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Behind The Scenes: Book Cover Designer, Alan Jones

"It would be nice to think there are pieces of my work out there that people have kept on their shelves at home just because they like the look of them—as I have."
- Alan Jones, Director of Art, HarperCollins Canada

What was the path that led you to becoming a book cover designer?

There was really no logical path for me. Like many people, I’ve kind of just blundered sideways into a career. That said, ever since I was a kid I’ve loved books as physical objects. I have dozens of books at home that I haven’t read—and will never read—which I bought because they look and feel so good. So it’s likely the idea has always been there in the back of my mind that making books would be a neat thing to do for a living.

It never really occurred to me early on, though, that there might exist an actual publishing industry that paid people to do such things. Anyway, after leaving school with an English degree, I bumped around various graphic design jobs: Newspapers, magazines, corporate work, freelance, advertising. For a short spell I created brochures for a UK company that made tanks, missiles, jet engines and baby incubators.

I eventually ended up moving to Toronto with no real plan. The city was, at the time, the centre of the Canadian publishing universe, so I applied at a few places and, through a bit of bizarre coincidence I was hired in the Art Department at HarperCollins. In short, it was all just blind chance.

What is your approach when taking on a new book project?

For me, reading the book first—even just a decent chunk of it—is a big help. Getting some immersion in the story is the best way for me to make the deeper connection to the story that will inform the design. When it’s time to start the actual work, it’s important for me to try and clear my mind of all the other covers that I’m working on or have just finished and come at every new project from as fresh a perspective as I can.

It’s difficult at the busy times of the year when there’s so many jobs underway at once, so I rarely work on more than one cover on any given day. For me, it helps to compartmentalize things that way. Often I’ll find that an idea that comes to me for one cover actually works better for another, so there is some spillover. But for the most part I try to focus on one thing at a time.

Where do your ideas and inspiration for a book cover come from?

When I’m designing a book cover I obviously need to consider things like story, setting, character, theme, audience, sales market, etc. An idea will usually come to me after reading the book. Something in the story will resonate and I’ll make that the starting point for the design. But often what resonates with me may not resonate with others so I solicit thoughts from our editorial group, our sales team and the authors themselves.

In general, though, the text for me is a good place to start. After that, when I begin to build around an initial idea, inspiration really can come from anywhere at all. I’ve used ideas I got from my kids or that came to me as I was falling asleep at night. I’ve designed a cover inspired by an interaction I had with a neighbour’s dog.

"And, as with any artistic endeavour, there’s always outright theft. Someone else’s work is a great source of ideas for your own."

What is your intent for the reader when designing a book cover?

Over the years I’ve come to see book covers much as I do any other kind of retail product packaging. So in that context I hope that my design captures the attention of a bookstore customer just long enough for them to walk over, pick up the book and see if it’s something they’d like to buy. Beyond that I suppose it would be nice to think there are pieces of my work out there that people have kept on their shelves at home just because they like the look of them—as I have.

Do you have a favourite book cover that you designed? What makes that one standout?

A lot of my favourite designs are rejects that never made it onto the books they were intended for. One could argue this is a signal for me to consider another line of work. But I think I like so many of those rejects because they’re the most uncompromising and instinctual versions.

After you’ve gone through a few rounds of changes to those first drafts to get to a final cover that everyone’s happy with, you probably have a final product that better accomplishes what’s required of it, but which maybe doesn’t touch you personally quite as much as the original. I keep an archive of those old cast-offs to look back on from time to time.

If I had to choose a favourite cover that made it onto a finished book, it would probably be the original hardcover edition of The People’s Act of Love by James Meek. That one is very close to my heart but not for the actual design itself which I like a lot but is maybe not the best thing I’ve ever done.

People’s Act remains one of the very greatest books I have ever read. To have a jacket that I designed wrapped around a book that means as much to me personally as that book does feels very good. My signed copy is kind of a priceless possession. Now, I seem to remember that book only sold a few hundred copies in Canada. So maybe it needed a better cover.

