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Thinking Like A Book Designer

Lesson 6 of 15

Approaches To Fiction Cover Design

Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

Thinking Like A Book Designer

Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

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Lesson Info

6. Approaches To Fiction Cover Design

Lesson Info

Approaches To Fiction Cover Design

And now to turn to a different kind of cover, book covers. And this is really, I think, the jewel in the crown of publication design. And it's being the person who's responsible for corralling the complexity and richness of information of a novel or a book or something someone's spent a great deal of time writing in this essentially postage stamp, or if you're lucky poster, small poster, version of what that needs to be. So we want to start today in this section talking about Oliver Munday, who is one of the very gifted designers at Knopf. These images, I'll go back for just a moment, these are all Oliver's books. He and his colleagues there are charged with doing hundreds and hundreds of books a year, reinventing themselves with each issue. And yet at the same time, understanding certain continuum things of series, and authors, and all kinds of things they have to deal with. He is, we're very lucky to have an interview with Oliver that I think we're going to go to now. So Oliver, we'r...

e just going to jump right in here. I'm not sure where you want to start. But I'd like to know how you get started on a book cover. You know, what's the first step? Well, I'll start with these two, which are two recent novels that we published at Knopf. For both of them, I wasn't, there wasn't a full manuscript available. So we ideally start with the text and read as much as we can. For this book on the right, Divorce Is in the Air, we only had 15 pages of it in translation because they hadn't finished yet. It's a novel by a young Spanish writer named Gonzalo Torne. And so the editor said we only have 10 or 15 pages to work with, so that was it, that's what we had. And you know, in thinking about the process, specifically with this one, you know, it sort of threw a wrench in the way that we usually work. And I was questioning whether that was a bad thing or a good thing. And I think in the end, it allowed for a different way of approaching a cover image, you know, a different kind of distillation. It was almost easier because, you know, there's sort of a general sense of what the book was about. And you, you know, without having to delve into sort of the fanatic nuances, or whatever, that might weigh you down or make the process more complicated. And you did the illustrations? And the choice to have this sort of glossy finish, just on the top, almost becomes like a face, is that intentional? You know, no, a lot of that stuff was kind of incidental. The editor actually pointed out that the blades of the scissors looked like legs, that there was a face in there. But the idea was the scissors being this visceral kind of image to represent-- Divorce. Splitting and divorce. And then the rings of the-- Oh right, oh right. Wedding rings. Coming apart. I didn't see that. Of course, of course. The layers are eluding you. I'll be going now. So you get the manuscript, or whatever part you can. You read everything you can that's available, I assume? Yeah, I try to get through, but it's not always possible. And do you, does an editor or a marketing person say to you something like we see this as like Gone Girl crossed with Catcher in the Rye? Whatever you do, make the cover yellow. Yeah, or don't make it yellow. Everything's yellow now. Yeah, we hear that stuff all the time. And what do you make of that? Look at the spine, see the spine? Yeah, the spine. It's fantastic. I think, you know, with those kind of comments usually are attached to the bigger, more commercially viable books. And the books that everyone has the expectation pinned to. And you just have to try to work within their expectation and try to do something, you know, unexpected and exciting and original. That's tough. But I think that that challenge is fun sometimes. And timetables vary for how much time you have to come up with these things? Yeah, and so, you know, they call them crash books. A book will just come in and they want to push it out for the fall, because that's a big season for, you know, the big literary fiction, or whatever. And yeah, it's, you know, it's tricky because making something look like something else, I think, is a disservice. It blends in rather than stands out, but people don't, they think if something worked, it's because, you know, if the book fails, you know, it's the cover's fault. So in terms of timing and how you start, so you've got whatever input that marketing and editors are giving you. You have the actual raw material, the book itself. Do you close your eyes and picture things? Do you go for a walk? Yeah, I mean, I don't, I don't do a ton of pencil sketching. I do sometimes, but I do actually, I do a lot of thinking after the fact. And sometimes walk up to the park. That's becoming more rare. But yeah, fortunate for us here, we don't, we actually don't have to, we don't have to deal with a lot of those comments up front. It's pretty like do it, do what you think is best. And we have a sense of freedom and autonomy when we work, which I think is rare as art directors and designers. And so it's usually after the fact that those comments come in from marketing, or whatever. It's sort of let's go for the best-case