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, Tim Barber — whose Agora designs include all of our Beryl Kingston covers, Taking Heart, and Victoria, The Widow and her Son — about his design process and why he loves creating book covers.
I stumbled into it almost by accident. In my early twenties I was heavily into Urban Exploration, which is the photographing and documenting of abandoned buildings. I used photoshop to manipulate the images and I soon realised that I was pretty good at it as I was starting to get my photography noticed and published. Over the years I kept progressing with my Photoshop skills and managed to secure some commissions for design work. Then, I had to give up my full time job at VW as my wife became very ill and I wanted to look after her. I still had the odd design job coming to me, but I wanted (and now desperately needed) something else.
I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but one day I saw a designer’s work that would change everything for me – it was the work of Chip Kidd. His cover for Jurassic Park, amongst others, and his stories of how he created them, blew me away – I had found what I was looking for. I ran to Waterstones and paced up and down the isles, picking up the books, feeling the textures of the covers. I visited the same shop for months and months, buying books I would never read so I could hold them and study them. I researched every genre, every technique, every designer.
Once I felt my designs had reached a good enough stage, I set up a website with a few covers that I made to show my skills, and waited with apprehension. Then, an author contacted me, and then another, and another. Since the day after the site went live I haven’t stopped and now I’m proud to say Dissect Designs has grown from strength to strength over the years.
What draws you to designing for books, specifically?
I like the challenge of deciphering a brief and thinking of how to show the story’s elements as an image. I like the diversity of the work – I’m often working on multiple genres at one time – from maybe a zombie apocalypse to a vegan cookbook, perhaps with a little bit of Jane Austen for good measure. I like holding the finished product in my hand – unlike a poster or a flyer or a Logo, books are big, robust, they have depth. As a designer It’s this physical connection that inspires me.
How do you approach your projects? What’s your process?
The first thing I do when I’m contacted by an author or a publisher is to work out if I’m the right designer for the project. I’m lucky enough now to be in the position where I can turn away work if I don’t feel I can give the best end result. Like any designer, I have my weaknesses, and I think it is important to acknowledge them and understand them.
So, once the process kicks off, I will brain storm with an author about any ideas they may have and ideas of my own. I will research their genre and identify the latest fashions and trends (naturally involving a trip to Waterstones – what a shame!) After a bit of backwards and forwards I will have a clear direction of where to go. I will design a first draft and send it to the client for their feedback. Using that feedback I will create a second draft and so on until the client is happy.
How do you use a story to inspire your designs?
Personally, I’m not of the belief that a book cover designer needs to actually read the book. This may sound a little weird but remember a book covers job is not to tell the story – it is to show the genre, to capture the eye, and to help sell the book. Do I need to know if Dave marries Theresa in the end? Do I need to know if the hero overcomes his arthritis? No is the simple answer. What I do need to know, is where this book will sit, genre wise. I need to know who is the intended audience. I need to know a rough outline of the story and the time period in which it is set so I can have a cover that gives a hint to the contents. What inspires me is finding that one scene that will appeal to the intended audience, grab attention, and shows a hint at what awaits a reader.
What’s your favourite cover you’ve ever worked on?
There are many covers that I have designed that I like, but if I had to chose one it would be the cover I did recently for the publisher Inkshares – My Place Among Men, which is a memoir of a nature journalist from the 70’s. The brief was to show nature and show how a women didn’t quite fit in within a male dominated industry. I like this cover because it features my own photography. After trying many different ideas and many visits to various forests, I settled on the idea that a single leaf would dominate the page. I cut up the leaf and made one of the pieces stand out from the rest to show her standing out. I like the fact it breaks some rules and I like the fact that it isn’t instantly clear what it all means.
What’s one cover you wish you had designed?
This is easy for me, apart from the Jurassic Park cover that got me into all this, it is definitely the cover for The Brief History Of The Dead by designer Archie Ferguson. Clever in so many ways, but also subtle. It has very clever Photoshop work, which you almost have to look again to notice, and simple typography. This cover is a perfect example of a cover designer that knows all of the rules, but then completely ignored them.
What advice would you give to aspiring book cover designers?
Do your research, follow the trends, learn the rules, then, Break the rules. But all that aside, just do it – start designing. Do your version of the old classics and put them up on social media for feedback. Then, without even realising it, you will find your own style. This has to be a true passion or just don’t bother. The hours are long and at the start the money is terrible, but it will be the love of it that will drive you, that will keep you designing.
Tim Barber is a 38-year-old book cover designer that lives with his wife and two Guinea pigs just outside Guildford, England. He loves photography, eating too much, anything to do with the Victorians, going to gigs, and is a secret space geek.
As always, thank you for reading, and be sure to tweet us @AgoraBooksLDN with some of your favourite book cover designs!