally speaking, than I was personally willing to deal with, great pay or no. That and the hours they make you work at agencies seem insane and not worth it, even for the money. To sell toothpaste. Or, god forbid, seeds. [I had an instructor in Minneapolis who had a giant industrial-agriculture client at his agency for whom they made “seed catalogs” every year. You go into advertising, this could be your life, kids, so choose carefully.] I didn’t want to spend my creative days finding new ways to sell toothpaste. Or, these days, to create a viral campaign that might be about toothpaste. Sure, could be exciting and all that. . . I don’t know — not for me.

miller_eternalones-2377138Granted, book covers are essentially like candy wrappers. They are the number marketing tool of any book. Which has essentially become another product, in lots of ways. Sad to say. But at least the candy inside is good for your brain. Reading, regardless how crappy the book (and publishing is chock-a-block full of crap), is always better than just passively watching TV or a movie. That’s my curmudgeonly take on it. If I’m going to use my art to sell something, let it be books. I never go to sleep wondering why on earth I spend all this time doing the stuff I do and that’s worth a lot, a lot more than money.

How I got into publishing is: I answered an ad on my local AIGA job board. I caught a break and landed my first job at a place called Milkweed Editions, a tiny nonprofit literary publisher in Minneapolis. There I became their entire art department. It was a great place to start for someone with interest in books — I designed all their book covers, every book interior, all their catalogs, ads, trade show materials, all manner of stuff. I still design covers for Milkweed on a freelance basis and it’s a lot of fun. I think it’s a good idea for a young designer to find a place where there is a variety of work, until you discover what you’re really good at. And it’s pretty impossible, I think, to know what you’re good at until you’ve actually tried different things.

hrm-5032294I’ve worked at a variety of design places, mostly publishers. But also at an all-purpose design studio — doing everything from business identities to posters to all kinds of collateral — and at an environmental graphics place, which was an object lesson in being anal retentive. When you’re designing letterforms that are going to be cut from steel with plasma torches, or sandblasted from granite, then whatever you do is going to be there forever, basically. So they took kerning to a new, scary level. It was rigorous but I wouldn’t wish that job on an enemy. No fun. 

Work should be fun. You should enjoy what you do. If you’re not having fun and you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then find work that is fun and that you do enjoy. I mean, this is America — if you can’t figure out a way to do what you love to do and make a living at it, then I think you’re not trying hard enough.

It’s always interesting looking at the revision process when it comes to design work. I really love two rejected covers of yours — Paper Towns (even though the push pin cover has always been my favorite) and If I Stay, which looks completely different from its final print. fuenfhausen_comps-4927878 I know that sometimes initial mockups/thumbnails/sketches may start off in one direction, then do a complete 180 and take another path sometime later. Do you have a particular story about a cover that took this route, where the final cover surprised and pleased you more than the original concept for its design? fuenfhausen_aaok_ec-6038719

Rejected cover

John Green’s books are always interesting and always a huge challenge. He doesn’t write “genre” titles, like about girls in some elite academy. Or about vampires. Or about vampires in an elite academy. He writes, for lack of a better term, “literature”, which appeals to guys and gals both. So the challenge is always to try to find a cover that will speak to his audience and to the books (which are smart, quirky, funny, serious and usually wicked hard to summarize). Paper Towns in paperback went through like a million versions. Well, OK, mid-eight hundred thousands, fine. But seemed like a million. I think we (meaning me and a whole bunch of other designers called in to help) were re-designing An Abundance of Katherines for paperback so maybe a half-million of those versions were for that.

Wait, sorry, the book I wanted to discuss is Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. It’s about these two guys both named Will Grayson, and a high school musical and like a million other things. But we were thinking of originally doing an illustrated “rock poster”-type cover. Illustrated.

Wait. NO. No, first, I had done a version of the book that looks like all the lettering was made of lights. . . We had actually planned on having neon signs made of the title “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” and a different sign (from light bulbs) of the two authors names. But for whatever reason, that version got nixed. And I was bummed.