scenario, and then we'll deal with that. And like I said before, those tend to be, you know, those tend to be attached to the big commercial books. How many books a year are you designing? Maybe a hundred, I don't know. It depends, because I do freelance work also. And less book freelance nowadays. But, yeah, I think it's between 15 to 20 books a list, depending upon, like Kelly, Blair, myself co-art direct the Pantheon list, and we alternate. Is that a Pantheon book over there? Yeah, so this is an old-- It's an old one, right? This is an Louise Fili. And this was a sort of templated style for these classics. And Pantheon doesn't publish a lot of paperbacks anymore. Their backlist is very small. And part of the fun of being in-house is that you can kind of thumb through those old files and see what is coming up that might be interesting for reprint. And people kind of will let you do what you do if you make it easy on them and say, look, it's just a matter of supplying the printer new files. Maybe we can repackage this thing. So that's probably a good jumping off point for this. So this is a really slim novel, set in Holland just at the end of World War II. And I'd never heard of it before. I had heard of Harry Mulisch, but I saw this and I was like I wonder what this is. And it happened that the reprint was happening a few months out. So I talked to the editorial department upstairs and said, you know, could I try some things for this. And they're like sure. And a lot of these books, like I said before, they existed within a template. So it was this old image and this kind of beautiful '80s grid. No, I mean it, though, there is a sort of-- What makes it a beautiful '80s grid? I mean, the sort of thin rules, the letter spacing-- The palette. The palette, yes, especially the pale palette, right. And so, rather than like taking something out of it and making its own object and almost making it look like it could be like a modern novel, or something more interesting, younger, with a different sort of energy, I think that's always sort of exciting and fun, to try to pull these different things out of the book. And these are some of your sketches? Yeah, so these are process sketches. There's an event that happens early on. A guy gets shot while riding a bike, and it sets off this kind of catastrophic chain of events. And this event really haunts this character throughout the book. And that's what the assault is. So this is playing with the bicycle, kind of as a graphic form. And here it's about the color, but you're still playing with this idea of the face. Exactly, so what happened with this particular one is I was reading, and early on I just saw, you know, in my head as I was reading, I was like, I saw this image of a bicycle as eyes, and these spinning wheels as this sort of, you know, almost like this trance-like state that the character may have been in. And I got really excited about that because I thought that could be, that'd just look cool. And so I kept that in the back of my mind as I was reading. And you know, you read the rest of the text almost trying to justify that image. And I was like oh yeah, it could work. It stayed. And so afterwards, I did this one, which is the final one. I did it first, but felt like-- You hadn't done enough to it. Because there's this, I think sort of adage that stuck with me from school where it's like always throw out your first idea. And I was like, you know what? There's probably something to that. And I try, always, to kind of flesh out as much as I can before designing another one. It's so interesting. So you, as a solution, as a process solution, you go to illustration. You're not afraid of making an image yourself. No, I mean, that's what I, why I love the form. That's what you love to do. It's not, I know it's, I don't know, it feels like you're relinquishing some sort of power when you just grab an image and put type on it. That works, and you know, but something about it feels-- I'm not gonna reexamine my entire career, but that stated, I'm feeling woefully unprepared to continue this interview. But do you ever hire outside illustrators? Photographers? Occasionally. When I really an out of my depth and I can't just, you know, I try-- Just a case where you had an idea where you knew you didn't have the chops to execute it. Yes, and I executed very poorly and realized I needed to bring in some who knows what Bring in the big guns. they're doing to do this. Is this an illustrator, somebody you hired? So you'll see this image is what I did originally, which is, at the time I thought, this is kind of, I think this could work. And I thought, oh, it looks pretty realistic. And then I showed it around and people liked the idea, but thought it looked sort of childish. And I know, I mean, it's a toy broken out like those old planes. And so this is a novel written by a vet and it's narrated through these different objects. That's where the title comes from. But it's so close. I mean, this is basically, your sketch is so tight. I mean, really, it's... I think if you compare, that is just the detail and the nuance of the shadow And the embossing. and the lighting. We hired this young guy Magnus Adam to, he does 3D rendering. I mean it's just, you can't even compare the two. I got it in and I looked back and I thought, I don't even understand how for a second I thought that that would fly. It's pathetic. No, it's not. It's an incredibly tight sketch. Well, you raise an interesting things, though. Do you think, are you conscious of the fact that there are things that you're