Courtney Stubbert is a freelance graphic designer with the studio Punch Graphic Design. He was retained by Tyrus Books to design the cover for Peter Brown Hoffmeister‘s debut novel Graphic the Valley. We asked him a few questions about the process of designing a book cover, what thoughts and feedback went into his original concepts, and how he arrived at the final.
When you first signed on to design the cover of Graphic the Valley, did the publisher and author discuss possible cover concepts, or were the concepts left totally up to you?
Not really. They both had liked other work I’d done. The author referenced a couple famous covers he thought were cool. Otherwise it was totally up to me.
Do you usually read the book before designing the cover?
No. For Graphic I did read a sample chapter and talked to the author about key structure points, and his own reference material. I think reading a bit of the book helps, but reading the whole thing would be a hindrance. The cover designer probably has more in common with the person browsing at the bookstore or scrolling covers on Goodreads. You look for impressions or abstractions that lead the imagination a bit and stir interest. You don’t want to tell them the story. It’s more like you are creating the potential for the story, in as short a timeframe as possible. You are also trying your best not to suck. Or pick images that are too hard to get rights for. Ha. That’s a real bummer.
Can you describe the process of drawing up first concepts? How many did you design?
Well lemme see here… <opens client comp file and counts> … Looks like I made 10 comps. Each of those had a few iterations to get them refined before I showed them to the publisher. There were a couple pages of thumbnails.
The closer you get a comp to a state you are happy with, the less chance you have of the client saying they like something you aren’t comfortable with. Then out it goes into the world. Clients don’t always see the same thing you do, or they like your least favorite comp. Which is why it’s a good idea to leave your least favorite out altogether! Then you can’t lose.
My process usually always involves spending time looking at other designs to get inspired. Cruising the shelves of a bookstore, and surfing FFFFound.com, Flickr sets, or book cover blogs like bookcoverarchive.com get me going. This leads to some free-association keyword writing, which leads to scribbling thumbnails with a pencil. This might go back and forth for quite a few hours at the beginning. I don’t do refined thumbnails for projects like covers and posters. I usually just scribble and then get right to Adobe Illustrator, which is kind of the same as free-associative scribbling with a pencil. Put on some good jams in the headphones, or watch Arrested Development in the background, and go.
What elements of the novel were you looking to emphasize? How and why?
I tried a few different approaches. The Samson story structure was interesting. The fact that American Indian history and culture was colliding with contemporary tourism, and mixing with “dirtbag” rock climbing culture, lead me on some fun image searches. I really wanted to use old imagery in a contemporary design context to emphasize the clash between old and new ways. In my comps I used some public domain photos of Yosemite Valley Indians in various layouts, along with some really modernist typography. I also played around with really bold colors and old biblical engravings of Samson. They were all visually strong, but perhaps a bit too literal in the end.
The final cover has a worn-out, classic bold vibe. I used an old, hand-drawn map of Yosemite Valley that was also in the public domain. I added some burned texture in reference to the lead character in a particular scene. It’s kind of subtle, but creates some cool depth. I also picked a typeface that used to be common on national park signage. Nobody would know that, but I like weaving those kinds of characteristics into the imagery. So it wasn’t as contemporary as I was initially going for, but it ended up having the most referential elements involved. I kind of just realized that as I typed it! Funny and awesome.
Did the publisher and/or author come back to you with comments after you presented possible cover designs? How did you work with them, and what kinds of critiques did they offer?
The most they asked for was to emphasize the distressed texture I mentioned above. They wanted that pushed more. They told me what their running choices were, and then finally settled on one. I talked to the author about the concepts behind most of the comps, but he and the publisher had a definite favorite. Of course, it wasn’t the one I expected them to go for. I think they ended up picking first idea I’d come up with. Damn. Could have saved myself so much time <slaps forehead>.
You never stop being surprised by clients picking your first idea. You often think it’s not the best because your progress takes you to so many different places. Deep into a project you start thinking, “Oh hell yeah! My 7th idea is the winner.” But sometimes your first idea is the best one. And sometimes “best” is just the one that makes the client happy. They didn’t go for the ideas that were as contemporary as I was initially hoping. But I think they picked one that strikes the viewer as familiar, which seems like a good call. It’s really bold, and the typography has some character to it.
What specific challenges or constraints do you face in designing a book cover, as opposed to a poster, an album cover, or other print design platforms?
Having to deal with all the marketing blurbs is a total bummer. All those words all over your beautiful masterpiece? Come on! I’m kidding. Sort of. It’s necessary because blurbs help sell the book. It’s best to get all copy and blurbs up front before you start your comps if possible, so you know what you have to work around.
There can also be a lot of back and forth with the publisher during the final output phase for printing. There can be several versions of the cover, depending on the stage of the book deal. Your cover may need to appear in a few different formats before the golden chalice can be reached. I think there was a pdf version, and a galley paperback, and then the final hardcover. If communication isn’t good, you get surprises that can be hard to navigate if your files are complicated.
The other hard part, from the artistic side, is that you are trying to nail an abstract idea. And it’s my abstract idea, of someone else’s story, that I’m trying to get across to an unknown audience. You are choosing and arranging a visual language to describe a text-based story by someone else.
And after all that, it finally comes down to what the publisher thinks will work.
It kind of blows your mind and freaks you out if you think about it. Sometimes you aren’t sure if you nailed it until later. But it’s a pretty awesome thing to do. I really dig it.
What’s one of your favorite book covers and why?
Damn. Too many to name one. Any cover by Paul Rand. Those Pelican classics that have geometric patterns on them. Anything from the ’60s and ’70s that used 2- or 3-color printing. Vintage sci-fi paperbacks are usually pretty nuts. Most covers by Chip Kidd get me stoked to be a graphic designer. The Batman books he designed are so great. I like Isaac Tobin‘s work. Very stark. I dug those Camus reprints by Helen Yentus.
Courtney Stubbert is the Creative and Technical Director for Copic Marker, USA and TalesofAmalthea.com. By night he freelances under the studio name of Punch Graphic Design. He is also a drummer, fine artist, and director for the non-profit, Eugene Contemporary Art. He is always making something whether he’s getting paid or not.