Make Lit Fashion: An Interview with Book Cover Designers

Cover art (left to right): Kai and Sunny, Sarah Brody and Sean Kapitain (Type Design), and Emmanuel Polanco. Art direction: Gigi Lau.

Cover art (L to R):  Kai and Sunny, Sarah Brody and Sean Kapitain (Type Design),
and Emmanuel Polanco. Art direction: Gigi Lau.

New York. London. Milan. Paris. What do those cities have in common? They've all had fashion weeks occurring in the month of February. Fashion isn't usually a preoccupation of a book festival but when you think about it, book covers are the outfits that stories wear. It's the first impression and it's hard not to judge a book by its cover when there are thousands published in a given year. When a striking cover catches your eyes? It's a magical moment.

There are people behind those magical moments: book cover designers. Three of them—Oliver McPartlin, a freelance designer; Gigi Lau, Art Director at Harlequin; and Jessica Boudreau, an in-house designer at Simon and Schuster—have agreed to discuss what it's like to design a cover, their most interesting moments and the trends they've noticed on book shelves.


"Same as everyone else, I guess: Skateboards and album covers got me interested in design as a youngster and I also happened to be into books."


 

The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai (Arsenal Pulp Press). Book Cover Art by Oliver McPartlin.

Book Cover Art by Oliver McPartlin (Arsenal Pulp Press)

Tell us about yourself and how you got into designing book covers.

Oliver McPartlin (OM): Same as everyone else, I guess: Skateboards and album covers got me interested in design as a youngster and I also happened to be into books. I knew I didn’t want to be in advertising or branding so I started knocking on publishers’ doors. New Star Books took a chance on me for a number of titles starting around 2012, and by 2015, I was working in-house at Arsenal Pulp Press. That was great for a few years but now I’m back to freelancing again.

Gigi Lau (GL): I’m originally from Vancouver and moved to Toronto to attend the York/Sheridan design program 20 years ago. After graduation, I worked in a variety of design environments from an environmental signage design studio to a global ad agency to a small start-up company to where I am now: at the in-house department at one of the world's largest publishing companies. A creative recruitment agency found me the designer position at Harlequin. There aren’t often openings in the book design world, especially in Canada so I was fortunate to be looking for a new change right at that time. I knew I loved working in print, and am grateful to have developed my design and art direction career here for the past 13 years.

Jessica Boudreau (JB): I have a degree in English and attended the publishing program at Centennial College but working as a designer wasn’t the path I set out on initially. I’ve been working in publishing for close to 12 years and started my career at HarperCollins as an intern, then was hired on as a Marketing Assistant. That role included a small amount of design work, and as time went by I began to do more and more of it. Eventually, it became a huge part of my job to design marketing materials, ads, etc. until I became a Creative Associate, and 90% of my job was marketing design work. From there, I took on my first cover as bit of a side project, It’s Not Me, It’s You by Mhairi McFarlane, and continued on to do more covers from there. In September of 2018, I moved over to Simon & Schuster where it's been all book covers all the time!


"We may also talk about what the cover shouldn’t be—that’s sometimes just as important as what it should be."


 

From the Ashes My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way by Jesse Thistle (Simon & Schuster Canada). Book cover design by Jessica Boudreau.

Book cover design by Jessica Boudreau (Simon & Schuster Canada)

What’s the process like for designing a book cover?

JB: The process of designing a book cover always begins with a discussion with the editor and the ideas that they have in mind. We’ll discuss other books that the project is like content-wise and other covers that have a similar tone or feeling that are currently in the marketplace. We may also talk about what the cover shouldn’t be—that’s sometimes just as important as what it should be. The editor may pass along some stock images they’d like me to use or are inspired by. The manuscript isn’t always available to read at time of design but even a few pages can be helpful. I’ll often work from information the editor provides about the content of the book/summary of the plot. It also varies so much from book to book! Non-fiction can be a lot faster to nail down than fiction (a hockey memoir, for example, can be much more straight forward than literary fiction). I always offer a lot of options for the editor to pick from as well as different concepts: some that we’ve discussed, some that I’ve come up with myself. The editor may come back with one design that they like and we’ll tweak from there, or narrow it down to a few mock-ups and discuss changes they’d like to see. Sometimes we’ll start again in an entirely new direction. It totally depends on the book.

