So, wow. That’s a lot of questions! I was kind of expecting the usual five or six that I get asked all the time, but some of you got in really deep—I’m finding myself thinking about aspects of my job that I’ve never even considered before.
I’m floored by the variety of jobs that you all have, too, including a few that I didn’t even know exist. Isn’t it amazing how many things we humans need to know how to do in order to make our sustain our societies? I remember my parents telling me at a very young age that every single job is an important one in its own way, from garbageman to president to dancer to doctor, and I truly believe that. Every single person has something they can do well and love, and the luckiest among us are the ones who know what that thing is.
I tend to be a
little lot on the wordy side when it comes to writing (I think I was the only person in my college art history classes decreasing the leading and margin widths on my papers in an effort to make them seem shorter), so I’m going to have to break my responses up into categories. It might take me longer than a day or two to answer everything properly, so please bear with me!
The most-asked questions were about (a) how I got to be a book cover designer, and (b) what one has to do to become a book cover designer. I think the easiest way to answer those questions is to first give some background on my own educational experience.
I was raised in a very artistically-minded family (my mother is a graphic designer and painter; my father is a painter and art instructor—and that’s just the first generation of my immediate family), and while it’s easy to say that growing up in a creative environment led me to where I am now, I have a bunch of older brothers and sisters who wound up doing doing completely different (and super cool) things for a living. The common thread among us is an ability to creatively problem-solve. That, and we’re all kind of nuts.
I did grow up knowing that professional careers in the arts are possible, though, and I think that’s something that might be eschewed by a lot of guidance counselors and well-meaning parents. I’ve been exposed to the realities of working in fine art and commercial art for my entire life, and jobs in those fields are what seem “normal” to me. That said, when I enrolled in college at SUNY Purchase in 1993, I did so not in the School of the Arts, but in in the Liberal Arts department. I thought I would major in English Literature and become a writer. I’ve always been an avid reader and book-lover, and writing is something that comes naturally to me, so why not?
I realized about halfway through my first semester that I didn’t want to continue on that path. There wasn’t anything wrong with my classes or my professors, but I just knew in my bones that I wanted to do something else. Like maybe what my parents do. I remember seeing one of my suitemates spreading out squares of colored paper and creating Josef Albers-eqsue arrangements to complete an assignment for her Color Theory class, and just feeling so jealous. And like I’d made a huge mistake.
Long story slightly less long, I wound up transferring to the School of Art+Design at Purchase College (same campus, completely different program). I got my BFA through the graphic design program. The approach to graphic design at Purchase leans heavily toward the fine art aspect of the field rather than commercial application, and, as the program description on their website states, “encourages overlaps with other areas in Art+Design (e.g., printmaking, photography, furniture design, video, and new media)”.
I’m not sure if this is still the case, but Purchase used to be one of the only schools in the country to offer an MFA program with a concentration in Book Arts. The art department included a letterpress studio with a huge lead-type foundry, a book bindery, and an offset lithography press. The printmaking facilities were also impressive, and I was able to take classes in all of the above areas, as well as silkscreening, intaglio printing, photography, and plenty of art and design history classes. My foundation was still in graphic design, but the emphasis of the program was not on learning computer programs.
Yes, I did learn the basics of the computer programs that were in use at the time (I remember when layers were first introduced in Photoshop—very exciting!), but that was really secondary. I do realize that this has probably changed as the years have passed, and I absolutely think it’s important to have a very good working knowledge of the tools best suited for any job (in other words, you really do have to know InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator in order to work as a graphic designer in 2010), but that knowledge alone does not equip a person with the ability to be a good designer. I cannot emphasize this enough. Furthermore, graphic design is not the same thing as painting or photography or any other creative field, and it’s a common misconception that a person with a good visual sense in one field can easily translate it to another (I say this as someone who is endlessly frustrated by my lackluster abilities as a photographer!).
Because I’ve always been a workaholic freak with a fear of downtime, I had a full-time job while I was in college full-time. I worked at Borders, first as a café barista (you should have seen the adorable signs I made for the pastry case!), and then as a bookseller and new book merchandiser. I love books. Love, love, love. I can’t get enough of them. I love holding them, smelling them, borrowing them, lending them, touching their pages, and yes, even reading them. For my senior project, I designed, offset-printed (with the help of my advisor and mentor, book artist Philip Zimmermann), and bound 20 copies of an image and type-based book about imaginary friends. I commissioned an illustrator, Derek Van Gieson, to make a drawing of me for the cover. Looking back on it 13 years later, I can see that my aesthetic hasn’t really changed that much—but I have gotten much better with my execution!
One of my professors at Purchase, Bill Deere, approached me at my graduation ceremony (my commencement speakers were Chuck Close and Wesley Snipes!) and asked me if I was interested in designing book covers. I said yes. He said cool. I said yeah. And then he gave me a piece of paper with a phone number on it, and told me a former student of his was an art director at a big publishing house, and that I should give her a call. So I did! I set up an interview and got together my portfolio (filled entirely with student work). I was literally one week out of school when I went in to meet with the department head, and I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve never been a plan-ahead kind of gal, so I really just winged it. He liked my portfolio, but he kept coming back to the fact that I’d been working in a book store, and that I really love books. As much as he could see that I was a competent entry-level designer, I think it was the fact that I understood the marketing and saleability of books and what makes them attractive to consumers that gave me the extra edge.
A week later, I had a job offer. I gave my two weeks notice at Borders, and started my job as a book cover designer exactly one month after I graduated from college. I still work in the same art department at the same publishing company today! Over the years, I’ve advanced from Designer One to Junior Designer to Senior Designer, and I’m happy being at this level and having the responsibilities that come with this position. I work with a lot of the same people that were there when I started (four of us went to Purchase, though not all at the same time), and the environment is very tight-knit. I definitely have days when I dread going to work (mostly because the dogs look soooooo comfortable lying in bed), but it’s never because I don’t like what I do or who I work with. I am a very lucky person, and I hope my coworkers know how much they mean to me. (Hi, guys!)
So that’s the story of how I got where I am. I’m sure there are a lot of ways to become a book cover designer (I mean, it’s not like I’m an architect or anything super-superior like that, after all), but this is how I did it. The number one most important thing is to LOVE books and LOVE typography and LOVE all kinds of design, and the number two thing is to accept and understand that the job of a commerical designer is almost always to please a client, attract a customer, and sell a product. I do think art school is a great thing (specifically a school with a design program), as is a knowledge of art and design history, but I’m sure there are plenty of self-taught kids out there doing amazing things, and far be it from me to say their work isn’t valid just because they don’t have a formal education. If you want to do this, you kind of just have to start doing it. Design book covers for self-published authors. Design a bunch of fake book covers (portfolio content doesn’t have to be “real”!). Go to bookstores, and see what’s on the shelves. Check out some graphic design history books from the library. Look at book design websites. Put together a portfolio that will show an art director you know what a book cover needs to do, and that you’re able to bring something new to the table, too.
I realize this might not be the specific advice you were interested in getting regarding breaking into the industry, but it’s all I’ve got. I do recommend that you read some of the “Ask Nubby” posts from fellow blogger and designer Nubby Twiglet, too, because she’s much more practical than I am—and she’s got some great advice: Ask Nubby!
essays answers to come!)