February 7th, 2015
From Wrong to Right:
My First Year in Book Design
Starting out in a new job or industry can be scary, intimidating, or at the very least nerve-wrecking when you feel unfamiliar. Some people dive in too deep, too fast. Others are too timid to make a single wave. Of course it's bad if you're fumbling and bumbling your way through every step of the process, but making mistakes is the only way to learn sometimes. I was of the latter, who took the route of playing it safe and following instructions because of my fear of "messing up". My biggest priority: make everyone happy! While understandable intentions, this mindset was my first mistake.
Mistake #1: Happy Clients, Bad Design
Let's finally admit the clients are not always right. In the beginning, I believed the best way to make a happy client happy was to bring their ideas or visions exactly to life. I didn't stray much, if at all, from their ideas. The clients were thrilled every time, but...well, the designs just weren't that good. Even if I included my own concepts, over and over again the authors went for the ones "they came up with". The resulting covers were okay, but nothing worthy of a bestseller. More often than not, the images were busy and overwhelming because the author felt they needed to communicate EVERYTHING about the book at once.
To resolve this, I stepped up as a designer and fought against my timid inclinations. Now when I send my first round of concepts, I put forth my best ideas first. If they have an idea that I can work with, I will, but if not, I explain my case as a professional. This means providing specific feedback regarding why it won't work, and presenting along my concepts the reasons they are more effective. I was reluctant to do this at first because I was afraid of the response from authors or clients; that they would consider my opinion wrong and respond with disrespect. Some do, of course (can't be helped), but, much to my pleasant surprise, the majority agree and jump onboard with my concepts! If we disagree or I interpret something incorrectly, we discuss it, but this method allows me to do my job as a professional designer--instead of being a designer who simply follows direction from someone who "knows best".
This has been the best mistake I corrected, and it resulted in remarkably better design. Designers, trust your instincts and follow your training. Authors...trust your designer--your book will thank you for it.
My goal is not to just design a nice cover or layout. It's to create a design that is right for your specific book, and to make it unique and recognizable.
Mistake #2: Not Asking the Right Questions
When assigned a project, I often knew little to nothing about the project. To begin formulating possible directions, I would ask others for their input and thoughts--the editorial team, the marketing team, our publishing director, and the author--so I could gather as much information on everyone's vision and understand the book as best I could. Sometimes getting their feedback still left things a little fuzzy. people often gave different ideas about what was important, or even multiple themes they held as equal. As a result, my concepts were just as confused as their suggestions. Did I focus on this element? All of them? Or this one particular scene or moment? Sometimes editorial would give me a scene or two to read for inspiration (I did not have time to read them entire books due to the volume of projects), but later when I was doing layout, I would see something and think, Oh! I wish they'd given me this one! It would have been helpful.
A confused designer makes confused covers, which confuses readers.
The more books I worked on, the more I learned to dig deeper in order to avoid confusion. Asking the right questions helped to discern what was important and what, while cool or interesting, was not actually relevant enough for the cover. Here are some of the questions I've learned to ask:
- If given multiple themes, I ask: "Which theme takes the stage through most of the book or overshadows the rest?"
- For authors: "Why did you write this book? What is it about? What do you hope people to get out of it, or enjoy from it? What scenes motivated you to write on?"
- For editors: "What scenes or moments resonated most with you? Is there any important or repeated imagery? Any scenes that capture the essence of the book? What is the tone? What is it about? Who are the key players?"
- For marketing: "What do you see as most important about this book? What books are similar to these? Who will read this book? What do you think readers will be most be interested in? Which character(s) will this audience best relate to, or what event(s)?"
- When 'what is this book about' answers are too focused on plot details ("this happens, then this"), dig deeper in the motivations. Why did that character do this? Why did this happen? What is motivating this book forwards?
The key is to find focus. Break the story down to its basics, and communicate the essentials to a potential reader. A cover needs to communicate to a reader how this book will make them feel and why it's made for them. You can connect to them through cleverness, intrigue, or presenting specific details of the book that set expectations. Readers don't spend long looking at a cover, so you need to grab them in an instant. This is why simplicity is king! The better you understand the book, the better you can come up with potential concepts that focus on its essence and suit what the book wants to communicate and to whom.
Mistake #3: Not Enough Research
As has been made clear, I relied too heavily on direction from everyone else but myself. I didn't do enough of my own research, nor fully understand what I should be looking for. I was too new to the industry to recognize what I needed to know! After doing more and more covers, I started to discover the sort of things that lead to good design.
Part of it was to research further in the story, which is where asking the right questions came in handy. The other part required more outside research and observation. While marketing can tell you what they envisioning, you'll be a better designer if you do some of this legwork yourself. What are current trends you see in book design? What's popular? In this book's genre, what do the covers typically look like? Keeping with the times when appropriate can help your book look fresh, but knowing what else is out there will also help you create a book that will stand out from the rest. Sometimes you find truly inspiring design to admire as well!
Your own research can also create great communication discussions. I could show some of these books to the editors and ask, "Do any of these appeal to you? Does the feeling or style of these feel relevant to this book? Why or why not?" Having a starting point and getting those you are working with to further flesh out their thoughts will clarify for you the vision and direction necessary. Often times I come out of such discussions full of ideas and with confidence. Don't underestimate research! It can do wonders for your motivation and maintaining that artistic sense of wonder. Not to mention seeing the competition can really push you to step up your game!
YEAR ONE, LEARN THE ROPES
YEAR TWO, CHARGE AHEAD!
Expect your first year to be a time of rapid-growth and learning. It will set the stage for everything next, teach you to challenge yourself to always do your best, and to draw outside the box! It might be tough and intimidating, but you'll come out with lots of experience under your belt and more room to grow. And, as always, have a blast making good books!