Neil Gower's sketches for 'A Walk in the Woods' next to the final cover

Graphic artist Neil Gower is a guest judge for the Adult Non-Fiction category at the 2020 Student Design Awards – this year including A Short History of Nearly Everything. Having worked on designing the whole of Bill Bryson's backlist, Neil knows the relationship between the text and the visuals inside out. We spoke to him about how he created covers for nearly every Bill Bryson book.

My favourite place to work is...

I have a lovely, airy loft studio in our house on the edge of Lewes in Sussex. Painted a pale yellow, it is my ivory tower with a great view of the South Downs and Ouse Valley.

I see inspiration in...

It’s more trifling things that really thrill me and feed into my work. My pulse can be quickened by a shapely espresso cup, or an elegant shirt. One of the most visually striking things I’ve seen lately was a website devoted to Argentine bus-tickets: the combinations of colour and type on the cheapest paper were breathtaking. I also have a sizeable collection of old atlases, maps and guide-books, which never fail to get the creative juices flowing.

Sketches of early Bill Bryson covers

Working on new cover designs for Bill Bryson’s books crept up on me, in a way...

In 2013, having previously produced various maps, endpapers and illustrations used inside his books, I was asked to design the cover for a new title, One Summer. The brief: to capture the spirit of 1927, the momentous year in American history that it celebrates. The process was rather exciting, the design evolving as I received one chapter at a time, hot from Bill’s computer, ink still wet. The cover was very well received generally but also, crucially, by Bill himself. When he came to write The Road to Little Dribbling, he requested that I devise the cover for that too.
 

  • One Summer

    Bryson

  • In summer 1927, America had a booming stock market, a president who worked just four hours a day (and slept much of the rest), a devastating flood of the Mississippi, a sensational murder trial, and an unknown aviator named Charles Lindbergh who became the most famous man on earth.

    It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror, the horrifying bombing of a school in Michigan, the thrillingly improbable return to greatness of over-the-hill baseball player Babe Ruth, and an almost impossible amount more.

    In this hugely entertaining book, Bill Bryson spins a tale of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy. With the trademark brio, wit and authority that make him Britain’s favourite writer of narrative non-fiction, he brings to life a forgotten summer when America came of age, took centre stage, and changed the world.

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  • The Road to Little Dribbling

    Bryson

  • WINNER: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER READER AWARD FOR BEST TRAVEL BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016
    WINNER: BOOKS ARE MY BAG READER AWARD FOR BEST AUTOBIOGRAPHY OR BIOGRAPHY 2016

    Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to celebrate the green and kindly island that had become his adopted country. The hilarious book that resulted, Notes from a Small Island, was taken to the nation’s heart and became the bestselling travel book ever, and was also voted in a BBC poll the book that best represents Britain.Now, to mark the twentieth anniversary of that modern classic, Bryson makes a brand-new journey round Britain to see what has changed.

    Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, by way of places that many people never get to at all, Bryson sets out to rediscover the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly unique country that he thought he knew but doesn’t altogether recognize any more. Yet, despite Britain’s occasional failings and more or less eternal bewilderments, Bill Bryson is still pleased to call our rainy island home. And not just because of the cream teas, a noble history, and an extra day off at Christmas.

    Once again, with his matchless homing instinct for the funniest and quirkiest, his unerring eye for the idiotic, the endearing, the ridiculous and the scandalous, Bryson gives us an acute and perceptive insight into all that is best and worst about Britain today.

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In the manuscript were references to a Frank Newbould poster of the South Downs and to John Hassall’s celebrated ‘Skegness is SO Bracing’ poster. This triggered the quickest, most cursory of doodles in my notebook, simply to get something on paper: the Seven Sisters on the Sussex coast in the background, with the Skegness jolly fisherman prancing across the foreground. The longer I looked at it, the stronger and more complete it seemed. White cliffs (what could be more British?) with amiable character bounding over them? I decided to submit it, thinking they could only say no. It was nodded straight through.

The Road to Little Dribbling was written as a follow-up to Notes from a Small Island, so a new, sister cover for the twentieth anniversary reissue of that was commissioned too. I felt that this needed to be urban and northern, to restore the geographical centre of gravity across the two titles. Hence the view of Knaresborough, with steam train (plus jolly fisherman, bobbing in the water this time). Shortly afterwards the whole back-list landed in my lap.
 

  • Notes From A Small Island

    Bryson

  • In 1995, before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire to move back to the States for a few years with his family, Bill Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation's public face and private parts (as it were), and to analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about a country that had produced Marmite; a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy; place names like Farleigh Wallop, Titsey and Shellow Bowells; people who said 'Mustn't grumble', and ‘Ooh lovely’ at the sight of a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits; and Gardeners' Question Time. Notes from a Small Island was a huge number-one bestseller when it was first published, and has become the nation's most loved book about Britain, going on to sell over two million copies.
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Progress of 'A Walk in the Woods' cover

I found inspiration in famous American artists to craft the style of the covers...

I was floundering somewhat for an idea for The Lost Continent when Edward Hopper’s Gas painting sprang to mind. It offered the perfect cocktail of driving and a vanishing America; the last chance to fill up before a momentous journey. In my version, I decided to give that lonely, dapper attendant a customer. It was an extension of my commandeering of the Jolly Fisherman as a piece of quintessentially British culture; here was our Melancholic Pump-Attendant, symbol of America’s past.

