Bookninja Interviews… a book designer on how to be a good author, design-wise

In the second of the new “Bookninja Interviews….” series (in which we ask the people who work with and around writers to make their lives function) we talk to Ingrid Paulson, veteran book designer and now publisher (and perhaps most famously, winner of the Bookninja Cover Redesign contest (as Ingrid Olson?) back in the day), about current trends in design and what constitutes an ideal relationship between authors and designers. Also: who’s actually in charge.

BN: Tell us a bit about yourself, who you are, what you do, and some highlights of your career.
IP: I’m a book designer. I design covers and interiors, mostly for trade publishers but also sometimes for academic presses as well as galleries and museums. If that wasn’t enough, a few years ago I started my own micropress, Gladstone Press, where I reissue classic novels with an updated look, great typesetting, printed on premium paper stock. And to top it all off, I also teach book design at Ryerson University as part of their Publishing Certificate program.

I swear, I do have other interests and hobbies outside of books and book design. [shuffles feet]

BN: What makes a cover design that has iconic staying power?
IP: I could say a lot of things, but to be frank, there isn’t a formula. The only two things a cover needs on its side are acceptance and time.

So, there’s acceptance. If we see enough book covers that use similar design devices, and also see echoes of those design elements in our daily lives (through advertising, magazines, websites, apps, posters, etc.), then we start to adjust our perceptions and accept certain design conceits as ‘good.’ Are they? Hard to tell when you’re in the middle of the message… That’s why you’ll see certain design ideas used for certain genres to attract those readers (think of the quiet, restrained poetry cover vs a swords and lasers SFF series design, and you get the idea).

And time: if enough time goes by, we reject something we thought was the best design idea, just because we’ve just seen it too many times and crave a change. Then, years later, we switch back and foster a new appreciation for that same aesthetic. We rearrange our visual worldview to say that an old design is particularly pleasing because it is familiar and nostalgic and resonates with us on an emotional level. Who would have thought three-bar Penguin covers would rise to such a cult status? Much less the text-only look used for 1970s Philip Roth covers?

Now, what I just said doesn’t really help anyone out when trying to pick cover A versus cover B for an upcoming title. There are always structural tricks one can use (keep the visual message simple, make sure that there’s a large vs small tension to any object on the cover, use a Z-curve to orient elements on the page, etc. etc.), but those are just tools.

How about this? If the visual message is muddy, the cover doesn’t have legs. Pretty simple. So long as the design composition intrigues us before we start the book, and doesn’t let us down once we finish, it’s the right design for the job.

And if you want to stand out? If all the other book designs look like they are shouting, make sure yours whispers. And vice versa. People notice differences more than they notice sameness.

BN: How are current trends in design shifting?
IP: The past few years there’s been a bit of a revolving door between Instagrammable cover designs (huge title text, wallpaper/colour field backgrounds that look great at small sizes on a screen) and the handmade look (handwritten titles, cut paper/guache/watercolour illustrations that remind readers that books are physical objects). We’re going to see those trends for awhile, but there’s a backlash brewing: I’m starting to see more collage and tight, blink-and-you-miss clever concept imagery tucked into corners. A bit of quiet in the storm.

Also, designers are still in thrall to juicy, bright multicoloured palettes. Readers crave technicolour escapes, I guess?

BN: What help can an author provide in the design process?
IP: Most authors understand that the cover is a marketing tool and leave the designer to do their thing, which is great. It can help to suggest an image or two, particularly if they inspired the author while they wrote the book – I remember it was you who suggested Steichen’s Lake George photo when I was designing your book, The Cottage Builder’s Letter. That was very helpful! But original artwork doesn’t always work on a cover, mostly because the artwork has to act as a visual to sell the author’s work first and foremost. So, suggest, but don’t insist. It may not be the right image for your book, much as you love it.

If as an author you’re asked to fill out a cover design questionnaire, don’t let it overwhelm you, especially if you have no ideas or don’t feel you’re visually astute. Just try to say a few things, mention a few similar books to yours if you can, and because it’s your book, do mention any things you hate to see on a book of yours (if there’s anything). It’s your work, after all. But don’t get bogged down in type choices or suitable colours – usually your own writing will tell a designer all they need to know about mood, setting, colour palettes, symbolism, that kind of thing.

BN: Whose opinion matters most to a designer: the author’s, the editor’s, the marketing team’s?
IP: I…I…I can’t answer that. Whomever is in charge? [hides]

BN: If you could have people know one thing about design, what would it be?
IP: Design’s purpose is not about making something pretty for pretty’s sake, nor should a cover be illustrating complex plot points in excruciating detail. Design’s sole purpose is to communicate something intriguing about the book so a reader picks it up. Everything else is gravy.

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