Doubleday, Illustration: Rizon Parein
I have made interviews with several great Swedish and American graphic designers specialized in book covers. I have asked them rather similar questions, but the answers have varied considerably. This suggests, I think, that designing book covers is a craft. You can learn how to create great and captivating covers, but above all you have to make covers, over and over again. The final covers that we get to see, are only a fraction of those that are made.
I had the privilege to ask graphic designer Emily Mahon a few questions. She has worked for some of the most well known American publishers, and she has made covers for books of literary fiction as well as for books of non-fiction, contemporary as well as classics. She has made several stunning covers; one of my favorites is the cover she has made for Heidi Julavits The Vanishers. Further below you can see both the final cover, lush and irresistible, as well as two killed covers.
Doubleday. Photo: Mike Lambert
Could you please tell us a little about your background and how and why you became a designer of book covers?
I studied Graphic Design at Penn State University. I needed to apply for the program which only accepted 22 students a year; it’s a very small program in a school of over 35 thousand students. After graduating, I focused on landing a job at a book publishing house in New York. To me, designing book covers is the most creative job I could have. Every book tells a different story, and reading has become a crucial part of my life. And I love that each cover is like a poster—there are no guidelines in terms of imagery or type that I use—it’s all based on what feels right for the audience.
Doubleday. Tactile Typography: Dominique Falla
Vintage. AD: John Gall, Photo: Holly Lindem
What purposes are book covers supposed to fill?
Designing covers is not about making art. We need to sell books at the end of the day. Covers should market a specific audience for every book and they should give enough of a visual impact needed to inspire someone to pick up the book and read it!
Random House, Photo: Bob Croslin
Penguin. AD: Paul Buckley, Photo: Rich Evenhouse
How would you describe your style(es)?
I try never to have a style. I always try new approaches to how I look at a problem and to how I design. The content should dictate the style. It’s hard to stay fresh and current all the time but I think it’s important not to try and emulate trends, and stay true to the content.
Doubleday. Photo: Andrew Purcell
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.
As I’m reading a book, I usually jot down visuals or notes from the text that could help in defining the direction the cover will take. I usually make lists and sketch ideas before every turning to the computer to guide me. Sometimes I find it helpful to go to museums or look through magazines or books as I brainstorm, and I try to find inspiration in looking at other current book covers. There is so much great work out there, and seeing recent book covers inspires me to keep pushing my work and make myself a better designer.
Flatiron Books. Killed
Can you please tell us a little bit about the cover you made for The Guineveres and explain how it came about and how you intended it to work?
Well, as of this moment, the cover has been killed! This happens all the time, albeit a bit disappointing. I loved this novel and tried several different iterations before coming to this solution. The book takes place in the 1950s in a convent where four girls named Guinevere have been abandoned to be raised by nuns. I wanted to set this cover apart from what’s out there and felt that because the catholic theme was so strong, showing the cross in an abstract kind of way made for an interesting visual.
I’m also very fond of the cover you made for Heidi Julavits The Vanishers. Do you have any shelved versions of it, that we might take a look at?
This cover started in a very different place from the final version. Initially I took an interest in photographing the Barcelona chair, and projecting the title on it to create a dimensional feel.
Doubleday. Final version
After many iterations of this cover the author decided she wanted to focus on more of a feeling rather than a depiction of the story. I decided it would be fun and energetic to work on a layered floral collage, that better represented the multi-layered emotional impact of the novel. It was really fun to create this cover. I originally preferred the type knocking out in white from the art, but the publisher felt that using a color would have more impact so that’s how the final cover was printed.
AD: Emily Mahon. Design: Ben Wiseman
Nan A Talese/Doubleday, Photo of cut paper lettering: Geoff Spear
What are your favorite graphic designers, specialized in book covers, and why?
Gabriele Wilson, Keith Hayes, Kelly Blair, Peter Mendelsund, Oliver Munday… the list goes on! They are all extraordinarily creative and ambitious with their approaches and I’m very lucky to work around such talent in my office in the Knopf Doubleday Art Department every day.
If you have cravings for more beautiful covers, visit Emily Mahon’s homepage. Don’t miss the designs she has made for The Modern Library Classics.