My life’s inspirations with Jo Thomson, Head of Design at Doubleday

Can you remember the first book, image or song that sparked your imagination? Jo Thomson, Head of Design at Doubleday shares her life in inspiration.

Portrait of Jo Thomson

We're inspired by books, packaging, culture and music all the time without even noticing. But can you pinpoint the things that made you make your very best work, or changed your life – whether the change was big or small? For the 2020 Student Design Award, Jo Thomson, Head of Design at Doubleday tells us about travelling, working with her team and making her own book jackets as a child.

Putting myself in new environments...

One of my biggest inspirations is travelling and exploring new places, which I try to do a lot of. I think it's super important to broaden your mind and visit places that aren't necessarily what you're used to. Every country has so much going on that is distinct and different.

Last year I went to Havana which was amazing. It’s so famous for the bright buildings, retro cars, the old signage and typography. I took photos of all the things I found interesting and added them to a visual scrapbook, which I advise any designer to do. Whether it be Instagram or even just keeping them in a folder on your phone, it's just so cool to look back at. Say if I'm thinking about using a distressed type, I can go back and use my pictures as a mood board.

I also got to go to Japan a few years ago, and that was a massive culture shock because everything there is so visual and stimulating – whether it be all the lights and the signage, or even just the packaging, there's such an abundance of colour and information. I spent a lot of time going to the museums there and looking at all the older historic art and bits of pottery, it all feeds into the creative process of things.

Jo's photos from Mexico, Sydney, Cuba and Bali (clockwise)
Jo's photos from Mexico, Sydney, Cuba and Bali (clockwise)

When I came back from Tokyo we were briefed on books by Lian Hearn. She was my favourite writer when I was a teenager, and we were asked to re-jacket her Tales of the Otori books, which are all set in Japan. So I immediately had my hand up. Saying ‘I've just been there. I've taken a whole load of photos of ancient Japanese art, armour, and illustration, and pottery so I've got so much reference to use for this’ meant I was exactly the right person for that job.

When I say travel, it can absolutely be within your own city – it can be within whichever boundaries you set for yourself. If you're a designer, you tend to be interested in exploring things and wanting to learn more, and being aware of what’s around you feeds into that. There are so many cultural hubs within one city, so many different people doing different things, and so much visual communication out there that you can pick up on, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously.

Surrounding myself with creative people...

All the people I work with inspire me because they're so talented and so good at such different things. There's not one designer I think is doing exactly the same stuff as another, and it's great to learn from them.

About two years ago I worked freelance for a year, and the main thing I really missed was having people to bounce my ideas off of, people to learn from, and people to grow with. I think if you're sitting by yourself, it's hard to pick up on different trends that are coming up through other people. Or even just learning different tricks and tips through Photoshop and other tools.

Having a supportive network of people around you who are encouraging you can change so much. If you're feeling a bit insecure about something, you can just ask, ‘Do you think this is okay?’

Adult Non-Fiction button


How does a design team work in collaboration?

I was fascinated by book design from a really young age...

I've always been an avid reader and I think it completely feeds the imagination. When I was younger, I used to love reading Enid Blyton’s The Tales of the Faraway Tree and looking at the illustrations. As soon as I read books like that, I just envision this whole world, all the characters and everything. As someone who designs covers for books, being able to read things and almost see it all playing out in my head is amazing.

I’ve always been inspired by illustrations in books – particularly children's books. When I was younger I used to love Jacqueline Wilson’s books so much because of Nick Sharratt’s work. I was also massively influenced by Brett Helquist and Martin Brown, it made me think, ‘I want to do this when I'm older. I want to be able to just draw for a living. And these people seem to be able to do it’. I used to create little fake book jackets of my own to go around my favourites, so the passion has always been there!

Illustrations by Nick Sharratt, Brett Helquis tand Martin Brown (l-r)

Jo's recent book cover designs

Music can create imagery just like books...

My first job when I was a graphic designer was working for a design agency that specialised in music design, so I was designing album covers, merchandise, and websites. For me, I have the same experience listening to music as when I read a book. All these colours, shapes and ideas start flying through my mind.

And it can be any genre; jazz, pop, R&B, I just find it all super inspiring. The idea of the album cover and all the visual elements that tie into that can vary so much. It's not just a cover, it's something that is actually then kept as a piece in its own right. It helps define a time point in history, it becomes an icon.

Jo's music cover inspiration including Harry Styles, Led Zeppelin and Stormzy

Instagram can be the best gallery space...

I think for all its sins, Instagram has provided a great platform for design and illustration creatives, almost as an open gallery in itself. I’ve found things that I don't think I'd ever have found otherwise because it’s so curated.

I find it so useful as part of my role, especially finding freelance illustrators. There's an illustrator called Emily Courdelle who I found on Instagram – she was actually shortlisted twice in the 2018 Student Design Awards! I saw some of her lettering and thought, ‘Wow. She's exactly what we need for this cover’. I was then able to pull a load of her artwork straight off Instagram and show it to the editor, and we commissioned her for WriteNow author Charlene Allcott's debut novel The Single Mum's Wish List.

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary

Everything else is in the every-day – just walking around shops and shopping centres. As sad as it sounds, I love looking at packaging! Whenever I travel, one of the first things I love doing is going to a supermarket and looking at all the different packaging, and seeing how it differs to ours – what's working, what isn't working. Even just in terms of finishes, if they've got a cool embossing, and you think, ‘well, if they can do it on this, there's a good chance that we'll be able to do it on books’.

I also look at clothes shops and window displays. It's just so useful to see what the latest trends are and how you can then translate what will be really big into our next cover. I think it all feeds into what I make eventually.

Student Design Award designs

Enter the Student Design Award 2020

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more