OK, so then. . . later. The Neon Sign Idea was an early version, but then the manuscript got bumped to another season so by the time we came back to it, people had other ideas of what they wanted. And now they wanted a rock poster. So we hired two different design studios to come up with covers that would look like “rock posters”. We hired Aesthetic Apparatus — whom I knew sort of from Minneapolis when I lived there. They make amazing posters. And a different poster designer whose name I forget. Anyway, the two studios did awesome stuff, including a fantastic poster of a kitten sticking its paw in an electrical socket (it was in the book?). Funny stuff, great stuff. And I did some Sonic Youth “Washing Machine”-inspired covers.

Anwyay, none of that worked. 

A cover I did with a thumbs up on one side and a hand flicking the bird on the other. That I WISH had made it, just for laughs, but it got shot down. 

(TCG: I would’ve loved to see this one.)

I forget all the stuff that was done. A huge number of “rounds” (think: boxing), working on stuff, showing it, getting shot down.

We (mostly me) tried a lot of different stuff about musicals. Around that time, I was seeing posters around town (here in NYC) for a new show that was supposed to be set in a high school and would have singing or be about a musical. . . it wasn’t clear– the show hadn’t aired yet. But I loved the type for it, so I decided to use the same typeface. That show was called “glee”. 


At the last minute, then I found some disco-y nightclub-y show-biz-y colorful art and married it to my glee-stolen title — the typeface is ITC Avant Garde Demi, lowercase, for those of you at home keeping score. Designed by typographic legend Herb Lubalin.


And once we printed the thing on holographic, I really came to love the Will Grayson cover. Maybe not as much as I loved my crazy Happy Robot/Sad Robot Reading Hamlet version I had done. Or the Thumbs Up/Bird-Finger version. Or the one that looked a Marshall amplifier. But still, it’s a lot of fun.

I’ve read Jonathan Friesen’s Jerk, California (HIGHLY RECOMMEND, and Cover Loved it here). You’ve also designed another Friesen novel, Rush. Their simplicity and bold colors are simple but eye-catching and don’t look like a lot of other YA I see on the shelves. What’s the balance like when it comes to designing to story and designing to your intended audience?


Designing book covers is tricky in no small part because there are so many different interests at stake. First off, there are the editorial folks (editor, publisher) who may have an idea — sometimes an extremely specific idea — of what they want the cover to convey. Then there’s the art director who has some artistic ideas. There are the Sales folks who need the cover to look like The Hunger Games or Twilight or Whatever Book Is Superpopular Now. . . or to not look like those. . . or to appeal to girls. . . or to be “gender-neutral”. . . or to not have a dark cover because all the other books out now have dark covers. . . and so on. Toward the end of the process you have the Author and also maybe the Author’s Agent, who have opinions, and sometimes, if you’re really and truly unlikely, you have the Author’s Significant Other or Author’s Friend, who happens to be an art director or once used Photoshop and has an opinion.

So, this is your kitchen, Iron Design Chef, in which you are asked to cook a masterpiece.

I’m just saying: book design does not happen in vacuum.

Ok, but then you start working and you tune out all those voices, you just focus on what’s true and what’s appealing. Because if you can stick to what’s true to the book, and make it appealing, most likely all those Other Interests listed above will work out.

werlin_rulesofsurvival-3807586My personal philosophy is that I would prefer to do something different than what is out there. Every time. I’m not really interested in copying other people. I’m way more interested in being unique. It’s frankly just more fun, to come up with stuff that looks very different from all the other covers. I mean, when that’s possible. You aren’t going to be able to do thing with every cover. Sometimes, they really just want you to make a book that looks like The Hunger Games.

With Jerk, California, the publisher decided early on they wanted a type-only cover. To appeal to both genders.

With Rush, I wanted it to feel like it was related to Jerk — like a cousin, if not a sibling. Plus, again, there are SO many photographic-only covers out there that any cover that is just a solid color with type will jump out from the crowd.

Book covers are, in a sense, like poems. Or like snapshots compared to whole films. You’ve got this little tiny bit of space and time to convey an idea so it’s important to pick something that is compelling, eye-catching, symbolic. You’re picking a detail or scene to represent the whole thing, maybe. Ideally, it will be a detail that encapsulates the whole story but for the purposes of marketing, sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes it’s better to be mysterious, but appealing. Because the entire point is to make you stop, and reach for the book. Just that.

How would you describe your particular type of artistry?

I’m kind of an on-off person by nature, so my design tends toward super-minimalism or maximalism.