The other design that ‘borrows’ a slice of US culture is Made In America, based on Saul Steinberg’s celebrated New Yorker cover. This idea lent itself particularly well to this book, allowing me plenty of scope for scattering textual references across the country (some of them very subtle for those prepared to look hard) and providing a US-centric view without being sniffily anti-American. 

I believe it is important to give clever, witty writing a cover that does it justice; something that is not only visually arresting, but also has layers that only reveal themselves as the book is read. It’s vital also never to underestimate the visual literacy of readers.
 

  • The Lost Continent

    Bryson

  • ‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to’

    And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn’t hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14,000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instead, his search led him to Anywhere, USA; a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by lookalike people with a penchant for synthetic fibres. He discovered a continent that was doubly lost; lost to itself because blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a stranger in his own land.

    Bryson’s acclaimed first success, The Lost Continent is a classic of travel literature – hilariously, stomach-achingly, funny, yet tinged with heartache – and the book that first staked Bill Bryson’s claim as the most beloved writer of his generation.

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  • Made In America

    Bryson

  • ‘Funny, wise, learned and compulsive’ - GQ

    Bill Bryson turns away from travelling the highways and byways of middle America, so hilariously depicted in his bestselling The Lost Continent, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Notes from a Big Country, for a fast, exhilarating ride along the Route 66 of American language and popular culture.

    In Made in America, Bryson tells the story of how American arose out of the English language, and along the way, de-mythologizes his native land - explaining how a dusty desert hamlet with neither woods nor holly became Hollywood, how the Wild West wasn’t won, why Americans say ‘lootenant’ and ‘Toosday’, how they were eating junk food long before the word itself was cooked up - as well as exposing the true origins of the words G-string, blockbuster, poker and snafu.

    ‘A tremendously sassy work, full of zip, pizzazz and all those other great American qualities’
    Will Self, Independent on Sunday

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All my designs go through the same stages...

The first of which is panicky reading and note-taking, convinced that no ideas will come; that this will be the book that finally exposes me as a fraud. The notes give way to scribbled thumbnail sketches, the visual equivalent of thinking out loud.

Ultimately these develop into more refined, full-size pencil sketches and colour samples, which go off to Bill for approval, and then through the Transworld cover meeting. At this stage, a careful balance must be struck between giving a clear idea of one’s intentions while still holding something back to provide (one hopes) that ‘wow’ moment on presenting the final art.

Creating a consistent look for the backlist was a great challenge...

In this instance, the author and most of the titles are well known, a built-in level of awareness that gives a head-start in catching a reader’s attention. The most practical difficulty posed by the titles themselves is the variation in length. The pithy title At Home and the expansive The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid both have to sit comfortably within the same space.

Other than noting this potential pitfall, I tend to ignore the title and simply respond to the text. It’s very gratifying how, through doing this, connections between title and image create themselves – the chalky track on The Road to Little Dribbling, for example; the odd juxtaposition of Northern Lights over Istanbul on Neither Here Nor There; the way The Lost Continent is hinted at beyond the dark trees on that cover. The connections are not always obvious, are often just subliminal, but are unmistakeably there.

I know just the right materials I need to create my covers...

The covers are painted entirely in gouache (for the record, Winsor & Newton if there’s a year’s free supply on offer). They provided just the right feel for One Summer and The Road to Little Dribbling – a period poster feel for the former; fresh, flat colours for the latter. Much of Bill’s writing is affectionately nostalgic, and gouache, deployed in carefully gauged palettes, nods to this without being too backward looking. It also has a freshness in print, a vividness that I hope complements Bryson’s writing. He can make familiar words fizz with new life on the page and I try to achieve something similar with imagery.
 

The author himself on how important cover design is...

I think a good cover design is vitally important to the success, or not, of a book.  Generally, in my experience, authors aren't encouraged to be closely involved in the cover design , so we are fairly peripheral to the conceptual part of the undertaking, but luckily I have mostly had brilliant artists like my old friend David Cook or the peerless Neil Gower designing my covers, so I have almost never been disappointed.  As a purchaser of books, I can't tell you the number of times I have bought a book simply because the cover made it look wonderful.

  • A Short History of Nearly Everything

    Bryson

  • Bill Bryson describes himself as a reluctant traveller, but even when he stays safely at home he can't contain his curiosity about the world around him. A Short History of Nearly Everything is his quest to understand everything that has happened from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization - how we got from there, being nothing at all, to here, being us. Bill Bryson's challenge is to take subjects that normally bore the pants off most of us, like geology, chemistry and particle physics, and see if there isn't some way to render them comprehensible to people who have never thought they could be interested in science.

    The ultimate eye-opening journey through time and space, A Short History of Nearly Everything is the biggest-selling popular science book of the 21st century, and reveals the world in a way most of us have never seen it before.

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Inspired by how Neil works with Bill Bryson's books? Have a go yourself by entering the 2020 Student Design Award and designing the cover for A Short History of Nearly Everything, your work could end up being judged by Neil himself!

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