A career in book cover design

 1 May 2012

James Nunn is a graphic artist and has designed countless book jackets for publishers. He spoke about how he built his career, with 3 tips for designing book covers.

James Nunn's most recognisable design in recent years was for Lynne Truss’s massive bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
James Nunn's most recognisable design in recent years was for Lynne Truss’s massive bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

Working as a graphic artist

"Usually I have to divide my day between urgent things, like covers that are going to press and need final corrections applying, or quick requests from publishers for a front cover image.

"These are normally done around a main project, which could be reading, researching and sketching for a new cover or getting into the meat of a design or illustration.

A typical working day

  • 8.30: At my desk, uploading images from my camera that I took yesterday for a book called A Book of Silence.
  • 9.00: Cup of tea. Work in Photoshop getting the right light and colours onto a dozen or so pictures.
  • 10.30: Cup of tea. Insert corrections to a cover going to press. This involved changing a spine width, inserting a comma or two.
  • 11.00: Coffee. Back to Book of Silence, mocking up a dozen covers with different images and typographic styles.
  • 12.50: Cold-called by a very interesting lady from an image bank in Exeter. Looked at her site and discovered some very promising images for a crime cover that’s on the back burner.
  • 1.00: Lunch. Red soup. Salami and white bread and butter. More tea.
  • 2.00: More corrections to the cover. This time making a spot UV laminate plate to give the cover some nice shiny bits. More Book of Silence versions and a lengthy period staring into space wondering which ones to weed out. Finally send nine cover roughs for the publisher to choose from.
  • 3.00: Typeset blurb on a cover that’s been approved some time ago.
  • 4.30: Tea and cake. Book some train tickets. Drift to more food and start making cauliflower cheese...

Getting into book cover design

"I planned at school to go to art school, but decided to do English instead in order to avoid another year doing a foundation degree in my hometown! So I did an English Lit degree and an MA in Contemporary Poetry in Manchester.

"I was a bookseller in Manchester. I then worked as a marketing monkey with very basic design responsibilities at The Harvill Press.

"Being self-taught I relied hugely on books and other designers’ advice."

"I’m self-taught in design and illustration. I have no formal training, apart from 10 weeks of a course in Photoshop and Quark at the London College of Printing (LCP).

"The course at LCP was invaluable, even though I couldn’t spare the time to finish it. Being self-taught I relied hugely on books and other designers’ advice.

"It was a circuitous route to a life in design. I think I have developed very slowly over time because I’ve always been feeling my way.

"But I was very lucky early on. A lot of publishers put me in a position to learn by my mistakes with their books!"

3 tips for designing book covers

1. Be a reader

"Love books, you won’t get rich so you may as well enjoy the end product.

"Being a reader helps enormously in cover graphics. Often I come up with concepts that I could never have thought of without reading the book."

2. Bring energy and imagination

"You need the ability to forget what you’ve done on a book and start again, as though you were coming to it fresh.

"That way you can give the publisher what they’ve asked for and what they didn’t know they wanted until they saw it."

3. Keep it simple

"Among all the work you show make sure there are some very simple striking images with just one idea. The best book covers just have one idea that hits you right between the eyes.

"I see so much over-complicated design from design students. Keep it simple."

A career in book cover design

"It’s nice to be able look back on a project and think how well the cover fits with the book.

"You need to forget what you’ve done on a book and start again, as though you were coming to it fresh."

"If the book is successful, then it’s nice to think the cover played a part – but it’s only the cover, what’s inside has to be pretty good too. Not to mention all the work of the other people in sales and publicity, etc.

"I hope that my covers do justice to good books, but you can’t be proud. There’s always another one on the drawing board that needs attention.


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