And Then You Read: How exactly does one design a book cover?
Three classic works of fiction, three original jacket designs, and three video presentations of a graphic designer’s process, start to finish.
And Then You Read is an ongoing speculative book cover design project of mine. I started it back in 2018 to refine my design methodology and generate work in the field, and made about 50 covers since. The name of the series was a reference to a quote by James Baldwin: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
At the end of 2020, fortunate to obtain support from Adobe Creative Residency Community Fund, I developed an ATYR spin-off, of sorts: three book covers for landmark works of fiction, complemented by screen recordings and video presentations, in an effort to thoroughly explain my design process from beginning to end.
It began with reading the books — I have not previously read any of the titles I selected — and resulted in images of the final covers you see here. I spent about 20 hours, on average, on each of these covers, documenting the entire process, and walking the viewer through how I go about analyzing the literary text, doing research, generating ideas, developing design concepts, and refining graphics through rounds of trial and error, critique, and iteration.
Watch the video below to find out why making personal work is a necessary step in developing a high-quality design portfolio, why we are drawn to designing book covers, what’s different about working on fiction vs non-fiction titles, and what is “the big book look” in cover design. Also, see over 40 original book covers, with the design process for some explained, in 20 minutes.
Book 1: Zora Neale Hurston, Poker! (1931)
Cover for Poker!, a short play by Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most prominent female writers of the Harlem Renaissance. I was drawn to this title because of Zora Neale Hurston’s trailblazing reputation, the play’s ties to the history of Harlem, the Great Depression, and Black American folklore. Poker! has never been staged or published before, so I enjoyed breaking new ground working on an exceptional title I have not seen anyone else design for. This cover was made with the Illustrator on iPad.
From selecting the book to the final design: the process video for Poker!
Watch the video below to find out how research helps generate cover ideas, why drawing on historical references is crucial to making a good cover for a classic book, how to start any cover project even if you’re not sure what to do, how to make patterns and custom lettering in Illustrator on iPad from scratch, and why trying everything is key to my process regardless of what I’m designing.
Book 2: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)
Cover for The Yellow Wallpaper, one of the key works of American first-wave feminism. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote this remarkably progressive piece, sometimes mislabeled as a Victorian horror story, in a form of a secret diary of a mentally-ill young woman. She used it to comment on the state of 19th century mental healthcare, marriage, gender inequality, and distasteful interior design.
From selecting the book to the final design: the process video for The Yellow Wallpaper
Watch the video below to find out why sometimes it’s okay to only have one idea for a project, how to translate the key message of a book into a cover design idea, why the only way to draw nice letters is to draw awful letters first, how to make sure your idea works before you get too far, why I draw custom lettering instead of modifying existing fonts, and how to add a human touch to any digitally-designed cover.
Book 3: Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)
Cover for The Metamorphosis, one of Franz Kafka’s best well-known works, that defined modernist and existentialist literature for the 20th century and beyond. It’s impossible to underestimate this book’s influence on the modern philosophical thought and literature. It’s also impossible to count how many previous versions of this cover exist. I enjoyed attempting to interpret the book anew, and tried to bring something personal to the table.
From selecting the book to the final design: the process video for The Metamorphosis
Watch the video below to find out why Kafka wasn’t happy about images of insects gracing the cover of his most famous book, why The Metamorphosis is a critique of capitalist society, how to choose between multiple ideas you’ve already invested time in, why channeling historic styles does not work for every classic title, and why sometimes the simplest-looking jacket does the job the best.
Thanks to Adobe Creative Residency Community Fund for their support.
For more covers and to follow the ongoing cover design project, go to covers.irinakoryagina.com or instagram.com/andthenyouread