OM: It definitely varies. As a rule, I try to read as much of the book as I can but sometimes there are time constraints. Other times, not much has been written yet and you have to wing it. It also depends on the author: often they’re dead-set on a concept they’ve had in mind throughout the writing process and it becomes my job to either work with that or come up with something better. A lot of it is about digging past the obvious and the literal while working within the visual conventions that help you communicate what type of book it is you’re selling.

GL: First, we get briefed by the editors on the book. We will discuss the elevator pitch of the story, the significance of the title, the key items we want to communicate, what we want to avoid and review how we want to position this book in the competitive retail landscape.

At the brief, we try to pinpoint a clear direction in terms of positioning so it narrows down the creative field a bit. As creatives, we need clear parameters before jumping into design. That’s part of my role as Art Director, I aim to clear the path for the design process to be as clear as possible. It’s not always possible as there are often changes along the way, new information may emerge – another cover may be revealed and it's too similar to what we’re doing or we get feedback from sales that the direction we’re pursuing is not actually selling well. The concepts can often change a lot to very little.

There Has To Be A Knife by Adnan Khan (Arsenal Pulp Press). Book cover design by Oliver McPartlin. (Arsenal Pulp Press). Book cover design by Oliver McPartlin.

Book cover design by Oliver McPartlin (Arsenal Pulp Press)

How different is it to design as an in-house designer for a book publisher versus freelancing?

OM: When you’re freelancing, it’s easier to see each project as a separate and unique thing, and really give them the attention and creativity they deserve. You get more excited about it. Working in-house, it can all start to blend together and just feel like a job. It’s easy to forget how lucky you are to be working on cool stuff all the time, and I think the work can suffer a bit from that.

Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen (Mira; a Harlequin imprint). Book cover designed by Gigi Lau.

Cover Art: Emmanuel Polanco. Art Direction: Gigi Lau (Mira; a Harlequin imprint)

Harlequin is known for publishing romance but you also publish great young adult, mystery, literary fiction and more. Is there a different approach to designing for the trade side of Harlequin versus the romance series?

GL: With the trade side, we are focused on communicating an impactful mood or tone with the cover design, whether it's using photography, illustration or type – we want to feature something that catches your eye and gives you a hint of the story behind the cover. With so many different genres in trade, there are different approaches within each genre to give the right cues whether it be young adult or psychological suspense or historical fiction.

With the romance series covers, the objective is to deliver a bit more story and setting, the details of wardrobe, pose, lighting are deliberately chosen to help the reader imagine what the story is about. But within the romance series, there are also many subgenres and the cover designs have visual cues as well to differentiate what type of romance read you’re getting, be it a suspense or western or historical romance.


"It’s also pretty incredible to see covers that I’ve designed on the bestseller lists. Those are proud moments."


 

The Mercy Journals by Claudia Casper (Arsenal Pulp Press). Book cover designed by Oliver McPartlin.

Book cover designed by Oliver McPartlin (Arsenal Pulp Press).

What was the most difficult, interesting, weird or fun cover designing experience?

JB: The thing about designing book covers is [even] though the steps of finding stock images, fonts, photoshopping and layout are essentially always the same, the design process is always different. Every cover may come with its own set of challenges or quirks, or may be a total breeze, but each cover is its own thing and that’s what makes it fun. It’s never the same thing twice. The process of designing to finally sending off the files to the printer is always different, whether that includes learning a new technique; receiving a whole new binder of new endpaper colours for an author to decide from; sitting down with an author to go over the design and what they have in mind; having an author receive their book and be so excited and happy with the cover that you get a bunch of Instagram compliments from them; or seeing a happy author at the book launch: each cover is totally rewarding in its own way and the process is totally individual to each book. It’s also pretty incredible to see covers that I’ve designed on the bestseller lists. Those are proud moments.

OM: They’re all difficult, interesting, weird and fun to varying degrees. Some are way harder than others but mostly, I’ve been lucky enough to work with lots of cool, smart people who I can bounce ideas off. My favourite projects are the ones where everyone is stumped as to what it should look like. That’s when you get the freedom to get really far out with it. Cookbooks are cool to work on too because there’s food.

Beautiful Bad by Annie Ward (Park Row Books; a Harlequin imprint). Book cover designed by Gigi Lau.

Cover Design: Sarah Brody. Type Design: Sean Kapitain. Art Direction: Gigi Lau (Park Row Books; a Harlequin imprint).

The Harlequin Art Department’s Instagram account is such a fun space where we get a peek at the behind-the-scenes. What was your most difficult, interesting, weird or fun cover designing experience within that context?

GL: Designing the Beautiful Bad cover was very interesting with how we executed the cover.

