A conversation with designers Jean Traina, Michael Windsor, Emily Mahon, and Rex Bonomelli

January 1, 2008

1. How did you get into book jacket design?

Jean Traina: Upon graduating from Parsons, I knew that I was interested in editorial design but leaned toward magazines, eventually landing a staff position with a publisher developing magazine prototypes. I soon realized that magazines, to my annoyance, were unending and repetitive. Book jackets, on the other hand, are a one-shot deal (maybe two with the paperback), each one like a little poster. There is endless possibility, so much freedom within a 6 x 9, two-dimensional space.

Rex Bonomelli: When I was in college, one of my teachers was Michael Ian Kaye, creative director at Little, Brown. He offered me an internship during my senior year and I became dazzled by the ins and outs of book publishing. After I graduated, I worked at design studios where I would occasionally get book jacket projects to work on. From there, I was hired at Random House.

Michael Windsor: I started as an illustrator—my first real artistic aspiration was to draw comic books. But as it turned out, I graduated and moved to the city right when the market crashed. There wasn’t much work out there, so I went back to school for design. I ended up having a knack for it, and enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. It was in my junior year that I decided that book covers were what I enjoyed the most and wanted a career in. The fact that you hold a book in your hands and turn it over and open it up appealed to me in an artistic sense. It’s not just a flat piece of art, it has dimensions. Every turn is a canvas to create something on.

Emily Mahon: I went to the graphic design program at Penn State, and felt inspired by the legacy of Chip Kidd (an alum) to go into book design when I graduated. I feel grateful that I started my career at Picador, which publishes a great list of literary books, and that I was given the opportunity to design covers within my first month there.

2. Can you tell us a little about the book jacket design process from start to finish?

RB: We start the process by having a discussion about the book with the publisher and editor. We talk about comparable titles, target audience, and possible visual ideas. If a manuscript is available, I read it. I take notes on things that would make interesting images. After I read it, I do image research and begin designing.

After I’m happy with the designs we have another meeting where a) a cover is approved or b) everything I was happy with is picked apart and reconfigured into a mess, and I start over.

MW: Presenting the cover comps to the editors and publishers in the jacket meeting is the brutal part of the job. If you don’t have a thick skin and you are unable to listen to someone tell you everything you’ve slaved over for the last three weeks is all wrong, then you will never last as an art director.

EM: With fiction I always read the book first. As I’m reading I usually sketch and take notes of visual ideas or passages in the book, which could inspire a cover. After I finish reading I usually take a week or two to digest the book and decide what is the best approach for designing, whether it be all type, illustration, photography, etc., and begin to come up with concepts that will reach the right audience and deliver the essence of the book. I’d say I usually end up in a much different place than where I start when designing. One idea will trigger another until I reach a point where I know I’ve found a good solution.

3. When you are designing a jacket, how do you strike a balance between the commercial and the aesthetic? Is your first impulse a beautiful design, or are you always thinking about the placement of the book in the bookstore and how it can best draw readers to it?

JT: Positioning of the book is definitely the jumping off point. It would be a waste of time to begin the process any other way but from there, an aesthetic solution is the ultimate goal.

RB: The most important thing for me when I design a jacket is to serve the book. Period. If that means creating the most beautiful cover because it’s the most beautiful book, super. If it means creating a very commercial cover because it’s a very commercial book, fantastic. Everyone involved in publishing has some kind of agenda that needs to be met, but my job is very clear-cut. I have to create a truthful visual interpretation of the book.

MW: The first design I do is always my own vision. Now, that’s not because I’m a design snob! I find that if I don’t get my first impression down on paper, it’s really hard to move forward with any other ideas. In a weird way it’s like letting the floodgates loose. Balancing the commercial and the aesthetic is tricky. Art is subjective. What speaks to one person may be completely overlooked by another. The key in my opinion is to make the jacket stand apart from everything else around it. My theory is that something beautiful or interesting will always be noticed.

