It’s my firm belief that any good book designer is obsessed with research, constantly looking for inspiration, and a little bit more than a little bit insane. Since I make up the entire art department of First Second graphic novels, that means I have to really excel at these three categories all by my lonesome. Luckily all of them (especially that third one) come quite naturally.
I design everything from the interiors, to the ads, to the logos, to the lettering, to the coloring, to the bowl of cereal that I am shoving in my mouth instead of taking a lunch break (sometimes I even mix two cereals together—oooh!), but the thing that makes me the happiest is working on covers.
I’ve got a few beliefs about how to make a good cover:
- Put yourself in the mindset of your reader. If it’s not a book you would have liked when you were 10 what makes you think 10 year olds now would like it?
- Don’t just use fonts out of the box. Fonts are starting points, inspiration. I don’t know if there’s a single cover I’ve made where I didn’t tweak the font at least a little if not completely drawn the title using a crayon with my non-dominant hand. (Okay, okay, I only did that once)
- Make a ton of thumbnails of ideas on paper. REAL paper. And when you think you are done, draw one more.
And most importantly:
- Research, research, research. What’s out there? What was out there in the past? How is your cover going to stand out?
Now researching is normally the most fun part. I get to search through my favorite blogs, go to bookstores, dig up old movie posters, read similar books…all without being stuck in photoshop tweaking the placement of a single letter. “Pixel up. Pixel down. Pixel up. Pixel….Ug. I think I need more cereal.” For BOOTH I got to research Victorian design. For PRIME BABY I got to relearn some math. And for BRAIN CAMP I got nightmares. A whole lot of nightmares.
Growing up the covers that made the rounds the most on the playground were the ones that terrified us. The ones we were sure to put face down when we were finished. Books like THE DOLLHOUSE MURDERS, WAIT TILL HELEN COMES, THE WITCHES, MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN, and SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (I distinctly remembering putting one of my Garfield colorforms over the terrifying face on that cover. Eeeee.)
QUESTION for all you blog readers! What was the cover that terrified YOU most as a kid?
When it came time to design the cover for BRAIN CAMP, a scary story I would have LOVED as a kid, the artist Faith Erin Hicks and I were required to relive all of the covers, posters, and books we loved/hated and generally peed our pants in fear over in our childhoods. The book was written by Laurence Klavan and Susan Kim, who’s accolades include, among other things, a writing credit for the tv show WHO’S AFRAID OF THE DARK, one of the other things besides books that used to keep me awake at night!
As you might have guessed both Faith and I were fans of the Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, and since birds play a large and sinister role in BRAIN CAMP we wanted them somewhere on the cover. BUT there was something super creepy about that first thumbnail. A mix of sweet smiles, almost TOO sweet, surrounding two terrified kids. I had Faith do a couple more thumb variations on this idea.
Both didn’t quite work as well as the first thumb, and we realized what was making the first work was the calmness of the “evil” kids. Kinda like when a monster doesn’t even try to run after you, but just slowly walks because, just the like tortoise and the hare, slow and steady always wins the race…especially since the hare will trip and fall soon enough and the monster tortoise will have a nice meal. Muahaha.
We went from thumbs to pencils and the cover was coming together in a wonderfully scary way. They may not be making a move, but they are definitely watching you!
We hit a debate, should the main characters be looking at the reader, or should they be engrossed in what’s about to happen behind them. We tried all ways, and finally decided, they were too scared to break the fourth wall.
And now I give you the world’s scariest animated gif:
When I talk about this cover with kids I always show them both of these images, and make them find the slight change. It’s amazing how much shifting the eyes of the owls adds to the unsettling feeling this cover is going for. Also out of about 15 kids usually only one will be able to spot it right away.
I won’t go into all the variations on coloring, but I WILL tell you there were a ton before we settled on this. We even tried one where the background kids were made to look like happy plastic rosy-cheeked dolls and I will never EVER get that image out of my head. Eep. As we went further with color, we realized there were so many elements going on we had to draw the focus in to our main characters. Added another row of campers, making it look more like a terrifying wallpaper pattern than anything you’d like to be living.
One hand tilted logo, retraced jaggedly with sharpie to make those uneven edges, and we had our cover! But I couldn’t help missing those great bird drawings Faith had made. So using only spot gloss, we figured out a way to work them in, and make the cover really REALLY scare me. The pink in this image is just clear spot gloss on the final book, making eyes that shine as you walk past them in a bookstore.
If I had any doubts about this cover doing it’s job, a group of 11 year olds made sure I knew it worked by screaming while tilting the final book back and forth.
-“Man! Why do you wanna give us nightmares?!”
-“Look at the eyes!”
And my favorite:
-“Can I keep it?”
Colleen Venable is the designer for First Second Books. She was one of the first fans of our blog, so we thank her for her contribution!