We used an acetate jacket to reveal more elements (the secondary tagline, more broken glass on the hard cover case). The back cover design is enhanced by printing the broken glass on the acetate jacket and printing the endorsements on the hardcover case. Making the package interactive definitely made this book unique on the bookshelf.

The challenge of using special acetate paper was [that] this was uncharted territory for us, the in-house design team as well as the in-house production team. I worked with the in-house production team, communicating with them extensively using mock-ups after mock-ups on what I was trying to achieve.

The finished product was exactly what we wanted to achieve, thanks to all the mock-ups and collaboration between the editorial team, design team, the production team and the printers. The collaboration with the editor was essential to get the right amount of copy for the back cover copy to work, as well as getting a secondary tagline that would fit nicely on the hard cover case. Working with production was very important to get the right placement and amount of opacity on the acetate jacket. We had a few missteps (one sample printing with not enough opaque white ink) but they just helped us get to where we landed. This project showed our publishing team how we can excel and work together in trying new decorating procedures for covers.


"I’ve noticed trends coming full circle just like in fashion, especially with colour. Right now, love seeing all the bright neon colours on covers!"


 

Find Your Pleasure The Art of Living a More Joyful Life by Cynthia Loyst (Simon & Schuster Canada). Book cover design by Jessica Boudreau.

Book cover design by Jessica Boudreau (Simon & Schuster Canada)

What are the trends that you’ve noticed on book shelves and do you think social media platforms like Instagram play a role in how covers are designed similar to how fashion shows are thinking about it on the runway?

JB: I will say one trend I keep seeing is hand lettering. It’s being used a lot right now, and I love the look, though of course it’s not suitable for everything! We work so far ahead on book covers (right now, I’m working on titles that come out in Spring 2021!) that trends we see on shelves may be old news by the time those books finally go on sale. We certainly may take inspiration from looks that we’re seeing now in bookstores, but I can’t say that we’re following trends. I also can’t say that Instagram or other social channels necessarily influence how we design! (I also find inspiration from a lot of places outside of the internet!) I definitely file things away that I see in my feed that may inspire me, but those things are rarely book covers: they’re photos of interior design, packaging, ads, crafts, artwork, etc. I’m noting things like colour combinations I like, fonts that I’ll try to track down later, the composition of an image… lots and lots of things that I can go back to later for the right project. Plus, we don’t need to design for Instagram: whatever looks good in real life is going to look great on the ‘gram. Our social team will make sure of that!

GL: I’ve noticed trends coming full circle just like in fashion, especially with colour. Right now, love seeing all the bright neon colours on covers!

Social media like Instagram have made an impact with the marketing and publicity of books but I don’t feel it’s impacted how covers are designed. The selling of books online is something that has impacted how cover are designed – we are always conscious of how covers are seen in thumbnail size on a screen and making sure the cover is readable in that small scale. But I am ultimately focused on the book design as a package, that’s what I love about book design – that begins when you spot a cover across the room or on the bookshelf, reach over and feel, and pick up and read the back cover copy, and get intrigued to read more, open the book and flip through for what the whole thing feels like in your hands.

OM: The line that we’ve all been hearing for years now is that the titles have to be huge so they’ll read clearly in Amazon thumbnails. The whole industry was getting really dogmatic about that and it was becoming the dominant principle of cover design for a while. That’s fading away a bit now, though. People are taking more chances, getting a little more abstract and oblique, not beating you over the head so much with BOOK TITLE AND AUTHOR NAME. It’s cool to see and I do think Instagram etc. has something to do with it but I’m not sure what.


Oliver McPartlin designs books and other stuff in Vancouver, BC. He is available for commissions and freelance work at mcpartlin.ca.

Gigi Lau is an art director at the world's leading publisher for women's fiction, Harlequin Books. Since 2006, Gigi has created compelling book covers for bestselling, emerging and debut authors. Books that she designed and art directed have hit The New York Times bestseller list and been recognized with national and international awards.

Jessica Boudreau is a Golden Girl at heart, a Jessica Fletcher and Doris Day wannabe, and a total sucker for puppies and polka dots. She too, like Kanye, can get emotional over fonts. After graduating with a BA in Honours English, Jessica spent a year teaching English in South Korea, then attended the Book and Magazine Publishing Program at Centennial College. She has also attended graphic design courses at Ryerson University, and spoken there as a guest lecturer. Jessica works as a Designer at Simon & Schuster Canada. She lives in Toronto with her family.