Interview: Kimberly Glyder on designing book covers



When I look at the book covers designed by Kimberly Glyder, of Kimberly Glyder Design, I sense that what you see is what you get. I would even claim that her designs have an honest quality, if that makes any sense, and they are rooted in different American traditions. Kimberly doesn’t use Helvetica very often and seldom play it safe and minimalistic. She makes covers for books of literary fiction, essays and more commercial novels, but she always finds a style and solutions – she is very good with typography and colors – that are bold and that makes you want to grab and explore the books.



Kimberlys work has been recognized by the AIGA in their 50 Books/50 Covers Show, the biennial AIGA 50 design competition for the DC area, the AIGA Philadelphia Design Awards, the AAUP Book Jacket and Journal Show, the New England Book Show, the New York Book Show, and in PRINT’s Regional Design Annual.



Kimberlys clients include: Random House, Ecco, National Geographic, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Grand Central Publishing, Johns Hopkins University Press, W. W. Norton, Abrams, Graywolf Press, and Little, Brown. We had the opportunity to ask Kimberley a few questions. For the interview I mostly chose covers she made for books from independent and university presses. They are not representative of her work as a whole.



Could you please tell us a little about your background and how and why you became a designer of book covers?

I’ve always been a voracious reader and involved in the fine arts, so being able to combine books and design is an ideal fit for me. I attended the Rhode Island School of Design where I received a BFA in Graphic Design. Though I wanted to go into book design right out of school, there were limited oppor-tunities at the time, so I had brief stints in print design studios working on brochures, catalogs, branding systems, etc. Then I spent a couple years working as a museum designer creating exhibits for international and regional clients. Finally, I landed at Da Capo Books in Boston and began my career as a book designer, leaving a couple years later to strike out on my own (which I love).



What purposes are book covers supposed to fill?

Whether the cover is shown online or as a printed copy in a bookstore, the purpose of a book cover is to create an engaging experience for a potential buyer. Hopefully, a buyer “clicks on” a book online or picks up a book in a bookstore, and then it’s really the writing that must convince someone to buy the book. My job, as I see it, is to push a buyer to interact with a book.





Are there differences between book covers and other kinds of graphic design?

Certainly, I think there is much more emphasis on conveying a specific concept or tone for a book cover. Authors and publishing companies have very definitive ideas of how they want to market books and there is a fine line between creating something visually appealing and accurate (enough). It’s not just about what is beautiful, but the balance of the author’s writing to take into consideration.





Do you have a philosophy, rules of thumb or rituals that you follow during the creative process? Please tell us a little bit about the creative process.

Over the years, I’ve been able to streamline my process effectively. I always begin a book by reading the manuscript and taking notes. These notes are usually “big picture” concepts. Sometimes they are specific visuals that stand out within the book (such as a variety of flower mentioned, or the color of a woman’s hair, etc.). At the beginning of many book projects, I will also get input from the author which then gets combined into my notes. After reading and note-taking, I move on to sketching. I always sketch first before turning to the computer. These small sketches are rough thumbnails where I distill my notes and take a first stab at translating the concepts into visuals. This also might be when I’m doing photo research. Often times, I will move on to hand-lettering or some painted element. I seem to be hired for more and more projects in which illustration is requested, so this has become an important stage in my process. Finally, I move on to designing.




You are very versatile stylistically and have a quite varied portfolio – you have made covers for books of fiction and books of non-fiction and you also work for different kinds of publishers, from rather small and indie Graywolf Press to Random House. Yet I find unifying elements, many of your covers are bold, they certainly stand out against the background, and several of them are humorous. Could you please comment on the variation of your portfolio? Could you also say something about working with publishers with quite different identities?

I think as a book designer, you have to be varied in your style. There are some designers who aren’t and it works well for them, but for me, it’s rather a necessity to have the variation. Not only is this variety fulfilling since it allows me to work on a range of subject matters (one of the best parts of working with books in my opinion!), but it also brings in a number of varied clients. I have a soft spot for Graywolf Press, as I feel as though the covers I’ve worked on for them are my most successful from a creative standpoint. Part of the reason for this I think, is that they allow me the freedom to really stretch my creative limits and they value my contribution to the book. So many large publishers get saddled down by what they think is commercially viable, and in the process, the covers lose any uniqueness which would have made them stand out in the first place.

I do like bold covers and am happy to hear you think mine have that quality. I’m not someone who uses Helvetica as an afterthought. I like type as image. I think a lot can be visually conveyed with a little and that’s taken many years to figure out.


rails-white_650 (1)


Can you please tell us a little bit about the cover you made for Rails Under My Back and explain how it came about and how you intended it to work?

Rails Under My Back chronicles the lives of two African-American brothers and their families. The metaphor of the railroad (the themes of migration and uprooting) dominates the book. The “rails under my back” also signify scars from whipping and the legacy of slavery. The two brothers take divergent paths so my goal was to convey this break in a visual way. My solution was to  create a railroad graphic that splits to move off in two directions. The railroad design also refers to the human spine/back and the small yellow marks evoke the scars. The type is jumpy and carries a lot of movement, in keeping with the writing style. The color palette is intentionally limited to reinforce the strong visual impact of the typography and background graphics.


We really appreciate that Kimberly took our questions, thanks. These are the books featured in the interview:

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf Press), design and lettering.

Dead Neon (University of Nevada Press), AD Kathleen Szawiola, the cover was awarded several prizes.

The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press), AD Katie Dublinkski.

Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean (Graywolf Press), AD Katie Dublinski.

Unbuttoning America by Ardis Cameron (Cornell University Press), AD Scott Levine, Vintage Pin-Up Illustration by Al Moore.

The Pinch by Steve Stern (Graywolf Press), AD Katie Dublinski.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (Random House), unused comp, AD Paolo Pepe, design & illustration.

Beyond Competitive Advantage by Todd R. Zenger (Harvard Business Review Press), AD Stephani Finks.

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Mazeel (Greywolf Press), AD Michael Taeckens.

Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman (Graywolf Press), AD Katie Dublinski.

Mad Men Unzipped (University of Iowa Press), AD Karen Copp.

Rails Under My Back by Jeffery Renard Allen (Greywolf Press), AD Katie Dublinski.

Two shelved:



For more covers by Kimberly Glyder, visit the homepage of Kimberly Glyder Design and the blog Shelved Books, where you can see several versions of the cover to The Empathy Exams, among many other things.

Ola Wihlke

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