Design is really about relating different information together to form a solid unit. I like to use juxtapositions to achieve this. It could be two images that at first don’t make sense but that work together. Strange cropping, textures, a mixture of fonts, color, what have you. They all have to work together in the end. By staying away from the expected and obvious you can pique people’s interest more. Give them something they haven’t seen before and chances are they’ll pick it up. And if they do that, my job is done.

EM: The content of the book, whether literary or more commercial, dictates how the book needs to look. I first try to determine who the audience for the book is, and then figure out what the design calls for. I feel fortunate that I have been able to work on a wide range of books, so I have learned to determine how to make a book look “bigger” or “smaller” depending on the audience it is speaking to.

4. Of all the book jackets out there, which one do you admire most and why?

JT: I can’t resist gorgeous typography and illustrative hand lettering.

RB: I would rather tell you my favorite movie. A tie between West Side Story and Rosemary’s Baby.

MW: Wow, that’s a tough one. I go to the bookstore almost every week just to see the new releases and gauge where things are headed . . . trying to stay ahead of the curve. I do have favorite designers, though, whose work I have long admired. They include but aren’t limited to Rodrigo Corral, Peter Mendelsund, John Gall, Honi Werner, and others. They all have their own voices. I can pick their work out when I see it.

EM: I admire many that Paul Rand designed in the fifties and sixties. A few that stand out are Goodbye, Columbus and H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices. He was able to create covers with simple, strong, graphic iconography, and his solutions always seemed to work.

5. What does it feel like when you see a book you designed on the subway or on a friend’s shelf? Does it feel different when you see it out of the context of your workspace?

JT: I always think it could have been better!

RB: Whenever I’m at someone’s apartment, I can’t resist the urge to see if one of my books is on their shelf. When I see someone on the train reading one of my books, well, it’s like eating a cake made of rainbows.

MW: It’s always nice to see something you’ve worked on in someone’s hand or on a shelf. However, I am very critical when it comes to my own work. All I see is what I think is wrong with the design. This happens way more outside the office... “Oh, if I had just made that title 2 points bigger or that blue 5 percent lighter or put that image on the opposite side” . . . but I think this is because I’m always trying to be better at what I do.

EM: I won’t lie, it’s pretty exciting every time I see a book I designed displayed in the front of a bookstore, or anywhere outside of the publishing house. I’ve watched people in bookstores to see which books they are drawn to pick up, based on a first unbiased attraction to it. I like knowing that I had a part in the whole process of giving a book a personality and an identity outside of its words alone.

6. Tell us about the covers you designed for the Spring 2008 Spiegel & Grau list. How did you come up with these designs?

RB: I designed A Fraction of the Whole for the S&G Spring ’08 list. The covers I have the hardest time designing are usually the books I most enjoy reading. It’s kind of paralyzing to work on something you like so much because you’ve become emotionally invested in it and don’t want to do anything to screw it up. This was the case with A Fraction of the Whole.

For this book my direction was to create a bold design that was fun, clever, young, and original, with “ballsy and ambitious type.” Easy! Because this story is an epic journey I couldn’t just have one image. I decided to draw lots of little icons that were representative of points along the journey. I wanted the end result to be mysterious but compelling. I love it when I read a book and I don’t quite know what the cover means, but when I get to the part in the book that refers to the cover I get the “a-HA!” moment. I hope that’s what people will get.

EM: Ellington Boulevard was a fun read, I knew the cover had to feel very fresh, and it called for an illustration. The characters in the book were all unique, and I loved the way in which they were described by role, and not so much by name (i.e., the tenant and his dog). The illustrator I chose to work on this one, Juliette Borda, has an incredibly imaginative and quirky sensibility and I knew she could give the characters real personalities through small vignettes. I sketched a few ideas about how I felt the overall wraparound jacket should look, and I was thrilled with how the final art turned out.

Against the Machine was about coming up with a smart concept to differentiate the computer age from the world as we knew it before computers. It took a while to come to this solution, but I finally realized it was as simple as showing the disparity between the old and the new.