Do you have a favourite book cover that you did not design? Why does it resonate with you?

I’ve seen so many amazing book covers over the years—stuff that sometimes makes me wonder why I don’t just quit altogether. But one recent favourite is David Gee’s design for Terry O’Reilly’s My Best Mistake. The concept is ridiculously clever, incredibly simple and it just perfectly conveys the message behind the title in a completely unadorned way. It’s really quite shocking how much it accomplishes with so little. There’s not one single unnecessary element in that design. I love it. You should really be asking David to answer these questions.

Was there a book project you worked on that was challenging creatively but in the end you’re super proud of?

The cover I did for Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black is one I’m very happy with. We really struggled for a long time trying to come up with a concept that everyone was happy with. We went through round after round of drafts, and I think everyone was feeling a lot of pressure because this was a big title for us.

In the end I was basically out of ideas when I came across a passage from the book where the main character draws pictures of sea creatures. It’s really a tiny detail in the overall story, but I was badly in need of something. So, I found what I thought was a very cool illustration of an octopus through a Google images search and quickly assembled the type around it. The whole thing took about twenty minutes. It was really just meant to be a concept outline, not a final cover—the last grasping at straws of a desperate designer.

The author and our sales and marketing group were puzzled at first. “Um . . . what’s with the octopus?” Fair question. As a concept, it really bears only the most tangential relation to the story and I found out later that the octopus I used isn’t even found in the part of the world where the story takes place. Thankfully we have no marine biologists in our publishing group.

Eventually, for reasons that I’ve never really figured out, people gradually just came around to the idea. Again, probably some combination of desperation and a looming print deadline. The design was approved pretty much unchanged from that first draft and the book went on to be a big success. It’s a reminder to me of the dangers of being too literal with a cover. It’s best to not try and say too much or give too much away.

What part of the design process do you love the most?

I enjoy the very beginning and the very end of the process. At the start, I’m just throwing ideas together freely and coming up with as wide a variety of designs as I can. It’s a nice “there are no dumb ideas” phase. Then at the end of the process there’s a feeling of satisfaction (and no small amount of relief) when we have a final approved cover that passes muster with everyone whose opinion matters.

The period in between isn’t quite as much fun because it’s essentially three or four weeks of various people telling you all the reasons your work is totally unacceptable.

Can you walk us through one specific book cover design from beginning to end?

I start with the creation of a design brief. I’ll have the editor consult with their author, the agent, the author’s friends, the agent’s mom, the author’s cousin’s interior decorator, basically ANYONE that we think is going to end up having a say in the design of the cover. Believe me, you’d be shocked at who has input.

From those conversations, the editor creates a kind of “mood board” of ideas and images which we discuss together and then organize into a formal design brief outlining possible directions for the cover. I then present this to our sales and marketing teams to get their input. We revise the brief according to those discussions and take it back to the author for any revisions.

It sounds laborious, but it gets everyone on the same page right at the start so there are no big conceptual surprises when the first set of designs comes in. It also provides me with a handy record to refer back to when folks suffer sudden bouts of amnesia and reject ideas that they had previously signed off on or even originated in the first place. That can be a lot of fun.

Once the brief is approved and a general direction agreed upon by everyone, it goes to a designer (maybe that’s me, maybe it’s one of our staff, maybe it’s a freelancer) along with a manuscript to read and that person gets started on preliminary designs. If there’s more than one possible direction in the brief, we ask the designer to provide samples for each.

Those designs then go back to our internal group as well as the group on the author side. We start to narrow down our choices and focus the direction, going back and forth with the designer until we have something that everyone is happy with . . . or at least can agree on.

"Sometimes we get lucky and it’s done in one round. Most times, not so much. But, we always get there."

Alan Jones is the Director of Art for HarperCollins Canada.

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