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Blog 07.27.2019

How Top Artists Create Book Covers That Grab Your Attention

Book covers sell books, but they can also do more. The best covers are works of art in their own right. To a non-artist, it almost seems like magic. We can get a peek into the creative process by looking at what some top cover artists have said about the way they work.

Janet Hansen

Hansen, a senior designer at Knopf, went through many drafts trying to capture the essence of Nico Walker’s novel Cherry, a gritty story about addiction and war, but also humor and love. Hansen started with a picture of hand grenades attached to a plant stem, like flowers. Then she experimented with bold typography. She tried some cigarette-themed designs because the main character was a heavy smoker and some designs focusing on romance. None of these quite hit the mark with the author’s agent, who was taking the first look (the author himself was in jail at the time).

When Hansen came up with an image of a red skull, she felt she was almost there, but she wanted to incorporate one more aspect of the novel — that it was an American story. She started with an overlay of stars over the skull. The final version used stars that both filled the space and sketched out the skull in a subtle way — you almost don’t see it at first. The effect is compelling and haunting, and the cover won a spot on several best-covers-of-2018 lists.

Rodrigo Corral

Corral designed the iconic cover for James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. An open hand, covered with multicolored candy dots, reaches half-way across the front cover, set against a sky-blue background.

Corral said he got the initial seed of an idea for the cover when he was walking down a city street and passed a bakery supply company. He felt drawn to the display of candy sprinkles in the window. The sprinkles also reminded him of old medication commercials that showed tiny balls shooting through animated bloodstreams. He worked with a photographer to create the final image, one of the best known in cover design.

Peter Mendelsund

Another famous design is Peter Mendelsund’s cover for Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which has black text on a green, yellow, and red background. Like his fellow Knopf artist Hansen, Mendelsund went through many drafts to arrive at the final version. He said a good book designer must be a good book reader in order to represent the book well. He marks up the book he’s working on, tears out pages, and starts by drawing rough sketches by hand.

These top artists show there are many ways to create great cover art. Artists can get their ideas while walking around the neighborhood or while closely reading the book. An idea may come to them at once, or it can take a lot of trial-and-error, trying out radically different approaches. Whatever the method, their work greatly enriches the experience of reading.

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