Illustrated grid of all the elements of book design, mood boards and research, sketching, designing on a computer and the book covers meeting
Illustrated grid of all the elements of book design, mood boards and research, sketching, designing on a computer and the book covers meeting

A book's cover design is the window into its story, and might be the reason a reader first picks it up.

The art of conveying an entire manuscript into a single image, and making sure it's targeting the right audience, is a task taken on not just by designers, but by editors and the marketing, sales and production teams. "Collaboration is part of the whole design process", says art director for Penguin Random House Children's, Anna Billson, "From working with different teams and illustrators outside the company, to sharing inspiration or unlocking a problem, it helps us create the best possible book covers."

The author is of course consulted towards the end of the process when a proposed cover has been developed, and their opinion is hugely valuable, but ultimately the art department will make the final decision. These teams have a huge amount of expertise on what readers are looking for and what is likely to make a book sell - and know exactly how to bring that to life visually.

So, how does a book cover go from brief to bookshelf? Here, designers from across Penguin Random House take you through the journey.

Receiving the brief and researching

Every month each art department are given briefs for upcoming titles from editors, which are then distributed among the team by the art director. They will decide who the best designer is to take on each project, and then work with that person quite closely throughout the process.

After getting the brief, the designer liaises with the editor to ensure they’ve got everything they need before getting started. Whether or not they read the whole text is down to the designer. Marianne Issa El-Khoury, designer at Transworld says, “This truly depends on the designer and how they prefer to work: some need to read the entire manuscript before starting, others need to sketch hundreds of ideas before developing them more on their computers and some jump right into it from the information on the brief. Personally, I like to dedicate the first couple of days to research. For me, this means needing to read at least part of the manuscript to pick up on small elements I can incorporate into the cover. The wider process can vary from book to book, but I always start this way.”

Suzanne Dean, art director at VINTAGE insists on reading the whole text, “I always read all of the manuscript – you really need to know the book, I don't like to think that I'm missing anything. After that comes the key part, research. If the book is a classic title I'll start by looking at any of the previous covers, as I don’t want to repeat anything someone has done before me. I make notes in the margins of the novel, and from there I go to my creative notes.”

Designers also have to keep audience at the forefront of their minds throughout their creative process. Anna explains, “When briefed, we ask, ‘Who is this for? Who's our target audience? Who are the target retailers? What's the competition?”

Creating the first visuals

"I then move on to roughly sketching my ideas" says Marianne. "I value when a cover has a strong concept that elevates the design, so the ground work from my days of research will influence this. Some designers prefer to sketch straight onto the computer with a graphics tablet, and others are more traditional with simple pencil and paper!"

Suzanne likes to create mood boards to help not only herself, but be able to get across to the editor what look or mood she’s trying to emulate in her cover. “As a designer, seeing these different sparks of inspiration really energises me and helps me find a direction in which to move forward. On a practical level, when you have a collection of images, it’s very easy to communicate to an editor the direction in which you want to take the cover.”

For children’s books, the process is the same. If the designer is creating the cover themselves, they sketch ideas to share with their Art Director before creating a full rough draft to take to a covers meeting. “If an illustrator will be doing the cover, we go with a sketch that shows the direction we want to take it in”, says deputy art director Ben Hughes. “The first covers meeting makes sure everyone's onboard before we properly tackle the design.“  

The covers meeting(s)

“At this point we must have created several visuals for the books we have been assigned, which are then presented during the cover meeting in front of the editorial team, heads of departments and managing director”, says Marianne, “The editors play a huge role when it comes to the realisation of a cover. They spend so long going over the manuscripts that most know the book as well as the authors, and so know exactly who the audience are.” Alongside editorial, the sales team also have input in a covers meeting on which direction a concept should move in, as they have insights on the audience and what they respond to, plus where the book will primarily be sold.

“When working with an illustrator, the first covers meeting for a title may have illustrator suggestions,” says Anna, “before coming back again with the rough draft from the illustrator. After this the typography is designed, because early on we'll just scribble things. A cover is in cover meetings a minimum of three times, but sometimes it can be 20, and each time there are often multiple routes and ideas being worked up.

"Sometimes you can come up with a brilliant concept, but actually, that concept doesn't translate into a decent book cover. So however good the concept, you have to let it go and try something else. But the covers meeting is also amazing, because there's a lot of times I will hold something up and the whole room will go, ‘Wow!’ And that's a great feeling for the designer." 

 After several cover meetings, when the design has been approved by all teams and sent to the author, the rest of the cover has to be put together, including spine, back cover and endpapers. All these aspects are very important – with the spine being the view of a book we see most often.

During all of this process, the design team will also work closely with the Production team, who turn the design onscreen into the physical book. Catherine Ngwong, head of production at Ebury explains more, “We can emboss a title, foil it, use spot UV and different laminates to make it feel and look really different.” The team have to be very detail oriented as they're working for the finished product. "We have to spot any mistakes, and crucially, fix them!" Watch the production team colour correcting in the video below before the book is sent to the printers.

Illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin

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