Designing covers

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By Ami Smithson have really kindly asked me to write about how some of my covers come about. So I’ll try to explain this with it being neither scientific nor mystical – they all begin and end differently, it’s rare that any one cover takes the same journey. ♥

I work for a mixture of private clients and designers or art directors within publishing houses.

Those art directors will have received a briefing document. Usually. But not always! Sometimes you just have to read the book, or a rough draft, at other times it’s a bundle of ideas or a synopsis. Ideally the brief gives an idea of what the cover should say to the reader, what sort of market you should try to appeal to, other covers around in the genre – so you feel that you know who will want to pick this book up (and crucially – why).

Now you just have to work out how to do that!

This Is How It Ends, by Kathleen MacMahon

thisishowitendsAfter meeting up with the art director I took home the manuscript knowing that it had been a hotly contested auction between several publishers to buy the book. No pressure then!

So, after reading it, my vision of this book was not only a really poignant love story, but to me, included very expansive themes that are life affirming and bittersweet – almost a little surreal. Landscape also seemed important – it uses sky and seascapes that seem to surround the characters.

My first visuals were a huge range – from photographic and fairly straightforward depictions of women in landscapes to more illustrative versions.

As I did these I felt they were too literal – but you often need to work through many ideas and executions to arrive at better ones.

I also moved through ideas of growth and family trees, water and seascapes, figures being immersed in water, photographic scenes that had some sensuality but also felt infinite, and I also worked around cycles of life ideas, using flowers and petals.

All of these options had different styles of typography on them. So it’s very much ideas, concepts and picture and type execution all rolled into one to make it work. I was really happy that the publisher opted to develop a rough I’d produced using the cut-paper technique of Petra Borner – I’d roughly pasted together an image of a diving figure, with sky and stars above and an ocean below. We then commissioned Petra to resolve the final artwork, and with a blue foil finish and a few nips and tucks, the final result, is, I hope, a covetable, evocative but not overly descriptive way of encouraging someone to read a first-time novelist, whose work is not proved, without being too bogged down in describing the storyline and characters. So in the end, it’s a beautiful object, that has the right atmosphere, and is maybe more symbolic than narrative … the rest is up to the reader.

Fractured by Dani Atkins

fracturedFor this cover I worked on both the illustration and typography.

I didn’t read the book, but was given a good synopsis from the publisher – that was enough to work with. Sometimes too much detail can hinder and not help you. A short synopsis can help you focus on the main message.

What I wanted to show here was the unique hook of the story – the woman who has a parallel life, with one scenario in one life and a different outcome in another, but also not to give too much away.

So the wintery reflection was how I did this. On the ground side she is alone – but the reflection shows a couple – so you have some intrigue immediately.

The design was so enjoyable to do; I didn’t want the woman to be very specific, so used the umbrella and coloured silhouette to ensure she didn’t look especially youthful, nor old, so had broad appeal, and the snow scene helped make it a little bit magical. I’d not really used these colourways before and hope that they’re really easy on the eye and attractive, the red-orange on the figures making them the primary focus.

Hopefully the end result is enticing enough to stand out on the crowded bookshelves, plus have the extra twist in the illustration that makes the potential book buyer think there’s an intrigue here that’s not evident in the competition. And maybe that’s enough to make the sale!

Ami Smithson is a print designer, specialising in book covers and text design. You can check out more of her work at

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