good at, things that you like to do, and that's like one set of possible, that's one set of things in your repertoire. Then there's sort of the problem and all of the possible solutions it could have. And one of those solutions may be the perfect solution. And sometimes, it corresponds exactly with something you love to do that you're good at doing. Sometimes the perfect solution is something that-- It's way outside my skill set or ability. And I think that's sort of the adverse side of what you said of what we were talking about which is I like to work within my skill set, but that's one tiny fragment of what the possibility is going into a project. So I think often, you know, that's me being sort of stubborn and I end up shortchanging myself because there, you know, this may be this beautiful photograph that's perfect and tonally spot on. And that's the way that it should probably go. But me being like, no I wanna make everything myself, it's, you know, I think that-- But it seems to have served you well overall. I mean, empirically you seem to, I mean there's so much. It's a prolific body of output here at Knopf and Random House. Do you find that you have occasionally images or ideas that get jettisoned and that you revive later? All the time, yes. All the time. The composting your failures. That is a big part of the job. Jettisoned for one project and then they get revived for another one? And you know, that's another interesting thing which I think, you know, what makes an image resonate is not exclusive to the thing that you think it is and where it comes from, I think-- That can be the title of you're autobiography right there. Yeah, I gotta keep that in mind. Write that down. What makes a thing resonate? Well, just the what you think it is is not the thing it is. And I think, you know, it speaks to this larger network of meaning that you can only begin to imagine. And so applying it to something else, it just, you know, it fits sometimes. And the themes that run across all these books are I think more similar than they are dissimilar. And so the things that work, visually, I think oftentimes you find that they can work for other things. Do you ever get a book where it just, you just don't feel you're connecting with it and you just have to say help, I don't think I can do this one. Can I trade it with one of my colleagues for something that I can do? Sometimes. Sometimes that happens. I think it's rare. But you know, as I do more of this, 'cause this is all relatively new for me. I mean, I've only been in-house for a few years. But reading, my relationship to reading of texts, I'm beginning to understand differently than I did at the beginning, which is that you know, reading for work, really, it's work. And it's not, you're reading with a different sort of economy and you're looking for something. And I think, you know, we look for things in the books we read for pleasure, too. But it's a much different, it's a much different experience. I mean, it's, you have these constraints of time and pressure and expectation and all those things that-- Are you always making sketches while you read? No, I don't. Only sometimes. And I think this one in particular, and this is a case where the two things converged, which is this beautiful novel by Elif Batuman, who writes for the, I think she's on staff for the New Yorker. Turkish-American, really, really smart. And this book is about her first year at Harvard. And I just, the project came in and I was like, oh this is, and it's her first novel. She writes a lot of nonfiction. And I was just so excited about it. And I read it and I was like this is incredible. And at first I was like, how am I ever going to come up with something. Can you take us through these sketches, because they're so varied. So it started with these pencil sketches, really simple. And you can see sort of one-to-one, almost, the rock is here. This is the actual cover that ended up. And there was this scene in the book where a young man she was seeing described to her this strawberry tree, or tried to explain that strawberries grew on trees. And she's like, I don't think that is true. They grow on bushes. Yeah, that's (mumbles). And so I thought it was this perfect sort of visual pun or metaphor for the book. I mean, it's subtle. And I think ultimately it didn't prove as strong as the others, but that's that one. And then the sort of Ivy League column, the I. That's that one. And then the sort of pennant flag/dunce cap. Harvard Crimson colors. Right, and then-- The real Harvard Crimson colors. This one actually isn't on there, but it was a variation of that one. And in the center you see to have a sort of Dostoyevsky-- Yeah, that was-- Same books as-- Peter came in and drew this sketch on my page as a joke. No, I mean, was it, I mean, when you got a book called The Idiot, knowing there's already a book called The Idiot. She's a huge Russian lit, I mean she studied it in undergrad. She loves Dostoyevsky. And it's funny because-- Sort of subconscious, then? Yeah, and it's actually not, it's not, that book specifically isn't mentioned in this text. But that, I mean initially I was like, this is crazy. Maybe there's something to do with that book. Or even visually with old Dostoyevsky covers, or whatever. But that didn't prove, you know, the right way to go. But yeah, exactly, that's a thing that she's speaking to with this, absolutely. But this is rare. And I'd almost, it was kind of refreshing for me just to do that because I really don't, I'm not really good at drawing. And so-- I don't believe