For example, I happen to love really dirty, grimy, grungy, distressed designs. It could be a residual Raygun magazine thing, or something I need to discuss with a mental health professional or whatever. Maybe they just seem more “real”, like posters that have been stapled to a phone pole and have gotten weather-beaten. So, to me, these are maximalist — vivid color, dense layers of grit and stuff. 

On the other hand, I love stuff that is super-clean and geometric and just flat out stunningly beautiful. 

mcqueen_moma-1113706I was lucky to be able to go see the recent Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum a number of times, including once super early in the morning when it was fairly empty. While it’s not “graphic design”, McQueen’s ethos combines extreme beauty and distress in a really startling way and his work really affected me.

As for my “artistry”, I have learned that when I pursue my gut instincts, things tend to work better than trying to second-guess what is wanted from me.

The Vlad Tod series is one of those iconic YA titles that you can immediately identify on a shelf. And say what, no author name on the cover? Do tell how this came to be!

In the beginning, there was just Eighth Grades Bites. No series. And Heather Brewer was a first-time author with no clout.

Initially we did a photographic cover — VERY different from what it looks like now. We found a model, some nice kid from western Pennsylvania, and set up a photo shoot. Kid drove in with his mom. And the shoot went well. We had a photographic cover with a kid with a backpack on it — really nothing earth-shattering. We got Advance Readers Copies made. Everything was fine until, basically the last minute. I forget exactly what happened but I was essentially told it just wasn’t going to work. Honestly, I sort of felt like that was a great idea (now I KNOW it was good idea).


I recall deciding to try something entirely different. Something very movie-postery and graphic. I ended up converting some photos into stark black-and-white line art. . . but it was lacking the humor that the books have. So I came up with that vampire smiley logo in like, literally, a few minutes. It just sort of happened. Staggeringly enough, considering how much it’s been used since then. Anyway. . . . the original cover was supposed to have The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod / Eighth Grades Bites / Heather Brewer. . . all that text on it and I honestly felt like it ruined my pristine design. So I thought: what if we just put the author’s name and the book title on the BACK. But huge on the back. Would they go for it? Surely they would make me put her name on the front, right? Amazingly enough, it somehow got approved, and for the first few editions of the series Heather’s name was not on the front. When the series blew up and got huge, I was asked to redesign all the covers so her name WAS on the front. But at first, it wasn’t.

Who inspires you?

I love Peter Mendelsund’s covers:


What do you look for in cover design when you’re browsing the bookstore, library, or online?

Inappropriate uses of glitter. I love that.

Sometimes I play the “name that font” game. Admittedly, it’s a very nerdy game. 

Mostly I just look for something that I haven’t seen before. Or something extraordinarily beautiful. Especially if it’s both ugly and beautiful at the same time, which is admittedly pretty rare.

Are there any covers that have recently grabbed your attention?


The cover for Murakami’s new novel, 1Q84, is cool. (Of course, if you can’t make a four-letter title look cool you should resign your book cover credentials.)

stvincent_strangemercy-6510458Frankly, I find album or movie art more of an inspiration than book covers. (Album art, posters and book cover being essentially the same kinds of design). For instance, the latest album by St. Vincent is just a mouth screaming through a dental dam — the cover is all white with type set in Futura. It’s disturbing and beautiful simultaneously. The new album from Wild Flag is interesting — like some Adobe Illustrator drawing gone awry. The new album by The Horrors, Skying, looks great in that “everyone is using their Hipstamatic loom app” way, but hey, I am sucker for that look.

If you were to give a designer three bits of advice in order to make it in the publishing industry as a cover designer, what would they be?

1) Be ready for lots and lots and LOTS of rejection and revising, and don’t take it personally . . . just realize it’s simply part of the job. [Your cover is probably genius (as you know) and it’s just some hare-brained decision by Sales that you have no control over.]

2) Steal good ideas, make them your own. (Plausible deniability is KEY.)

3) Take courses or learn stuff in fields unrelated to art or design. And if you’re not learning something in school you wish you were, get a book and teach yourself . . . I mean, who’s stopping you, right?

If you have a crazy idea, run with it. The worst they can say is “no”.

