How Holly Ovenden designed the cover for Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar

The graphic designer and illustrator on going from concept to finished jacket.

The cover of Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi.
Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Avni Doshi's searing debut, Burnt Sugar, has been making a splash on social media, praised both for its taut, divine prose, and memorable cover design. Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, the novel – a poignant portrait of a toxic mother-daughter relationship – was first published in India last year under the title Girl in White Cotton.

Freelance graphic designer and illustrator Holly Ovenden was the one tasked with its UK reinvention, and she delivered. The dangerously sharp-edged succulent against the delicious pastel colour palette is both striking and unsettling; a perfect reflection of the strained but loving relationship between the two protagonists.

Having designed covers for heavyweight titans such as Deborah Levy, Elif Shafak and Helen Dunmore, we spoke to Holly to find out more about her creative process and influences.

What is the design process for creating a book jacket?

The journey from brief to shelf is a meandering path. It usually starts with a detailed brief from the editor, which will explain the outline of the book, including themes, character, and location descriptions, as well as some comparative covers from the same genre. A couple of chapters are usually sent to the designer too, or a full manuscript if available, to give the designer a sort of ‘feel’ for the style of the cover, whether that be photographic, illustrated, typographic or a combination. On occasion an author will have a strong idea of what they would like on the cover and they will send over their inspiration to add to the brief. 

Can you tell us a bit about the concept behind the Burnt Sugar cover?

Burnt Sugar is an intense examination of love and betrayal between mother and daughter, but also about loss of memories and sense of self. The cover needed to mirror the tension in this poisonous relationship but also look exciting and fresh. My immediate response to the text was the idea of sour or bitter citrus fruits, as a fruit could be described as a ‘child’. As I was researching photographs of flora, I came across a gorgeous image of an aloe vera plant. This serrated edged succulent felt like a perfect metaphor for the relationship between Tara and Antara – it’s both sharp and ferocious looking but also has medicinal and healing properties, particularly with burns. It felt like an ideal lateral fit.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi on a yellow and cream background.
An aloe vera plant felt like the perfect fit for the book. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

How many iterations did you go through before you arrived at the final design?

For the first cover meeting, I must have designed about 10 different visuals. It’s such a vivid read, I was eager to create an exciting cover! I always like to answer the brief as best I can, and then also design a few concepts in an unexpected way – these options are a bit off-piste, but sometimes they evolve the design into something new. The spiked aloe vera designs were well received in that first cover meeting; from there it was a process of tweaking different colours and type styles before I arrived at the final design.

The book was originally published, and very popular, in India. Does it change the process at all, designing a cover for a book that already exists elsewhere in the world?

The beautiful cover for Girl in White Cotton was pictured on the brief. I wouldn’t say it changes the process of designing the new cover really, although it was a hard act to follow!

Elif Shafak's 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World on an orange and cream background. Photo taken by Stuart Simpson/Penguin.
Holly also designed the cover for Elif Shafak's 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Are you conscious of how a cover will be received on Instagram or social media when you're designing?

I speak for myself, but I think most book cover designers have to subconsciously think about how the cover will be reproduced, whether that be a small thumbnail online, in a bookshop, on a kindle or, now more importantly than ever, on social media. I think its hardwired into me, however I wouldn’t say that it’s the foundation on which book covers are created! I think the goal for designing Burnt Sugar was to produce something visually arresting, timeless, with an unsettling edge to suit Avni's incredible writing.

You definitely succeeded! Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

I design most of my covers in Photoshop, but more often than not I will sketch out designs and make scribbles and memos on a notepad too. I also love to illustrate my own covers and lettering, sometimes using traditional pen and paper, but mostly digitally using a Wacom tablet. I recently created a cover for Penguin Life using textiles and recycled garments, I guess I like to push myself to explore different mediums where the brief allows!

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha. Photograph taken by Stuart Simpson/Penguin.
Holly's cover for Frances Cha's If I Had Your Face. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Are there any artists or book cover designers you feel particularly inspired by?

There are far too many to name! But I would definitely have to say Paul Rand, Edward Bawden, William Morris, David Gentlemen, Peter Mendelsund, Coralie Bickford-Smith, Suzanne Deane, Rodrigo Corral, Jon Gray, Jamie Keenan, Alex Merto, Janet Hansen, Na Kim, Tom Etherington to name but a few! 

Finally, you've designed lots of amazing covers for some incredible authors. Do you have a favourite?

I always find this question difficult to answer! I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to work on so many incredible author’s covers, and also to have found a job that I love. I guess one cover that holds a special place on my home studio shelf is one of the very first covers that I illustrated for Penguin: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore. This was included as part of the famous Penguin Essentials series, where classic books are reimagined with striking and unconventional cover designs. I was so thrilled to have my weathered bramble and stranded ribbon illustration approved in the cover meeting!

For more of Holly's work, visit her website.

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