that. How can you not be good at drawing? Oh, sketching drawing. No wait, wait, wait, I mean you really are a great image maker, though. And you say there's, what's the difference between drawing and, when you say drawing, what's the difference between that and the kind of images you say you love to make? I think a lot of that is you know, it's collage, it's found images. It's tracing or simplifying found images, you know, in Illustrator using vector shapes. And it's a different, it's just a different set of, I don't know, it's not as nuanced and difficult as drawing something, I think, in a more realistic sense with pencil or painting or gouache, or whatever it is. It's just, I saw recently an interview with Sam Weber, the illustrator, and his process blew me away, what he had to go through to, you know, with watercolor and he hired a model. I mean, he's so, um, you know, the detail in his work and how realistic it is and how long it takes. That's why I've always been hesitant to call myself an illustrator, because in that sense, you know, I approach things graphically like a graphic designer would. And this feels almost to me like a to-do list in a way. Yeah, that's exactly what it, yeah. I'm like hopefully I don't forget, yeah. I've got one thing to do between four, five, six ideas. And you make just a quick visual note of this one and that one. Each one of them really requires a different sort of process to realize, whether it's finding a picture of a rock-- Exactly. Finding the picture of the Corinthian column, or the Ivy League column and wrapping it. It's pulling, you know, this is an old, you know, this is a photo that's made a little bit more graphic. This is very simple. All these things exist. It's just the process of bringing them together. And this is, you know, a stock photo from Getty that I put on a different color background. So we've talked, we only have a few minutes left. But I wanna ask you one last question. And we've talked a lot about fiction, which seems to be sort of the mainstay of what you do. But I think this is nonfiction, correct? Yeah, so this is, right. And I brought because I had this book, which recently came out as a sort of, an examination of our time in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it's a very, it's a very heavy book. It's really delicate in certain senses. And so it was difficult to think about, you know, you have all these things to keep in mind that you have to respect. And you don't want to be too jarring with what you say, regardless of what's in the text. I think you want to present it with some equanimity. You don't wanna to make it too alienating. So this idea of these badges and what it means to wear one at home and to wear one as a solider came in and I think it worked perfectly for the title, The Mirror Test. And actually I didn't realize this until I started in, which is that the badges, when they're worn as a soldier are inverted, or it's the mirror image that you see. And so the first one I did was just two badges that you would buy to put on a jacket at home as a civilian. And the author was like, I love this idea, but, the badges that they actually wear would be, you know, the mirror image of it. That's so subtle and so powerful, just that slight little tweak with the rendering of it and the story. It works, really, on every level. And it's very elegant. Yeah, so that was, so I was in at the desk fraying one and I had a good friend of mine, George Byer, who's a photographer shoot it in the studio. Because, you know, it felt like getting the shot, the shading right was important for this one. But yeah, he did, he always does a great job, shoots stuff for us all the time. And so much of what you do, what I think a book cover designer does, in general, you do in particular, Oliver, is you take a complicated text. You know, this is a book that is more than 500 pages long and figure out a metaphor that can sort of sum up the basic thesis. Particularly for nonfiction, but I think it's true for novels, as well, do you ever feel that, I mean does any of it, there's kind of a reductive quality to that, that in a way could be said that it inherently can't do justice to the complexity and richness of the material. Oh absolutely, I don't think it can ever do true justice to what's inside. I think it's just, you know, you want to figure out a fair emblem to represent the text. You wanna, you know, you don't wanna misguide a potential reader. But I don't think you could ever, I mean that's part of the frustration is like deciding on, I think a difference between fiction and nonfiction is with fiction, you can take more, I think experimental and sort of interpretive liberties with a text and evoke a feeling through other means. Whereas nonfiction, it's almost a relief sometimes, because you can read something and often, you know, you don't have to read an entire text to understand what the book is about. And that way, it's a very similar, like I think this, without the text, could have been a split op-ed illustration. Like that's the way that I thought about it. And I think that helps with nonfiction a lot, in terms of thinking, because you have to think quickly, like how can I take this idea and kind of break it down to its component parts and figure out some sort of connection. So that, with nonfiction, often I think that's the case. And there's definitely a similar sensibility to how I approach this to how I would've approached this author pending an op-ed to illustrate to. Oliver, thank you, this has been so interesting. Great, thank you guys.