See why I loved this interview so much? I want to frame half of his answers and have them printed (in ITC Avant Garde Demi) and framed, hanging the posters around my office. Thanks so much for stopping by the blog, Christian. Be sure to check out even more of his work at Christian Fuenfhausen Design.

artist abbreviated: colleen af venable |

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Warning: the content you are about to read may reveal just how fangirly I am when it comes to interviewing designers and illustrators. I know this particular feature is called Artist Abbreviated, but in NO WAY will this interview be abbreviated. Abbreviating the awesome Colleen AF Venable would be doing you a disservice, trust me.

My brief introduction to Colleen’s work involved playing around on the internet doing hours of studious research one night, clicking on cover art and Googling the mess out of authors’ and publishers’ websites.

Then I happened upon this cover:

braincamp-9621996Whaaaaaat. It was like YA zombie Cover Love at First Sight.

I had stumbled upon the cover for Brain Camp on Goodreads, then immediately went to find out who designed the cover, and finally made it to Colleen’s website. I think I pored over her Flickr account and design work for an hour (like any diligent stalker potential interviewer would).

And then! And then she agreed to an interview! Her responses to my answers made me laugh, her stories were entertaining, and after reading through her interview I hope you not only appreciate her artwork as much as I do, but you’ll understand where I’m coming from when I say in a very legit non-creepy way, “Can we be please friends in real life?”

And without further adieu, may I present the talented Colleen AF Venable, writer-designer extraordinaire!


I mean who wouldn’t want to be friends with THIS face. (Photo by Joey Miller at

TCG: Can you give a history of your career as a designer? What were some of your early influences? What eventually made you want to go into art/design?

CAFV: My design start is an odd one. I guess you could say it was having a big mouth and being in the right place at the most panic-y time. I used to work in marketing for Roaring Brook Press, about ten feet from where I work now. First Second’s designer had left and after four months of interviews the editorial director Mark Siegel still hadn’t seen anyone that he thought clicked with :01′s sensibilities. Around that time their book LAIKA won an Eisner and they needed a small low-res ad that afternoon. Since there was no one else,  and I was quite decent at photoshopping my friends’ heads on the occasional picture of Mr. T or a Golden Girl, I was asked to help out. (Okay, okay I did put together an ad or a postcard in my marketing role occasionally, so it wasn’t exactly as far-fetched as I’m making it sound, but it still is pretty crazy how little I knew about what I was doing.) In a few hours, I threw together this ad:


Mark was convinced there was more thought in that 2-hour created animated gif than there was in a lot of the full portfolios he had seen. He also remembered that in marketing meetings I had this annoying inability to keep my mouth shut when it came to covers, and more times than not, I was rambling the same thoughts he was thinking. Mark offered me the job and Macmillan paid for me to go back to school since I barely knew photoshop and had never used indesign in my life (90% of my job was laying books out using that program). That learning curve in that first month of work nearly killed me, but somehow I made it through four months of not knowing how to even open files and night school.

I’ve always been a cover dork and an absolute book nerd, collecting books constantly to the point the one used book store near where I grew up got in the habit of just giving me a cardboard box when I came in. They let me fill it with whatever I’d like and only pay $5 for the entire thing. I’d buy anything, especially if I loved the cover and my favorite type of cover will always be “A Bad One.” If it was campy or overly dramatic, the photo-realistic boxed in oil painting covers of the 80′s, the kitchy pulp covers of the 50′s, the ones with photographs that seemed to have nothing to do with the story, I loved it. I think you can learn so much about design by looking at what doesn’t work. Horribly overdone art with boring fonts just plopped down on top. Covers with so much text they may as well be an inside out novel. If you saw my bookshelves at home you’d probably think I had the worst taste in the world!

TCG: I’m sure they’d be pretty entertaining to browse through! =)

Two of your YA covers, Brain Camp and Anya’s Ghost, definitely caught my eye on your site. Were you able to read the novels before working on the covers? Did the publishing companies give you an idea and you ran with it? What kind of parameters did you have to work in?

CAFV: I’m a firm believer that there’s no way you can do a cover justice if you haven’t read the book. I actually have a two read rule, since it’s nearly impossible for me to read something the first time and think about it from a critical design standpoint, especially if the story is good, which was the case with both of those. The great thing about working on graphic novels is that I have an awesome cover artist right from the spot. After I feel comfortable with the story I have a nice chat with the artist about the audience for the book, and the major themes.


