Under Cover…

Book design…from cover art, to font choice, to the weight and feel of the pages and every intricate detail between, is often something overlooked by readers. Sure, we’ve all felt drawn to pick up a book with an interesting or unusual cover, but most likely never thought twice about the effort that went into creating it. Perhaps a seasoned book designer would say that’s the way it should be…that the first-sight temptation of the perfect book is seamless, silent, mesmerizing.

In an effort to peer into the world of book design, I decided to ask the amazing woman who created the design for Knopf’s Canada’s publication of The Birth House, Kelly Hill, a few questions.

here is our recent email conversation:

What led you to a life in book design?

Literature and art are always showing up to parties together in my world. While at university I remember looking at all of my Canadian lit novels (I was an English major) and thinking that it was someone’s job to decide which piece of art — usually a group of seven painting(!) — went on which cover. With my minor in Art History I thought that would be the perfect job for me. That’s how unsophisticated my first thoughts were about what I do now. After university I went to Centennial College for the book and magazine publishing program, thinking that I wanted to do editorial work and ended up loving the design class. Because I didn’t have a graphic design diploma I didn’t think I’d be qualified for the positions I wanted, but I got into publishing as an advertising and promotions designer and then made my way
down the hall to book design.

How long have you been with Knopf/Random House Canada?

5 years: 3 in advertising design and 2 in book design

There’s been a lot of talk about 39-year-old Chip Kidd, (with the recent release of his ten-year retrospective Chip Kidd: Book One 1986-2006) and what he’s brought to book design. He cites comic books (specifically Batman comics) and album covers as sources of inspiration for his style. What kinds of things (and/or artists) have inspired your work?

Chip Kidd’s book is sitting on my desk right now: it’s a really impressive portfolio.

I’m glad you suggested that things could be a source of inspiration: I’m often inspired by beautiful handmade pieces, like clothing and quilts and rugs and fabrics. I am drawn to book jackets that use illustrations, textures, whimsical elements — evidence that although books are mass produced, somebody made this cover. I have some books with old advertising illustrations, which I go to often for inspiration, and I pore over graphic design annuals, wishing I’d thought of those ideas. And then there’s always the book itself as the most important source of inspiration — everything you need to design the cover is there.

Can you losely take me through the process you went through in designing the cover for The Birth House? What were you trying to convey to the reader?

For every book I first sit down with the editor, who describes the general themes and storyline, the audience for the novel and maybe comparable books
or authors. I also like to read a portion of the manuscript to get a feeling for the writing and to look for “images” within the text. What I always want to do with a cover is present something that is true to the book with just enough intrigue and hopefully beauty, that whoever picks it up will want more. In the case of The Birth House, there is the pregnant woman (who is she? is she going to be okay?) and the label and botanical print, which hint to the Willow Book and the “scrapbook” style of the novel.

The Birth House also includes many design elements within the text of the book. (advertisements, invitations, old news clippings, and an herbal notebook – all circa WW I era) What sorts of challenges did these things present?

These were fun to do: I used some actual ads from that time period as inspiration and did my best to mimic the fonts and graphic style. Since some of the authentic ads were not well designed I was allowed to break some of my own rules for the purposes of authenticity.

What kinds of things can editors and writers do to lend a hand to the designer?

Trust them!

*Author’s Note – In May, I handed Kelly a scrapbook filled with images that had been sources of inspiration for me while I was writing. All I said to her was, ‘run with it!’ She sure did…I love Kelly’s work on The Birth House. It is surprising, beautiful and brimming with wit and magic. Thanks, Kelly!

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