Class Description

Print is not dead, and in this class you’ll learn about the elements that go into designing a book. Jessica Helfand and Michael Beirut are renowned designers and experts in the field of design, and in this class you have the chance to learn from their years of expertise! If you’re interested in designing a book, personally or professionally, this class will teach you what you need to get started, including:

Lesson 1: The History of Book design

Lesson 2: How to work with Grids, Grid Systems, and Text

Lesson 3: Approaches to Art Book Design

Lesson 4: How Book Design Engages and Entertains 

Lesson 5: Approaches to Cover Design for Fiction 

Lesson 6: What Makes a Successful Book Cover

Lesson 7: How to Approach Cover Design for a Series

Lesson 8: Detailing Book Anatomy Part 1

Lesson 9: Detailing Book Anatomy Part 2

Lesson 10: Approaches to Fine Tuning Typography

Lesson 11: Methods to Creating your Own Book

Lesson 12: Abbott Miller: Personal Book Project–Case Study

Lesson 13: Michael Bierut: Personal Book Project-Case Study

Lesson 14: Jessica Helfand: Personal Book Project–Case Study

Lesson 15: Best Practices in Book Design

Jessica and Michael also share a series of behind-the-scenes interviews with seasoned designers working at the publishing giant Random House and award-winning design studio Pentagram. This class provides a full- bodied robust understanding of all the things that go into being a book designer, a classic tenet to anyone who makes things in the world. 


Leonie Holzman

I had an opportunity to be in the live studio audience for Thinking Like a Book Designer. The session was rich with content, taking us through the whole process of what goes into designing a book as well as interviewing top book designers in the field. I also appreciated the lively exchange between the presenters Jessica Heifand and Michael Bierut. As someone who over the years got burned out as a graphic designer, feeling more like a machine than a designer often times, it reminded me of why I was drawn to become a graphic deisgner in the first place.

Sonny Pham

I had an opportunity to attend this amazing workshop by Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand. I was gained information about the history of book design, the do's and don'ts, and even insight on the industry itself. It was a surreal experience! My favorite part of the lesson has to be when Jessica and Michael interviewed other artists about their books, with an very in depth analysis on their design choices and process. After seeing Michael explain his design process for his book, I bought it after the class was done. Definitely worth the money for the lesson, and will be back for more!

Anna Pankin

Very engaging and informative class! My only 2 recommendations for the creators (if they read the comments) would be to add a pdf file of the presentation available to download (since it has all the references and visual examples) and, as someone below already mentioned, it would have been nice to actually see the magazine and book pages close-up just as they were being discussed in the videos. But overall I loved the course and the lecturers, who are a true inspiration.