For instance with Vera Brosgol’s ANYA’S GHOST we wanted to have something contemporary, iconic, a little creepy, but not lose what makes Anya so great: her snarky teen exterior. I then have the artist do a handful of 30-second thumbnail sketches, encouraging them to do a batch, walk away for a bit, and then sit down again and draw at least two more.

anyas_ghost_thumbs-2335834If you count of the number of thumbnails we did for those two books it is over 40. Thumbnails are the most important stage. Without an awesome thumbnail, one that works even if seen at a single inch tall, your cover will never really shine. We then go to pencils and I obsess in that stage a bit more, eyes need to be exactly right (the thing that draws viewers in the quickest), proportions need to be perfect, space for logo should feel deliberate, not an afterthought. It can take months before we go from perfect thumbnail, to perfect pencil.

Come to think of it, it’s really quite amazing any of my artists haven’t murdered me yet! Probably because by the time we get to the end they are crazy proud of where their hard work has gotten them.


BRAIN CAMP thumbnails

dawnland1-5078544The great thing about being a one-person design department and one with 8 years of being in the marketing department is that a) I get to try pretty much whatever I want and b) my brain still works like a marketing person so it’s incredibly rare that any of my covers get completely shot down during my bi-weekly cover meetings…though there WAS the time I tried to convince them to let me do a wordless cover for DAWN LAND by Will Davis and Joseph Bruchac. Could you imagine how striking that could have been with just that watercolor?! I’m still really happy with how it turned out but one of these days: Wordless Cover! Mark my pixelated words!

TCG: If you ever get a Wordless Cover designed you must let me know ASAP! I will pimp that cover art on the blog and I don’t even care what genre it is because = WORDLESS COVER. WHAT.

I love the spot gloss on Brain Camp. (See it in action here) Did you set out to design the cover art with spot gloss in mind? For those who don’t know, what’s the process like when it comes to texture in print production?

CAFV: I often wind up trying for a “special effect” of some kind when we do the book budgets, be it spot gloss, or matte finish, or foil, or textured watercolor paper, or *wrings hands manically* EMBOSSING/DEBOSSING AT THE SAME TIME! (Am still so excited I got to do that for ANYA’S GHOST. Thank you Neil Gaiman quote, which was the final persuading factor I needed to get the extra budget money). I’m not a big fan of pure gloss covers, and I love adding a bit of visual and textural contrast to a cover. BRAIN CAMP was designed without spot gloss in mind, but the artist, Faith Erin Hicks, and I worked hard to make those eyes as creepy as possible. Even the eyes of the owls on the kids’ shirts are all pointed towards our terrified main characters.


Look! The owl eyes! They move!

I had gotten a book from production that showed different grades of spot gloss, all were on the same cute dog looking with huge eyes exaggerated with a fisheye lens. Most examples had the dog entirely spot glossed but there was one page where they only put the gloss on the dogs’ eyes…and suddenly this super cute puppy looked like all it wanted to do was murder me in my sleep! I got the idea from that. It also gave me a great chance to work in an earlier sketch I had loved of Faith’s, her bird claw, but to make it more subtle, mysterious, and symbolic, by just being seen when you turn the book in a certain light.

To create textures in print I have an amazing production department that works with me. Our production-guru Alexa Villanueva saves my butt on a nearly daily basis when I measure templates for covers…um…creatively. (Shhh don’t tell my math teacher Mom!) For spot gloss, I just make a separate layer in indesign, often crazy hot pink so it’s not mistaken for a cover element that shows were I want the gloss to be.


Alexa works with the printers to see if effects are possible and gets me test proofs to see if my imagination and reality match up. That said there are also many days I’m a lot lazier since all I REALLY have to do is just circle things on a printout that I want in foil or spot gloss or embossed and say things like “Make it Shiny!” and the printer will do the layer for me. Those days I feel like a princess and wear a tiara. Or you know…just have more time to work on other things. In a tiara.

TCG: How would you describe your particular type of artistry?

