Cover Design Q&A with Maria Stoian

We all know not to judge a book by a cover… but in publishing we also know that’s exactly what you’re going to do, so it’s our job to get it exactly right.

Luckily for publishers like us, there are creatives out there as passionate about literature as they are about a colour wheel and some photoshop magic.

This week, we decided to grill one of our trusty designers, Maria Stoian — whose Agora designs include Deathline, Partners in Love, Slow Poison and, most recently, Breaking Bones about her design process and why she loves creating book covers.

How did you get into designing book covers?

I have always been passionate about creative activities. As a child, I would scribble on everything, from the backs of magazines to the walls of my room. Then, as a teenager, I would spend countless hours taking photos and editing them in Photoshop to make them look as otherworldly as possible.

Unfortunately, my creative side was mostly left behind as I grew up. A few years later, during an exam session in college (while procrastinating), I found an old designer account I had made and decided to try and enter some design contests to see what Photoshop skills I had left. I randomly started with some book cover contests and was instantly hooked!

What draws you to designing for books, specifically?

Since I first tried designing book covers, I felt like it was the most appropriate and enjoyable type of design for me, as it allows me to combine graphic design with my love of photo processing. I am a sucker for beautiful visual content and it’s both engaging and relaxing for me to browse through photos, to alter, combine or illustrate them. I also enjoy drawing, but I am not very good at it, and working with photographs allows me to bring my vision out better than just sketching would.

How do you approach your projects? What’s your process?

I start by reading the brief multiple times and by checking the visual references, if any are available. I also enjoy asking a lot of questions – probably an annoying amount – before starting work, because I really value communication. For the first design draft, I like to go with the first ideas that come to mind and refine them as I work. I find book cover design to be a very process-driven and fluid activity. For some covers I have to work for hours before arriving at a decent result, delete a lot of ideas and restart multiple times. For others, I can get something great in twenty minutes.

The other very important part of projects is receiving and integrating feedback in my work. Since the final product has to please the client, I’m more than happy when I work with clients who give me constructive feedback and play their part in the design process. Every project is different – and that’s the fun part!

How do you use a story to inspire your designs?

The story is a crucial part of the book cover design. I believe that a good cover has to hint at the story without giving it all away. For some covers, I choose to showcase an important or illustrative element of the story, while for others I try to depict the general atmosphere of the book. For me, the story usually guides the cover in terms of colors, font choices and even emotions. I like to think of how the possible reader would see the story through the book cover. With that in mind, I try to spark curiosity and, of course, please the eye.

What’s your favourite cover you’ve ever worked on?

Whenever I look at my own portfolio, Dear Mom, I Hate You always stands out for me. Perhaps that is because I envisioned this cover instantly as I read the brief, and so it was very easy to bring it to life. The telephone represents a turning point in the synopsis, so I chose it as my only imagery for the front cover. Its hanging position is unsettling, suggesting a difficult situation. The handwritten font and paper elements on the back give the cover a diary-like, intimate feel, which prepares the reader to delve into the author’s life story.

What’s one cover you wish you had designed?

For me, the cover for You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me designed by nevergohungry (on 99designs) is a masterpiece. It is unsettling, yet perfectly balanced in terms of colour and font choices, which are subtle and muted. At first glance, it sparks curiosity, and the more I look at it, the more beautiful details I find. It takes a great amount of creativity and skill to create such a strong piece while maintaining a soft atmosphere, and that is why I admire it so much.

What advice would you give to aspiring book cover designers?

To sum it up: work, learn, talk!

I know this is a huge cliché, but it’s true: practice is crucial. While creativity is the core of this work, it’s nothing without regular practice and a lot of work. Since we’re all creatures of habit, I think it’s important to find a routine that’s comfortable, find a way of doing things that serves you best and stick to it. While having a routine might sound boring to some, it’s of great help for me, because whenever I am creatively stuck, I know that just going through the motions for a bit will eventually help. That being said, I always try and remember that I’m not a robot, and so I take breaks and refresh my mind for a few hours or even a few days, if I feel like it. Self care is also an important skill, value it!

Try to see design as a learning process. Be open to learning new things, be curious. Watch tutorials, read articles and try new techniques as often as you can. If you like browsing through covers for inspiration, a useful exercise is looking at covers that you love and trying to mentally reconstruct the creative process behind them.

And last, but not least: talk to your clients! Don’t be afraid of asking questions when something isn’t clear or when you would like to know some details which are not in the brief. I’ve never had a client who didn’t enjoy the communication, even when that meant simply exchanging random possible ideas or answering quick questions that came up. Always be polite but assertive: respect your clients and their feedback, but also respect your own work.

Maria is a 23 year old graphic designer and student, living in Bucharest, Romania. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Sociological Research and using design as a creative outlet. She loves photography, drawing, playing guitar and singing (badly), and talking to every single dog that she encounters on the street.

As always, thank you for reading, and be sure to tweet us @AgoraBooksLDN with some of your favourite book cover designs!