I have interviewed several Swedish and American graphic designers specialized in designing book covers, and while my questions have been pretty similar the answers have varied wildly. It is always interesting to hear how they go about their craft. This is a brief interview with John Gall, a bold and brave American graphic designer.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background regarding graphic design? Where you an introvert as a kid, drawing hour after hour getting more and more skilled?
– I did draw as a kid and it was one of the first things I discovered that I was kind of good at. But I did not grow up in a household with many books or very much exposure to the arts. I had to find that all out for myself. It wasn’t until I was in college, where I was studying to be an architect, that I found out about graphic design. Even after college, when I was looking for work at graphic design firms, book covers weren’t really considered ”real” graphic design at the time. I just kind of fell into it.
I really like your crazy Caspar David Friedrich-cover (above). It’s one of my favorites this year; it’s surprising and rule breaking. Could you please guide us through the creative process?
– The author suggested that image but I was hesitant because I knew it had already been used on a lot of covers. So the cover had to be self-aware and we took on German-Romantic history and brought it into the paranoid near future. The central gradated image reflects the ”vaporwave” theme of the book and can also be seen as an impassive, all-seeing eye. In terms of ”rule-breaking”, I do like to throw together completely incongruent images just to see what happens.
It must be fun breaking and testing the rules? And yes, why is it so exciting with depictions of book covers on book covers?
– The good and bad thing about book covers is that there are very strict parameters. A vertical rectangle —probably 6 x 9, title, author, some kind of image. Same thing over and over again. It is very difficult to come up with something new that also does all the things a book cover needs to do in the marketplace. One of my colleagues, Helen Yentus once commented during a critique that something looked ”too much like a book cove”. So that’s the challenge. Make a book cover that doesn’t look like a book cover.
– I am always looking for new ways to reinvent the format and come up with something original. It’s hard to completely break the rules and come up with something coherent but the tension created while pushing against the constraints can produce creative magic. I am also constantly challenging myself and my own preconceived ideas about what looks good, what is beautiful and what is considered good design.
Book covers depicting books are just a way to communicate a certain kind of ”meta” idea. I have probably done this too many times! I also think it’s because cover designers enjoy pictures of books.
New Directions is exceptionally good at book covers. They look great on their own, and they give New Directions a really cool and unique graphic profile. They are better at this than other publishers, aren’t they?
– New Directions is great. They have a long and storied history and their present art director, Eric Reislebach is terrific. They publish adventurous work and give their designers a lot of leeway. Their books end up standing out because of that. They seem to have less people involved in the cover design decision making process. The more people involved, the more watered down the designs get. It is rare for a publisher to want something new and original. Most just want a new version of the old thing.
I hope that you can help me sort this out. I think that quite a few covers in recent years have depicted persons, especially women, with their facial features erased or covered. First I thought of it as a bit creepy, but then I thought that it simply is a means to avoid locking the readers mind to certain features. I wouldn’t want to buy a copy of Anna Karenina with all her features revealed on the cover.
– That is correct. It’s the old problem: how to have a human presence on a cover without being too specific. So you end up with a lot of cropped heads, backs of heads, hands, etc.
What inspires you? Do you listen to music while working? If you have time, please mention ten songs you enjoy listening to while working.
– My inspiration mostly comes from the particular book I am working on. I like to let the work communicate what it wants to be without any preconceived ideas. For outside inspiration I look to artists, musicians, filmmakers, etc. But I am not looking for specific visual inspiration. I am looking for transformative points of view. I think any great work of art changes the way you see the world.
– When I am in the office, I cannot really listen to music since there are people coming in and out all day. During covid, while working from home, I find myself listening to a lot of music. But it needs to be music that can float in the background and then periodically bubble up to the conscious level. Here are some songs from albums I have been listening to over the past few months.
Many thanks to John Gall. Visit his home page, full of more great covers and illustrations. And listen to his mellow Spotify-list.