Literary Hub

What Happens When a Book Designer Is Totally Stumped?

I find designing book covers to be tremendously difficult, and every time I start a new cover, my first thought is usually: Why on earth did I commit to this? Rarely do I find joy in this pursuit. I love the feeling of a perfect, beautifully finished cover in my hands, but getting there generally entails a long, hard journey.

When I’m lucky, a cover essentially designs itself—I read up on it, generate a few images, execute them, and one gets published! Designing Up Up, Down Down was not one of those times. I still consider it somewhat of a miracle that the final cover came out so nicely; looking at it brings back tortured memories of a painful process—a long, difficult exercise in “designy” design: a true exploration of concept, layout, color, and type. When I say exploration, picture not so much an expert explorer, but a hapless amateur, lost in the jungle, frantically trying every trick and tool they know, hoping and praying that one will be the way out. I am pretty sure lots of designers feel this way—or maybe it’s just me.

I tend to think I can have an intelligent opinion about most books I pick up. One of the things that drew me to book design is how much I like to pore over a book, pick it apart, pull out themes, discuss it, and dive deeply into it. It’s like a visual book report. But Up Up, Down Down stumped me. I read the entire manuscript, took tons of notes, made lots of sketches, and still closed the book wondering what the damn thing was about.

The text itself is a collection of short essays from one author. There was a lot of interesting subject matter. Normally I would relish rich visual material about amateur wrestling, UFO hunters, and skateboarding. But I couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to say with these pieces, especially when viewed as a whole. Essays would often start with what could almost be considered reporting, go straight into personal anecdote, and wind up circling the author’s anxieties about writing. I was stumped.

Usually, the title of the book is a great place to start. Even if it changes or is vague, it gives you an idea of the type of book it’s supposed to be. With Up Up, Down Down, by Cheston Knapp, though I loved the title, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it had to do with the book I had just read. I gleaned from the tip sheet that the collection of essays was exploring themes such as authenticity, identity and influence, but from my critical reading, those seemed to be pretty loose threads.

“I couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to say with these pieces, especially when viewed as a whole.”

The initial direction I was given also included descriptors like “playful” and “humorous,” but I found the essays sensitive and contemplative, and more focused on the author’s professional anxieties than the offbeat subject matter. I was also told to make it look “literary,” a description that always makes me break out in a sweat. Though pretty much everyone who gets into book design does it so they can design precisely this type of book, my background in design is highly commercial, and I have really had to fight my way out of that comfort zone. I started my career in advertising and tech, and learned how to design books at a pretty commercial imprint of a large publisher, where I worked on mostly thrillers and celebrity autobiographies. Think big typography and bold colors—the opposite of subtle and nuanced. I can whip up a book cover about a gruesome murder pretty quickly, but when things start to get literary it becomes much more of a challenge. Literary books also vary wildly in genre, tone, language, audience, and pretty much everything else. Literary narrows things down enough to basically mean, “make it look interesting,” or “maybe use hand-lettering.”

But it doesn’t entirely matter what I think of the book I’m designing, or the aptness of its descriptors. I can pore over a text numerous times and make endless notes and sketches, but at some point, whether I know what to do or not, I have to start designing the thing. I just have to start plugging away, make a ton of stuff, and pray the feedback from the art director can help guide me to a finished cover.

Luckily, the parts that I thought would speak to the supposed themes of Up Up, Down Down revolved around concrete things—mostly sports, hobbies, and professions. Distilling an abstract idea like authenticity or identity into a cover is maddeningly difficult, but representing skateboarders and wrestlers is simpler, so that’s what I did. It also seemed like this was the way to make a tangible connection with the mysterious title—skateboarders and wrestlers literally go up up, down down. So do bubbles, tennis balls, and UFOs, all of which featured in the text. I also threw in a cover that featured Bismuth, which was only mentioned briefly but is a far too cool-looking rock to not put on a book cover. Sometimes, it’s that simple. (Or so I thought.)

Click to view slideshow.

My first round of covers included a little bit of everything I could think of, due to my time-honored design process of throwing things at the wall and hoping that something sticks. With no clear idea in mind of what this book should look or feel like, I tried to let the content guide me and see where it went.

I showed my art director, Jaya, and she felt that my initial comps didn’t quite hit the mark. Her feedback was to try something more playful and typographic, and she provided some visual inspiration: typographic designs that exploded with color and energy. This resulted in a lot more “designy” design—I played around with type, color, and composition, rather than basing my comps on any overarching concept. This can be tedious. Change the typeface. Make it bigger. Make it smaller. Make it blue. Maybe a different typeface. Scrap it and start again. Does this look good? Nope. How about this? Maybe. Make it red? Cool. I make a ton of trash covers. For every cover the art director sees, five more are banished to the digital trash bin before they even hit the printer. Basically, I make covers that suck until I make some that don’t. In this case, I made a lot of OK type-only covers. I pulled out my cool text effects, my poppy colors, and tried to make it look interesting, but there was nothing really there. It felt like I was grasping at straws, that I was performing an exercise more than truly designing, and that the covers I was making had really nothing to do with the book.

Click to view slideshow.

I went a few rounds of back and forth, despairing pretty much the entire time. The covers started to get more focused, but I still felt like I wasn’t getting it. In between all my type experiments, I kept trying covers with skateboarders and wrestlers, mostly rendered as loose drawings. I loved the idea of having a skateboarder jumping in the air, sans-board, or a wrestler suspended momentarily, sans-opponent. Nothing was quite working but I had a feeling there was something there, and if I could crack the code of color and composition, I could make this thing work.

Click to view slideshow.

After what felt like a million but was probably more like eight rounds of back-and-forth, we finally got to a final-ish place: a drawn outline of a skateboarder and wrestler, both midair for their own reasons, layered on top of each other and the title. It was so close, but still so wrong, and that’s because one key component was missing—the right colors. The color was one of the trickiest parts, especially since I’ve always considered color a personal weakness. I’ve gotten pretty far with a tried-and-true combo of red-black-white and blue-black-white, but that wasn’t going to work this time. I drove myself a little mad trying to figure this out. I did what felt like hundreds of combinations, and thought I would never get it right. I was convinced that my covers would all get killed, and that they would bring in a vastly more talented and experienced freelancer to do it instead.

up up down down knapp comp

But here, my art director came to my professional rescue. By this point it was late in the process and I hadn’t heard anything about the cover in a while. I was convinced I had failed. I had also recently left my job working full time at Simon & Schuster, where I had worked on this cover, so I was ready to admit defeat and slink off to my next project in shame. But then I got an email from Jaya saying: I made some tweaks and here is the final cover. I opened the file she sent and there it was: the cover I had designed, except better! Jaya had figured out the colors, and made some layout tweaks, but otherwise it was my design. What had felt like a failure a few weeks before had really only needed a new coat of paint.

This cover is a prime example of one that could have become someone else’s project if the art director had not stuck with me, helped me mold the messy ideas into something neater, and helped tie my passable final comps up into awesome ones with a few masterful tweaks. Sometimes the design isn’t as far off as I think it is, it just needs a little magic touch.

up up down down knapp

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