CAFV: I like iconic covers, ones that stop your heart a little even if you see it as a tiny thumbnail on a website, or way across a bookstore, or even if you just see the spine. I want to make spines that knock socks off! I tend to create less jumbled covers, bold lines, and strong colors with limited palettes. I adore handmade logos, and it takes a lot to convince me to use a font.


TCG: List three of your favorite pieces you’ve done so far, whether they’re photography, design, or illustration. (They don’t have to be YA.)

CAFV: I’m really proud of the cover for the upcoming AMERICUS by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill. This cover wins for highest number of thumbnails and pencil tweaks of any I’ve ever done. Jonathan Hill did one hell of a job with the illustration, which we meshed with photographs of crumpled paper, subtle coloring, and text written by MK Reed from the fictional book-within-a-book that’s being banned in the story. It’s a Fall 2011 book, so I have a while to wait to see it on a shelf, but I think it’s going to look pretty amazing.



The cover for FEYNMAN by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick came to me as a simple line art sketch of Richard Feynman that had so much personality even in its barest form. I won’t say how many color combinations I worked up, though I did spend weeks on variations, finally settling on an unrealistic bold palette, making Feynman look like a force of nature, an explosion of thought. I’m really proud of this one, and I might note that cover quote is the best quote I’ve ever gotten to layout (the inside flap revealed the speaker: Feynman’s Mom!).


Maybe I’m just a sentimental dork since it was the first cover I ever designed, but I can’t help but look at the cover for CAT BURGLAR BLACK by Richard Sala without a big dumb smile on my face. His watercolor ink style and geometric lighting gave me so much to work with and Lemony Snicket’s ridiculously long cover quote gave me so much headache…a design challenge and a half, though I do love the way it turned out. As a present the rest of the :01 staff bought me the original art for this cover, which I have proudly hanging on my wall.


TCG: Who are your artistic influences?

CAFV: Ellen Raskin is my absolute idol. A brilliant storyteller as well as a brilliant designer. She was even the genius behind the original (and BEST) cover of A WRINKLE IN TIME:


Not to mention the “sticker shaped” fireworks she casually designed into what she believed was the best thing she had ever written, THE WESTING GAME, a book I’ve read at least a dozen times. One of my life goals is to own a signed first edition of that book, though things like rent and food keep getting in the way.


Paul Rand, he was the master of iconic images. Simple, yet so thoughtful. His covers are like poems—there’s not a single line or spot of color wasted. Everything has its purpose, even the negative space.


While I’m sure I won’t hear the end of it, I have to say the best designer currently working in kid’s publishing: Chad Beckerman. He’s a good friend and the art director at Abrams. He’s most known for The Wimpy Kid cover (holy moly does the spot gloss on those little bits of tape make me so happy!), but pretty much everything I’ve seen of his has left me inspired. Chad also gets points since those few months where I was cursing loudly at my mac trying to learn how to make the images in my mind show up on my screen, he was the person I went to for technical help.


TCG: What type of qualities in a book cover (young adult or any other kind) would make you want to pick it up?

CAFV: Well, other than “a really, really horrible bad cover from last century that I can buy for under $1,” the covers I’m most drawn to are often ones that use a lot of negative space to push and pull your emotions, drawing you into one central image. As I mentioned before, I’m such a sucker for books with hand-lettered titles, ones that you can imagine the artist and the designer’s hands. If I can look at a cover and list all of the photoshop filters used in less than 10 seconds, you can be sure I’m not going to buy that book.

TCG: Are there any recent stop-and-stare YA covers that you’ve noticed lately?

venable_faves2-6701050CAFV: Nova Ren Suma’s IMAGINARY GIRLS cover

ZOMBIES VS. UNICORNS, edited by Holly black and Justine Larbalestier: A fake die cut with the most incredible case art! Internet pictures do it no justice at all.

HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT by Natalie Standiford

SISTERS RED by Jackson Pearce


Thanks so much for the interview, Colleen! If you want to see more behind-the-scenes on the design work for Brain Camp’s cover, she also wrote a post for MacKids here. And as “that one person who runs the entire art department” at First Second Books, for all that talent I believe she deserves one million dollars and lots of chocolate and cupcakes. (I’d say a tiara too, but apparently she’s already got one of those)

So, whaddya think? That’s a lot of interview artwork eye candy, no? Such wonderful talent, Colleen!