Beautiful by Design

So yesterday, we discussed all the different parts of a book and how to make those parts look pretty with fancy finishes. But how do the pictures and illustrations make it onto those covers in the first place? How do you translate a story into a single image, and make it intriguing enough for someone to want to pick it up?

We’re pretty much all suckers for good design here at Hot Key, so we sat our super design team (Jet Purdie, our Art Director, and Jan Bielecki, our design assistant) down to ask them a few of our burning questions about the world of cover design:

Q: When a book first lands in your hands, what is your first step in beginning to design the cover?

Jet Purdie (JP):
Drink strong coffee and read the brief several times.
Research the subject matter.
Spitball ideas within the design department.
Doodle roughs to weed out the cheesy cliché ideas.
Prey the design gods have given you some cool title type letters to play with typographically.

Jan Bielecki (JB): When I read a book or a brief, hopefully there will be something visually striking, be it a scene, an object or even a mood, that stands out and with luck can summarise the story. So I try to scribble down those initial inner images in the margin and hope they can be chiseled out into proper ideas and routes. Research is great but every now and then, that initial little doodle has all the story and all the energy locked away inside it from the start.

Trouble with Mummies...before and after!

Trouble with Mummies…before and after!

What is a typical timeline for creating a cover? Is there one?

The design department is briefed.
We brainstorm. We sketch.
Concepts are pulled together for presentation.
We hunt out cool illustrators and photographers.
We run ideas by the commissioning editor and author.
The various routes are presented internally at a weekly progress meeting where we receive feedback.
If everybody is happy we commission the illustrator or begin organising a photo shoot, hiring photographers, studio space, costumes, make up artists, lighting designers et cetera.

JB: I’ll let Jet answer this as we’re working on a gazillion covers at the same time!

Q: At what points do you ask for feedback from authors and/or editors?

JP: When we are confident we have a strong concept and have an illustrator or photographic route in mind.

Q: Have you ever had to scrap something halfway through?

JP: Author Lydia Syson (A World Between Us) had her heart set on an illustrative cover, so we switched from our initial photography route to illustration.

JB: We have to scrap things from time to time, it’s part of the process. You just have to try to keep most of the scrapping to the beginning of a project. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if an idea works until you’re actually looking at it and sometimes the stories change after we’ve started on the cover. That’s all part of being a creative, trying things out, seeing if they stick and if not, changing them up, rethinking them, or all together scrapping them to get to where you want to be.


Q: What is the most challenging cover you’ve ever created?

JP: Alex Shearer’s book ‘The Cloud Hunters’ was tricky in that the cover image – a sky ship – wrapped around from the front, over the spine and onto back. The angle of the ship was heavily dictated by needing to work on both sides. Illustrations that continue over the spine can also be tricky given that the spine width often changes due to page count, paper thickness et cetera.

JB:  I did a cover for an Ian Sansom book before I started at Hot Key, where I all together scrapped the whole cover after it had been approved, and redrew it from scratch. It had lost it’s energy from the process dragging out for too long and I felt I needed to retain that by redoing it all much faster. Sometimes you reach break-throughs that cast new light on a project and then it’s best to listen to your gut and follow that instinct, I think.

Q: How do you deal with roadblocks during the design process?

JP: Plan ahead… and if that fails… go another route.

JB:  I get grumpy. That rarely solves the problem though, but fortunately we’re working on so many covers at one time, we can easily jump onto something else that needs doing and that will clear our heads. It usually does the trick, getting some perspective or just letting a task simmer in the subconscious. It’s always good to build up the courage to approach a problem from a completely different angle.

Q: What are you favourite covers of all time (either designed by you or not!)?


Q: What are your cover design pet peeves?

JP: It can be slightly tricky designing covers for books that are still being written.

Q: How did you get into cover design?

Typographer for above-the-line advertising agencies (M&C Saatchi, WCRS).
Designing album covers for MoWax / XL Records.
Ghost illustrating Maisy the Mouse picture books at Walker Books.
Designed teen fiction covers for Random House Kids.
Designed film posters, ads and DVD cases for entertainment advertising companies (The Creative Partnership, Tea Creative).
Branding companies (Hot Key Books being one of them).
Bumped into the lovely and talented Sarah Odedina.

JB: I loved drawing and reading books and comics as a child, so it always seemed to me that publishing was how drawings were utilised. That stuck with me. I still love books and I love working on things people keep lying around or tucked away at home. So it’s all comes together quite perfectly in designing books.

TRANSPARENT...early roughs and the final cover.

TRANSPARENT…early roughs and the final cover.

Q: Any advice for aspiring designers?

Learn how to use Creative Suite by re-designing book covers you love.
Get feedback and work by uploading your designs to sites like:
Practice cutting out objects and people (especially people’s hair isolated on white backgrounds) with Layer Masks.
Practice creating drama with Curves and Hue & Saturation (plenty of tutorials online).
Learn about typography.
Learn about the more geeky, pre-press side of things.
Try get into the mind of the target audience, as opposed to just creating what you’d like to see on a shelf.

JB: Don’t be precious about your things, always make more and move forward. Look at as much stuff as you can and always analyse why it’s working, what doesn’t and why. Try to learn from other’s mistakes but since that’s impossible, make your own mistakes as much as you can.

Do you have any questions for Jet or Jan? Please post any queries you might have below and we’ll get you some responses ASAP.


One response to “Beautiful by Design

  1. I found this fascinating. It’s like having mini master classes.

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